Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Review: Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids

16 Post author: jsalvatier 29 May 2012 06:00PM

This is a review of Bryan Caplan’s book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. Co-written with Walid.

Summary

Adoption studies indicate that differences in parenting styles have mostly small impacts on long term life outcomes of children, such as happiness, income, intelligence, health, etc.. This means that parents can put less effort into parenting without hurting their children’s futures. If you think kids are neat, then you should consider having more. 

Review

Note: We think this is a pretty useful book, and it has changed our minds on how many children we want to have, though neither one us has any children yet. Also, neither of us are experts on twin or adoption studies.

Caplan argues that parents drastically overestimate their ability to improve the adult lives of their children. His argument is driven by adoption studies, which suggest that there is very little that parents can do beyond techniques employed by the average parent that would get them better results with their children. Specifically, the following areas are identified as areas where differences in parenting don’t seem to matter:

  • No effect on life expectancy, overall health (as measured by the presence/absence of particular health problems and self reported health), height, weight or dental health.
  • No effect on intelligence.
  • No effect on various measures of personality: conscientiousness, agreeableness or openness (not certain about extroversion or neuroticism).
  • Little or no effect on marriage, marriage satisfaction, divorce, or child bearing.

But that is not to say that styles outside of the average do not matter at all -- there are a few areas where parenting differences do seem to have an effect:

  • A small effect on adult drinking, smoking and drug problems.
  • A small effect on educational attainment, but no effect on grades in school or on income.
  • A large effect on political and religious labels, such as whether you call yourself democrat or republican or Christian or Muslim but small effects on actual political and religious attitudes or behavior.
  • A moderate effect on when girls start having sex (but not boys), but no effect on teen pregnancy or adult sexual behaviors. 
  • Possibly a small effect on sexual orientation.
  • A moderate effect on how children remember and perceive their parents.

So how do adoption studies lead to these conclusions?

Adoption studies (If you have a link to a better overview or discussion of adoption studies, we'd appreciate it) help find out the influence of parenting differences on adult outcomes by comparing adoptees to their adopting family. If adoptees systematically tend to be more like their adopting family than like other adoptees along some measure (say religiosity or income), that implies that parenting differences affect that measure.

When an adoption study finds that parenting does not affect outcome X, it does not mean that parenting cannot affect it, just that the parenting styles in the data set did not affect it.

The evidence Caplan talks about is primarily long run life outcomes. Shorter run life outcomes often do show larger effects from parenting, but these effects diminish as the time horizon increases.

If parenting doesn’t matter, what does?

Caplan references twin studies in showing that genetics have relatively big effects on all the measures previously mentioned. This explains why we see strong correlations between parents’ traits and children's’ traits. He specifically uses it to call out attributes that we would commonly ascribe to parenting, but may actually have a much larger genetic component.

Implications

Once Caplan has argued for the stylized fact that parenting has only small effects on major life outcomes, he explores some of its implications. 

Don’t be a tiger parent

One big implication is that you should put less effort into trying to make your kids into great adults and more effort into making your and your kids’ lives more fun right now.

For example, parents probably spend too much energy convincing their children to eat their vegetables and learn the piano, given that it won’t affect whether they will eat healthy as adults or be more intelligent. No one likes fighting. If you want your kid to learn the violin so they’ll have fun right now, it may very well be worth it, but don’t do it because you think it will increase their future income or intelligence. If neither you nor your child likes doing an activity, consider whether you can stop doing it.

Adoption studies provide good evidence that most activities don’t have a much of a long term effect on your children, so you need good evidence to start thinking that an activity will be good for your kids future. The odds are against it.

Have more kids

Focusing more on making your and your children’s lives more fun means that overall, having kids should be more attractive. If having another kid no longer means fighting about finishing their broccoli every night, maybe it’s not such a bad idea. On the margin, you should consider having more kids. If you were planning to have zero kids, consider having one. If you were planning to have 3 kids, consider 4, etc.

Other Topics

In much of the rest of the book Caplan gives common sense advice for making parenting easier for the parents. A couple of these, such as the Ferber method for dealing with infant sleep problems, are empirically based.

