Friday, September 22, 2017

The Wars on Public Education and Teacher Unions

Back in 1983 the economy was not particularly healthy, and countries such as Japan and Germany seemed to have passed us by economically.  Someone had to be at fault.  A group was convened during Reagan’s administration to determine how our education system could be the problem.  This group issued a document titled A Nation at Risk.  One of the conclusions of the report was that average SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test—used for college admission) scores had been falling for a considerable period; therefore our schools are failing us and putting our national security at risk.  This is just what Republican politicians wanted to hear.  They wanted to be able to blame liberals for all the nation’s troubles and they wanted to divert the massive education funding devoted to public schools in a more conservative direction.

Since this report was issued the propaganda machines of political parties and varied moneyed interests have propagated the notion that public schools are heading steadily downhill and taking our students with them.  The problem with this story is that the conclusion of the report was false.  Whether from malice or stupidity, the authors performed a statistical analysis that would have received an F grade in any of the public schools they had criticized.  It is well-known that SAT scores correlate closely with parental income.  Once college attendance was a benefit reserved mainly for the financially well-off.  As time went on college attendance became available to many more people of lower financial status.  As a consequence, the average SAT score began to drop.  But did this mean that the schools were falling in performance?

It is possible for average scores to drop for a given population while scores for all subgroups within the population are rising provided the population of the subgroups is changing.  For some reason, a group of scientists in the Department of Energy (DOE) was asked to reevaluate the data considered in the A Nation at Risk report.  When the students were broken into groups by income level, the scientists showed that all income groups were actually improving in performance over time—exactly the result a healthy school system should be providing.  However, the DOE study did not provide the desired answer and the report was buried, only to appear in an obscure publication years later.  More on this topic can be found here and here.  

The net result has been decades of sniping at traditional public schools and the teachers who work in them.  One of the latest to bemoan this situation is Erika Christakis in an article for The Atlantic.  The piece was titled The War on Public Schools in the paper edition and changed to Americans Have Given Up on Public Schools. That’s a Mistake for the online version.

Christakis describes the low esteem granted to our public schools and then provides some needed perspective.

“….contempt for our public schools is commonplace. Americans, and especially Republicans, report that they have lost faith in the system, but notably, nearly three-quarters of parents rate their own child’s school highly; it’s other people’s schools they worry about.”

“….Americans tend to exaggerate our system’s former glory. Even in the 1960s, when international science and math tests were first administered, the U.S. was never at the top of the rankings and was often near the bottom.”

“Since the early 1970s, when the Department of Education began collecting long-term data, average reading and math scores for 9- and 13-year-olds have risen significantly.”

“These gains have come even as the student body of American public schools has expanded to include students with ever greater challenges. For the first time in recent memory, a majority of U.S. public-school students come from low-income households. The student body includes a larger proportion than ever of students who are still learning to speak English. And it includes many students with disabilities who would have been shut out of public school before passage of the 1975 law now known as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which guaranteed all children a ‘free appropriate public education’.”

Perhaps the worst of the anti-public-education invective is directed at teachers’ unions.

“In 2004, Rod Paige, then George W. Bush’s secretary of education, called the country’s leading teachers union a ‘terrorist organization’.”

“Our secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, has repeatedly signaled her support for school choice and privatization, as well as her scorn for public schools, describing them as a ‘dead end’ and claiming that unionized teachers ‘care more about a system, one that was created in the 1800s, than they care about individual students’.”

Teachers and their unions are an easy target for assigning blame.

“Our lost faith in public education has led us to other false conclusions, including the conviction that teachers unions protect “bad apples.” Thanks to articles and documentaries such as Waiting for ‘Superman,’ most of us have an image seared into our brain of a slew of know-nothing teachers, removed from the classroom after years of sleeping through class, sitting in state-funded ‘rubber rooms’ while continuing to draw hefty salaries. If it weren’t for those damned unions, or so the logic goes, we could drain the dregs and hire real teachers.”

