Why Do People Keep Having Children? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

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(Photo: DVIDSHUB)

(Photo: DVIDSHUB)

What are the factors that make a given person more or less likely to have children? How important are income, education, and optimism about the future? Is it true that “development is the best contraceptive,” as demographers like to say? And is the global population really going to double by the next century? (Probably not — in fact, one U.N. estimate finds that the population in 2100 could be lower than today.)

These are some of the questions we ask in this week’s episode, “Why Do People Keep Having Children?” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

You’ll hear from Brown economist Emily Oster, who appeared on an earlier podcast talking about her research on Huntington’s Disease. (She is also writing for FiveThirtyEight these days.) Oster walks us through the various factors that seem to drive high and low fertility; she tells us that fertility rates (research here) can be linked to some surprising behaviors:

OSTER: When people get access to cable TV, which really lets them watch soap operas, it actually decreases their fertility, and one interpretation of that is that people see the people on TV, they have fewer kids, and they have this really fancy life, presumably because they’re on television. But you know, maybe if I had fewer kids I could … have that also.

DUBNER: I guess another interpretation might be that soap operas are not as sexy as previously thought?

OSTER: No, true, and also people are too busy watching TV to have sex is another interpretation we considered.

Among demographers, one important question is how people’s view of the future — whether optimistic or pessimistic — drive fertility. How do events like war, economic depressions, and natural disasters affect population change?

We go after those questions as well, taking advantage of fascinating research by Elizabeth Frankenberg, a demographer and sociologist at Duke. Frankenberg has been studying population dynamics in Indonesia for more than 20 years. So when the brutal Indian Ocean tsunami struck in 2004, killing more than 150,000 people in Indonesia (including a great many children), Frankenberg and her colleagues had an opportunity to determine fertility in the aftermath. Their findings may surprise you:

FRANKENBERG: So we looked at whether losing a child in the tsunami predicted a birth after the tsunami, and the answer to that question was yes. Women who had lost a child in the tsunami were about ten percentage points more likely to have another birth after the tsunami than women whose children had survived.

The podcast also looks at the optimal fertility rate to keep an economy humming these days, and how drastically the fertility rate has fallen even in some of the world’s poorest countries.

 


KW England

Emily the economist, in the first part of the podcast, seems unburdened by facts, but full of freako-induced speculations and opinions. Fortunately, the latter half of the podcast had a sprinkling of data. I think I would have been an excellent guest to ramble on about why people have children, because I listen to TED (Hans Rosling has data, give a listen) and my opinions are equally unburdened by data.

Daniel

I was disappointed with the lack of facts and figures. It seemed incredibly contradictory to the economist mindset.
Economists are supposed to be the ones that prove philosophers wrong ;)
Her whole segment was philosturbating without data...

Pam Wasserman

This was an interesting and informative podcast but Stephen misstated the UN's most recent world population projections. He stated that world population is expected to peak by 2050 at 8.3 and then start declining. The median projection actually shows world population exceeding 9 billion by 2050 and continuing to grow to over 10 billion by 2100. Here's the link:
http://esa.un.org/unpd/ppp/Figures-Output/Population/PPP_Total-Population.htm

Pam Wasserman
Vice President for Education
Population Connection

martin henner

In the 1960s, my friend Herman Slatis, then a human geneticist at the University of Chicago’s Argonne National Laboratory told me of studies showing that families where a child had died not only replaced that child, but then went on to have an ‘extra’, as compared to families that had not lost a child.

