Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Barbarians at the Gates

Lesson number 1: if people are more educated about economics, they will tend to be more conservative.  In a lot of these posts, I’ve focused on the ignorance surrounding the economic effects of taxation and simple welfare policies, but I can and will expand this to many other areas – unions, trade, minimum wage laws, regulation, etc.  Lesson number 2: many people who lean Democrat champion policies and the changing of cultural norms that are inimical to their own cultural conservatism.  
Every society faces the equivalent of the barbarian invasion on ancient Rome with the spawning of each new generation of kids, which is the perpetual consequence of men and women getting their freak on, as the kids these days say.    Every kid born to this world is a threat to civilization.  The question is how to convert the barbarian hoards to the Roman ways prior to their pissing in the aqueducts. 

The best way, as is now indisputably established by countless Federal grants bent on using social science techniques to confirm common bleeping sense, is that a kid, especially a boy, be raised in a two parent family.  If a boy is raised as such, he is much less likely to spend his teen years lopping off the heads of the Michelangelo statues; if a girl is raised as such, she is much less likely to repeat the same mistake of having a boy out of wedlock, who then joins the fun by stealing concrete benches out of the Coliseum with his wayward uncle. Everyone in polite society – conservative or liberal - knows these fundamental truths. 
I have great friends who are liberals – despite deep and profound differences in politics we share a common and laudable goal in child rearing - raising kids to become responsible adults who develop their talents and contribute to civic life.  In short, in their actions these friends reveal a fundamental agreement with me in their regard for the role and importance of family.  But for reasons that are many, they simultaneously champion changing norms and mores, as well as government policies, which have the effect of diminishing marriage and family and adding more diapered barbarians bent on future mayhem.    
Single parenthood is a negative externality.  In general if a behavior or choice carries with it a negative externality, you want to tax it so the one responsible for generating it considers the fuller social cost in his or her decision.  On an island the full cost of the petty crimes of the fatherless kid is borne fully by Mommy dearest, but in the city, when the kid breaks out of the crib and onto the street, bullets start flying and there is a cost borne by someone other than the mom.  Because potential moms don’t face the full potential cost of single motherhood, they oversupply the little barbarians.  In small numbers, we can absorb and minimize the cost.  Back in my day, the few kids who could run free at an early age stealing small sections of railroad found few potential accomplices who wouldn’t face the wrath of two parents, and because everyone knows you need two people to carry a small section of railroad, such petty crimes never made it past the planning stages.  But once you start adding in a few more kids into the neighborhood with plenty of time on their hands, a distracted mom, and a non-existent dad, suddenly things quickly progress from the planning stage to the doing stage.  And the costs begin to multiply.  The costs are not limited to the effects of crime on the victims, or to the increased need for crime prevention and enforcement.  Much of it is more innocuous – taking the form of the many programs that comprise welfare. 
Although this is fundamentally an issue of culture, the recognition that single motherhood is a negative externality ties it right in with the general economic ignorance of the voting public.  Given the negative externality, there is some optimal level of cost that should be foisted on potential single mothers and/or the shiftless irresponsible fathers.  The right amount of cost leads to acceptably low rates of illegitimacy.  If you look at changes in society over the last sixty years, they take two forms.  First, we’ve instituted policies (the Great Society, Obamacare, etc.) that subsidize single parenthood, thus alleviating the private costs that were always assumed by the single mother and her family.  Second, we’ve otherwise removed any social stigma connected with single motherhood, which has the effect of removing the “tax” that we traditionally levied on pre-marital sex.  Remember, optimality requires adding to the cost of single-motherhood beyond the private costs faced by the single mother; we’ve removed much if not all of that private cost with welfare, and additionally eliminated the stigma that had the effect of making people consider the fuller social costs of out-of-wedlock births.
Welfare is nothing if not well-intentioned – helping those most in need and all that – but it unambiguously subsidizes single motherhood.  If getting on the dole is tough, as it once long ago was, adding a (or another) mouth to feed looms as a hardship, and the would be single mothers are careful to require that would-be suitors “buy the cow” if they want to sample the milk.  Absent any stigma attached to single motherhood, bearing the full cost of raising the child alone would still limit the extent of illegitimacy.  If you make it easy to get on the dole, some young women will purposefully get pregnant to get an income stream that grants them full independence from their parent(s).  Indeed, our welfare policy has even worked against the societal pressure for the father to step up and make an honest woman of the mother – it is much harder to collect welfare if the father marries the mother.  Marriage for the young mom brings with it the uncertain reliability and perhaps limited income potential of an uneducated father, and this is compared to the no strings attached benefits of food stamps, Section 8 housing, Medicaid, etc.  Young single moms may be uneducated, but they’re not stupid.  They know that there are worse things than the dole – marrying a loser or living under the autocratic rule of your parents – “whatever!”
Perhaps 1950s America was no less engaged in premarital sex, but the costs of the obvious consequence was borne locally, principally by the family of the woman – hence shot gun weddings to make sure the father stepped to the plate to handle the costs.  Absent this, the costs were still absorbed by the mother and the family, and the costs were appropriately ramped up (tax the negative externality) by the stigma attached to single parenthood.  If your daughter got knocked up, there was some judgment of you as a parent, so you took pains to make sure that it didn’t happen.  If it did, you took out the shotgun and paid for a wedding.  Failing that, you suffered the cost of the stigma, and such was life.  Now, we can look back at that time and bemoan the cruelty, intolerance, and judgmentalism, but we cannot ignore the beneficial effect of that stigma.  The effect was the protection of children, plain and simple, because the child born to the single mom is the one member of society who bears the largest cost of single motherhood. 
Social pressures exerted on unexpected fathers, and some basic moral counseling for young single women that helps them avoid unexpected pregnancy, still persists among the well-educated set.  But elsewhere?  Sex is the ultimate democratic good – income and wealth can be “inequitably” distributed – but at least the poor have their sex.  Indeed they do, which is largely why they stay poor.   And in the past – people were held to account for the obvious consequences of sex outside of marriage.  Now we dare not be critical of people who find themselves in difficult straits due to getting knocked up.  The cost has been spread so that the shotgun wedding is no longer in play, the behavior has been excused and women and men left off the hook for one of those unfortunate consequences of unfettered sex; indeed, the women in these cases have been lionized as heroic victims – no stigma there.  Fathers feel less obligation to the mother because there is no shame assumed by the mother, and because the financial well-being of the mother and child is not at issue.  Your girlfriend got pregnant?  Shit happens, as the kids these days say.
But stigmas have a funny way of morphing and persisting.  In its uglier aspects, the olden days stigma attached to the kids as well – the child is a “bastard” and all that - but to the extent that the stigma made a woman think twice before having a kid, it prevented kids from being born into a single parent home.  You know where the stigma is now?  Smack dab on the foreheads of the kids, but in a different way.    Regardless of what lip service we all (liberal and conservative) may pay to the notion that single motherhood is noble, to the notion that we should not judge such mothers, to the notion that stigmatizing single motherhood was an ugly injustice that we are glad to be rid of, people of means will spend any amount of money to make sure that their kids live their lives in a cocoon safely protected from all the progeny of the noble and proud single moms.  They don’t want their kid joining in on coloring Hitler mustaches on the Mona Lisa. The village can raise the little vagrants if they far outnumber them, but as the ranks of the vagrants grow, the village simply moves to the next town over or sends its kids to Sidwell Friends.  The kid is still a bastard, we just don’t call him one.