Christakis exults in referencing a study that actually demonstrates that school systems with strong unions do a better job of maintaining teacher quality than weak or nonunionized systems. They do this by campaigning for higher wages that attract better teachers.  The higher wages make the tolerance of poor teachers more expensive, thus encouraging them to eliminate subpar performers before they gain tenure.  Besides encouraging the dismissal of the weaker teachers, the higher wages encourage the good performers to stay on the job. These results are derived from the work of Eunice S. Han: The Myth of Unions' Overprotection of Bad Teachers: Evidence from the District-Teacher Matched Panel Data on Teacher Turnover.

Han provided a long and detailed study..  A succinct summary is more easily accessible in an interview of Han that was reproduced in a Washington Post piece by Valerie Strauss: Think teachers can’t be fired because of unions? Surprising results from new study

When asked to describe her results, Han provided these comments.

“By demanding higher salaries for teachers, unions give school districts a strong incentive to dismiss ineffective teachers before they get tenure. Highly unionized districts dismiss more bad teachers because it costs more to keep them. Using three different kinds of survey data from the National Center for Education Statistics, I confirmed that unionized districts dismiss more low-quality teachers than those with weak unions or no unions. Unionized districts also retain more high-quality teachers relative to district with weak unionism. No matter how and when I measured unionism I found that unions lowered teacher attrition. This is important because many studies have found that higher-quality teachers have a greater chance of leaving the profession. Since unionized districts dismiss more bad teachers while keeping more good teachers, we should expect to observe higher teacher quality in highly unionized districts than less-unionized districts — and this is exactly what I found. Highly unionized districts have more qualified teachers compared to districts with weak unionism.”

When asked about the four states that had restricted or eliminated collective bargaining for teachers in 2011 and whether that offered data to support her results, Han had this reply.

“Indiana, Idaho, Tennessee and Wisconsin all changed their laws in 2010-2011, dramatically restricting the collective bargaining power of public-school teachers. After that, I was able to compare what happened in states where teachers’ bargaining rights were limited to states where there was no change. If you believe the argument that teachers unions protect bad teachers, we should have seen teacher quality rise in those states after the laws changed. Instead I found that the opposite happened. The new laws restricting bargaining rights in those four states reduced teacher salaries by about 9 percent. That’s a huge number. A 9 percent drop in teachers’ salaries is unheard of. Lower salaries mean that districts have less incentive to sort out better teachers, lowering the dismissal rate of underperforming teachers, which is what you saw happen in the those four states. Lower salaries also encouraged high-quality teachers to leave the teaching sector, which contributed to a decrease of teacher quality.”

If highly unionized systems produce better teachers, then there should be evidence in student performance.  When asked about this Han had this reply.

“Since there’s currently no data on student performance by school district levels with nationally representative samples, I use high-school dropout rates as a measure of student achievement. My study found that unions reduce the dropout rates of districts. This is where my study differs from some earlier ones that found that unionism either had no impact or had a negative effect on the dropout rate. I define unionism more broadly than those earlier studies. It’s not just collective bargaining that matters; it’s the union density of teachers in a district that’s important. Union density measures the strength of the union, because even when teachers can’t engage in collective bargaining they can use their collective “voice” to influence the educational system. What I found was that union density significantly decreased the high-school dropout rate, even in districts without collective bargaining agreements.”

Let us return to the notion that there is a war being waged against public education.  Christakis pleads with us to not allow that war to be lost.  The real issue is not the performance of individual students but the performance of the nation as a whole.

“My point here is not to debate the effect of school choice on individual outcomes: The evidence is mixed, and subject to cherry-picking on all sides. I am more concerned with how the current discussion has ignored public schools’ victories, while also detracting from their civic role. Our public-education system is about much more than personal achievement; it is about preparing people to work together to advance not just themselves but society. Unfortunately, the current debate’s focus on individual rights and choices has distracted many politicians and policy makers from a key stakeholder: our nation as a whole. As a result, a cynicism has taken root that suggests there is no hope for public education. This is demonstrably false. It’s also dangerous.”

