Shelf Life

The economic and emotional reasons to have more kids

Marketplace Staff Apr 12, 2011
Shelf Life

The economic and emotional reasons to have more kids

Marketplace Staff Apr 12, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: As I think I’ve mentioned a couple of times, I’ve got four kids — three boys and a girl. So when a book titled “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids” came in the mail, well, that was an interview we pretty much had to do.

Bryan Caplan is a professor of economics at George Mason University. The father of three — twins and a baby. With more, he says, you really Bryan Caplan, welcome to the program.

Bryan Caplan: Thanks very much for having me.

Ryssdal: There was a time when kids were economic assets; you had them on the farm and they took care of you when you got old and all that stuff. Now, though, you mention in the book, that fundamentally, they’re an economic drain, right?

Caplan: Rather than economic drain, I’d say consumption good. I think that’s the right way to think about it. But here’s what I discovered when I was looking into this common story that kids used to be an economic asset — kids were never an economic asset. So even back in the old days of living on a farm, in terms of just getting a maximum return, you would’ve always been better off just investing in land. Basially with a kid, you’re going and paying someone a lot more than they actually could earn if they were workers, and you know, also in terms of taking care of you in your old age, the thing to remember is, people used to die so young that there wasn’t much of an old age for them to provide for you in.

Ryssdal: If they were never really an economic asset, are they a drain now or an consumption good? Has it really flipped?

Caplan: It hasn’t flipped; it’s basically the same as it always was, which was people have kids because they enjoy having kids. Part of what I’m trying to do is tell people how to actually get the enjoyment that they think they would like to get but often feel like they aren’t because they’re so stressed out, taking their kids to five different athletic events every single week.

Ryssdal: It’s about happiness, then?

Caplan: It’s about happiness, about needing. Another thing I look at is customer satisfaction. You know, over 90 percent of people with kids they would do it over again, so that’s no big surprise. What’s striking is that childless adults over 40 — found about two-thirds of them — said that they’d wish they had had kids when they had the chance.

Ryssdal: I’m thinking about it the wrong way — it’s not actually economics, it’s an emotional expense or benefit that we’re dealing with here.

Caplan: Well let’s see. Modern economics basically says economics is everything. If you think about Freakonomics, that’s about applying economics to unconventional areas. You know, economics isn’t about dollars and cents, it’s about finding out the best way to get what you want, and looking at your opportunities and figuring out the way to line your ducks up so that you are getting the most out of life. My big point is that once you realize how ineffective a lot of a parental sacrifice is, you can take a look at your kids and say, why don’t we instead of me riding you and trying to change you into something you’re not, why don’t we just enjoy our time together?

Ryssdal: I think that’s a great idea, and I’m all in favor of spending really good quality time with the kids, but the problem is a temporal one, right? You are in the moment with your seventh-grader, and he’s got to pass the math test, so you have to ride him because he really doesn’t like to study, and you can’t really think, you know, 15 years down the road.

Caplan: Well, it may be hard. I know that when you’re seeing something happening right before your eyes, it’s very tempting to feel like I’ve got to do something about this. There is excellent evidence on the effect of parents on how well their kids do in school. But it’s much less than parents imagine. And so, both on the one hand, if you weren’t riding your kid, he would probably actually wind up being more responsible himself and doing more things on his own initiative. The other thing is, you can’t ride your kid forever.

Ryssdal: You point out that it’s really the first kid that wreaks all the havoc, man. And children two through x are just small marginal costs.

Caplan: That’s right. The first kid you have, you really do adjust your lifestyle a lot.

Ryssdal: Yeah.

Caplan: So I actually had a very extreme version of this because my wife got pregnant with twins first. So I’ve never had only one child; I started out with two. But you know, you don’t have to modify your lifestyle that much once you have additional ones.

Ryssdal: Here’s the way I like to think about children two through x: the more children you have, you amortize the costs of the crib and the car seats…

Caplan: And the experience. You know how to change a diaper, you know when it’s normal for a baby to be crying, when it’s not normal for a baby to be crying.

Ryssdal: So are you done at three kids now?

Caplan: Well I can always hope. I would like to have more. It’s not entirely up to me.

Ryssdal: True point. Bryan Caplan, he’s a professor of economics at George Mason University. His book is called “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids.” Bryan, thanks a lot.

Caplan: Thanks so much for having me.

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