Russ Roberts

Caplan on Parenting

EconTalk Episode with Bryan Caplan
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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Bryan Caplan of George Mason University and EconLog talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the ideas in Caplan's new book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. Caplan argues that parents spend too much time trying to influence how their kids will turn out as adults. Using research on twins and adopted children, Caplan argues that nature dominates nurture and that parents have little lasting influence on many aspects of their children's lives. He concludes that parents should spend less time and energy trying to influence their children. If parenting takes less time, then have more kids, says Caplan. The conversation concludes with a discussion of whether a larger population is bad for the planet.

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0:36Intro. [Recording date: April 28, 2011.] Central argument of book is that kids are less burdensome and more fun than they appear. As a father of four, I'm sympathetic to that idea; but for those who may be less sympathetic, what's the basic idea? It is true that parents push themselves very hard today. Actually, they spend more time taking care of their kids than they did during the baby boom, surprisingly enough. But, a lot of what they are doing is based on the idea that they have to do a lot of unpleasant things to their kids in order to protect their kids' future. So, you have to do a lot of activities with them, ride them very hard so they can succeed in today's tough, competitive world. The kids often push back on this, and many people feel if you are a decent parent, you have to make your kid unhappy now in a lot of ways to give your kid a decent future. So, a lot of what's going on is that people are doing things that aren't very fun, they are stressing and stressing their relationship with their kids on the theory that if they do so, there will be some long-run benefits. Now, this brings us to the million dollar question: Does all this parental investment and sacrifice actually pay off? Now, for thousands of years people really argued about this question, the nature-nurture question, and how much of the similarity between parent and child is due to the way children are raised versus their genetic makeup, but they really didn't get anywhere until the research that my book relies on comes along; and it's been going on for the last 40 years. And here I'm talking about research on kids who are adopted and on twins. Before you get to those data and those studies, let's look at the basic argument. Nature-nurture applies to an enormous set of questions. It could be: How happy are you? How much income you make, how responsible you are, how moral you are, how long you live, how smart you are. Those are all important questions of nature versus nurture. A lot of the things we do as parents don't divide neatly along those lines. So, before we get into the data, one of the issues is: What are we actually measuring? As you accept in the book, for a whole bunch of reasons, most parents have a common-sense reaction to empirical evidence, which is: What are you talking about? I live with the evidence every day; I don't need your studies. Of course, both parents and academic research have a tendency toward a confirmation bias to eliminate evidence that violates their priors and biases and accepting only the evidence that goes along with it. So, before we get to the studies, do you want to say anything about just the question of: It seems pretty reasonable that what I do with my kids has an impact on them? Right. Certainly it has an impact of some kind. A lot of what I talk about in the book is precisely what kind is it and how long does it last? You see the effect on your kids right now; certainly I see that. A child is misbehaving; you punish him, and his misbehavior temporarily improves; but the question is: How long does that improvement last? Although, maybe I should just finish up on what the evidence is going to say: Once you look at the adoption/twin evidence, the big punchline, very surprising, is that parents turn out to have very little effect on long-run outcomes on how their kids turn out. Long-run outcomes on which variables? On almost all the things parents care about, actually. What I end up doing in the book is looking at evidence on health, intelligence, happiness, educational success, on occupational/career financial success; on character, by which I mean things like honesty, kindness, work ethic, discipline, things almost everyone thinks are good; on values--things where there is controversy about what people thing are good--religion, politics, family values, that kind of thing. In all these areas the effect of parents on how kids turn out turns out to be surprisingly small. Which then brings me to the heart of the argument. So, first of all, if it really is true that parents are not having a large long-run effect on their kids, then a lot of the unpleasantness that parents currently experience really is unnecessary. You can responsibly and totally in good faith as a parent stop pushing your kids so hard and focus on doing things your kids enjoy. So, if there are things you don't like and your child also doesn't like, then it becomes a no-brainer to stop doing these. And then, here's where the economics comes in: once you adjust your parenting style to take out a lot of this unpleasantness, this basically means that the kids that you want are cheaper than you think. You can get a decent, well-adjusted child, or your child will turn into a decent, well-adjusted adult, even if you don't do a lot of this unpleasant stuff. Which maybe things the kids you want are cheaper than you think, so maybe you should buy more. Stock up.
6:24So, this argument: let's just look at the economics of this for a minute. I guess the modern version of this goes back to Gary Becker. Who, to the horror of many, treated kids as if they are a commodity that you buy or sell. I saw you smiling--people at home can't see you smiling; you ought to buy more. But as economists, we certainly don't just want to look at money. We want to look at time, which is often an important component of cost. And the emotional cost. Plus the benefits on the other side. If the costs go down, we would expect people to choose to have more kids. And you are suggesting that's right. Yes. Gary Becker did blaze the trail for this kind of thinking. He did so much great work here. But one big complaint I have about what Becker did is that he assumes, without much evidence, that there really is a strong quality-quantity tradeoff. Yes, he did. If you have more kids, then they will be worse kids. Let me try to say this. Having sat through, with pleasure, many of those lectures, the argument would be that people choose, as they get more resources, to have fewer but higher-quality children--another offensive phrase to some people, but what he meant by that is you invest more in each child. Where invest means time; it also means money. It's certainly true empirically that richer societies have smaller families; and people, as they tend to get richer, within a culture at a point in time tend to have smaller families. Correct? Yes, that is true. When you say you disagree with that, what part do you disagree with? What I disagree with is Becker's assumption that there is a strong quality-quantity tradeoff. He basically just took it for granted. At the time that he wrote his Treatise on the Family, around 1980, I believe, there already was starting to be a lot of evidence from adoption/twin research that this quality-quantity tradeoff just was a lot weaker than economists tended to think. Since his book there's been a lot more research that has backed that up. His book and other works related to Treatise on the Family, which I think actually came out in 1981--you are saying he presumed that. But then you have a challenge, which is how do you explain the tendency? He was perhaps ex post explaining it via this quality-quantity tradeoff. How do you explain it? Read your book: Is that why richer folks have smaller families? I'd have to be a megalomaniac to think just reading my book will massively change everyone's mind. It's happened before in the publishing world. Academic world, too. Be above it. We shall see. But I think a lot of it is based on this misperception that you would be a bad parent if you didn't invest heavily in your kids; and as you get richer, the sense that you really need to push hard on your kids to make sure they are going to have the same kind of lifestyle that you had. I think that is a big part of what's going on. Later in the book I talk about the bad arguments about why family sizes decline and the bad arguments for why richer people have fewer kids. Maybe we should come back to that. I would have taken a different approach, so why don't you react to my argument: a lot of what parents consume from their children is not their children's happiness but the pleasure they get in wearing their children as ornaments. This is a really appalling idea, I think; but I think there's some truth to it. A status symbol. If you swim in circles where the kids go to certain types of schools and achieve certain types of things and have certain types of careers, you want your kid to be like that. You want to be comfortable in that social setting, so you push your kid to do well at a high quality school, and as a result you can hold your head high. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I think it's definitely a factor in human nature. And surely that would part of the reason that people want to send their kids to more expensive schools, to have accouterments like musical ability, and other musical skills that they pay for their children to learn--which might not be very good for their children, but the parents like it. That is possible. The main thing is for most of the work on parental happiness, it seems like the time parents spend pushing their kids isn't very fun for them. It's an investment. So, if it's not an investment in the kids' long-run future, you are thinking it's an investment in the parents' long run future. Unattractive argument; not sure it's true. But more consistent with your argument than that people misappreciate the costs and benefits. Different set of values. I would probably say not so much in the parents' long-run future as people are going to forget what your children are doing years ago--might say it's an effort to boost your current status or your status in the short term. That's why people have bumper stickers like "My kid's an Honor Student." Why would you put that on your car? Makes you feel good. That does make a lot of sense. Probably is part of it, even though I would think that without the further thought of doing the stuff is going to give your children a much brighter future, that just the pain and conflict that are involved in pushing your kids to do things they don't want is quite a bit larger. I think it's easy to convince yourself of that. But it might be true.