Christakis ends her piece by referring to a comment from Benjamin Barber issued in 2004.

“America as a commercial society of individual consumers may survive the destruction of public schooling.  America as a democratic republic cannot,”

The interested reader might find the following articles informative:

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The New Road to Serfdom

In the traditional liberal, free-market school of economics, few hold a loftier position than Friedrich A. Hayek.  In the 1930s and early 1940s he wrote and published one of the best known books on economics and society.  He chose to call it The Road to Serfdom.  His thoughts were controversial at the time.  He was writing when the dominant themes of the day were driven by the rise of totalitarian regimes in Russia, Germany and Italy.  The three nations did not follow identical paths with Germany and Italy were grouped together as fascist states, and the most common opinion viewed fascism as a case where capitalism had gone wrong.  Hayek disagreed and concluded that totalitarianism in all three cases was a result of a move away from liberal, market-driven economic regimes to a more socialist approach.  In his view, socialism always leads to totalitarianism and will leave populations in a state of servility—or to use his word, serfdom.

“For at least twenty-five years before the specter of totalitarianism became a real threat, we had progressively been moving away from the basic ideas on which Western civilization has been built.  That this movement on which we have entered with such high hopes and ambitions should have brought us face to face with the totalitarian horror has come as a profound shock to this generation, which still refuses to connect the two facts.  Yet this development merely confirms the warnings of the fathers of the liberal philosophy which we still profess.  We have progressively abandoned that freedom in economic affairs without which personal and political freedom has never existed in the past.  Although we had been warned by some of the greatest political thinkers of the nineteenth century, by Tocqueville and Lord Acton, that socialism means slavery, we have steadily moved in the direction of socialism.  And now that we have seen a new form of slavery arise before our eyes, we have so completely forgotten the warning that it scarcely occurs to us that the two things may be connected.”

Hayek was born in Vienna but spent most of his professional life in England and the United States.  He apparently was a wise man who deserved the Nobel Prize he ultimately received for his body of economic work.  However, his claims about socialism and serfdom missed the mark.  An inevitable conclusion, based on the above quote from his book, was that England was inexorably developing into a fascist state.  That nation has performed in a peculiar fashion at times over the years but no one has ever concluded it was a fascist state.

Hayek used the word slavery twice in the above quote, yet he chose the term serfdom for use in his title.  That is a curious choice.  Consider a dictionary definition of the term serfdom’

“A person in a condition of servitude, required to render services to a lord, commonly attached to the lord's land and transferred with it from one owner to another.”

The term serfdom is most often used in the context of feudalism, an economic system in which landowners agreed to allow serfs (peasants) to work that land.  There was an agreement in place that the landowner (lord) would receive a share of the earnings from the land and that each participant in the system had additional responsibilities concerning the functioning of the lord’s domain.  The terms of that agreement could vary widely.  In some instances a serf’s fate could be little different than slavery, but the serf had entered into a contract with a private entity more akin to a modern company than to a public entity such as a nation.  Words such as “servility” and “slavery” might have been more consistent with the point Hayek wished to make.

This splitting of hairs on terminology arose because Samuel Freeman produced an interesting document titled Illiberal Libertarians: Why Libertarianism Is Not a Liberal View.  Freeman believes that libertarian philosophies, which are often associated with economic liberalism, are actually illiberal and have as their goals ends that are inconsistent with the thinking of classical liberals such as Hayek.  In fact, current libertarian thinking, according to Freeman, is leading us back to a form of feudalism.  If that is the case, the serfs of the future will arise from a perversion of capitalism not that of socialism—just the opposite of what Hayek had predicted.

