Things we don’t know

I’m sure that many medical scholars and psychologists and psychiatrists have studied the effects of “Ferberization” or helping your kid learn to self-soothe by letting him cry at bedtime. It’s a pretty well established process that parents in America go through, although some are becoming more vocal in opposing it. Regardless, I think it’s a great example of something we don’t know about families and could be potentially insightful in evaluating children’s eventual outcomes. Perhaps even more important is that it might give us insight into parent-child relationships in and of themselves.

A significant problem with trying to analyze how our relationships affect our decision making is that there is likely a lot of endogeneity in relationships. That is to say, we make decisions that determine our relationships that determine our decisions. I don’t know if pinpointing the earliest nodes of a relationship between a parent and a child will do that much, but it does serve, if we can show it has an effect, to clear up some of that endogeneity. If we control for what happened before the relationship formed (and I know that’s simplifying perhaps to an unacceptable degree), perhaps we can isolate what is an effect of the relationship itself.

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Different Kinds of Famlies

The NYT is running a series profiling the lives of New Yorkers. Today’s story was of some interest as it reflects the rapidly changing demographic that is the ‘family’ in the US today.

The article is not particularly well-written, in my opinion, but the first page or so offers at least a picture of how a non-nuclear family is working. It highlights the need to figure out new ways to measure and count households and individuals and couples and families. In addition, we have all of these extra relationships to examine. I’d certainly think that your relationship with your non-romantic (ever), gay father of your child is going to affect your decision making, and probably differently than would your relationship with your romantic partner/father of your child.

On not getting divorced

Divorce, we all know, is traumatic. Even if we are the lucky few who managed to watch our parents lovingly stay together our entire lives, we realize that we are the lucky few. Children of the 70s and 80s are all too familiar with divorce. We consoled our friends through it, we had dinner at friends’ houses in tense, uncomfortable situations and we likely see divorce as the norm. Perhaps people aren’t meant to stay together forever.

There is a lot of research that says that children of divorce have worse outcomes than children of parents who stay together. The causal link is tenuous, at best, which was the primary motivation for one chapter of my thesis. Surely, we know that couples who decide to get divorced are different than those who stay together, but that doesn’t mean all couples that stay together are the same, and it doesn’t mean they are happy or that they shouldn’t get divorced. In short, we have all this information about how divorce affects children, but in reality, we know that it isn’t likely the mere act of divorce that might hurt children, but rather how parents’ behavior and decision-making change when they’re thinking about divorce and moving toward divorce, even if they never get there.

While presenting this paper, as I’m sure other scholars of divorce and children have experienced, I’ve been asked, several times, whether the policy implication is that people shouldn’t get divorced. Should we be spending more money on marriage promotion or free couples’ counseling or something to encourage couples to stay together, for the good of the children? I think that my goal, in some ways, was precisely the opposite. Not that we should encourage divorce, but rather that concentrating too much on divorce as being bad for kids ignores everything that happens leading up to a divorce, it ignores the fighting and bargaining and trauma that results when parents are unhappy, regardless of whether they get divorced. It may be even that we’ve vilified divorce so much that parents who likely should get divorced, don’t.

The New York Times today offers some evidence of a backlash of sorts against divorce. They cite a marriage study that shows that those same children of the 70s and 80s, my generation and those a bit older than me, are less likely to get divorced than our parents. While the divorce rate hovers around 50% for the population, the rate for recent college-grads within 10 years of marriage is closer to 10%. Despite the fact that we’re not seeing these people through the whole of their marriages and lives yet, that’s a big difference. It should be noted, however, that fewer women my age are getting married at all. The same study showed that women aged 25-29 were much less likely to have ever been married, in fact, half of all women in that age range had never married. So, we’re dealing with a smaller base, here as well. It might be that the marriages that are occurring are just better marriages, as other people are waiting.

Regardless of how exactly the numbers play out, the Times used these stats, and anecdotes and books, to show that divorce has become almost taboo among some segments of society. The article tells horror stories of storybook wives and mothers being outcast from the social spheres once they decided to divorce, a decidedly different take on divorce than the feminist, liberating, now-you’re-free state that they say ruled earlier generations.

