Friday, December 04, 2015

The Peril of Reading to Your Kids

Every once in awhile, some learned man with impeccable academic credentials spouts an opinion that is so wrong on so many levels that it wakes the Hatcher from his blogging slumber to make it a teaching moment, lest my readers (or reader, whatever the case may be) find themselves parroting the same asininity while drinking at the corner barn, thereby spreading the infection.

Reading to your kids gives them an advantage in life. Given this fact, Adam Swift, a professor of philosophy at Warwick University, recently opined that you should think twice about trying to help your kids: “I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way that they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children, but I think they should have that thought occasionally.”

I know when I used to read to my kids, I not only had that thought in my mind constantly, it was the primary source of pleasure. Let’s face it, reading Harry Potter to your kids gets old, but when you know you are simultaneously doing the equivalent of kicking other people’s bratty kids hard in the ass, it greatly enhances the experience. Contra the pleasure I took from that knowledge, Swift would prefer that we all agonize while reading Where the Wild Things Are to little Johnny and little Suzie over the fact that little Johnny and little Suzie will someday, by virtue of that moment, be callously piloting their environmentally damaging yachts right past a river shanty town filled with adults rigging vines to broken sticks as a makeshift fishing pole because their parents didn’t read to them.

While Professor Swift still allows this practice, quite magnanimously I might add, albeit with a modicum of hand-wringing guilt, there are some things up with which he will not put, including sending your kid to an elite private school, which cannot be justified. Whereas in the case of the reading to your kid, there is a family relationship “good” to be considered and weighed against the unfair disadvantaging of other kids, in the case of the elite private school, it is unadulterated unfair disadvantaging of other kids for pure sport, with no ancillary benefit.

Now, the common sense reader will at this point be thinking to himself – Hatcher, clearly you read something in the Onion. I assure you I did not. Those without common sense, and equipped with their PhDs in some arcane tribal studies (women’s studies, American studies, African American studies, Latino studies, etc.), will on the other hand recognize the incongruity of this opinion with common sense, and then champion it for that reason. Because common sense is just a tool of the man; and the rejection of such common sense yields certain benefits, chief among them the egalitarian spreading of misery.

The thoughtful liberal reader may dismiss my focus on some crackpot liberal professor as a means to tar and feather the overall egalitarian sentiments of liberals, which in his opinion is otherwise defensible and doesn’t require the extremes of asininity as displayed by Swift. But I would submit to that reader that it is highly likely that your understanding of economics is such that you should agree with Swift. You just don’t realize his conclusions follow quite logically from your shared lack of understanding of economics.

Ahh, where to begin? Let’s start with the author’s complete lack of understanding of the concept of a proxy. There are undoubtedly studies out there that form the starting point of his opinion that kids who were read to by their parents as children achieve more success as adults. The “read to by parents” is a proxy for the extent of the parental investment in a kid’s education; it is not by itself necessarily the cause of later success. A proxy is by its nature a crude but effective measure of some more complex variable, and it works because it is positively correlated with that more complex variable. Reading to your kids is likely to be correlated with helping them with homework, guiding them in their choice of classes, eating dinner together as a family, and being raised by a two-parent family, all of which add to the parental investment in a kid’s education. It is also likely to be correlated with factors that have nothing to do with parental investment, but which we would expect correlate with later success. I would bet someone who reads to their kid is likely to have a higher than average level of education, and perhaps a higher IQ, which is in part hereditable.

The misunderstanding of a proxy can lead to absurd conclusions. For example, similar studies about educational achievement in the past showed that parental ownership of a library card was the single best predictor of educational achievement, trumping spending per pupil, education level of the teacher, and other factors. Everyone understands that “library card ownership” is a proxy for something that is harder to measure. Failure to understand that fact would lead to absurd recommendations such as simply distributing a library card to all parents. The “read to by parent” proxy would lend itself to a similar absurdity, since it takes no account of the time read. A recommendation of reading for 1 minute per day is not likely, by itself, to do much good.

That policy recommendation, however, would at least have the benefit of good intentions – i.e., if mere possession of a library card magically yielded educational benefits, the policy recommendation at least seeks to spread that benefit as widely as possible. In the case of our erstwhile philosopher, he reaches the exact opposite conclusions – if an observed proxy correlates with success, those who are already in a privileged position should think twice about reading to their kids, lest they exacerbate the economic inequality. Perhaps he’s given up as hopelessly utopian and unrealistic on the “lifting all boats” approach of exhorting the shift-about parents to put down the remote control, rip the game controller out of their kid’s hands, and read a little Dr. Seuss out loud. As recommending that parents act like parents is apparently asking too much, the approach is to sink as many other boats as possible.

Which beckons the question – how does sinking the boats of the kids who want to hear Where the Wild Things Are help the kids whose parents don’t read? The “sink as many boats as possible” approach of the good philosopher has a certain perverse logic to it if, as must be the case with this guy, one suffers from the economic delusion that the pie of economic goodies is fixed in size. If you suffer from fixed pieism, any action that takes a piece of pizza away from one kid leads to another kid getting it, and so sabotaging one kid’s chances at success increase the success chances of the kids whose parents have neither the time nor the inclination to read to their kids. To a fixed pieist, the sinking of little Johnnie’s boat helps to lift little Suzie’s boat.

