Online Reading Onpaper

We have six weekly contributors here at EWED and I try to read every single post. I don’t always read them the same day that they are published. Being subscribed is convenient because I can let my count of unread emails accumulate as a reminder of what I’ve yet to read.

Shortly after my fourth child was born over the summer, I understandably got quite behind in my reading. I think that I had as many as twelve unread posts. I would try to catchup on the days that I stayed home with the children. After all, they don’t require constant monitoring and often go do their own thing. Then, without fail, every time that I pull out my phone to catch up on some choice econ content, the kids would get needy. They’d start whining, fighting, or otherwise suddenly start accosting me for one thing or another – even if they were fine just moments before. It’s as if my phone was the signal that I clearly had nothing to do and that I should be interacting with them. Don’t get me wrong, I like interacting with my kids. But, don’t they know that I’m a professional living in the 21st century? Don’t they know that there is a lot of good educational and intellectually stimulating content on my phone and that I am not merely zoning out and wasting my time?

No. They do not.

I began to realize that it didn’t matter what I was doing on my phone, the kids were not happy about it.

I have fond childhood memories of my dad smoking a pipe and reading the newspaper. I remember how he’d cross his legs and I remember how he’d lift me up and down with them. I less well remember my dad playing his Game Boy. That was entertaining for a while, but I remember feeling more socially disconnected from him at those times. Maybe my kids feel the same way. It doesn’t matter to them that I try to read news articles on my phone (the same content as a newspaper). They see me on a 1-player device.

So, one day I printed out about a dozen accumulated EWED blog posts as double-sided and stapled articles on real-life paper.

The kids were copacetic, going about their business. They were fed, watered, changed, and had toys and drawing accoutrement. I sat down with my stack of papers in a prominent rocking chair and started reading. You know what my kids did in response? Not a darn thing! I had found the secret. I couldn’t comment on the posts or share them digitally. But that’s a small price to pay for getting some peaceful reading time. My kids didn’t care that I wasn’t giving them attention. Reading is something they know about. They read or are read to every day. ‘Dad’s reading’ is a totally understandable and sympathetic activity. ‘Dad’s on his phone’ is not a sympathetic activity. After all, they don’t have phones.

They even had a role to play. As I’d finish reading the blog posts, I’d toss the stapled pages across the room. It was their job to throw those away in the garbage can. It became a game where there were these sheets of paper that I cared about, then examined , and then discarded… like yesterday’s news. They’d even argue some over who got to run the next consumed story across the house to the garbage can (sorry fellow bloggers).

If you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, then I’ve got nothing for you. It turns out that this works for us. My working hypothesis is that kids often don’t want parents to give them attention in particular. Rather, they want to feel a sense of connection by being involved, or sharing experiences. Even if it’s not at the same time. Our kids want to do the things that we do. They love to mimic. My kids are almost never allowed to play games or do nearly anything on our phones. So, me being on my phone in their presence serves to create distance between us. Reading a book or some paper in their presence? That puts us on the same page.

College Major, Marriage, and Children Update

In a May post I described a paper my student my student had written on how college majors predict the likelihood of being married and having children later in life.

Since then I joined the paper as a coauthor and rewrote it to send to academic journals. I’m now revising it to resubmit to a journal after referee comments. The best referee suggestion was to move our huge tables to an appendix and replace them with figures. I just figured out how to do this in Stata using coefplot, and wanted to share some of the results:

Points represent marginal effects of coefficient estimates from Logit regressions estimating the effect of college major on marriage rates relative to non-college-graduates. All regressions control for sex, race, ethnicity, age, and state of residence. MarriedControls additionally controls for personal income, family income, employment status, and number of children. Married (blue points) includes all adults, others include only 40-49 year-olds. Lines through points represent 95% confidence intervals.
Points represent coefficient estimates from Poisson regressions estimating the effect of college major on the number of children in the household relative to non-college-graduates. All regressions control for sex, race, ethnicity, age, and state of residence. ChildrenControls additionally controls for personal income, family income, employment status, and number of children. Children (blue points) includes all adults, others include only 40-49 year-olds. Lines through points represent 95% confidence intervals.

