Why Economics Falls Down in the Face of Fatherhood

I’ve been a dad now for a little less than two years, and I’m still trying to figure out how it is shaping my approach to economics.  I think the answer is: A lot.

I learned economics in my twenties, before I became a dad. You know the drill: We learned hard math and complex models. Forget the Greek letters, they are just complicated ways of exploring the basic idea informing economics—that people are purposeful, analytic decision makers. And this idea just seemed entirely natural to me. I had always believed in the analytic self; I was rational, calculating, and tried to make smart decisions. Of course real people don’t use math, but I figured that we’re still weighing costs and benefits just as our models say. Or at least that was my understanding of the world.

Today, I’m not so sure.

Justin Wolfers and his daughter Matilda after a White House Easter egg roll.

My feelings toward my daughter Matilda aren’t easily expressed in analytic terms. I struggle to express it, just as I struggle to understand it. I think about my daughter, and I smile. Her laugh is the greatest joy, and it thrills me that she shares it with me. I’m fiercely protective of her, love (as you can tell) talking about her, and she’s central not only to my life, but to who I am. (You can hear more from me and Matilda in the second episode of the hour-long Freakonomics Radio show, “The Economist’s Guide to Parenting.”)

There’s something new and strange about all this. Today, I feel the powerful force of biology. It’s visceral; it’s real; it’s hormonal, and it’s not in our economic models. I’m helpless in the face of feelings that overwhelm me. Yes, I know that a twenty-something reader will cleverly point out that I just need to count kids as a good which yields utility, or perhaps we need to add a state variable to the utility function as in rational addiction models. But that’s not the point. I’m surprised by how little of this I’ve consciously chosen. While the economic framework accurately describes how I choose an apple over an orange, it has had surprisingly little to say about what has been the most important choice in my life.

And it’s not for want of trying. Today, I find myself wondering: Is parenthood a constant returns technology? That is: Would a second child bring as much joy as a first? But how could it? Since meeting Matilda, my heart is bursting with joy.  Will it explode? Are the returns diminishing then? And if so, how fast? Forget self-interest; I’m not the only stakeholder in this debate. Beyond my better half, there’s Matilda, and the dozens of others she has brought joy to—her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and caregivers. There are the old ladies who smile as she walks down the street, the dads I share a knowing glance with, and all the good that will come from whatever lies ahead for my baby.

I’m a committed neoclassical economist. I learned it when I was at a point in my life when rational self-interest (broadly defined) seemed the right way to understand the world. But what kind of economists would we be if we learned our economics only after we were parents? It’s an interesting thought experiment, and truth is, I don’t know the answer. But slivers of evidence—my own introspection, conversations with other economist-parents, and even intriguing research showing the impact that daughters have on Congressman-dads—all tell me that it would be different.

And if you are also struggling to understand these issues: Happy Father’s Day.


Good article Justin. Just wondering how many graduate schools admit students who have had time to work, reflect and form families like you have. Happy Father's Day.

caveat bettor

She's beautiful. I've got 3 of 'em, who are beautiful to me (especially when they are sleeping or I am away from them), and I heartily agree with your thoughts and questions.

I wonder what Bryan Caplan will think about this post. I know he'll tell you to have more.

3 boys

Byran Caplan sounds like he is disconnected to his children. I think it is a good idea to pick as many apples as possible and then throw out the bad ones later. But with children, you cannot just say, "I will have 10 kids and if half are very successful, then woo hoo." What about the other 5?

I would like to see Caplan and Amy Chua sound off. I would pay to see that.


I don't think the returns diminish with a second child, I think the returns are different. Just like you figured out your worldview is different after fathering a child, your ROI on a second child is based on different criteria than the first one. You have changed, your second child would (will?) be a different person as well. The return you get on your second child will be the return you want from him/her. You'll make sure of that in one way or another.

How many of those knowing looks come from fathers of girls and how many come from fathers of boys? I have a boy and a girl and the looks shared by parents of girls are much different and much more common than those shared by parents of boys. Happy Father's Day.

Joe K Fobes

"That is: Would a second child bring as much joy as a first? But how could it? Since meeting Matilda, my heart is bursting with joy. Will it explode? Are the returns diminishing then? And if so, how fast?"

Your heart will get bigger as it did with Matilda. And forget trying to fully understand it (aside from an abstract conceptual understanding), you don't yet have a big enough heart at this point to feel how it would feel to have a bigger one.