Here are some other topics Caplan discusses in his book:

  • Happiness research on parenting. Caplan argues that although being a parent seems to make people less happy, the effect is small (Ch 1).
  • Child safety statistics. Children are many times safer than in decades past (Ch 4).
  • Many of the benefits of having children come later in life (e.g. having people who will come and visit you, etc.), which makes it psychologically easy to ignore these benefits (Ch 5).
  • The externalities of children. He argues that on net, extra people have large positive externalities (Ch 6), so you shouldn’t feel guilty for having more children.

What parts should I read?

We wholeheartedly recommend reading the first 5 chapters (121 pages) of Selfish Reasons To Have More Kids as these have the most useful parts of the book; the rest of the book is less valuable. 

Criticisms of Selfish Reason To Have More Kids

There are a number of criticisms relevant to Caplan’s arugments. For example:

  • Nisbett claims that heredity is much less important for IQ than thought (see also counterclaims posted below).
  • Will Wilkinson claims (one, two) that the cost of parenting plays a small role in people's family size decisions, thus it's not a very strong reason to have more kids.
  • Jason Collins likes the book but would like it to discuss the research on non-shared environment (i.e. that not explained by genetic or parenting differences, such as peer effects) (link).  

Comments (253)

Comment author: knb 28 May 2012 01:00:25AM 14 points [-]

It's a great book, thanks for typing this up. One thing I took from Caplan's book that I think gets missed a lot in the reviews, is that his main goal isn't to encourage people committed to childlessness to start having kids. The real goal is encouraging people to have more kids at the margins. The book is really talking to middle class (esp. upper-middle class) folks who have small families (1-2 kids) because they have an inflated notion of what normal, minimally responsible parenting requires.

You really do see this a lot: parents obsess about getting their kids into "elite preschools", worrying about trace amounts of chemicals in their environments, pushing them to take violin/foreign language/team sports, scheduling "play dates" with pre-approved kids who live on the other side of town, etc. Parents who don't manage to do all of this can expect to hear about it from their neighbors: "Oh, Timmy isn't learning any instruments? Isn't he almost 9? Susie has been taking piano lessons since she was 6! Aren't you worried about his mental development?"

The problem is that it is unclear how much of this amounts to status competition and how much of it is from genuine concern with the child's well-being. If it is mostly status-competition, there is no obvious reason the book will change parental behavior, because the social cost of dropping out of the rat-race is still very real.

Comment author: Athrelon 27 May 2012 08:28:49PM 11 points [-]

Of course, twin and adoption studies only measure the effects of broadly mainstream parenting behaviors - should you read to your kids or not, for example. They tell us little about the effect of unusual parenting methods, or on the effect of parenting methods on unusual kids (like the ones on LW.)

Caution: this is a fully general argument.

Comment author: jsalvatier 28 May 2012 12:19:46AM *  5 points [-]

Yup, see my comment about adoption studies.

I do think they say something about unusual parenting, but I agree that it's not directly applicable. These studies make it clear that most parenting differences don't have long term effects even though it's intuitive to us that they should. Thus you should require good additional evidence to make you think that a given unusual parenting style will have long term effects.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 28 May 2012 12:39:52AM *  25 points [-]

I haven't read the book, but I've been reading Caplan's blog for years, so I think I'm sufficiently familiar with his positions to comment.

It seems to me that the elephant in the room here are the peer effects. I don't think even the strongest hereditarian theories would imply that it doesn't matter for your kids' future outcomes if they socialize with peers who display low-class or antisocial habits and behaviors.

Now, if you live in North America, making sure your kids are isolated from low-class kids is extremely expensive. If nothing else, you must be able to afford a house in a nice neighborhood. Unless you are extravagantly wealthy, or perhaps enjoy some very unusual combination of an upper-middle class income and high job security, this means getting into an enormous debt, which you won't be able to pay off for decades, and living a stressful and anxious existence on the edge of solvency, in which a fit of bad luck can easily send you into ruin. And this latter possibility doesn't mean just falling back to a more frugal but still respectable lifestyle -- it means being thrown, together with your kids, right into the dreaded underclass in which all sorts of frightful social pathologies are rampant. It's like precariously holding onto a rope above a pond full of crocodiles. Needless to say, the marginal expense of raising each additional kid will make your situation only more precarious!