12:32So, let's get into whether it is true or not. Let's talk about what you've learned, first from adoption studies and then twin studies. The argument here suggests to Bryan--and I'm a skeptic but not a big skeptic; I think it's a fascinating idea--that the time I spend with my kid, trying to make him better at whatever thing I'm working on, whether it's sports, music, school, character, religion, is fundamentally, mostly a waste of time. A strong argument. Let's hear the evidence. Based upon the list of things you just said. First, let me explain the idea of the adoption study. How do they work? So, the basic problem is you go and see that kids are pretty much like their parents. And kids are like their parents in basically every measurable way. Family resemblance exists for essentially every trait, on average. But then the question is: Why does family resemblance exist? Most people nowadays tend to think it's based on upbringing, or what you could also call nurture or parenting. Depends on how the kid turns out of course. Assuming he turns out well, the parents take pride and say they've done a good job. But if the kid turns out poorly then all the neighbors think maybe if they'd tried a little bit harder. Maybe if they hadn't let them watch so much television. So, in a typical family where parents both share their kids' genes and also they raised them in a certain kind of home, there's really no way to disentangle nature from nurture. You can't just say why it is that kids resemble their parents because there are two different forces that come together. But researchers realized there's a special kind of family--families that adopt. In those families, if the child grows up to resemble the family that adopts him, you can't say heredity. Well, you could, but it would be foolish. Lamarckian. Lamarck is basically a nurture effect. But what you can do, especially if you go and study thousands of families that adopt and see whether kids that are adopted by one kind of family rather than another turn out in a systematically different way, then you've got very strong evidence that upbringing actually changes children. So, that's one method you can use to try to figure out what's going on, nature or nurture. The other method you can use, more often, is the twin study. This takes advantage of the interesting fact: there are two different kinds of twins, identical twins, like my first two sons, who share 100% of their genes, so they are genetically identical; and then there are fraternal twins. These are twins who only share half their genes; they are no more alike than any two ordinary siblings; they just happen to be born at the same time. If you take a look at the similarity of identical twins, compared to the similarity of fraternal twins, this gives you a way of measuring how much genes matter. Basically you add 50 extra percentage points worth of genes and see how much difference that makes. Mathematically, once you do that, you can also see how much room if any is left for parents to be increasing the similarity, too. So, these are two different approaches. I didn't understand that. Try that again on me? Here's the idea. Step one is you can measure the effect of genes by seeing how much more similar identical twins are than fraternal twins. In outcomes. We know they are similar in appearance. But you can then--hard to do the math over the ether waves--but basically what you can do is see how much room, if any, is left for parents to be increasing the similarity further. So, if you see that there is a .85 correlation between identical twins and a .8 relationship between fraternal twins, you can say: It looks like raising the genetic similarity by 50 percentage points only boosts the similarity by .05 in the correlation, and from there you can say: but for the fraternal twins, it's .8 for them; going up an extra 50 percentage points only boosts it .05, then most of the similarity between the fraternal twins couldn't be genes, either. It would have to be nurture. Most of it. Just a question: of the twins born in the world, what proportion are fraternal rather than identical? Basically in Western countries it's 1/3 identical, 2/3 fraternal.
17:28Better to mix it up rather than do the studies first for one kind of twin. For health, here there are fantastic data because Scandinavian countries have been keeping really careful records for over a century. Denmark and Sweden have data on first of all, whether or not someone is a twin, who their twin was, going back to the 19th century. Also we know, for people born in the 19th century, when they died--because people born in the 19th century are probably dead by now. Roughly 3% of the population are twins--so only a small number could possibly be alive. You can use this twin method to ask how long identical twins lived, compare that to how long fraternal twins lived, and then use that method to ask how much difference if any did parents make for life expectancy. You also have some studies though of twins that were separated. Another piece. That combines adoption and twins. Those studies are obviously smaller. The good ones are those that are in the hundreds of people in the studies rather than in the thousands or tens of thousands for the other approaches. So, on health, the result you get from the highest quality studies are that parents have no effect on how long people live. Now, do you think people believe this? Smoking: if you think that affects how long you live. And diet affects how long you live. Then parents should affect how long you live. This study adds up everything the parents are doing; the total effect appears to be zero. That makes it sound like it's stronger, but of course when you go across everything, you are added noise, measurement problems, correlations. I'd be much more interested in smoking. I think most people, when you think about parenting, having your kid eat their broccoli is not one of the hardships. I do know a lot of parents who find it a hardship. I know a lot of kids who make every meal a pain, a struggle. But there's no doubt a desire--this has nothing to do with parenting--that we have control over our destiny, every dimension. So, the idea that I can live long by eating well; exercise makes me feel good--but it might not be true. It may be genetic, and certainly many things are genetically determined, I'm stuck with. Propensity of cancer, obesity, metabolism, etc. But we also understand that there are some environmental issues, of which smoking would be the most dramatic, where you can affect your lifespan. This gets us to one of the most crucial issues with these studies: when you see the parents don't affect how long kids live, one thing you could say is, I guess that the tobacco industry is right after all and cigarettes don't cause cancer. That is probably not the right way to interpret the results. The right way to interpret the results is: parents have little or no effect on whether or not their kids smoke. And when you see that smoking runs in families, is there actually a genetic propensity to smoke which is passed on from parent to child. How do you know that? Twin studies of smoking--if one identical twin smokes, how likely is it that his identical twin smokes, versus fraternal twins. Same approach--genetics of smoking, genetics of alcoholism. What are the magnitudes? You find a significant impact: How significant is it in a real sense? Here my memory is not strong for it, but roughly speaking, suppose we make smoking a continuous variable, like how many cigarettes do you smoke? If your identical twin smokes more than 80% of the population, a rough estimate is that your identical twin, who was separated at birth--a good way of thinking about the size of the effect of genes--would probably smoke more than, say, 65% of the population. Okay, so an effect, an impact. Whereas, you smoke a lot; your adopted sibling would probably smoke more than 50-55% of the population, so anywhere from no more likely to a little more likely than being raised in the same house. I'm fascinated this idea of modeling, the idea that somehow if I do something and my kids see me do it, they'll emulate it. When in fact they might see me do it and decide to do exactly the opposite. I play the violin and try to force them to play it; they hate the violin. I smoke; my kids think it's disgusting, so they don't smoke. My father was a smoker; thank God he stopped. As a child I thought it was a horrible habit; I never have smoked. But of course, he didn't try to get me to smoke. He didn't say: you should check this out. Be a man! He tried other things to get me to be a man. So, I talk about this in the book: most adoption/twin researchers when they find a small effect of upbringing on how kids turn out just say, well that's all there is to it; parents don't change anything. But what I say in the book is: the data are equally consistent with a theory where parents are equally likely to change their kids in the way they want or have it completely backfire and get the opposite of the result they desire. From the point of view of how to raise your kids it doesn't make much difference, because either that doesn't matter, or 50-50 chance of changing them the way you want and changing them the opposite. Total failure--not like you'd see a little bit. Negative success. You are religious; your kid's an atheist or vice versa. These are high-variance outcomes. But in terms of making the research more intuitively plausible, I think this rebellion theory does make a lot of sense. I do believe it. There are a number of things I hate just because my Dad and my brother like them. I can't stand the sound of a cheering crowd at a sports event because they loved it; drove me crazy. I think if they weren't sports fans, I wouldn't have strong feelings one way or the other about it. Obviously parents want their kids to be healthy; maybe they delude themselves a little bit about the value of nutrition and exercise. Or just their ability to influence what their kids eat. You don't give your kid sugar until they are 6 years old, and then they become sugar maniacs, get out of the household and are eating Froot Loops all day long.
25:22So, the next one you want to talk about is intelligence? Yes. It seems that parents really want to boost their kids' intelligence. What do you mean by intelligence? Well, you might say: What do you mean by strength? It's a normal English word, doesn't have mathematical precision, but basically when we say intelligence we mean something along the lines of ability to grasp new ideas, the quickness with which you grasp new ideas, your ability to grasp complicated ideas. I thought maybe you meant IQ, literally. It is true that almost all the research on intelligence is based on IQ tests. This would take us to a big, separate area of whether we think IQ tests are good as a measure of intelligence. I've read a lot of this literature; I would say, not perfect but really good. I say that's the wrong measure. Most parents don't sit around and say: Gosh, I hope I can get Susie's IQ into the triple digits. They sit around saying: I hope Susie is going to get a good SAT score. So, an SAT test, contrary to what the ETS says, is an IQ test. It correlates as highly with IQ tests that are called IQ tests as IQ tests correlate with each other. That is what the SAT is. So, is studying for the SAT a waste of time? Studying for any IQ test improves your score. Basic fact. So, there is some nurture. Well, there's an environmental factor. That doesn't mean that parents telling you to study actually improve your score. It may be that people don't listen to their parents. But we're talking here about unpleasant parenting. So, I ride roughshod on my kid and I force him to take these practice SAT tests; I may incentivize them with money, punishments, sticks, carrots, saying if you don't do well you can't go to summer camp, you can't do x, y, or z. You are telling me it doesn't matter? You can boost your score on any IQ test by practice. First of all, it doesn't last. There is what we call fadeout--after you do the prep class, it goes back to what it otherwise would be. But here's the other thing: while parents occasionally do this and can do this, the practice effect only works for a specific test. So, if you give someone a test they haven't seen before, which is generally what IQ researchers want to do, then you actually can see what about all the other ways parents