Many details have changed since Hannah’s original version, and a lot depends on the exact specification used. But 3 big points from the original paper still stand:

  1. Almost all majors are more likely to be married than non-college-graduates
  2. The association of college education with childbearing is more mixed than its almost-uniformly-positive association with marriage
  3. College education is far from uniform; differences between some majors are larger than the average difference between college graduates and non-graduates

The Cost of Raising a Child

Raising kids is expensive. As an economist, we’re used to thinking about cost very broadly, including the opportunity cost of your time. Indeed, a post I wrote a few weeks ago focused on the fact that parents are spending more time with their kids than in decades past. But I want to focus on one aspect of the cost, which is what most “normal” people mean by “cost”: the financial cost.

Conveniently, the USDA has periodically put out reports that estimate the cost of raising a child. Their headline measure is for a middle-income, married couple with two children. Unfortunately the last report was issued in 2017, for a child born in 2015. And in the past 2 years, we know that the inflation picture has changed dramatically, so those old estimates may not necessarily reflect reality anymore. In fact, researchers at the Brookings Institution recently tried to update that 2015 data with the higher inflation we’ve experienced since 2020. In short, they assumed that from 2021 forward inflation will average 4% per year for the next decade (USDA assumed just over 2%).

Doing so, of course, will raise the nominal cost of raising a child. And that’s what their report shows: in nominal terms, the cost of raising a child born in 2015 will now be $310,605 through age 17, rather than $284,594 as the original report estimated. The original report also has a lower figure: $233,610. That’s the cost of raising that child in 2015 inflation-adjusted dollars.

As I’ve written several times before on this blog, adjusting for inflation can be tricky. In fact, sometimes we don’t actually need to do it! To see if it is more or less expensive to raise a child than in the past, what we can do instead is compare to the cost to some measure of income. I will look at several measures of income and wages in this post, but let me start with the one I think is the best: median family income for a family with two earners. Why do I think this is best? Because the USDA and Brookings cost estimates are for married couples who are also paying for childcare. To me, this suggests a two-earner family is ideal (you may disagree, but please read on).

Here’s the data. Income figures come from Census. Child costs are from USDA reports in 1960-2015, and the Brookings update in 2020.

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College Major, Marriage, and Children

The American Community Survey began in 2000, and started asking about college majors in 2009, surveying over 3 million Americans per year. This has allowed all sorts of excellent research on how majors affect things like career prospects and income, like this chart from my PhD advisor Doug Webber:

See here for the interactive version of this image

But the ACS asks about all sorts of other outcomes, many of which have yet to be connected to college major. As far as I can tell this was true of marriage and children, though I haven’t searched exhaustively. I say “was true” because a student in my Economics Senior Capstone class at Providence College, Hannah Farrell, has now looked into it.

The overall answer is that those who finished college are much more likely to be married, and somewhat more likely to have children, than those with no college degree. But what if we regress the 39 broad major categories from the ACS (along with controls for age, sex, family income, and unemployment status) on marriage and children? Here’s what Hannah found:

Every major except “military technologies” is significantly more likely than non-college-grads to be married. The smallest effects are from pre-law, ethnic studies, and library science, which are about 7pp more likely to be married than non-grads. The largest effects are from agriculture, theology, and nuclear technology majors, each about 18pp more likely to be married.

For children the story is more mixed; library science majors have 0.18 fewer children on average than non-college-graduates, while many majors have no significant effect (communications, education, math, fine arts). Most majors have more significantly more children than non-college graduates, with the biggest effect coming from Theology and Construction (0.3 more children than non-grads).

In this categorization the ACS lumps lots of majors together, so that economics is classified as “Social Sciences”. When using the more detailed variable that separates it out, Hannah finds that economics majors are 9pp more likely than non-grads to be married, but don’t have significantly more children.

