How to Talk to People (elderly and children)

This is a great Youtube video on how to talk to people with memory loss. It’s for family and caregivers. It’s a helpful free practical resource for an aging population. (40 minutes, but you can get a lot out of the first 20)

Even if you have good intentions, it is surprisingly easy to say something hurtful to another person. Ultimately, these scripts are shortcuts for what I think you would say if you had deep empathy and spent time getting to know the person you are speaking to. To save time, if you can find a good script writer, steal their lines. Economists speak of “money on the sidewalk”. Learning tricks that enable you to express what you actually mean to people seems like free money, speaking as a life-long awkward person.

On the other end of life, there is an Instagram account @biglittlefeelings with good tips for talking to toddlers. Here’s a video with Danny Silk on kids and and how they interpret attempts to control them.

What Women Want

What do women want, if they have kids and no budget constraint? I think a lot of women would choose what this wealthy mom of 3 has, if they could afford it.

The title of a current article from Parents magazine is “‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Star Caterina Scorsone on Raising 3 Daughters of Different Ages and Abilities” The subtitle is “As a mom of three, … Scorsone leans on her own sisters and a community of chosen family to balance work and parenting, spend one-on-one time with each child…”

What is a “community of chosen family”? You pay those people. They are chosen, to be sure. According to the article, along with help from relatives,

The actress also relies on a babysitter, Sam, and a nanny and former restaurateur, Frances, who does much of the cooking. “I would never perpetuate the myth that it’s all easy,” says the actress, who shares custody with her ex. But she’s quick to count blessings, especially for the “ridiculous salary” that comes from playing Dr. Amelia Shepherd … “COVID-19 forced people to acknowledge how hard it is to work and parent. My sister and nanny lend their talents to our family while I lend my skills to the show.”

I’m all for specialization and trade. I think it’s great that she can pay someone else to clean up kid messes. The next part seemed more odd to me.

“She also carves out one-on-one time with each daughter on weekends. “I make sure to check in with each individually,” she says. “Besides, it’s more peaceful. If we spend an entire weekend as one pack, there’s a lot of fighting and crying!”

I better pause to say that I am not judging this woman. I’m not trying to tear her down or label her as out of touch, as so many internet dwellers did to Chrissy Teigen. I’m considering whether a wealthier society of the future would choose to wall off negative social interactions.

If you spend time as a family, there will be “a lot of fighting and crying”. My nuclear family spent the weekend “as one pack”. We took the kids through the Ruby Falls cave tour. Here is a picture of my kids fighting, 300 feet under the surface of the earth! They have also fought at 30,000 feet in the air.

Part of me would like to pay someone else to deal with the fighting (more likely to be a robot than a human domestic helper in the future). Would that ultimately be a good choice? One reason wealthy people live in atomized nuclear families is to shield themselves from humanity’s “fighting and crying.” Generally, the last human interaction we preserve is the highs and lows of our own children. (Lots of people live with a “partner” but people get divorced at a much higher rate than they abandon their children.)

How much fighting would very wealthy people choose? Would they make a good choice? Is there any such thing as a real relationship without fighting?

What if humanity avoids cataclysmic disasters for the next 100 years and they become much richer? What struggles would they choose to keep? Are there hardships that no one would choose, but which ultimately enrich life?

The highly atomized nuclear family is a modern phenomenon. Wealth enables us to live apart from each other, but that can in turn lead to loneliness and frustration. If the future humans are instead poorer than we are today, then there is a good chance that kids will be raised by a tribe once again. Sometimes I wish my kids had more tribe, but I also try not to romanticize the past. A tribe is not “a nanny and former restaurateur.”

When I contemplate the low rate of voluntary vaccination around me, it makes me worry that we are headed for the poorer route. But it’s still worth thinking about what would happen if we get much richer.

Scale and Online Learning

A simplistic view that I have heard about online learning is that it is of worse quality but cheaper than traditional classroom learning.

We should take the cheaper part seriously. Cheaper can mean new opportunities for many people. Delivering a lecture online can mean that, once the fixed cost of creating the video is incurred, the marginal cost of adding a student is nearly zero. The average cost of delivering instruction goes down with every student who joins the course. Economy of scale is a wonderful thing.

Now, let’s assume a family that has a quiet home and reliable internet service. Assume that a mom, m, signed up for a rock/geology class, r, for her school-aged son who cannot read. It’s me. I signed my son up for an online “rock camp”. I thought it would give me 45 minutes of time to get work done while my son was distracted in a Zoom room.

This week I got an email from the online school company about how to get ready for rock camp. I’m instructed to assemble a supply kit of about 30 items so that my kid can do a hands-on science experiment every day of the camp. This is not what I thought I was signing up for, and I no longer think rock camp is going to save me any time.  It gets me thinking about scale and online education for kids.

