Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Drunk Teenagers Can Effectively Estimate the Impact of Decisions on Lifetime Income

Feels like I’m three beers into a beat down of Professor Vic on the foosball table after three or four dogs at the Wienery.  The good professor left a comment that is worth looking at for what I am up against in making my case, because a guy like Professor Vic is exactly who I am referring to in saying that some of my liberal friends are more conservative than they think they are.  Rather than a comment of complete capitulation, along the lines of - “Ahh, now I see it, you’ve been right all these years and I have been a foolish naïf, and I am thankful for your forbearance in always treating me with kindness and friendship despite my ignorance.  I will go forth and sin no more” -  I get agreement on two fundamental points, and resistance in the main.  So I win some battles but lose the war.

First, the two areas of agreement: 1) “the Jerky is clearly right that 2-parent families are clearly better at raising kids”; and 2) “No doubt that welfare programs make single motherhood more common.”  Put the two together and you have here a big concession – that welfare leads to more instances of problematic child rearing.  And by problematic, I mean for the kids themselves – they are more likely to drop out of school, have dimmer lifetime economic prospects, etc. – as well as for society, which faces a higher likelihood of criminal behavior.  Even the first point – the superiority of 2 parent families – is one that is by no means held by all liberals; many influential authors, particularly African American women, have gone to lengths to argue that such a view is mere prejudice.  Such nonsense spawns from an impulse to deny the elephant in the room – if your community is racked with illegitimacy rates close to 70 percent, people might start noticing that this is the source of many of the problems faced by such communities, and that racism has little to do with the problem.

But the second point – that welfare adds to the rolls of single moms – is a huge point of agreement, because it gives the lie to the notion that opposition to welfare is necessarily mean spirited or motivated by selfishness.  For that reason, it is a point that very few people on the left either grasp or willingly admit – better to think yourself morally superior to the Scrooges on the right.  Even Professor Vic is somewhat schizophrenic on the point.  If welfare increases single motherhood, it does so through the standard economic explanation – reducing the private costs of single motherhood is tantamount to subsidizing it, and any subsidy will increase supply.  So if welfare adds to the little bastard population it does so via a rational economic decision on the part of the mother.  Welfare affects decisions.

But here is Professor Vic denying a point he has already conceded: “Lots of bad choices are being made by parents out there, so how do you minimize the effects of these bad choices on the kids?” The first part of the sentence treats the choice as independent from the policies intended to minimize the bad effects of said choice.  As Professor Vic astutely recognizes, once a kid is involved you have to consider the welfare of the child in addition to the incentives for more children being placed in such a situation.  As I said in the initial post, if the stork randomly delivers these babies to various single moms, it changes the whole issue – now the welfare of the child can be considered without changing the equation.  He recognizes there is a “trickier” trade-off, but then either ignores the trade-off entirely, or alternatively assumes that current welfare policy is either optimal or insufficient; otherwise he would agree some scaling back of welfare is good public policy.  
Professor Vic accepts the frequency of bad decisions given current policy.  Currently, almost 40 percent of children are born to unmarried parents; in 1940, it was approximately 4 percent (http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db18.pdf).  Apparently back in 1940, contra Professor Vic, making life “miserable for single parents in the hope that a couple of drunk teenagers fooling around in the back seat of a Chevy do an accurate lifetime income estimation before doing the  deed” worked quite effectively.  If we think of 1940 as the normal number, Professor Vic is willing to accept a tenfold increase in single parenthood in order to make it easier for what might otherwise be the 4 percent of kids born out of wedlock.

This comparison no doubt glosses over broad cultural changes that have also affected the illegitimacy rates, one of which was the loss of the stigma surrounding pre-marital sex or single motherhood.  Perhaps there is no stuffing the genie back in the bottle, but even if such stigmas were to re-emerge, I doubt they would have much effect given current welfare policies.  It is already the case that motherhood is viewed by many teenage moms as a path to independence from their parent(s), who they know will not approve of them getting pregnant – they already face significant disapproval at home, which has little deterrent effect. 