Adin

I would like to first say how much I enjoy freakonomics podcast. Regarding demographics, you might find this angle on a related demographic issue interesting: http://www.jewishpolicycenter.org/4058/israel-demographic-miracle

Alan Levine

In February 2008, The Economist wrote that urbanization seemed to affect fertility more than income levels. (See http://www.economist.com/node/10640683 ) I was surprised you did not address this in the podcast.

ranch111

Are you serious? Why?

momosgarage

Basically we have TOO many people being born and not enough desire on the behalf of the "owners of capital" to employ them all for the sake of having a stable and safe civilization to live in day to day. The Owners of Capital want more people born, not simply for "growing the future tax base", but for the true purpose of DECREASING overall wages for everyone. More people MEANS less jobs and pay per person, affecting even the educated and highly skilled. Its actually quite simple for the peons/peasants of the world to start having more say in how the world is run. Simply don't have children, nor support those having children. The result will be soaring wages and diverse employment options expanding for all. Taxing those without kids is a subconscious way to influence the birth of more kids, by punishing those whom are abstaining from having kids in their own best FINANCIAL interests, while also not giving in to the desires for increased population coveted by both government and large corporations.

How is this possible, you ask?

Because its easier to "pay less" or "nothing at all" to contracted or indentured "labor" when there is another willing laborer/slave waiting in the wings to do the work for less or nothing at all. Its actually quite simple, if those not in the 1% refused to get married or have babies from here on out & block any future immigration, the 1% would very quickly need to raise wages. Otherwise nothing the 1% want to get "worked on" would ever get done. When low-wage/low-skilled labor becomes scarce in the larger market, wages go up.

In the past when there wasn’t enough money to go around to pay both wages & PROFITS the “owners of capital” simply brought in more indentured servant immigrants (Irish, Italians, Chinese, etc) or used flat out slave labor (Blacks, Native Americans, domestic prisoners, POW’s, etc). The only difference between now and then is that “owners of capital” can’t LEGALLY have slaves or indentured servants anymore, BUT they have the same pressures as before, to keep their high wages flowing and laborers working, even when there isn’t enough “PIE” to go around to pay those laborers for services rendered. The mechanisms today that replaces slaves and indentured servants are the following: longer than needed formal education for basic employment, off-shoring of labor, forced retirement, prisoners and welfare.

This kind of "baby making with benefits" thinking on a grand scale is the problem. There are not enough paying jobs to go around as it is and the "baby makers" somehow think bringing another human onto the earth is a good idea. Their future, unborn, child is going to do nothing except drive down wages for everyone else who was already here. These people, quite simply put, need to rethink their purpose in life. Its not to make babies in a world without a job for them to earn a living from. People who think like this are doing nothing more than driving the rest of us deeper into slavery at the hands of the "owners of capital", whom use "extra living bodies" as an excuse to constantly drive down wages and increase the costs of goods due to increased demand or lack of demand, whichever they choose, through controlled production. People need to change their world view, RIGHT NOW, its not about making babies anymore! Save a job for a person already born and living, by getting a vasectomy and vilifying those who choose to make more human beings through biological reproduction!

Guess when one of the largest “recorded” wage increases happened in history for, non-land owing, wage-laborers, post the introduction of fiat currency?

Any ideas?

I’ll tell you, it was after the black death pandemic in the 14th century, especially in post-pandemic England.

How is that possible?

Because “the owners of capital”, post-black-death-pandemic still needed wage-laborers, but there was a HUGE shortage of able bodied people, so, in order for ANY work to get done they had to pay the peasants and other undesirables more, SIGNIFICANTLY MORE. This principle is still at work today, when you take the time to recognize that portions of the population are actively discouraged from participating in the full-time labor market. This is easily done, by throwing people in prison, forcing them to attend formal school longer and allowing more people to claim themselves as disabled or collect long/short term welfare. The next obvious step for government to further reduce the number of people participating in the full-time labor market is to allow them easier access to welfare or as some have been recommending lately, a guaranteed minimum wage or allowance that everyone gets, without having to provide labor to an employer first. This above noted cohort of non-participants collecting a base amount of guaranteed welfare/allowance, will likely keep wages stable for those whom are still working full-time. If all people capable of working full-time, entered the job market simultaneously, wages would crash and to a certain extent have, as of 2014.