Of course, this may be nonobvious to a professor who proudly admits to living in a bubble (and who is presumably not rich, but does enjoy the extremely unusual position of having an upper middle class income and full job security). However, while Caplan is certainly right that people should relax and stop the ridiculous helicopter parenting, he seems to be oblivious to the problem of ensuring quality peers for your kids.

Comment author: BarbaraB 05 June 2012 01:01:34PM 3 points [-]

"making sure your kids are isolated from low-class kids is extremely expensive"

My personal experience on peer effect is, that it is not so extra important for the kid to avoid contact with "unsuitable" children. It might be important to have a CHOICE of both "suitable" and "unsuitable" peers - I am not sure about that, have no experience on living exclusively in low class environment.

My story: I went to a regular elementary school, where low status kids from our neighborhood attended, as well as "middle class" kids. (It was in the diminishing communist era in Slovakia, the good neighborhoods and bad neighborhoods were not so geographically separated as they are now). I naturally associated with those kids I felt comfortable with (who had hobbies, mostly but not 100% better grades) and dissociated from the kids I did not like (aggressive, bad grades, skipping lessons). Some of the aggressive kids are dead by now due to drug overdose, but I did not try a drug ever. My parents did not forbid me from contact from any of the kids I wanted. In the first two years, my best frend was from the "lower class" group - gypsy, bad grades - but NOT agressive, and my parents actually supported my choice even against the opposition of my teachers. I am now a research scientist and have a PhD in molecular biology, so I think seeing those little criminals everyday at the elementary school did not affect my success in life that much.

Comment author: jsalvatier 28 May 2012 03:27:33AM *  1 point [-]

That peer effects still seem like they would be important is a fair point. The question is: if peer effects are important, why don't they show up in adoption studies? Perhaps parents don't think peer effects are important, but that seems implausible to me. Perhaps, as you suggest, it's really expensive to affect your childrens' peers. But then that fits Caplan's argument pretty well; if if you have to spend millions of dollars to change your childrens' peers then maybe it's just not that cost effective, and you shouldn't worry about it too much.

As a side note: I sometimes get a very "politics" vibe from your comments, and it gives me the impression that your thought quality isn't very good on those topics (other comments good quality). I don't know if others get the same feeling from your posts; maybe it's just me.

For example, "enormous debt, which you won't be able to pay off for decades, and living a stressful and anxious existence on the edge of solvency, in which a fit of bad luck can easily send you into ruin. And this latter possibility doesn't mean just falling back to a more frugal but still respectable lifestyle -- it means being thrown, together with your kids, right into the dreaded underclass in which all sorts of frightful social pathologies are rampant. It's like precariously holding onto a rope above a pond full of crocodiles." reads a lot like standard political rants.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 28 May 2012 04:37:13AM *  16 points [-]

The question is: if peer effects are important, why don't they show up in adoption studies?

Generally speaking, when I search for literature on peer effects, the information is sparse and confusing. I'm not too surprised, since such effects are much more difficult to disentangle than heritability and shared environment.

My working hypothesis is that:

  1. Peer effects matter a lot, but only up to a certain threshold of peer quality, and this threshold is basically what people intuitively perceive as sufficiently respectable company for their kids. So, basically, underclass peers will ruin your kids, but upper-class or genius peers won't improve things relative to the company of ordinary middle-class kids. (Just like downright abuse will ruin them, but helicopter parenting won't improve them.)

  2. In order to quality for adoption, people must pass through sufficiently strict checks that they are highly unlikely to provide an environment below this threshold. So there aren't any good natural adoption experiments that expose kids to underclass peer groups.

I'd be curious to hear about any contrary evidence, though.

I sometimes get a very "politics" vibe from your comments [...] For example, [the middle paragraph in the above comment] reads a lot like standard political rants.