I love teaching the Capstone because I get to learn from the original empirical research the students do. In a typical class one or two students write a paper good enough that it could be published in an academic journal with a bit of polishing, and this was one of them. But its also amazing how many insights remain undiscovered even in heavily-used public datasets like the ACS. We’ve also just started to get good data on specific colleges, see this post on which schools’ graduates are the most and least likely to be married.

Stocking Stuffers: First Mover Advantage & Nested Utility Functions

I have two gift recommendations for you this year. Typically, I purchase a lot of very practical items. My wife makes fun of me for requesting tools and hardware as gifts – but hopefully the following list will provide some crossover between practicality and good gift ideas.

Depending on your family’s traditions both of these gifts are stocking stuffers.

1) Laurie Berkner CDs

Having children means that you hear opinions and preferences from more people. And children are sure to share those opinions. When you’re in the car, I recommend that you strike first with 2 different CDs (or mp3 albums) by Laurie Berkner. Laurie Berkner is a singer songwriter who creates outright good children’s music. She has variety and produces earworms that are not too bad to have around. The Ultimate Laurie Berkner Band Collection is a crowd-pleaser. If you’ve got a more intense personality and your children can handle it, then I strongly recommend The Dance Remixes. It rocks.

The idea here is game theoretical. Your children are going to find something that they like. A lot. Odds are good that waiting for them to encounter something won’t bode well for your happiness once they find it. Take the first-mover advantage and introduce them to Laurie Berkner. They’ll get hooked and you’ll be stuck listening to a lot of children’s music. But at least it will be good/tolerable that you also enjoy… Unlike some other alternatives

2) Highly Specific Treats

We live in a rich society. Most of us walk the store aisles implicitly saying ‘no’ to the vast majority of goods. Even the ones that we like. Take the opportunity that the holiday season provides and say “yes” to getting some special treats. These treats fall into two categories: 1) “Nostalgic Treats” & 2) “I’ve never tried it”.

1) Sharable Nostalgic Treats

When I was about 4-5 years old, I remember getting great big bags of pretzels that were covered in a mustard powder (“mustard pretzels”). As it turns out, they are only a regionally available product and I never saw them again after my family moved from Tennessee. But 33 year old me thought “Surely, the internet has them”. And indeed they do! I made this purchase at a per-unit price that I would not typically indulge. However, I got to share the story and the experience with my family. It pleased me to share a deep memory with them and it pleased them to get a ‘special’ snack. For me, it was mustard pretzels. For my wife, it was a bulk pack of Heath and Skor bars.

2) I’ve never tried it

Separately, while watching Captain America and the Winter Soldier, it occurred to me that I had never knowingly had Turkish Delights. So, I found a variety pack of fancy ones. First, they’re delicious and you feel fancy while eating them. Second, this is 21st century America. What’s the point in saying that we’re rich if we’re not willing to act like it a little? Maybe it’s not Turkish Delights for you. Maybe it’s Pilipino rice candies or Mexican Tamarind candies. Make sure that you get a couple of new treats and share them with others. The purchases are much more worth the price when you consider the nested utility function among your loved ones.

Sunk Costs and The Sense of Self

My 3 year-old will scream. She will lay on the floor, thrash about, and make demands as an infant would if they could communicate and develop the motor control adequate to do so. It doesn’t matter whether she can remember the reason for her disposition – she will continue. My wife and I usually sense the situation. We could get angry and threaten punishments. Alternatively, we know that no amount of reasoning and attempts at persuasion will convert our daughter’s behavior into the sweet, desirable sort. We have found that smothering her with love works best. And when the demands of other children prevent such single-minded attention, we at least try to act lovingly toward her.

My wife is quite beside herself. Why is this happening? (Truth be told, it’s all my fault. It’s in the genes.) Sometimes we see the momentary consideration of a calmer world in our daughter’s face. Then, she rejects it like there is no goodness left in the world. To be clear: I see my daughter know that she can stop her comprehensive riot and instead enjoy some other activity, then definitively decline the opportunity. She has cognitive dissonance.

My child is not crazy. One might say that she is irrational. The entirety of her behavior up to that point is a sunk cost. She could just stop the outburst and feel better. But she doesn’t. Why the heck doesn’t she?

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