One must be careful to not confuse liberal social and political views with liberal economic beliefs.  In economics, the term liberal refers to belief in laissez-faire, market-driven economic systems.

Freeman tells us that classical liberals believed in market-driven economies, but they also recognized that markets could lead to unstable social conditions due to very uneven accumulation of wealth.  Consequently, some mechanism for social maintenance and redistribution of wealth must be available.  The government has a role to play.

“Major proponents of classical liberalism include David Hume, Adam Smith and the classical economists (most of whom were utilitarians), and contemporary theorists such as David Gauthier, James Buchanan, and Friedrich Hayek. I use the term 'classical liberalism' in the Continental sense to refer to a liberalism that endorses the doctrine of laissez-faire and accepts the justice of (efficient) market distributions, but that allows for redistribution to preserve the institutions of market society.”

“Liberalism evolved in great part by rejecting the idea of privately exercised political power, whether it stemmed from a network of private contracts under feudalism or whether it was conceived as owned and exercised by divine right under royal absolutism. Libertarianism resembles feudalism in that it establishes political power in a web of bilateral individual contracts. Consequently, it has no conception of legitimate public political authority nor any place for political society….”

Libertarianism has become an entirely different beast.

“By 'libertarianism' I primarily mean the doctrine argued for by Robert Nozick, and also in differing accounts by Jan Narveson, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, John Hospers, Eric Mack, and others.”

“It is commonly held that libertarianism is a liberal view. Also, many who affirm classical liberalism call themselves libertarians and vice versa. I argue that libertarianism's resemblance to liberalism is superficial; in the end, libertarians reject essential liberal institutions. Correctly understood, libertarianism resembles a view that liberalism historically defined itself against, the doctrine of private political power that underlies feudalism. Like feudalism, libertarianism conceives of justified political power as based in a network of private contracts. It rejects the idea, essential to liberalism, that political power is a public power, to be impartially exercised for the common good.”

Is Freeman correct in claiming that dominant libertarian philosophies are generating an economy that begins to resemble feudalism?  Jonathan Taplin certainly believes so.  He invoked Freemen’s association with feudalism in describing the effect technology platforms are having in changing the relationship between employers and workers.  Taplin’s views are presented in his book Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy.

Taplin’s title is derived from a quote attributed to Mark Zuckerburg:

“Move fast and break things.  Unless you are breaking stuff, you aren’t moving fast enough.”

Some might read that statement and be impressed by the speed with which the tech empires, such as Facebook, Google and Amazon, have created dramatic changes in society.  In Taplin’s view, Zuckerburg was issuing the advice that to succeed in the tech world you had to move fast enough that you could break laws and trash ethical norms before anyone could catch you.  Once you established yourself no one would be able to stop you from doing whatever it is you wanted to do.  It is this elitist view that those who are the drivers of technology should be able to do whatever technology allows them to do that aligns the tech titans with the Koch brothers philosophically.

“….the Kochs are important because they financed the rise of the libertarian political framework that Peter Thiel, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerburg used to get rich.  Without the political protection of the Koch network, none of the Internet empires would exist at its current scale.”

“By 2013 both Google and Facebook followed Koch Industries and joined the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)….ALEC states that its current goal is to further ‘the fundamental principles of limited government, free markets, and federalism’.”

Google and Facebook had, in effect, announced that they believed in the same economic policies as the Koch brothers.  Blowback from the more socially liberal community in which the companies were embedded eventually forced them to withdraw from the ALEC cabal, but the point had been made.

Taplin’s association of tech libertarians with the path to feudalism is best represented by what he refers to as the “Uber-izing of human labor.”  By insisting that its workers are independent contractors rather than employees, Uber plans on eliminating any government interference in the interactions with its workers.  There is only the collection of bilateral agreements between Uber and each of its workers who only have the rights Uber chooses to allow.  The drivers are now the serfs, the Uber managers are the Lords, and the computer platform Uber provides is the equivalent of the land the serfs were allowed to cultivate.  The insidious cleverness of Uber-izing is that labor is broken down into microtasks with accompanying micropayments.  No money is wasted on benefits and the rate of rent collected from the sea of workers can be changed arbitrarily.