can boost their IQ, say just by being in a generally intellectually rich environment. Agreed. But I want to challenge your basic idea that somehow parenting could be easier than ever, if we only knew the literature. There's a limited number of high quality universities in America; there are a lot of kids who want to go to college, say compared to 25, 50 years ago. Parents obsessively want their kids to acquire the things that help you get into a good university. I think that's over-rated, myself, but parents do care about it. Are you suggesting that that short run effect is somehow going to make it easier to parent? The fact that my kid is only going to do well on this SAT test and a year from now won't do better--that's irrelevant. I want my kid to get into a good school, and it's a pain in the neck to ride roughshod on him to get him to do the homework, get the good grades--well, that's what the world's about. You want to skip straight ahead to educational success? Go ahead. Here's the thing. As far as I know, there's no adoption/twin study of the rank of school you get into. So, if you care about that, you can always say I haven't studied it; therefore, I can believe whatever I want. That's right. Having said that, remember I said that I think the whole thing is a little overrated. I think it's a general parental urge. So, there are a number of studies on the total number of years of school that you finish. Whether you finish high school, college; how much you get. What these studies generally find is that there is a small effect of parenting on how much school you get. One excellent and representative study is Bruce Sacerdote's study of Korean War orphans who got adopted by American families in the 1950s and 1960s. The punchline there is that if a kid got adopted by a family where the Mom had one more year of education, that kid on average finished about 5 extra weeks of education. So, 10%. Maybe a little more. So, when you raise the parents' education by a certain amount, the kids' education goes up by about 10% of that. This is an effect; and the study is big enough--there are over 1000 kids in the study--that you really can accurately measure and say that there is an effect. It really is there, not a fluke. But this means the Mom would have to have over 10 extra years of education to boost the kid's attainment by a year. Two graduate degrees would get your kid to finish high school as opposed to dropping out. Small effect. That's pretty representative, actually. What's going on here is this is measuring the effect of everything that is actually done, so it's measuring the effect of the nagging, the modeling, if people with more education push their kids more into prep classes. What's really neat is you are also measuring the effect of being in a richer or poorer family. Since these people were adopting in the 1950s and 1960s, it was a lot easier for people to adopt in those days. You only had to be 25% above the poverty line. What Sacerdote's found is that adjusting for everything else, being born into a richer family did not help how much education you got. It was not the case that richer families bought educational success for their kids. He also looked in the study at the effect on your adult income. Here he had one of the most amazing results, which is: the kids adopted by the richest families grew up to have the same average income as the kids adopted by the poorest families. Growing up in a rich family does not teach you the secrets of success. Nepotism doesn't seem to wind up happening, at least by the time you are 30 or so. And maybe the country is saved, it turns out. I just it was all: The rich get rich and the poor get poorer. It turns out it's a little more complicated. What it's saying is that the reason income runs in the family is actually heredity, contrary to what people want to hear.
32:00I want to say to listeners: This book, like Bryan's book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, is provocative. It's very clearly written. The interested reader can go into the book. If you go into Google Scholar and access through any kind of institution where you can do academic research, I try to be as transparent as possible. Nothing intimidating about it. There's a lot of interesting things about it we don't have time to go into. But I'd like to get your take on a meta-issue related to these studies. There are a lot of social debates, one of which would be how much time a parents spends with their kid. Does daycare handicap a child? Does daycare give a child an advantage? Does it help for a Mom to stay at home or to work? All kinds of issues here--modeling, social issues, etc. That literature, which I'm sure is a mix of twin/adoption and non-twin-adoption stuff, is full of biases by researchers who have an axe to grind. Some of the researchers want to show that if your Mom works and you are stuck in daycare, you are going to end up a criminal. Others want to show that if your Mom works and you have the privilege of being in daycare, you become this independent, strong person. A lot of this literature is junk. Fake science, fake social science, bad research. How comfortable are you with this general literature in terms of the biases of the people doing it? That's a good question. What I'd say is this: Adoption/twin research, while it can be used in any field, it basically got its start in psychology. I'm not a psychologist. I do blog on Psychology Today. You play one on a website. But my impression is the kind of people these researchers are are the kind of people who started off wanting to think that upbringing did matter a lot. They are not people who from an early age wanted to think heredity was very important. They want it to fit in with their other humanistic and generally left-wing colleagues in psychology. But when they started doing these twin/adoption methods, they got results that were not what they expected. I think there was a lot of soul-searching by people when they first started getting these results and it wasn't what they wanted to hear, a lot of people soldiered on getting results they weren't that comfortable with. A lot of social sanctions for publishing this stuff early on. A common profile of an adoption or twin researcher in psychology is someone who didn't want the stuff to be true and felt like their colleagues would dislike them and look down on them and possibly not give them tenure because they did this kind of research; and they published it anyway. Now, if you do it for 20 years, your attitude may change. It suggests the results are more robust than you otherwise might think--if that's true. Also, one difference between you and me is that I generally put more confidence in empirical research, and when I have a complaint, I want it to be more specific than people are biased or just do sloppy work. Cheap shot. So, my main complaint about child development stuff that doesn't do adoption/twin research--it isn't just that it's biased but that they consistently ignore something we have strong reason to believe is important, which is heredity. Right. So, if you just go and do the study and say kids who are in daycare do worse or better, that just ignores the possibility that maybe people who put their kids in daycare have different genes and those kids would have been different if they'd been raised by different families. I tend to focus on: Tell me what's wrong with this approach. Although it could be corruption, like they are so biased they actually fake the data. There is some of that. There is a famous twin study that had some problem with it. Cyril Burt--one particular guy, there is controversy about what he did. But his result was totally normal in what it found. Many other studies where no one questioned their integrity, consistent with it. Also in the book I try to be very transparent about pointing out any major counterexamples that I found. I am human, so you can say I have biases, too. But I did make an effort to point out explicitly where the studies that are getting different results. I spent the most time thinking about, there is a new, cutting-edge body of research on the children of twins that tries to essentially combine the usual twin methodology with the fact that the children of twins wind up having different environments depending upon who the twin married or had children with. Those studies generally do find a larger effect for upbringing than the other method. I talk about those. There is still a lot of controversy about: Couldn't it just be the genes of the spouse of the twin that's going on? This is still so cutting edge that I didn't think I was the right person to adjudicate whether this approach is working out, but I drew readers' attention to it so they can go check it out for themselves. I accept your point about taking cheap shots at empirical work. Could appear to be a cheap shot.
37:43Let's talk about some specifics of parenting. I don't have any trouble with accepting the reality--and any parent who has more than one child who is not a twin sees how different kids are within your family. And in ways that outsiders can't appreciate. Even though you try to raise them the same. Correct. They clearly have natures which are unique to each child. They have tastes, propensities. An obvious example: If you love athletics--which I think you don't--but if you had a desire that all your kids would play varsity sports in high school and ideally get a Division I scholarship, you may be confronted with the fact that some of your children may not have the ability to do that. Or the personality. Wouldn't enjoy it, etc. Want to put in a plug for Andre Agassi's extraordinary memoir, I think it's called Open, where he talks about--he doesn't literally call it this but you could call it evil parenting, where a parent has decided that their child is going to be successful at something. Clearly the parent did have that influence in that case. Selection bias--you see the child that became a star tennis player. But the child isn't very happy and doesn't like his father very much as a result of that. So, we all understand that nature matters. But I want to get to the heart of your argument, which is that nurture is, to a large extent, perhaps irrelevant. I want to ask you as a parent and as the author of a book on parenting: The standard thing I think most people find troublesome, burdensome about parenting are things like diaper-changing when they are young and the inability to travel; as children get older, the issues of carpooling and schlepping; as we talked about, riding roughshod. I read books to my kids every single night of their young lives. I enjoyed it most nights, but I did it on nights when I didn't want to do it because I thought it was good for them. No one really thinks in a twin study you can measure the impact of these things. So, I'm kind of just going by feel here. Do you have anything to say about those kinds of things? Sure. Saying that parenting is irrelevant--one of the main things I got out of the research is this: there is one very meaningful effect parents have on their kids, and this is how their kids feel about how to remember them. How to remember their parents. There's also twin/adoption studies on this point. This is a long-lasting effect. There's a Swedish adoption study of Swedes in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, and basically as long as you grew up in the same household, regardless of how related you were, you tended to have pretty similar views about whether your parents were kind to you, whether they spent time with you, whether they treated you well. They never went to Cinderella's house. Could be the opposite of that and you'd remember that, too. What I really got out of this is irony of the parent who pushes their kid really hard is