There are two major fallacies in this logic. The first obvious one is that the pie is not fixed. If it were we’d all still be hunting and foraging for food. At some point someone had a parent who stealthily read to them out of the view of others who may have seen that activity for what it was – an effort to screw over their kids – but what inadvertently happened was the kid discovered agriculture, and the economic pie was forever increased to the benefit of all, no doubt to the chagrin of his mom, who was looking to starve the other kids. It was JFK who coined the phrase “a rising tide lifts all boats,” and while that concept has in the minds of many been disproven with the host of many “failed trickle down” economic policies, there is nothing more preposterous than to suggest that poor people have not benefitted from economic growth.

In terms of simple lifespan, have you ever noticed how all of the founding fathers, rich men for the most part, lived as long or longer than the average lifespan of today at a time when the average lifespan was less than 40? Now, much of that low life expectancy was due at the time to higher rates of infant mortality, which given medical technology at the time might have affected rich and poor alike – as medical technology improved with economic growth, improvements in infant mortality rates have helped rich and poor alike. But others who survived early childhood have also gained years. In 1850, the average 20 year-old could expect to live to be approximately 58 years old; today he can expect to live to approximately 78 years old. There may be small differences between the rich and the poor on this dimension, but no one truly believes that your average poor person still checks out at the age of 58.

Not only lifespan, but the drudgery of life has been improved for all. You know how a rich person did laundry in 1800? They didn’t. They hired poor people or maintained slaves to hand wash clothing. When the washer and dryer came into existence, it no doubt started as a luxury for the rich, but today it aint exactly a status symbol. More fundamentally, think of electricity – have you ever seen a poor person amazed by an electric light?

The overwhelming preponderance of those medical and other advances occurred in the U.S. and western Europe, under a system of free enterprise. Very few were made possible by advances made in the Soviet bloc and other communist countries. That is to say, most occurred under economic systems that were broadly indifferent to concerns over the inequality of income, or how such inequality might change with economic growth; whereas, in contrast, had we been reliant upon economies more focused on the gap between the rich and poor, we all still might be getting leached for infections rather than taking penicillin. The poor, quite simply, have arguably benefitted disproportionately from economic growth.

This fact gets obscured by the second fallacy – that income is an accurate measure of benefit. Again consider penicillin, which has a cost for a bottle of 500 mg pills of about $20 (affordable to most everyone in the US), and can cure people today of infections that may have killed them in 1900. Does one think of Alexandar Fleming, the inventor of penicillin, as a man of great wealth? I have no doubt he probably made a small fortune from his invention, and even if it were a great fortune, could we really begrudge him for it?

During the time he had patented rights to penicillin, Fleming may have earned as much as 30 percent of every sale of penicillin. But the price of penicillin was not so high that it didn’t see widespread and increasing use in a very short period of time. Take any given purchase of penicillin – assume during WWII Fleming was making $2 per prescription (probably much higher than what he actually made, and in today’s dollars equivalent to at least $10). Who do you think benefitted more from that purchase – Fleming or the patient? Fleming earned $2, allowing for the purchase of other things, whereas the patient had to give up $2, therefore losing the ability to purchase other things. From an income perspective Fleming benefits, and arguably the patient loses. But of course the patient is the big winner – had he chosen instead to buy a case of candy bars at a similar price, he might have soon been dead. Knowing the implications of the purchase, it is clear to the patient that the total benefit of the purchase of the penicillin is greater than that for the case of candy bars, and by a wide margin. In economic parlance, the patient’s consumer surplus, measured as what he is willing to pay for the product, less what he has to pay for the product, is far greater than the $2 Dr. Fleming walks away with, but this difference is invisible to people like Swift, who have so little understanding of economics.

No doubt the young Alexander may have at one time had selfish parents who read aloud to him and, more inexcusably, probably sent him off to a private school. Maybe the good professor Swift should treat the fruits of such selfish parenting in the same way we quite naturally recoil at the practical use made by the Nazis of corpses from the Holocaust, from which they made things like soap and lampshades. Who in good conscience could buy such goods? By the same logic, how can Dr. Swift tolerate the further enrichment of Fleming (or more ghastly still, his estate) via the purchase of penicillin? If he could trace back the parental reading aloud history that underlies every major invention and act appropriately in protest, the good Dr. Swift may find the remainder of his life nasty and brutish, but also mercifully short.

I will give him credit for one thing - going after private schools, which can't help but hit home to many of the limousine liberals who might otherwise say Swift offers something to think about.  It's easy to say let the flood gates of immigration open when you have your kids safely ensconced in private schools or affluent public school districts, where the schools won't be dragged down by the influx of students who can't speak English.  God forbid one person put their money where their mouth is and purposefully see to it that their private school bring in 50 new refugees as students.


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