All the parents of rock campers will have to separately assemble a kit of supplies. The economies of scale would come from having the children in a physical school. Buy the supplies in bulk and hand out a pack to each kid all at the same time. It would be great to have a *classroom* where the students could *go*. Even though many classes do not involve vinegar and magnets, the point can generalize.

We should take scale seriously. I support experimenting with different kinds of education and giving students choices. Personally, I benefitted from getting to pilot an experimental program at my high school that allowed me to take microeconomics for college credit online. I also participate in online education sometimes as an educator.

However, it’s overly simplistic to say that the scale idea always points us in the direction of online education. Even at the university level, some products/services can be cheaper to deliver in a traditional class setting.

Fertility and Choices

James blogged this week about fertility in rich countries. I’m presenting an anecdote that was interesting to me in light of the data he presented on college. He presented a “J-curve” demonstrating that the highest fertility rate (2.2 children per woman) occurs among women who did not complete high school in the US. Women who had 4 years of college are collectively at below-replacement fertility. Women with more than 16 years of school, meaning they have an advanced degree, are closer to having 2 children on average, although still below replacement.

According to Hazan and Zoabi (2015), “By substituting their own time for market services to raise children and run their households, highly educated women are able to have more children and work longer hours.” At least some of that J-curve can be explained by the fact that the most highly educated women have more money than the woman who are at only 15 years of schooling. So, the highly educated woman can buy childcare for multiple children in the US. (Having two kids in full-time daycare usually costs more than $20,000 per year).

I saw a discussion on Twitter this week that made me think about the marginal choice to have children and how that relates to education. A journalist who lives in New York City tweeted that, “there is literally nothing encouraging me to have a kid right now in the US even though I am a prime candidate on paper”. Another woman replied that she, similarly, feels like she could have a child right now but is leaning toward not doing it. She explained, “I’m torn because part of me believes in helping raise the next generation to be conscious citizens and all that, but another part of me thinks climate change has already claimed our future and it’s futile?!” 

This sounds like the position of a college-educated “global citizen”. The way I relate it to James’s post is that I think someone who never went to college is less likely to hold her normative view of parenting.

I’m reading the Theory of Moral Sentiments. Here is what Adam Smith wrote about about global citizens mindset or what he called “universal benevolence”.

This universal benevolence, how noble and generous soever, can be the source of no solid happiness to any man who is not thoroughly convinced that all the inhabitants of the universe… are under the immediate care and protection of that great… all-wise Being… To this universal benevolence, on the contrary, the very suspicion of a fatherless world, must be the most melancholy of all reflections…

TMS

How Will Rich Country Fertility Ever Get Back Above Replacement?

For population to be steady or rising, the average women needs to have at least two kids. In almost every rich country- including the United States, all of Europe, and all of East Asia- this isn’t happening. In the extreme case of South Korea, where total fertility averages about one child per woman, the population will fall by half each generation. If this were to go on for 10 generations, South Korea would go from a country of 50 million people- larger than any US state- to one of 50 thousand people, far smaller than any US state. This sounds crazy and I don’t expect it will actually happen- but I can’t say what exactly will stop it from happening.

Global population growth has fallen from a peak of 2.1% per year to the current 1%, and is expected to fall to 0 by 2100. The remaining population growth will happen in poor countries, then stop for the same reasons it did in rich countries- the demographic transition from poverty, argicultural work, and high infant mortality to high incomes, high education, and low infant mortality. As the graph below shows, higher income is an incredibly strong predictor of low fertility- and so if economic growth continues, we should expect fertility to continue falling. But where does it stop?

2019 TFR from Population Reference Bureau vs 2019 PPP-adjusted GDP Per Capita fron World Bank

Some have theorized a “J-curve” relationship, where once incomes get high enough, fertility will start rising again. You can see this idea in “Stage 5” of Max Roser’s picture of the demopgraphic transition here:

This makes sense to me in theory. As countries get richer, desired fertility (the number of kids each woman wants to have) has fallen, but realized fertility (the number of kids each woman actually has) has fallen faster. In a typical rich country women would like to have 2-2.5 kids, but actually ends up having about 1.5. There are many reasons for this, but some are clearly economic- the high cost of goods and services that are desired by rich-country parents, like child care, education, and spacious housing near high-paying jobs. Perhaps in a rich enough country all these could be obtained with a single income (maybe even from a part-time job). But it seems we aren’t there yet. Even zooming in on higher-income countries, higher incomes still seem to lead to lower fertility.

TFR vs GDP Per Capita in countries with GDP Per Capita over 30k/yr

The only rich countries with fertility above replacement are Panama and the Seychelles (barely meeting my 30k/yr definition of rich), Kuwait (right at replacement with 2.2 kids per woman), and Israel- the biggest outlier, with 3 children per woman at a 42k/yr GDP. This hints that pro-fertility religious culture could be one way to stay at or above replacement. But in most countries, rising wealth seems to drive a decline in religiousity along with fertility. Will this trend eventually come to Israel? Or will it reverse in other countries, as more “pro-fertility” beliefs and cultures (religious or otherwise) get selected for?