you don't really have much of an impact, but in the process it winds up messing up the relationship with the child and making the child feel bad and the child doesn't enjoy the experience and doesn't want to be around you when you are older. So, do you want to be the person where the ringtone on your child's cellphone is Darth Vader? You are the composer, Russ. Da, da, da--du da da, du da da. Did you get the breathing? The interesting thing about that--we are at a funny point in American parenting culture, where we have what I think is a bizarre dysfunctional idea that parents should push their kids to win a Nobel Prize, land at Carnegie Hall, be the quarterback of a championship team. All three. Because then you could really get into a good school. At the same time we have a view of parenting that I see very commonly of: I want my kids to like me. I think that's a lot more common than you realize--to try to make your kids like you. I think there's this strange tension between driving your kids nuts so that they'll be successful versus pamper your kids so that they'll like you. And those two don't go together. I don't even know so much that it's pampering. People like being treated with kindness and respect. Doesn't matter if you are a child or an adult. My thing is: as a parent, I want to show you how good one human being can be to another. That is what I'm going for. There is this saying parents have: I'm your Dad, not your friend. I agree with that saying. The saying, properly interpreted that I like is: You will never have a friend that is as good to you as I will be to you. I really love you; I want you to be happy; I'm never going to treat you with the cruelty that other people are likely to treat you with. My love is unconditional. But that doesn't mean that I bring you a six-pack when you are 14 to enjoy in the car. Or ice cream when you are four. You wouldn't give ice cream to a 4-year-old? Not every night. Occasionally as a treat--if they treated me well enough. I think it's a fascinating tension that doesn't get talked about enough: we like ruling other people's lives. So, one of the problems of parenting that people fail at, including maybe all of us in the room, but maybe just me, is that sometimes we just want our kids to do our will, whether that's good for the kid or not it's something I want perhaps. I impose my will to their detriment. If your will is that you want them to treat you like a fellow human being and don't treat me badly, I totally agree with that. One thing that shocked me is seeing how much abuse parents will tolerate at the hands of their kids. I know parents who let their kids punch and kick them and don't stop them. I don't understand that. Weird, but it happens. Neither of us would call that being a good friend. I'm your best friend--you can kick me. You can scream at me abusively. Way off the track. Question: A lot of the things that make parenting challenging are not fun. Not fun for the kid, not fun for the parent. Or they are fun for one and not the other. And as a result there's an inevitable tension that I don't think you should get rid of. It's not a matter of getting your child to treat other people decently. I really would say it's important to get over that. Trying to change other people in general doesn't work out that well. People resent it. The idea of marrying another person to change them is one of the most foolish ideas you can adopt. Thinking your child is very different from all other humans and this is the one child where it does make sense to try to totally remold them, that is equally naive and equally likely to blow up in your face. What about the fact that when you are between the ages between, for some of us 0 and 50, but let's just use 18--your ability to assess long-run benefits is not very good. And so, there are many things. I can think of many things my parents did for me that at the time I wasn't too happy about. I'm glad they did. But they didn't do anything cruel to me. They didn't force me to take violin lessons, an instrument I wouldn't be very good at, or do things that I hated. But they did many things that they encouraged me to do even though at the time I wasn't so excited about. Sure. So, the lesson we really get from adoption/twin research is that there is a very wide, completely normal range where different parenting is completely okay. Outside of this range is parents who say: You don't have to go to school; it's up to you. Or it's up to you whether you want to eat anything other than candy all day long. Within this vaguely normal range there really is a lot of flexibility. You don't have to beat yourself up too much if you want to do one thing rather than another. It does make sense to focus on doing things that are fun for the whole family rather than things that either the child wants to do that make the parents miserable, or that the parent really wants, but it makes the child miserable. Just isn't really a great way to have a pleasant, harmonious family.
47:03Let's talk about safety. One of the oft observed trends in American parenting is a change in how much freedom we give to our kids. When I was 10 years old, living in Lexington, MA, my parents put my friend David and I on a bus. We rode down to Fenway station, went to a baseball game ourselves at the age of 10. Glorious, as I should mention here in April as we do this interview. Most parents--this parent--would struggle to give my kids that freedom. Is that a mistake? Is it true that trend is there? And why do you think people misinterpret some of the impacts of that protectiveness? In terms of really good data about whether parents are treating kids differently, I didn't come across any, but I'm totally convinced and basically I don't think there is anyone who would deny a change in the amount of independence we give to kids. So, what I say here is: If a parent is very uncomfortable allowing something, then that by itself, like if it's a small benefit to the child and the parent is sweating bullets saying you can't do it, I think that's perfectly fine. Even if someone says: Well, they'll almost surely get back. But meanwhile I'm going to be a wreck. But, what we can say is: Even if you are a fretful parent, it still makes sense to look at the actual numbers, the actual risks when you decide what you will and will not let your kid do. First, some really good news I talked about in the book is that even when we think about the 1950s as being an idyllic age, the death rate for kids was about 5 times as high as it is today. Almost all of that comes from disease, and then from accidents. A little reduction in disease, and then the consequence of accidents. Deaths from crime and suicide are actually a little bit up. Not to freak people out, but remember that you can have a 50% increase and it still is microscopic. So, disease above all, and then accidents secondarily, are the main risks children face. In the 1950s, a lot of kids still died of contagious disease. It was still quite common. So, one, breathe a sigh of relief: it's not true the modern world is awful compared to the 1950s. The 1950s were scary. Today is actually comparatively much safer. Even if you are not going to take any extra risks, at least say we are better than we were in the 1950s. But, when I was a young boy, my sister and I used to fight over who would get to lay in the back shelf where the back window was. None of us had seatbelts on. Now parents obsessively boss their kids around and make them wear seatbelts. So car accidents: I would say there is at least some very suggestive data that safer cars and wearing seatbelts actually have saved a considerable number of lives. What was most striking to me: Deaths from accidents fell the most for younger kids, and then basically for older teenagers--they are safer than they were in the 1950sd; deaths from accidents fell quite a bit less and it at least seems plausible to say those are the ages when the kids actually start deciding for themselves whether they want to apply modern safety. Not certain, but where kids can boss them around on their safety, their accident rates did fall more. Something worth thinking about. But still there are a lot of risks parents worry about and that cause lots of needless suffering. You prevent kids from doing things that are fun. Or from having kids at all. May happen to some people who are especially paranoid. Maybe they just watch so much news, so much "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" and they say: How can you bring a child into this world? Well, this is a world where horrible things happen on the news and on fictional crime shows, but not so much in actual life, where those things are only rare. Probably the case where parents are most bizarrely over-worried is probably "stranger danger," that some horrible person is going to come and abduct your child, do terrible things to your child. The vision is so awful. But it literally is a one in a million per year event. I think it's less than one in a million. That's the number I remember. Small number. Basically, your child is a hundred times as likely to die in a car crash. Saying, I can't let my child go down to the mailbox to get the mail, or even saying I can't leave my 8-year-old home alone while I go shopping. If your 8-year-old is responsible enough that they aren't going to run around crazy--it literally is true that your child is more likely to be hurt in a car crash on the way to the grocery store than that anyone is going to break into your house while you are away for an hour. As long as it's not Family Services. That would be a bad consequence. In today's world, that is the perception. One of the reasons these effects are so small is we don't let our kids out, so the marauding, evil people can't get at them. What I'm saying is there are so many chinks in the armor. Just like when you think about terrorism. You might say Air Force security is the reason why there are no deaths from terrorism in the United States. There are so many ways that a terrorist could get in and we don't do anything about it that saying that security is the reason for improvement seems unreasonable. If somebody really wanted to do something terrible, there's so many other ways you could do it; and yet it doesn't happen. There aren't many people motivated to do it. Either that or they are complete idiots with no imagination. Always a possibility.