We have 3 boys

So the 3rd is almost 3 years old and we are not pregant. We joke about trying for a girl, but even if you told me that we had a 100% chance of having a girl if we tried right now, we would probably not take the offer. We like our kids. Even the 3rd boy is a delight. We keep thinking that these boys are just great. At the same time, we are exhausted. We are almost done with diapers. I think if we had a girl, it would be wonderful, and also very exhausting. It would also force us to move to a bigger house. And a bigger house is something that costs money, and money then becomes something that we are forced to consider.

One more kid, would qualify us for food stamps of about $2,400/year (and who knows what else?), decrease my required payment of student loan payment by $90/month and increase our annual tax refund by $1,365. So that would give us a gross economic benefit of $4,845.

$5k alone will not do it for us, but if we are willing to make sacrifices, it could work.



If you need food stamps to have another kid DON'T have another kid. Unreal....

Enter your name

A child is normally better off in a low-income family that is organized, stable, and loving than in a high-income family that is disconnected, disrupted or abusive. Food stamps aren't harmful to children in the way that having parents who are addicted to drugs, in and out of jail, or subjecting the kids to a revolving door of sexual partners is -- or in the way that some incredibly wealthy parents are. One of the most heartbreaking stories I heard from a teacher was about a famous actor: his neglected teenage son was about to be kicked out of yet another private school, and all the millionaire actor wanted to know was how big a check he had to write to get the school to keep him enrolled. Not "How's my son?" or "What can I do to help him?", but "How much is this going to cost me?", asked with pen poised over the checkbook.

Additionally, you're demanding that they make life-long decisions based on this year's economic status. If their income is low because they're starting a new business, because one of them lost a job recently, or because one of them is providing full-time child care, then they might be quite well off in a few years.



Joe K Fobes is right, and if my experience is typical perhaps the greatest reason to have a second child (aside from using him/her to help keep your first in check down the road) is because the way your capacity for love increases -- even though you can't possibly imagine it right now -- is the closest thing to magic on Earth. It sounds corny and completely inappropriate for an economics-themed blog, but is in fact completely true.

Oh, just be prepared to never sleep again.


Something I have not yet seen is the value of passing on your genetic material. There is infinite value in that; genetic material not passed on to subsequent generations is lost forever. All species have a need to achieve immortality through reproduction so even though it is not part of your conscious thinking, you as a person realize value from her existence.

While children can be evaluated from a cost-benefit economic analysis, the fact that the value of this intangible cannot be quantified makes this discussion difficult.

Marcus Kalka

This was a well-written introspective entry. As an economist more along the lines of the Austrian School, I believe there is something to be said for biology in economics. If we forget about the biological aspects with respect to economic theory, it's as if we're tying our hands behind our back.

What kind of economists would we be if we learned our economics only after we were parents? I'm not sure, but probably much more practical and pragmatic ones. When the bottom line means food on the table, it influences our economic decision-making. With fatherhood, rather than looking out for one's own self-interest, others' interests [should] take precedence in financial decision-making. With fatherhood, the economic game changes.


Pick up a copy of Richard Dawkins - The Selfish Gene. Anyone is the biology department should have an extra copy. It will explain things for you.

Those feeling of joy are just the way evolution encourages you to spread your genes. You'll find out why all of the stakeholders are willing to work for your kid. You'll see why parents are willing to do more than grandparents, and why grandparents are willing to do more than aunts and uncles.

Everything your feeling does make perfect sense, once you understand whats really steering the ship.


Justin, what a wonderful "Valentine" for your child. I think that coming to fatherhood at a mature age (my son came when I was 41) has the benefit of all the powerful, visceral emotions of youth mixed with having our heads on straight(er). I've seen many young fathers still locked into trying to become men--staying out late with the boys, playing with their "toys," and so forth--and missing out on what is truly the most glorious thing about life--CHILDREN! No wonder they can speak of children as "goods."

When I was a young man, I would "inform" my married friends of just how I would do this, that, and the other, when I was married or had kids. Ha! I thought marriage (and its, um, benefits) had to surely make up for any difficulties one experienced. I couldn't understand when my married buddies would sigh and say, "Aaron, I sure miss being single." What? But you get to go to bed--TO BED!!!!--with a beautiful woman each night. Now that I'm married, I see that error of my ways (smile). As "Desperado" sings to us, "you always want the one you can't get." When single, we want companionship. When married, we want our single freedoms.