The method of treating labor as microtasks to be farmed out, hopefully to the lowest bidder, has obvious advantages to employers and is growing in importance.  It is referred to as “crowdwork.” One only needs the appropriate tech platforms to connect with laborers.  As experience has demonstrated, a successful platform will generate network effects that make it difficult to mount competition.  And the profit to be made can be so substantial that any competitors that might appear are easily bought out.

Workers once spent a century struggling for the right to come together and demand to be paid living wages.  Progress has taken us to a point where individuals now collude in a system that encourages workers to be the lowest cost bidder for microtasks with micropayments.

Yes, we are now—finally—on the road to serfdom.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Manufacturing Returns to the US, but Beware, the Robots are Coming

Mass producing clothing has traditionally required a little skill and a lot of labor.  Apparel manufacturers have responded to that fact by moving their production to countries where cheap labor was readily available.  That tactic has provided needed income to poor nations and provided inexpensive clothing to the rest of the world.  This process has been going on for decades.  Consequently, it was interesting to note that one of China’s largest apparel producers was actually investing in a plant to produce clothing in Arkansas for sale in the US market.  It was not attracted by cheap labor in Arkansas; rather, it was coming for the opportunity to eliminate labor.  Kevin Hamlin provides background on this activity in an article in Bloomberg Businessweek.  The article was titled The 33ȼ T-Shirt in the magazine version.  Online it became China Snaps Up America’s Cheap Robot Labor.

Automation can easily reproduce complex precision acts once performed by humans.  They have a more difficult time with simpler tasks requiring a lot of hand manipulation.  The human hand is a wondrous device and some of its actions, such as the sewing and stitching of clothing have resisted robotic duplication.  That apparently is changing.  An American outfit called Softwear Automation is producing “sewbots.”

“It took seven years for Softwear Automation, founded in 2007 by a group of engineers from Georgia Tech, to introduce its first sewbot, which is capable of making bathmats and towels. A $1.8 million grant from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funded the work.”

The sewbots are not yet capable of producing all types of clothing, but their developers believe it will just be a matter of time until they are.

“Stitching a dress shirt with a breast pocket requires about 78 separate steps. Tricky, but such a bot is coming, says the chief executive officer of Softwear Automation, Palaniswamy Rajan: ‘We will roll that out within the next five years’.”

Once you can go beyond the complexity of towels and bathmats, the next step up in difficulty is t-shirts.  That is what has attracted the Chinese.

“By early 2018, Tianyuan Garments Co., based in the Suzhou Industrial Park in eastern China, will unveil a $20 million factory staffed by about 330 robots from Atlanta-based Softwear Automation Inc. The botmaker and garment company estimate the factory will stitch about 23 million T-shirts a year. The cost per shirt, according to Pete Santora, Softwear’s chief commercial officer: 33¢.”

This plant is expected to produce about 400 jobs in Arkansas.  It should provide even lower cost t-shirts and keep more of our consumer dollars circulating within the US than if the goods had been manufactured elsewhere.  It becomes relatively easy to move manufacture to the markets where the product will be sold.  Those are good things.  However, this development also generates some concerns for the future.

Human labor cannot compete with that cost for producing t-shirts.  Soon other tasks will be automated and gradually one of the most prominent paths for poor countries to improve their economies will disappear.  Poor countries must be able to sell something in order to acquire funds needed to purchase the components required to develop a modern society.  If all a nation has to sell is cheap labor, time is rapidly running out for it.

We in the US should also be concerned by this development. Automation has led to the elimination of moderately-skilled jobs in manufacturing and other occupations.  Those who have found work after losing those jobs have generally ended up in lower-skilled occupations.  As robotics becomes more competitive an option for those positions, where might one go next?