53:13Want to get to a central issue I think people are worried about that we haven't touched on yet: non-selfish reason to have fewer kids, which is that it's good for the planet to have small families, and that people like you, Bryan, who are encouraging people to have more children, you are really doing a terrible thing because they are bad for the planet. I think there are some people who would like to have more kids and they would enjoy it and they would feel guilty about it. So, they say: I can only have one, I would like to have more but I can't. Or two. But not more than two. So, here the crucial question really is: What is the effect of adding one more person to the planet? And here I am heavily influenced by the economist Julian Simon, who about 30 years ago, in his book The Ultimate Resource, very powerfully argued that more people make the world a better place and we are under-populated. In economic terms, the net externality of adding another child to the world is positive rather than negative. Where does this stuff come from? I should also say that Julian Simon was a trail-blazer but also was, as many other economists have made similar arguments--Michael Kremer, Paul Romer--these arguments are much more accepted though they don't really give Simon the credit he deserves. The classic argument against population, saying more people are bad, is that population causes poverty. More people, all sharing a fixed pie of resources, means everyone gets a smaller slice. Bigger denominator. Just a matter of math. So, the first problem with this is that people ultimately grow up and produce. But then, like a sophisticated person ought to say: Well, they produce but there is diminishing marginal product, so still on average people are going to have less consumption when there are more people. And then the next argument is they may produce more but eventually there are fewer resources left; and we will become that shortly. But, the argument that many economists have now made, probably beginning with Julian Simon, endogenous growth theory: and it just says: The main thing we've learned in economic growth is that the most important difference between today and the world 200 years ago is just ideas. The reason why we are richer today than in the past is we now know more than we used to. We know how one farmer can grow enough food to feed hundreds of people. We know how to make iPads. We know how to make flying machines. The knowledge is really the crucial difference between the world of today and the world of the past. Once you buy this idea, it's really important that this flow of ideas keeps coming. And we should be really grateful for whatever gave us this flow of new ideas. And then, you say: Where do these new ideas come from? And the answer, of course, is new people. The simple thought experiment is just deleting half the names in your music collection, half the names in a dictionary of scientific achievement. Imagine deleting half the names in technological progress, in business success, and realizing that eventually someone would have come along and done something similar, but it would have taken a while and the progress would have been slowed down. The problem with that argument of course is that most of the people you are talking about are not random draws from the population. They are from the right-hand tail. But that argument leads to a horrific idea, which I am against, but it leads some people to argue that therefore we should have some people to have larger families, but not everyone. Right. So, fair point. I would say there is a lot more randomness in the distribution of incredible achievement. It's not just like the top 1%. It really is scattered throughout the distribution. Just by definition, you can't predict truly remarkable achievement really well because it hardly every happens. There are tons of people who are really similar to, say, Nobel Prize winners who didn't actually achieve at that level. The other thing is that just being a regular consumer also encourages the regular ideas of customers. Yeah, I think that is the more powerful argument. So, in the book I talk about "Gilligan's Island". I bet you watched it, Russ. A couple of times, but my parents cared about my future and they cared about my TV-watching--fools that they were. My parents cared a bit less, so. So, on Gilligan's Island there were a bunch of people stranded, including the Professor, who was a technological genius. He does come up with many inventions on this island. But here is the economic point. Suppose the Professor knows he can come up with an idea with $1 per person that actually buys it. On the island, the total value of a year is $7, counting his own value. So, basically, he is better off eating coconuts if he is stuck on that island. But if he could get off of that island, his ideas were $7 billion. I fought off the urge to hum the theme. So, that's the main thing I have to say about population and poverty. In the very short run, a baby consumes resources but does not produce. Babies don't have jobs. So, clearly babies do reduce average earnings. But they don't produce output. They do produce joy and great love. But in terms of just material living standards. The key thing to remember is that not only do they grow up and produce, but also the child might also be someone who comes up with an idea that 7 billion people can profit from. The wonderful thing about ideas is that basically the marginal cost of spreading them is really low. But even if he doesn't--he's a consumer who ends up adding a little more weight to the scales that encourage people to be creative to do their thing. What about global warming? Why don't we just do population and the environment generally? Yes. Basically, what I say here is there are some problems with the environment that are just overstated, and there are others that are genuine but where trying to reduce the number of people to handle them is just using a [?]. So first of all, an overstated problem. One of the things that Julian Simon stated that has been backed up by later research is that it is just not true that we are running out of resources. Over the last 150 years, the price of food, fuel, and minerals has actually fallen by about 1% adjusting for inflation on average. Of course there are price spikes. The average annual price fall of resources is about 1%, averaging over 150 years. Of course, there are always price spikes. It's always possible for Chicken Little to run around and say, See, the price of gas is up right now so it's the end. But over 150 years, Chicken Little has been wrong. I remember a great line from I think a Saudi oil minister: The stone age ended, but not for lack of stones. You come up with something better. We are not running out of resources. And also air and water quality have been improving for decades, even though, in the First World, anyway, population has been going up. So, there's way to deal with genuine environmental problems without reducing the number of people. And since we are all economists: the standard story about the cheapest way to do it is something like a pollution tax or congestion charge, where you say: Look, here's a person, he does a thousand great things. He does three bad things. Saying it would be better if he had never been born is going way overboard. If you are concerned about the three bad things he does, why don't we focus specifically on them? Raise the cost of doing these bad things. And then say: Still, the person overall still enjoys his life and we like him. Why don't we just focus on discouraging bad things instead of throwing out almost literally the baby with the bathwater, and saying: You'll drive a car one day and it would be better if you do not exist. That's just one thing. There are so many other things people do that are good. Why not just focus on raising the cost of doing bad things rather than trying to cut down on population? I think that the smart answer for global warming is: Let's look for the cheapest way of doing this. So, a pollution tax is one way. I'm also a big fan of what Dubner and Levitt talk about in Super Freakonomics, which is geoengineering, which is another very cheap way of handling global warming. We don't want to get into it. Just might work.
1:01:37Give your four pieces of advice for parenting. First one, that comes along really early is: sleep. Now, I know a lot of parents who do use about three years of sleep per child. And if you had to lose 3 years of sleep per child, I could understand why you wouldn't have to have any additional kids past the first, or maybe where even the first kid would really scare you. So, sleep deprivation does fall into it. I had to get up a little early, here, Russ. For me, not that bad. Years of practice. Here there is an experimentally tested, way of getting to sleep when tried. It's called the Ferber method. The idea is, when you put your kid down to sleep, when he cries--you can't do this on an infant because an infant really does need to wake up a few times a night to feed, but by the time a kid is 3 months, if he cries, put him in his crib, let him cry for 5 or 10 minutes, comfort him, then leave, and repeat until he sleeps through the night. And within a very short amount of time, a large fraction of kids will sleep through the night and you can save yourself two years and nine months' worth of sleep deprivation doing this. Requires some short-term suffering. That noise is designed, that waaaa-waaaa is designed to pierce your heart. Something else we actually did was we installed solid wood doors on all our kids' bedrooms. There you go. That solves the problem. If you know the twin-to-twin evidence on happiness, the idea your kid wasn't picked up at three months old when he cried, will turn him into a miserable adult who feels no security--that's just crazy. So, sleep is a really big deal. I also think about discipline, many people say you should just let your kids run around wild. What I think is, you should focus on making your children decent roommates today. Good, experimentally tested confirming the common sense point that clear, consistent, mild discipline really does work, and even bad kids do respond to it and it really does improve their behavior. Of course, some kids are more trouble than others, but still, the naughty corner does work. You just have to be consistent about it. If you discipline your kids for a while and then you stop disciplining them, they will go back to what they are doing before. So, don't do discipline thinking this is what they are going to change what they are like when they are 30. Even if you never discipline your child, when your child is 30 he probably won't run around hitting people. But you don't want your child hitting people now! Especially you. I talk about activities. The basic point here is that if you don't like an activity, your child doesn't like it, and the twin/adoption evidence is there is little long-run evidence on the outcomes you care about, you can guiltlessly and responsibly say: We are just not going to do this activity any more. What if your kid watches TV instead? That's okay too. It's okay if your kid watches "The Simpsons" for an hour instead of going to ballet class. There's no reason to think you are starving the kid for life or repressing academic achievement or success in work or anything like that. Just because it feels good doesn't mean it's bad. Some things hurt that are good for you, but it is not a general rule. The fact that you don't want to dig a ditch and fill it in does not make you lazy. It makes you wise. The last thing I talked about is supervision. I'm a big fan of Lenore Skenazy, who is the number one controversial money blogger. She wrote a book called Free Range Kids. She's the one who achieved infamy for allowing her 9-year-old son to ride the subway alone. If you Google "worst mom in America," she's the first hit. My kids wouldn't want to ride the subway alone and I wouldn't want to push them, but kids don't need the amount of supervision we give them. It's okay to just let them do their own thing for a lot of the day. If you need to relax, it's better for everyone if you relax and have your cup of tea, than if you drag your kid to some event he doesn't want to go to, and then you end up exploding at your child because he changed the radio station. One last thing: the most interesting thing I learned about kids is there is something called the [?] Children's Survey: they basically ask kids to grade their parents. And most parents assume their child's main complaint is: My parents don't spend enough time with me. That was a very rare complaint. Kids feel they do get enough face time. The main complaint is kids feel their parents are too tired, too stressed, and they have very bad tempers. I think the parents could go a long way toward getting better grades from their kids if the parents themselves would cut themselves some slack. Not only would your children feel better about you. You should be mature enough to realize what your kid does not, which is that when you do something when you are really tired, you might end up lashing up at them, even though this is the child that you love.