ABOUT A SECOND CHILD.... I would love to have at least twelve sons just like my current one, but I would be dead within months. I can BARELY keep up with him. I have heard it said that you can pour more of yourself into fewer children (I think the Duggars prove this point, seeing as their kids have to schedule an appointment to be with their parents). I have also heard it said that instead of your love being divided when you have another child, it is MULTIPLIED. I can believe that.

THE BAD NEWS.... You think you have it bad for your daughter now? I could not have IMAGINED that I would ever--could ever!--love my son more than when he was a year old. Then he turned two...and I loved him more. Then he turned three...and the love kept on growing. Today, he's seven, and my heart has grown to love him even more. Believe it or not, as incredibly beautiful as he was as a young child, I now look at those pictures and go, "Neh, he's cute, but NOW he's INCREDIBLE." But it's all good!

Rational? Not when it comes to our kids. No wonder they sing a song called "A Crazy Little Think Called Love." And if anyone really is rational, well, that's not the person I would want raising my kid. It's not rational to run into a burning house to save a child. But it is wondrous and noble.

All the best to you!


Juan Camilo Cardenas

Dear Justin,

happy father's day too.

The greatest contributor to the study of such sentiments you mention about economics came from a guy who did not have children himself (Smith) . The other guy, Darwin, did have some (10) and also experienced these emotions and probably incorporated his own personal life into the research agenda he had.

What I'm trying to argue is that you don't have to be a father to become a better economist as you seem to have. Instead you can make your students read more of the theory of moral sentiments, and maybe more of darwin's work to give them a greater and deeper scope of economics.

Also, grad schools could start balancing such acquired knowledge and reflection with the GRE scores.


The history of economic thought

Jacob Gelner

Brings a tear to the eye.

Damned fine piece.


Welcome to parenthood...models and math don't always work or make sense when dealing with one's own...just with other people's kids.


"But what kind of economists would we be if we learned our economics only after we were parents? "

My interest in Economics came late, much later than fatherhood - my youngest daughter was twelve when I first read The Armchair Economist (and almost immediately became one!).

Perhaps because my introduction to the dismal science was not via the usual academic route, I don't experience the tension Justin so neatly and movingly describes. It started for me from trying to understand human behaviour, particularly how we make choices and trade-offs. Models predicated on rational, utility-maximizing beings weren't the early foundation to economic understanding that I guess it is for proper, academic, economists. I'd almost say that 'behavioural economics' is a tautology: *all* economics is behavioural.

Should we expect to be happier with two children than with one? Do we get diminishing returns on subsequent children? Does it mean that we love them less? I can see why an economist would be compelled to ask such questions, but they kind of miss the point if you look at it from the other end.

I do believe human behaviour is strongly guided by making trade-offs akin to economic cost-benefit analysis. The thing is that often, for real people rather than for businesses, at least one part of the cost-benefit balance doesn't involve easily quantifiable elements like money, working capital or market share.

That part of the equation then loses its property of being linear - which is why trying to work out whether two children brings twice as much happiness as just he one makes, literally, no sense.

I have no doubt that I am happier with my two fantastic daughters than I would be with just the one, but that happiness is just not divisible.

Perhaps it's worth reconsidering how economic frameworks describe choices - whether it's between apples and oranges, or between 0, 1, 2 or more children. People make choices on the basis of what they believe will make them happier, and that can often simply not be captured in linear mathematics.

Happy Father's day to one and all!



becoming a dad is a amaing thing in the life.


Lovely, good for you.

I have been wondering if I too (in my twenties, without children) find it easier to approve of what might be seen as cold-hearted views. Perhaps with children I'll become happier about "nanny state" regulations, for example. I wonder are there statistics comparing parents and non-parents for political stances?


The benefit to your time & love her is from a gain/cost analysis based on your Genes. Richard Dawkins outlined this perfectly in the "Selfish Gene" - I suggest economists puzzled by parenthood read the book, and they will easily understand how to tweak their models - its genesmanship that's behind the hormonal drives of mother hood & fatherhood.

Your son/daughter is your offspring, and they need to survive. The only way to get an offspring to survive, outside of having millions at once (spiders, sea turtles), is to give it a great amount of care to reproductive age. After this point the biological aspect of parenthood is done. By caring for the offspring, allowing them to survive you are taking care of your genes. The author needs not be surprised at the unconcious level of the transformation, its under the control of evolution - the great force on the planet.