Contrary to popular, academic and authoritative opinions, history has already proved my above inference to be VERY effective against the quest of the 1% to drive down wages. Hence, if those NOT in the 1% refused to get married and/or have babies from here on out & aggressively blocked any future immigration, both legal and illegal, the 1% would very quickly need to raise wages for non-land owing/peasants/undesirables/wage-laborers, etc. Otherwise nothing the 1% want to get "worked on" would ever get done. When low-wage/low-skilled labor becomes scarce in the larger market, wages go up, FOR EVERYBODY. For us the peasants, "self induced labor shortages" is one of the few ways to get the "owners of capital" to pay more for services rendered. The formation of Unions also has a similar effect, but Americans have already voted against their interests in that respect. All they have left now, to negotiate with, is making less babies and stopping both legal & illegal immigration.

Its simply not about "wealth redistribution" and taxing those without children more, its about overabundance of labor on the market and the ability of the 1% to artificially drive down wages of the 99%. When the Black Death came about and wiped out "excess labor", the 1%'ers of the day somehow found "extra money" to pay said labor, for services rendered. Which means it was always available and wages could have been higher previously, but instead the 1%, of the day, chose to play the game, "pit the desperate against each other".

During the French Revolution, from 1789 to 1799, birth rates fell dramatically and during the earlier Peasants Revolt, of 1381, not surprisingly, having roots in the aftermath of the Black Death, also had much lower birth rates than previously. In fact, it can be argued that the Peasants Revolt was triggered by the "Statute of Labourers 1351". The sustained wage growth for non-land owing, wage-laborers was rising so quickly that the English parliament, a few decades post the Black-Death, under King Edward III, introduced the "Statute of Labourers 1351", which was used by the "Owners of Capital", as an artificial means to drive down the wages of non-land owning peasants. Despite market conditions signalling the need for increased wages.

The Statute of Laborers; 1351 ("Statutes of the Realm," vol. i. p. 307.)

There has ALWAYS been an economic system at work in the USA that limited the number of able bodied workers whom would be PAID and those whom WOULD NOT be paid. The “owners of capital” learned their lesson about labor shortages POST the “Black Death” and figured out from that day forward how to keep wages down and the number of potential available laborers at maximum levels, while forcing them to compete for scarce available "paid labor" positions.

Keeping the above in mind, what is a newborn baby good for really these days? Especially if there are going to be LESS jobs available in the NEAR future, due to increased automation and corporate labor cost-cutting. I personally can do without any more newborn human babies on earth, in fact all of us can. Its simple, newborn babies, legal immigrants and illegal immigrants destroy the wage negotiating power of the 99% and the 1% know this.

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momosgarage

Ha, Ha...a thumbs down, like regular people have any other choices today.

What we have in 2014, is an overabundance of labor on the market. The 1% use this fact to artificially drive down the wages of the 99%. When the Black Death came about and wiped out "excess labor", the 1% of the day somehow found "extra money" to pay said labor, for services rendered. Where did it come from? The "owners of capital" have already decided, FOR US REGULAR PEOPLE, that there are going to be LESS jobs available in the NEAR future, due to increased automation and modern, corporate, labor cost-cutting measures. These measures will affect and include ALL contract work, ALL self-employment opportunities and ALL small businesses, NOT JUST payroll laborers.

So, I ask again, where do newborn children fit into that plan, circa 2014?

Its simple, newborn babies, legal immigrants and illegal immigrants destroy the wage negotiating power of the 99% and the 1% know this. Children born today, WILL be both jobless and skill-less labor in the near future. People should be discouraged from making more people. When there are no more legal or illegal immigrants and no more "newborn biological DNA babies", Americans would see both increased wages and a reduction in prices for vital goods & services, due to decreased demand (assuming the supply and demand principle is actually true withing the USA economy). Regular people have run out of options, we must now actively choose to stop feeding the "industrial complex" with more bodies, ready to labor for less and less. To believe any different is simply naive.