If we go back to 1940, prior to the emergence of the welfare state, a teenage pregnancy was a ticket to prolonged dependence upon your parents, not independence from them.  Which also highlights what is in many cases the false trade-off posited by Professor Vic – i.e. assuring the welfare of the child inadvertently improves the welfare of the mother, but such is not the intent of welfare.  Does a welfare system that enables a single parent to move out of grandmom and granddad’s house improve the welfare of the child?  Absent welfare, in the majority of cases extended family would step up to see to the well-being of the child.  With welfare, the single mom who likes to make bad choices can safely tell such family to go pound sand.  Starting with the 4 percent, how many of them would have been raised with the help of grandparents who simultaneously try to help the mother step up to her responsibilities?  I would guess at least 3 percent.  Now the tradeoff becomes even worse – to ensure the material welfare of 1 out of 100 kids, you jeopardize the overall welfare of 39 out of 100 kids. 

Suppose there were a disease that was both extremely painful and eventually fatal.  And some maliciously evil Big Pharma company were to develop a treatment that removed the physical pain, and maybe even extended the lifespan of the patient, but at the cost of making the disease contagious, to the point where the epidemiology would suggest a 40 fold increase in the incidence of the disease.   Oh, and let’s add that only children suffer from the disease.  Would you approve the drug? 

Putting all that aside, Professor Vic has three suggestions for either bringing the 40 percent number down or otherwise limiting the fallout from single motherhood.  First, to limit the number:  “Obviously, you could try to prevent pregnancies to unwed mothers in the first place, which is why John is a big supporter of Planned Parenthood.”  Right, because pharmacies don’t sell condoms or the pill at prices that are a fraction of the cost of the smokes and cell phone data plans that most impoverished single moms already can afford, I need to support Planned Parenthood (or Obamacare for that matter) so they can get it for free.  Planned Parenthood has zero effect on the prevention of pregnancy.  Planned Parenthood exists to end pregnancies, not prevent them.  In so doing, there is an argument that they help to reduce single motherhood (and there is a counter-argument), but the logic of that as a policy prescription is “destroy the village to save it.”

Second, again to limit the number: “You could break down barriers that prevent people from getting married, which is why John is a big supporter of marriage equality.”  Yes, because most unwed mothers got knocked up by their gay partner?  Although I think Professor Vic would be somewhat surprised by my opinion of marriage equality, that is an issue for another day, and it is a complete non sequiter for the issue of single parenthood. As I’ve argued, policies that make welfare contingent upon not being married are the biggest barrier preventing parents of children from getting married.  Other than that, I cannot think of any significant barrier to would-be parents getting married. 

Third, to limit the fallout: “You could provide generous subsidies to education so that all kids, regardless of parental status, have the chance to maximize their potential, which is why John is a big supporter of public funding for education.”  Professor Vic, what if I told you I know of a school district where the per-pupil spending at the primary and secondary level is close to $30,000 per year (http://www.cato.org/blog/census-bureau-confirms-dc-spends-29409-pupil)?  And, as is your wish, it is free to all residents regardless of parental status.  Would you move there and send your kids happily off to those great schools?  That city is Washington, D.C., and your girls would be breaking the color barrier as the only white kids in attendance.  (In 2010, when D.C. was under-reporting its expenditures to the Census Bureau by 40 percent, it was still tops in the country.)   You wouldn’t have to worry about them for too long – chances are they would drop out eventually.  And for the record, I am a supporter of public funding of education, which is not the same as public education.  Unlike welfare, the benefits go directly and unambiguously to the kids.


Blogger Hatcher said...

Oh, forgot to mention, Vic's hypothetical drunken teenage couple is in the back of a Chevy, notably not a Ford. See, even the buyout of GM leads to increased single motherhood (not to mention screwing over bondholders for the benefit of a thuggish union).

9:09 AM  

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