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COMMENTS (29 to date)
Mads Lindstrøm writes:

Russ, in various shows you have asked, for examples of empirical evidence, which changed peoples view upon things. It seems you got it now.

I have heard the claim, that the difference between American schools in poor and rich areas, were a lot smaller in the sixties, than they are today. I am not an American, so I have no idea if this claim is true or not. But if the claim is true, then surveys suggesting that growing up in a poor or rich home, makes little difference in terms of academic achievement, may just be outdated.

Doc Merlin writes:

One of the best podcasts I have heard. It was excellent, Russ, Bryan.

In the discussion abut safety, when we compare now to the fifties, should we take into account the difference in perceived expected price of a human life (whatever that is)? Suppose that the expected price went up by a factor of 2, then a crime rate going down by half wouldn't be as impressive.

One last remark: how much should parenting try to focus on the notion of 'compensating differentials'? Namely that a task might be a bit unpleasant and require a lot of effort, but that it might also come with large rewards.

Ignoramus Publicus writes:

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Jonathan writes:

children who went to private schools are over represented in various testable measures, e.g.academic results, the professions, income, longer marriage etc.
Mr Caplan's findings that children of rich parents do no better thus seems easy to refute, empirically (as well as to the common sense of an admittedly biased parent).
There may be an affect for selection in the sense some private schools have high exam hurdles but across ALL private schools these biases should wash out, e.g. there are private schools for all levels.
A more unpopular thought, maybe privately educated kids do better despite the private education and more for genetic reasons. It's not easy getting rich, there's a lot of competition. I would find it more remarkable that there wasnt some genetic component that might be passed to the kids.
The cynic in me can't help noting that a book telling parents that it's hard work raising kids but it's worth it for both child and parent in the end wouldn't sell as well as one that challenges the orthodoxy.
Kind regards,

Jon Kalb writes:

I think you are both making the nurture assumption. You are assuming that to the extent that behavior is determined by nurture, it is determined by parenting as opposed to other environmental factors.

In her book The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do Judith Rich Harris presents compelling evidence that peers have a greater impact on children than parents.

This may or may not strengthen Caplan's argument. It reinforces the idea that parents shouldn't get in a sweat about their influence on their kids, but it does suggest that parents should work to select favorable peers for their children. This argues for getting children into better schools and other institution where they will associate with other children with favorable behavior.

As a big fan of EconTalk and The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, I was disappointed to hear this discussion which seemed to me to be make many interesting small points, but missing this often overlooked, but very important point.

Ben writes:

I really enjoyed this - thanks to you both.

I'm rather disappointed to find out that Bryan's book isn't available for Kindle, at least not in Australia.


Jonathan writes:

But Jon, we are agreeing in outcome.
i.e. parents are affecting the outcome of their children by selecting the peers they will have. Caplan is suggesting it doesn't seem to matter what parents you have on the outcome, this is clearly false in private school case, empirically so.
I am quite sure peer pressure is extremely important (or even more basic, competition) but the kinds of peers you have will depend on the environment your parents choose to expose you to.

John writes:

I think a lot of y'all are missing the point. The data shows that the type of environment you grow up in is LESS important than the genes you have. This cannot be taken to the extremes of crummy environments or mean that environment means zero.

I would argue that bad schools are bad because of the student population. Good teachers and administrators don't want to work in schools where the kids are unmotivated and have a low capacity for learning. You can't take "genetically disadvantaged" children and put them in good schools and expect this to fix their underlying deficiency.

I know this sounds harsh, but I think it's better than just thinking that rich people are evil and have set up a system where poor people can't achieve. The reason unsuccessful people don't achieve over time and over generations is intrinsic to themselves. That's what this data suggests.

jkyle writes:

The implication in this podcast and in Caplan's It's not who you know, it's who you are article on econtalk is, basically, people earn what they deserve. That the claim of class privilege is "junk" and "bad science".

I found this so counterintuitive to my experience that I decided to follow the bread crumbs and read the citations Caplan and Russ provide in support of this new flavor of nobility that enforces that status quo that the poor deserve to be poor and the rich deserve to be rich.

It's quite amazing how confirmation bias works. Even amongst educated men. The 2002 paper cited by Caplan spends quite a bit of time addressing the overlap between heritability and environmental pressures. For example, being born with dark skin is a heritable trait that may adversely effect economic mobility due to social biases and unfair policies. As an extreme example of this the paper uses refers to the situation in South Africa.

Consider the case of South Africa, where in 1993 (the year before Nelson Man- dela became president) roughly two-thirds of the intergenerational transmission of earnings was attributable to the fact that fathers and sons are of the same race, and race is a strong predictor of earnings (Hertz 2001). That is, adding race to an equa- tion predicting sons’ earnings reduces the estimated effect of fathers’ earnings by over two thirds. Because the traits designated by “race” are highly heritable and in- terracial parenting uncommon, we thus find a substantial role of genetic inheritance in the intergenerational transmission of economic status. Yet, it is especially clear in the case of South Africa under apartheid that the economic importance of the genetic inheritance of physical traits derived from environmental influences. What made the genetic inheritance of skin color and other racial markers central to the transmission process were matters of public policy, not human nature, including the very definition of races, racial patterns in marriage, and the discrimination suffered by nonwhites. Thus, the determination of the genetic component in a transmission process says little by itself about the extent to which public policy can or should level a playing field.

This is a stark and clear example of the significant influence arbitrary attributes such as skin color or sex can have on success. However, instead of recognizing the very clear message from the paper's authors that arbitrary social biases can play a massive role in success Russ and Caplan willfully ignore those factors and propose alternative theories that attribute the advantage to inherently positive traits in the successful subjects. Caplan even goes so far as to say the current "stage" of understanding is:

Stage 3, in contrast, is offensive: "Life is fair. The children of the rich do better because talent breeds talent, and under capitalism, the cream rises to the top." — Caplan

The King is King because he is Kingly, the pauper a pauper because he is dull. The disparities between the narrative of Caplan and Russ and those of the conclusions and data presented in their citations leaves me wondering if we are faced with willful ignorance or some kind of veiled racialism.

John writes:


1. So it's now racist to think that achievement can be affected by something other than racism? That is what you're saying right?

2. The twin data is pretty rigorous science. It's hard for your biases to alter math. Not believing or flat out ignoring the surprising results of carefully designed scientific inquire because you don't like the that's the good stuff.

3. The situation in South Africa under apartheid was horrible. Twin data is obviously not applicable when there is a system of legal racial segregation. Are you trying to say the twin data is wrong because of what happened in South Africa? Maybe I'm missing your point?

4. Of course it's harder for the children of poorer families to become successful and easier for those of richer families simply because of environment. I think the real question is, over how many generations does it take for poorer people to move up in the socioeconomic ladder and why do some not? Why do some students not finish highschool, which is free? Why do some kids not like to read? Why do some kids like to throw frogs against brick walls? Are you completely denying the fact that some of these differences could be personality or aptitude differences that are genetically determined?

Or you could just call me racist again.

Russ Roberts writes:


Your comment suggests that I see eye to eye with Bryan on the nature/nurture issue. I see my job as host as helping the guest explain his views. I push back when I can and when I think it's interesting. I can't challenge every single think I disagree with.

I have four kids. I've spent thousands of hours trying to influence them in all kinds of ways. Maybe I was wasting my time. I don't think so but I'm pretty invested at this point so I may not be the best judge of Bryan's arguments. But I certainly don't agree with him in any complete sense of the word. I am open to the possibility that Bryan is right but I am skeptical of the research he cites. It is interesting and provocative. I have not looked at it first hand. Bryan's discussion encourages me to take it seriously. But that's all I can say for the time being.

jkyle writes:


So it's now racist to think that achievement can be affected by something other than racism? That is what you're saying right?
Absolutely not. And that is not at all what I said in my original post. The very publications that are cited, which I read, list a multitude of factors that contribute to economic success within and across generations. My issue with this podcast and with the narrative being pushed by Caplan is that it ignores all the other factors and asserts (as I quoted in my original post):
"Life is fair. The children of the rich do better because talent breeds talent, and under capitalism, the cream rises to the top." — Caplan
Perhaps a better word would have been "classism" rather than racialism. However, given just how tightly class status overlaps with racial status they are often tightly coupled.