Though it’s easy to toss out theories of social pressure in middle age as bunk, there is evidence that social networks (and I mean communities, not facebook) can have a profound effect on the decision to divorce. One recent paper found that having a friend or family who divorces makes you much more likely to divorce. Contrary to how this may sound, it doesn’t appear that divorce is actually contagious, like the measles. Rather, it is likely that seeing someone else get divorced changes perceived costs and benefits of divorce. If a friend goes through a divorce, you may see how hard it is on her and her family, but you also see the benefits later on of her new situation. And if she has already done it, you benefit from not being the only one.

In communities where divorce is looked down upon–be it for religious reasons, or ‘for the kids’, the costs for divorce likely remain very high, even if you know someone who has done it. It is precisely situations like these where economics trips up. In modeling divorce or investments in children, we control for what we can, but knowledge of a community’s stigma about divorce likely remains unknown. In the case where such a stigma is correlated with race or income, we might ascribe effects to race or income where they don’t belong.

Friday Thoughts on Fatherhood

Justin Wolfers, an economist, fellow studier of happiness, and father, reflects on fatherhood as an economist. They’re two roles that are surprisingly difficult to reconcile, he says, which is really a central tenet to everything I’m exploring here and in my thesis.

Key quote: “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.”

There are several models that try to determine how many children people will have. We often talk about the “quantity-quality” tradeoff. I know that sounds crass, but the idea is simple, with limited resources, you can allocate more time and money to fewer children and help them achieve better outcomes, or you can have lots of kids. Again, crass, I know.

By way of anecdote, many friends (at least American friends), tend to say they want as many kids as they were in their family, except the only children. They all think their kids should have siblings to beat up, I mean, play with.

The Promise of a Baby

I’m currently reading an ethnography called Promises I Can Keep by Edin and Kefalas. It’s about marriage and childbearing in poor communities in and around Philadelphia, PA and relates the findings from interviews with women of all races.

I’m finding myself blown away again and again by the content and the revelations of the authors, but as an economist, I’m particularly interested in this extent to which fathers are said to encourage pregnancy early in the relationship. Many mothers report their boyfriends saying “I wanna have a baby by you”, with seemingly little regard for the costs and responsibilities that come along with childbearing. I think having a child in general flies in the face of a rational agent that can plan forever regardless of class, but the discount rate seems particularly uncoupled from reality in these respondents.

One of my thesis chapters is on promises of financial support and how that affects investments in children. My original thought was that a promise of support would be just as effective as additional income in motivating mothers to invest in their children, particularly in financially-constrained decisions. In my data work, I came across the problem that controlling for race (and essentially class in this data set as most of the well-off mothers are white), strips away most of the variation. That is to say, that black mothers who receive a promise of support are not much different than the very few black mothers who don’t receive a promise of support. Edin and Kefalas’ work indicates that the promise of support is almost a prerequisite for childbearing, even when all circumstances–availability of drugs, lack of good jobs, the father’s tendency to “run and rip” with his friends, etc–point to the statement having no credibility whatsoever.

It’s puzzling that women, ultimately knowing that they won’t get financial support, through a legal arrangement or otherwise, would choose to have children with men in the hopes that he might turn around for the baby. It certainly flies in the face of models we use where we can assign realistic probabilities to future events and make our decisions based on our expected utility. The number of reform stories is stiflingly small, but apparently enough to encourage the dreams of so many.

Being a woman is apparently dangerous

A new poll from the Thomson Reuters Foundations ranks countries according to how dangerous they are to women. Of the top 5, most are unsurprising. Afghanistan, Congo, and Somalia are countries plagued by civil war, lawlessness, corruption, lack of services and more. They’re dangerous for everyone, so being dangerous for women is almost a corollary. Congo, in particular, will long be associated with its civil war and the use of rape as one of its weapons. In Afghanistan and Somalia, the lack of access to services due to war and more makes the prospect of giving birth extremely frightening.

The two other countries on the top 5 list, India and Pakistan, might come as somewhat more surprising. Places like Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia–where rights of women are severely limited by the government or quasi-governments set up by the Taliban–or Sudan, and other war-torn countries might have leapt to mind first, but there’s good reason for both India and Pakistan to be on the list. Or rather, there are only awful reasons for both. Female infanticide in India as well as trafficking of persons–many for sex and many not from India, brought it to the forefront. In Pakistan, honor killings, forced childhood marriage and other forms of violence against women put it near the top of the list.