Erosion of the stigma, and simultaneously the not coincidental emergence of generous welfare policies, have the combined effects of assuring that more kids each year be born without the benefit of two loving parents.  These changes can only be viewed as beneficial under the assumption that the stork delivers babies at random.  But of course the stork doesn’t deliver babies at all.  Babies come from the decision of young adults, and those decisions have become more and more prone to yielding fatherless kids as a direct result of these changes.  Right now in America, the percentage of out-of-wedlock births by major ethnic groups is as follows: 68 percent for blacks, 45 percent for Hispanics, 24 percent for whites, and 15 percent for Asians.  The situation created by welfare policies are self-reinforcing, in that they yield a generation of kids who will themselves be much more dependent on the state, thus increasing the demand for more generous welfare, which ensures further dissolution of family. 
If you’re celebrating the gains made on behalf of the welfare state in the last 4 years, don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back, because these advances likely come at the cost of more kids being deprived of the full parental guidance you were probably blessed with.  You can wring your hands over ancillary issues such as gun control and the occasional random massacre of innocents, but meanwhile please don’t celebrate policies that lead to the rearing of kids who will quite predictably be the perpetrators and victims of the less random versions of violent crime.  It's like a bad drug - the initial demand doubles the subsequent demand.


Anonymous Frank B. said...

Wether it be the fall of Rome, the decline of Western Civilization as we know it or the duplicity of Communist (Capitalist) China. We are different cultures at different times but deep down, we are still people. Predators on the prowl.

4:14 PM  
Anonymous Victor Matheson said...

While the Jerky is clearly right that 2-parent families are clearly better at raising kids, I don't think anyone is in favor of welfare in order to make parents better off but instead to make the children better off. Now the equation becomes much trickier.

No doubt that welfare programs make single motherhood more common, but they also make life more tolerable for the increased pool kids with single parents. So, there is a tradeoff.

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? 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. 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. You could break down barriers that prevent people from getting married, which is why John is a big supporter of marriage equality.

Or you could make life really 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 the deed.

8:23 AM  

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