Caplan's quote above makes abundantly clear his views on class status. My contention with this conclusion is not from denial of the facts presented in his citations, but from the fact that the conclusion is in no way corroborated in the publications he cites.

The twin data is pretty rigorous science. It's hard for your biases to alter math. Not believing or flat out ignoring the surprising results of carefully designed scientific inquire because you don't like the that's the good stuff.
Straw man. I never denied the validity of twin studies as a method of investigating inheritabilty nor as a robust and reliable method of inquiry. Nor do I deny the results of those twin studies in the publications Caplan cites to support his views. What I do deny is his interpretation of the results. An interpretation that is directly counter to those of the authors themselves! I quoted the paper liberaly above, here's another from the Conclusions section of the paper:
The results are somewhat surprising: wealth, race and schooling[emphasis mine] are important to the inheritance of economic status, but IQ is not a major contributor and, as we have seen above, the genetic transmission of IQ is even less important.
The authors even go on to make policy recommendations based on their results highlighting race and inheritance taxation. This is the polar opposite of Caplan's narrative which asserts a fatalistic approach. Parents don't matter. Wealth inheritance doesn't matter. The rich are rich because they're the "cream of the crop" and the poor are the dregs because of an inherent and unavoidable lack of worth.

Twin data is obviously not applicable when there is a system of legal racial segregation. Are you trying to say the twin data is wrong because of what happened in South Africa? Maybe I'm missing your point?
I think you are missing the point. For a moment ignore that race is used as the example. It's one of the most obvious influences and the S.A. example is used to highlight how extreme it can get. The cited publication speaks of many other arbitrary, non-skill based inherited traits that can influence success when passed throught the prism of social biases and norms. My contention with this podcast and Caplan's position is that he systematically ignores these factors and instead hones in on the "life is fair, everyone gets what they deserve in the end" agenda driven dogma when forming his narrative. Again, this is neither supported nor even claimed in the very publications he's offering up as evidence.

Just to clarify, I don't negate twin studies as a valid tool. In fact, what I'm claiming is the twin studies are showing the exact opposite of what he claims. Not just in extremely polarized societies like S.A., but also in the very U.S. data that was analyzed.

For brevity, I won't quote the last paragraph. I think all the questions you ask are very pertinent. I in no way wish to imply that race is the sole factor. It's an insanely complex issue involving not only genetics and not only environment, but also the complex cross generational feedback between the two. However, the data we do have strongly points to educational opportunity and race/gender as being the two highest contributors to future success (including the data presented by Caplan as showing the opposite). If we wish to maximize economic mobility and reduce intergenerational status transmission, the most obvious social policies to focus on are...educational equality and policies that foster racial and gender equality.

Does that mean we should ignore new data that highlights other areas? Or that we should stop asking questions and searching for more answers? Of course not, that's absurd. Nor should keep our policies static and not allow them to reflect new information as it's gained.

Are you completely denying the fact that some of these differences could be personality or aptitude differences that are genetically determined?
Absolutely not. What sparked my ire is that Caplan is denying that the data we have so far indicates that aptitude (IQ, .05) and personality (.03) are relatively unimportant while the greatest effects due to inheritability seem to be tied to arbitrary traits laden with social bias or disconnected from any deserved merit of the beneficiary (race, gender, and wealth inheritance). That somehow he read the same paper and came away with a polar opposite conclusion from the authors.

Or you could just call me racist again.
I don't know you. The conclusions of Caplan do seem to contain very negative implications that are counter to racial equality, or as I said probably more accurately a not so veiled classism that just so happens to overlap heavily with race, gender, and other arbitrary traits. If, as Bryan asserts, "life is fair...the cream rises to the top" what other conclusion can we draw that the apparent class stratification that aligns so tightly with ethnicity and gender except that some groups are inherently "superior"?

Caplan's view is an unabashed tip of the hat to Social Darwinism. One that is not, in any way, corroborated by the current research. Even the research he cites. I'll leave you with a link to Bryan Caplan's article on racism. It looks to me that Caplan is standing squarely in #3 while probably thinking he's in #4. . . Again, we must assume the man is either astoundingly ignorant of the dynamics of economic stratification in the U.S. or that he personally believes the stratification is indicative of inherent, genetic failures in certain ethnic classes.

jkyle writes:


My apologies if I fell into transference of Caplan's views to the host. I would encourage a reading of the publications Caplan is citing. It appears most of it revolves around the 2002 Bowles and Gintis paper. He appears to mangle much of the data presented. For example, on the podcast (if I recall) and in his econlog post he says:

Using standard formulae, this implies that genes explains 40% of the variance of income
However, the Bowles paper states that .40 is the total correlation coefficient of intergenerational earnings that include environment, genetics, and wealth. With genetics being the least important of the three accounting for 30% of the total correlation. Further, the "genetics" category includes group membership such as race, gender, height, etc.

At first I was just surprised and intrigued which led me to reading the publication and followup on Caplan's message. When I saw the disconnect between the assertions being made, the extremeness of his propositions, and what was laid out in the paper, it struck a nerve. Again my apologies for any knee jerk assumptions I made.

Blackadder writes:


Prof. Caplan's claim that genes explain 40% of the variance of income is based on studies that compare the income correlation of identical twins to the income correlation of fraternal twins. Since both identical twins and fraternal twins tend to be of the same race, I don't think differences in income due to racial discrimination would be included in that 40%.

Also, Prof. Caplan's statement is about the differences in income within a generation, while the Bowles and Gintis estimate you cite is intergenerational income inequality.

John C writes:

I would be interested I would be interested in seeing one area that was not mention too much in the show and is that if there a link between upbringing (manly force to follow) or/and genes as weather a person is more likely to be obedience and loyally to the state and/or a religion and the laws set out.

John writes:


Thanks for your response. I appreciate your maturity and civility.

I think the biggest takeaway from this twin data is that when it comes to the argument of nature vs nurture, it appears that nature might be a little more important than we give it credit for.

I'm not sure if there is any data on adoptions where children from poor families are adopted by richer ones, but this certainly would help us elucidate the importance of upbringing vs genetics on future success. I would like to stress that this argument is important not because it would allow us to say that one group is genetically superior to another (although I am sympathetic to the fear such data would lead to this) but rather it would help undermine the idea that there is rampant oppression and inequality in the US. This, after all, is the conclusion that most people reach.

For example, suppose that inheritable, genetic traits really are the driving force of many economic disparities. Wouldn't it be much better to live in a world where this is known and accepted instead of one where it's assumed that racism/classism/oppression/exploitation is rampant? Also, knowing the true etiology of economic disparity would help sharpen policy aimed at addressing this problem, if you believe policy is the answer.

John writes:

Also, I would be careful using this quote to prove that environment is the cause of achievement:

"The results are somewhat surprising: wealth, race and schooling[emphasis mine] are important to the inheritance of economic status, but IQ is not a major contributor and, as we have seen above, the genetic transmission of IQ is even less important."

If wealth (and therefore schooling), race, etc are genetically linked, which is what the opposing argument is, then this outcome is completely expected. That is to say, there is nothing surprising about the fact that wealth (which could be affected by genetics) buys better schooling. In the same way that wealthier people buy nicer cars, they also buy better education. I would stress that education can only go so far in affecting aptitude. Again, there is data supporting this.

You can argue about the relationship - whether education creates success or success seeks education - but you can't turn the correlation between education and wealth into a causal one on your own whim.

The argument is not based on IQ, but rather it is a person's genetics that determines the type of person they become.

twotenths writes:

Steering clear of the core debate that's formed so far in the comments, I'd just offer some gentle feedback to Russ: I could have used more time spent hearing about the guest's work, and less time hearing about the host's skepticism. (Sadly, this is something of a recurring complaint of mine about EconTalk, a program of which I'm a huge fan, regardless.)
I'm unfortunately not likely to read the book, so this podcast represented my key opportunity to be exposed to the underlying research, and to the guest's conclusions about that research.

Greg writes:

I am curious about the impact of birth order research on the nature/nuture debate. I do not know if this is pop science but it was my understanding that birth order appeared to have some measurable impact on various attributes and that difference in child rearing were assumed to be driving this.


Blackadder writes:


Judith Rich Harris deals with birth order effects in her book The Nurture Assumption (pp 41-45, 365-78). To sum up her conclusions: birth order turns out not to be a predictor of much of anything.