If nearly all work can be replicated by a machine, then we face enormous economic changes that will require a complete rethinking of our social contract.  Clearly, someone has to make the robots—at least until the robots decide to make themselves—so at least some work will persist, but it is time to begin taking note of where technology is taking us.

Alec Ross produced an interesting look at what the growth industries of the future might be in his book The Industries of the Future.  Robotics is, of course, one of his targeted areas.

“A few countries have already established themselves as leading robot societies.  About 70 percent of total robot sales take place in Japan, China, the United States, South Korea, and Germany—known as the ‘big five’ in robotics.  Japan, the United States, and Germany dominate the landscape in high-value industrial and medical robots, and South Korea and China are major producers of less expensive consumer-oriented robots.  While Japan records the highest number of robot sales, China represents the most rapidly growing market, with sales increasing by 25 percent every year since 2005.”

Japan attracts considerable interest because it faces a future in which it will have fewer people than jobs, thus making advances in robotics a necessity.  Much development is aimed at providing the low-skilled labor necessary to care for their aging population.  While its population is aging, its population is also declining.  There will simply not be enough workers to care for the elderly using traditional methods.

Ross lists some of the directions development is taking in eliminating the need for low-skilled human labor.

“Panasonic created a 24-fingered hairwashing robot that has been tested in Japanese salons.  The robot will likely be installed in hospitals and homes as well.  It measures the shape and size of the customer’s head and then rinses, shampoos, conditions, and dries the customer’s hair using its self-advertized ‘advanced scalp care’ abilities.”

“Right now at the Manchester Airport in England, robot janitors use laser scanners and ultrasonic detectors to navigate while cleaning floors.  If the robot encounters a human obstacle, it says in a proper English accent, ‘Excuse me, I am cleaning,’ and then navigates around the person.”

Restaurant jobs, ever a refuge for the marginally employed, are also at risk.

“There is potential for robots to replace many of those waitstaff jobs over time.  It’s already happening in trial forms in many restaurants around the world.  In Asia, many countries are starting to experiment with adopting robots in their restaurants.  The Hajime restaurant in Bangkok solely uses robot waiters to take orders, serve customers, and bus tables.  Similar restaurants are cropping up in Japan, South Korea, and China.  These robots, designed by the Japanese company Motoman, are programmed to recognize an empty plate and can even express emotion and dance to entertain customers.  It’s unclear exactly how you tip for good service.”

It is well known that pets are popular with and beneficial to the elderly whose infirmities restrict their mobility.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a pet that couldn’t wreck a carpet?

“….a Japanese industrial automation company AIST has created PARO, a robot baby harp seal covered in soft white fur.  PARO exhibits many of the same behaviors as a real pet.  Designed for those who are too frail to care for a living animal or who live in environments that don’t allow pets, such as nursing homes, it enjoys being held, gets angry when hit, and likes to nap.  When President Barak Obama met PARO a few years ago on a tour of Japanese robotics innovations, he instinctually reached out and rubbed its head and back.  It looks like a cute stuffed animal, but costs $6,000 and is classified by the US government as a class 2 medical device.”

Not many of the jobs of today may be available in the near future.  This could be an opportunity to “live the good life” with abundant leisure to use profitably.  If this is our future, then we will have to be educated and learn how to use leisure in a way that brings satisfaction.  We cannot all be educated to be robot builders.  On the other hand, if we proceed without planning for the future we could end up with chaos and strife that are beyond belief.

The interested reader might find the following article informative:

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The United States, Families, and the Happiness Penalty

The United States is awash with politicians who promote “family values” as a fundamental requirement for a healthy nation.  They are usually referring to a nuclear family with a few children and two straight parents.  If that is the ideal, one would think that said politicians would do more to make it easier to raise a family.  It is not uncommon to encounter headlines such as People Without Kids Are Way Happier Than Parents in the U.S.  The consensus seems to agree with the accuracy of that statement.  What is it about the US that renders parents unhappy?  Is the US unique in this respect?  Is there a pain associated with modern parenthood that explains the lower fertility observed in the wealthier nations that often leads to declining populations?