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momosgarage

Everyone loves to give me "thumbs downs", but not one person has bothered to comment with a rebuttal.

So, I ask again, where do newborn children fit into the current economy, circa 2014?

From my view as a typical "wage-slave" the answer is quite simple, newborn babies, legal immigrants and illegal immigrants destroy the wage negotiating power of the 99%. Children born today, WILL be both jobless and skill-less labor in the near future. People, quite frankly, should be discouraged from making more people.

I'd certainly like to hear an alternative solution that "regular people" can implement that does not rely on the "good will" or "consent" of the current "owner class" in this country.

John Leonard

When I heard this fascinating and important podcast, I was amazed to hear how overpopulation may no longer be a problem. The link between development and decreasing birth rate has been known for some time, but I had no idea it was that strong. Unfortunately, looking at the graphs I see only the rosiest low end projections were discussed. While the alarmists of the 1960s were off base, they may not be that far off. Even Pam Wasserman below appears to pick the lower limit of the 95% confidence interval of the projections as I read them. Tell me if I am wrong, but it appears that the real UN data are 9-10.2 at 2050 and 10-13 Billion at 2100 for the 95% confidence interval. The +/- 0.5 child graph I do not understand although can guess how it was made, and appears to be what Stephen used. In any case it is wildly scattered projecting from, as Stephen said, roughly equal to where we are now ~ 7 to over 16 Billion people in 2100.

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Tom Weideman

When speculating about why people might be more inclined to conceive immediately after a natural disaster where children are lost, I would think economists would embrace this simple logic: Whatever utility people use for deciding to have children (it doesn't matter what it is), it seems like it decreases (perhaps only slightly in some cases) as children are produced. It therefore stands to reason that that utility would rise as children are lost. I'm no economist (just a lowly physicist), but this seems pretty straightforward and unsurprising. One's utility may change if one believes the event (the pain of which introduces negative utility) is likely to repeat (such as repeated miscarriages), but after a wildly unlikely natural disaster, I would expect rational(ish) behavior to ensue after the shock wears off.

Fran Hedman

I had a very hard time understanding Emily since she finished EVERY sentence with a rising lilt that is so so irritating. Learn to speak without the lilt! The rest of this podcast was OK, but not nearly as interesting as most Freakonomics podcasts...

Lori

I had to stop the podcast to see if anyone else noticed this. I wonder if she carries on with that tone in daily life?

Melina

Thank you so much for this podcast. I'm pregnant right now, and Dr Oster's book has been wildly valuable already (I'm only 1/3 of the way through. I'm learning a lot and have recommendrd it to a few friends who value data over myths. I just wish I had heard about it before my CVS test, it would have calmed my nerves. I'm just not going to tell my husband that it's OK for me to take care of the cat litter, he can keep that myth.

Mark

"FRANKENBERG: So we looked at whether losing a child in the tsunami predicted a birth after the tsunami, and the answer to that question was yes. Women who had lost a child in the tsunami were about ten percentage points more likely to have another birth after the tsunami than women whose children had survived."

Ok, so that we know. We don't know why this happens, but my question is: what is the 'value' of this knowledge? What is the relevance of knowing this?

Martin Miljkovic

Hi,
Idea for Emily Oster,
repopulating:
there was a documentary about a group of people building houses from natural materials also from tires and so on. (For those who watched it) So they get call to help during a disaster on an island that lost some 90+% of population. That place may be a good case study. Also may bring some other helpful data.

Michael Green

Sure, but this was all explained, quite clearly I might add, in the documentary from the future, Idiocracy.

Tim

Perhaps the disaster destroyed the cable television and that is why the birthrate goes up?

Natalia

Here is another example of what you are talking in this podcasts. Mothers of kids, that died in 2004 in Beslan school. In September this year (10 years after this tragedy) there were some articles about this women. Most of them gave birth to a new kids (althoght it is not common in Russia to have babies when you are about 40) or took an orphan kid. Just few denied to have more babies.