Rudy F writes:

On the resources arguments in the discussion (as far as I understood it basically stating that more people mean more wealth) I believe Mr Caplan is unfortunately not correct or alternatively talks about a resource status that was true 10 years ago but is not any longer.

I found the piece by Jeremy Grantham of the $106 bn GMO fund on resources and "peak everything" (see ) extremely enlightening and would encourage Russ Roberts to ask Grantham to be one of the next EconTalk guests. Maybe most troubling here are the crop yield vs fertilizer use growth numbers.

Otherwise thank you very much for an interesting discussion on a topic I am questioning myself about often when wondering how to best foster my daughter.

Jeff writes:

I was wondering if you could comment on some recent articles in the Wall Street Journal debating the merits of "Chinese parenting." Is such strict disciplinary parenting really fruitless? Is the evidence you point to cross-cultural? I wonder how such a debate would ensue. Thanks.

Phil writes:

I have to confess that I found this podcast interesting, disconcerting, thought-provoking but ultimately flawed.
Whilst some of the methods used (twin studies) have the power to show the extent to which our genes determine who we are (our personal values and to some extent, personality), Caplan did rather cherry pick for effect and that lack of balance I find worrying.
What worried me most was a section towards the end of the podcast when Caplan spoke about the merit of population growth - the idea that more kids is intrinsically good for society. I would love to hear Caplan debate that issue with Jared Diamond (Russ, I don't see Diamond in your list of podcast guests - if he can speak as well as he writes it would be an interesting hour). Why did it worry me? Because it dismissed as fantasy that we might be on the edge of an environmental disaster that would make the 2008 banking crisis seem trivial in comparison. I've heard so many of your guests argue that some people knew that the financial practices that led to the crisis were flawed and were likely to fail but that profits were too attractive and the perception of risk was (it turns out) inaccurate. Surely that is the same for the environment argument....... that things are going really good right now so just hang on and enjoy the ride.
I wonder if the citizens of failed societies (Mayans, Anasazi, Easter Islanders, Greenland Norse etc) had the same fatal opptimism that 'it will all work out OK. That a lack of trees won't matter once we perfect making ships from rocks or that if we sacrifice enough of the citizens then it will surely rain.
I'm sorry to admit it but that short section of the podcast has led me to completely re-evaluate whether I'm prepared to accept any of Caplan's earlier arguments - he blew it in my opinion and it seems that he really doesn't think too deeply about things for himself (quoting that he agrees with Julin Simon on the effect of more children) and given the importance of the issue, that is simply not acceptable.
Most podcasts leave me feeling better about humanity - not this one.

AHBritton writes:

One thing I think that might be worth pointing out is that the framing of this discussion seems highly dubious.

(Please wait until I finish before arguing that I am mischaracterizing Caplan)

It seems obvious to me (although I admit I have little scientific evidence) that if someone is raised by wolves or, in a sadly more likely case, tied to a chair in an isolated room their entire childhood, or some other equivalent abusive situation, that in these cases someone's upbringing (nurture side) can virtually determine, or at the very least extremely influence, their outcomes and chances for success.

I believe Caplan would agree with this, but he doesn't seem to recognize the implications.

Not having looked at the research yet I am guessing they are sampling something of much more limited grounds. Namely more "average" parents who on large probably maintain a certain baseline level of care and interest in their children.

So it seems to me that the argument is simply that it is more difficult to effect a child's outcome than might possibly be believed by listeners, because obviously upbringing can radically alternate a persons chances for success wealth and happiness, at the very least in these more tragic and extreme cases.

I am curious though, again not having read much research lately on studies that would seem to contradict these finding. For example the Harlam Children's Zone's graduation rates, studies that seem to indicate things such as children who are read to often as infants and young children tend to show greater achievement., etc.

Also on the racism note I have to say I am certainly surprised that such a criticism would catch you so off guard.

There is an incredibly obvious link between believing that success, intelligence, etc. is determined largely by heredity and believing that other heritable features, such as skin color, etc. could be correlated. In addition if you look at the percentage of say African American's in prison, etc. It is not a stretch to claim that according to Caplan African Americans are simply genetically predisposed to committing crime, etc.

I will admit I bias towards people proposing "scientific racism," that being said I have at times entertained the thought under the belief that if I didn't I would merely be reacting to people with these beliefs without honest knowledge or consideration of the topic.

It has been a little while since I was interested in this and I am interested to look at it again in a new light, but at the time I found the arguments for inheritable intelligence very shaky, if not down right dubious.

I do agree, however, that if racist claims can scientifically be substantiated I would want to know so, despite my intense discomfort with the possibility and its implications.

rovesciato writes:

This podcast got my mind going on the topic of the value of increased/decreased population. I don't have anything else to do with it so I'm posting it here.

First, from the tit for tat department, the thought experiment which imagines a correlative between population and the number of good ideas: would it not follow as well that there would be an equivalent correlative between population and bad ideas? For instance: would not an increase in governmental regulations be correlative to an increase in population? Socialism, of course, is very much an idea, and one that did not fully come into its own, despite fits and starts throughout European history, until the population booms of the nineteenth century. It could be argued that given the socialist interlude things are on balance much better off than 150 years ago, but this is just a arbitrary snap shot in time. Increased population could bring more efficient socialist ideas which lead to a snapshot 50 years from now that is much less clear.

This idea of the arbitrary snapshot is important in assessing any of these extended timeline justifications for human processes (ie. Stone tools to iPod). Assuming that the population in western Europe rose during the first 4 centuries of the first millennium and fell throughout the second four a snapshot of A.D. 550 relative to A.D. 350 would probably suggest that rising population leads to a lack of ideas and a decline in wealth. This would be even stronger in a snapshot of A.D.700 to A.D. 500, assuming many people in A.D. 500 even understood properly what the concept of “200 years” was. The sharp dissolution of the Mayan Empire would also be a case where the increase in population proved to do people little good who lived after the fall.

A more telling case would be the Black Death, which cost Europe at least about a third of its population. One of the principal causes for the rapid spread and deadliness of the plague was the proximity of people living “on top of each other” in conditions of poor sanitation. This sets up, as it were, a race between the increase in communicability and the increase in ideas, or, I suppose, between poverty and ideas: will population increase engender the ideas which understand and improve sanitation issues before the proximity created by that increase kill a third of that population off. This race incidentally is running today. We have made great strides in sanitation and the control of infectious disease through inoculation and antibiotics and this has been a significant factor in a sharp population rise. This very success, however, has created the conditions for a new pandemic as the net externality of every new person is positive to mutating bacteria trying to find the new “idea” that will create 7 billion new hosts. Should the bacterial idea ever outwit the human one the increase in population will then be relevant principally in the proximity of people to one another and the inability of sanitation improvements to have outstripped population growth.

Montaigne has an essay titled 'that our happiness ought not be judged until after our deaths' and this should apply to any qualitative judgment of human endeavor that depends on the comparative change over time for its effect. The 200 year snap shot referred to in the podcast does suggest the ability of ideas and market forces to rapidly increase wealth over a sustained period; it does not justify the assertion that the process is inherently good because right now there have been no consequences.

Dr. Duru writes:

I am with Jon Kalb regarding the influence parents can have by helping kids choose "good" friends since there seems to be decent research supporting the stronger influence peers have over parents (not sure about comparisons of peers to genes).

Anyway, Caplan almost had me UNTIL he gave that magic formula for how to comfort a child to sleep. For me, as a parent, it was the sleep drama that first made me realize how much useless information is written for parents on how to help little children. My daughter seemed to do what she wanted and when SHE decided to take the next developmental leap, she did. My wife and I seemed to have little control over the timing of those phases. Sleep was a primary battleground, and we eventually learned how to cope rather than fight.

We read so many magic formulas about how to comfort kids and not a single thing worked. And the things that did work, only worked for short spells (like swaddling). Now, almost 4 years later, we see that those early days were indicators for my daughter's personality as she manifests similar behaviors but in "4-year old" ways. My son? Completely different. He LOVES sleep. And there was nothing we did to encourage that either!

Regardless, I am curious enough to review the book so I can understand the methodologies and rationalizations for the conclusions. I am currently very skeptical - even after what I just said above! - that the influence of parents over a comprehensive range of potential interventions is as insignificant as Caplan suggests.

bobby writes:

The bell-curve debate revisited anyone?
1) The nature/nurture distinction is obsolete.
2) Early-childhood/in utero environment is extremely important.

I don't have time to argue, instead read Nobel laureate James Heckman's summary of the literature of early childhood investments and move on.
Nuff said.

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