There is an organization called the Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) that set out to answer those questions.  Their findings are summarized in CCF BRIEF: Parenting and Happiness in 22 Countries.  They refer to the degree to which parents are less happy than nonparents as the “happiness penalty.” 

“Many people now know that parents in the United States report being less happy than nonparents, but there is considerable disagreement about why parents pay a “happiness penalty,” along with conflicting reports about whether this is true in most contemporary cultures. To explore these questions, our team, with support from the National Science Foundation, examined comparative data from 22 European and English-speaking countries.”

The CCF concludes that this happiness penalty is not inevitable and that there are countries in which parenthood actually leads to greater happiness.

“The good news is that parents are not doomed to be unhappier than nonparents. Our results indicate that the parental ‘happiness penalty’ varies substantially from country to country, and is not an inevitable accompaniment of contemporary family life. In fact, in some countries, such as Norway and Hungary, parents are actually happier than nonparents!”

However, the US was notably deficient in parental happiness compared to other countries, a curious situation for a supposedly family-values nation.

“The bad news is that of the 22 countries we studied, the U.S. has the largest happiness shortfall among parents compared to nonparents, significantly larger than the gap found in Great Britain and Australia.”

Why should that be?  The CCF has a very simple and obvious explanation.  Parental happiness increases when governments provide services that make life easier for parents to earn a living and raise children.  The US is the worst performer because it has the most family-unfriendly policies of any of the other countries studied.

“What we found was astonishing. The negative effects of parenthood on happiness were entirely explained by the presence or absence of social policies allowing parents to better combine paid work with family obligations. And this was true for both mothers and fathers. Countries with better family policy “packages” had no happiness gap between parents and non-parents.”

Services like low-cost childcare, healthcare, education, and generous family leave policies that provide flexibility in dealing with the contingencies associated with raising children can be provided through general taxation more efficiently by governments than by parents who must seek them on the open market.  Not surprisingly, these are the same policies that lead to greater happiness for a population as a whole.

“Furthermore, the positive effects of good family support policies for parents were not achieved at the expense of non-parents, as some commentators have claimed might be the case. The policies that helped parents the most were policies that also improved the happiness of everyone in that country, whether they had children or not. Policies such as guaranteed minimum paid sick and vacation days make everyone happier, but they had an extra happiness bonus for parents of minor children.”

The US has been experienced a growing population in recent years that is due mainly to immigration.  Non-immigrant citizens seem to have a fertility level that is right around the value necessary to maintain a constant population.  Are their long-term ramifications for the nation from continuing the US policy of making it extremely difficult and expensive to raise children?  An article in The Economist provided some relevant information that addresses that issue.

The subject for The Economist was the tendency of women to refrain from having children.  The article concluded that the trend to have children later in life condensed the period in which women could have children.  That shortened period could be eliminated entirely for some who undergo economic shocks and decide to delay having children.  Consider the following data.

Plotted for the United States are the percentages of women who are childless at a given age as related to their year of birth.  The trend to give birth later in life is apparent, but generally women eventually had children at a more or less constant rate—at least until the housing bubble and the Great Recession that followed.  In the boom years just after the turn of this century women were more likely to have children.  That trend ended and turned around during the Great Recession.  The trend is most noticeable for the 30-year-olds.  But note that the recession has come and gone and the 30-year-olds continue to put off childbirth at an increasing rate.  The curve for women at age 35 begins to show the same trend. 

It is too early to assume that these curves can be extrapolated and that deciding to not have children might become ever more common.  But one would think that politicians who believe so fervently in the wisdom of markets would realize that making parenthood expensive and difficult might cause people to forego that burden.

The interested reader might find the following articles informative:

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