TrustLaw, the legal news service of Thomson Reuters, polled 213 experts in women’s issues, asking them to rank countries based on health, services, threat of violence and more. They compiled the results to come up with the rankings.

Perhaps most notable element in the top 5 list is the lack of attention to sexual violence. Only Congo ranked highly on the list for sexual violence, as determined by the panel of experts,  even though trafficking of persons is highly correlated with sexual violence. I’d be interested to see more on that front.

News about the poll was used to launch a special arm of the Foundation aimed specifically at examining legal issues pertaining to women. I’m always skeptical of such initiatives as the separation of “women’s” issues from everyone else’s issues often causes dissociation and legitimizes, in some sense, ignorance of the problem. If we declare that maternal health is a “women’s” issue, we allow ourselves to ignore the increase in intimate partner violence that often occurs during pregnancy, that poverty is correlated with lack of access to services, and that maternal mortality can overwhelm a family and the future prospects of surviving children. I hope that the concentration on legal rights of TrustLaw Women will avoid some of these pitfalls.

Irrational Tonics

My name is Erin, and I’m a professor at a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. Or, rather, that’s what I’ll be come August. Right now, I’m just a grad student trying desperately to get some projects out the door. And frankly, a grad student who’s looking for more projects. I like projects. I intend this to be my new one, but first, a little background.

A few months ago, a friend making a documentary in Africa sent me the link to a blog post on how relationships between prostitutes and their clients affect tips. She was aghast, not because of the topic, but rather because it got so much attention. Is it possible, she asked incredulously, that economists could be just now figuring out that human relationships have bearing on how we make decisions?

My response was well, yeah, and in fact, you should be ecstatic that they’re even starting to examine it. Economists like models. They like simplified versions of reality and to be honest, life is not all that simple. For as much as the dismal science has grown and evolved and gone back and forth on monetary policy, we’re still not very good at figuring out how individuals make decisions. We impose rules on them and hope that our models give good results, but in truth, our models are only as good as the assumptions we put into them. The assumptions we tend to put on people is that they are rational agents, and generally time-invariant rational agents. In simple terms, that means that if I asked you to choose among several scenarios–say, what you would buy, where you would get food, etc, in a given month–, you could tell me which one of those scenarios would make you the happiest, the second happiest and the third happiest. That’s the rational part, you know exactly what is good for you. The time-invariant part is that, likely, your ranking of these scenarios wouldn’t change from day to day unless something big happened to shift your worldview or change your preferences for, say, pizza (like you saw a rat at your favorite restaurant).

For the past five years, or at least the past three, I’ve been writing a dissertation in which I try to illuminate, to some small degree, how human relationships affect our decision making. We’re not very good at measuring these types of relationships, primarily because of what economist call “unobservables.” For instance, I can see that you, as a mother, decide to put your child in private school. From your private school application, I might know your level of education, your income, your occupation and all of these things about your husband, as well. These are “observables” and with this limited information, I can make a pretty good prediction about how many years your child will go to school and what kind of money he will make. Or at least, averaging among all the children who have parents like you, I can predict an average value for these characteristics. However, there are lots of things I don’t know about you. I don’t know how impatient your child is, or how motivated you are to make him study. I don’t know whether you’re a hands-on parent or if your marriage is in trouble. As emotionally intelligent people, we know that these characteristics probably have an effect on the child’s well-being, but as economists, we don’t have a good way to incorporate them into our models.

So, I aim to incorporate them into our models. I’m not the only one doing it, and my plan for this space is to highlight people who are doing work in the same vein as mine–how do our relationships affect our decisions?–but also people who are doing other work that seeks to shed light on decision making as influenced by other aspects of life that we don’t normally incorporate into our models. That won’t be all, of course. I’ll also use this space to talk about research on gender and children. Occasionally, I might throw in some water stuff; water is pretty cool, and pretty important.

In any introductory economics course, your professor is sure to tell you that economics is the study of allocation of scarce resources. It’s true, but it’s also just the beginning, that’s why we call it introductory. My hope is that this blog will make economics, as it is studied beyond the introductory level, more accessible and remind people that it’s not all about money. I can’t tell you which stocks to pick or tell you whether unemployment is going to fall (though, actually, at this point, I’m inclined to say no as it seems that money is cheap and companies are investing in capital instead of hiring workers, but that’s a post for another day and another blog). But I can talk to you about love and friendship and how it makes us totally irrational.