To do one more crazy extrapolation like the disappearance of South Korea, the number of Mormons is currently growing by over 50% per generation from a base of 6 million while the rest of the US is shrinking. If these trends continue (and setting aside immigration), in at most 10 generations the US will be majority-Mormon. Again, I don’t actually expect this, but I don’t know whether it will be falling Mormon fertility, non-Mormon fertility somehow rising back above replacement, or something else entirely that changes our path.

What would a secular pro-fertility culture look like? For my generation, I see two big things that make people hold back from having kids: a desire to consume experiences like travel and nightlife that are harder with kids, and demanding careers. I see more potential for change on the career front. Remote work means that more quality jobs will be available outside of expensive city centers. Remote work, along with other technological and cultural changes, could make it easier to work part-time or to re-enter the work force after a break. Improving educational productivity so that getting better-education doesn’t have to mean more years of school would be a game-changer; in the short run I think people will spend even more time in school but I see green shoots on the horizon.

Looking within the US, we are just beginning to see what looks like the “J-curve” happening. Since about the year 2000, women with advanced degrees began to have more children than those with only undergraduate education (though still fewer than those with no college, and still below replacement):

From Hazan and Zoabi 2015, “Do Highly Educated Women Choose Smaller Families?”

We see a similar change with income. In 1980 women from richer households clearly had fewer children, but by 2010 this is no longer true:

Fertility of married white women, from Bar et al. 2018, “Why did rich families increase their fertility? Inequality and marketization of child care”

The authors of the papers that produced the two graphs above argue that this change is due to “marketization”, the increasing ability to spend money to get childcare and other goods and services that make it easier to take care of kids. If this is true, it could bode well for getting back to replacement- markets first figure out how to make more excellent daycare and kid-related gadgets, then figure out how to make them cheap enough for wide adoption.

Does Cohabitation Predict Divorce?

My article, coauthored with Sarah Kerrigan and published last week, tries to answer the question. In short, the answer seems to be yes- cohabitation before marriage is associated with a 4.6 percentage point increase in the rate of marital dissolution. This is in line with much of the previous literature, which notes one big exception- choosing right (or getting lucky) the first time: “cohabitation had a significant negative association with marital stability, except when the cohabitation was with the eventual marriage partner”.

But we found some even more interesting facts while digging through the National Survey of Family Growth.

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Not all robots have faces

Through Twitter, I have become aware of the SNOO. I’m quoting SNOO literature

Unfortunately, babies don’t sleep well on flat, still beds in totally quiet rooms. In fact, over 50% of

babies still wake up once a night after 6 long months. That’s a problem because poor baby sleep

causes the #1 new parent stress: EXHAUSTION!

SNOO gives a perfect 4th trimester of gentle shushing and rocking…all night long. And, it quickly

responds to your babies’ fussies with stronger sound and jiggly motion…

The bed hears your baby cry and rocks them back to sleep! I can probably count the number of times I have slept through the night in the past 6 years on two hands. If used wisely, this machine sounds like an incredible gift to families. (I can also see problems if used unwisely.) If the baby is crying for longer than 3 minutes, then the machine turns off and the expectation is that a parent needs to step in.

This reminds me of Tyler Cowen’s book Average is Over.

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Emily Oster on Vaccines in February 2021

My third post on Covid data heroes features Dr. Emily Oster. Emily is a mom. Lot’s of economists are moms, but few have incorporated it quite as much into their careers. Emily has written a book on pregnancy and a new one on what to do with the kids after they are born. She does a great job explaining scientific research in a way that is easy to understand.

Emily made a big push to collect data on schools and covid back when there was crippling uncertainty about how dangerous it is to let children go to school in person.

She has a great email newsletter and substack. Her latest post is called “Vaccines & Transmission Redux Redux”. In this post, she distills the latest research to give practical advice on when kids can see grandparents once the vaccines are out.

For a long time now, some families have been avoiding close contact with elderly relatives. When can we go back to normal?

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How to get rid of toy clutter

I asked my friend Carrie what she does about the first-world problem of too many children’s toys in the house (especially right after Christmas). Her reply was genius and even includes some tips from psychology at the end. This method is economist-approved:

For [older elementary kids], they are really good about going through toys in their room with me.  I sell at consignment sales twice a year, so I will pay them a small amount for each toy I take from their room to sell (they do not get money for the family toys in the playroom).  I pay them whether or not the toy actually sells. I do not pay them what the full profit would be from each toy, but they get something for their unplayed-with toys.  This is very motivating for them and helps them truly evaluate whether they want a toy or not.  With [older girl]’s unwanted toys, I might pay her but keep them for [younger girl] if I think that she would enjoy it one day.  

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