Maybe it does, but this really is my honest impression of what the situation looks like to a typical person aspiring to a middle-class lifestyle these days. I'm curious if you would disagree with any of the following statements, which seem to be roughly equivalent to what I wrote above (all given in the context of contemporary North America):

  1. A house in a place where your kids will grow up with -- and, in particular, go to school with -- kids from respectable middle-class families is very expensive. In many places, and especially prosperous centers of economic activity that offer good career opportunities, it is somewhere around an order of magnitude above the median yearly household income.

  2. Unless one is extraordinarily wealthy, to obtain such a house, one has to get into debt that is, just like the house price, enormous relative to one's income.

  3. Such debt, due to its sheer size, can't be repaid in any time shorter than several decades. Just to pay the interest, let alone to make any dent in the principal, one must part with a significant part of one's income during this period. In this situation, a plausible bad luck scenario like job loss, health problems, etc. can easily push one into insolvency.

  4. Worse yet, this situation implies that the bulk of one's net worth is completely non-diversified and invested in a single asset -- of a sort that is notoriously prone to bubbles and price crashes. Even worse, the occurrence of such crashes is positively correlated with bad economic conditions that make job loss and decreased earning power especially likely.

  5. Even with a minimalist approach to parenting, raising kids is expensive. Each additional kid makes it less likely that one will manage to remain solvent under the above described conditions.

  6. Sufficiently bad financial ruin can plausibly put one into a situation where one is no longer able to afford to ensure a peer group for one's kids that will be above the threshold where bad peers exercise significant bad influence. Also, generally speaking, below a certain class threshold, all sorts of social pathologies are rampant to a degree that seems frightful to a typical middle-class person -- and, again, bad financial ruin can make one unable to afford to insulate oneself from people that fall below this threshold.

  7. Taken together, (1)-(6) makes for a rather stressful existence, in which having more kids will seem to a lot of people like an additional burden in an already difficult situation, and an additional risk in an already uncomfortable gamble.

I'd be really curious to see where exactly our opinions diverge here.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 28 May 2012 06:11:58PM 6 points [-]

Even with a minimalist approach to parenting, raising kids is expensive. Each additional kid makes it less likely that one will manage to remain solvent under the above described conditions.

I think Caplan is correct that this is not the marginal analysis that parents do in considering whether to have another child; that the relevant margin is their time.

More tangentially, I generally think your description is too prescriptive and not an accurate description of how people think, leading to predictions that don't match the world. In particular, I don't think we see a clean line between acceptable and unacceptable neighborhoods. People don't just seek out acceptable neighborhoods free of bad influences, but bid up ever more exclusive neighborhoods, sometimes in the name of good schools and sometimes not. People take on a lot of debt not just to get into acceptable schools, but to get into these exclusive neighborhoods. On the other hand, I think people are much less stressed than you describe, largely because they are irrationally optimistic about debt, employment stability, and real estate as an investment.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 29 May 2012 02:24:27AM *  5 points [-]

In particular, I don't think we see a clean line between acceptable and unacceptable neighborhoods. People don't just seek out acceptable neighborhoods free of bad influences, but bid up ever more exclusive neighborhoods, sometimes in the name of good schools and sometimes not. People take on a lot of debt not just to get into acceptable schools, but to get into these exclusive neighborhoods.

You're right that I oversimplified things in this regard. Besides the minimum acceptable neighborhood quality, there are also many expensive status games people play that they could in principle cut back on without any negative consequences for their kids. On the other hand, the difficult question is how much you can really cut back on status games without jeopardizing your social status in ways that could damage your career and make your life generally unpleasant. (It's a difficult topic, but it seems to me like it's hard to escape the effect where higher income comes with the requirements of more intense and expensive status signaling, thus significantly reducing the increase in one's truly discretionary spending power.) On the whole, I'm not quite sure what to think about all this.

On the other hand, I think people are much less stressed than you describe, largely because they are irrationally optimistic about debt, employment stability, and real estate as an investment.

Could be. Except for your closest friends who will presumably speak their mind to you, it's hard to figure out what people really think behind the socially expected facade of radiating success and optimism. I strongly suspect that the events of recent years have shaken a great many people out of their optimism, though.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 29 May 2012 02:45:57AM 1 point [-]

Yes, the exclusive neighborhoods could be a form of social signaling, but so too could the helicopter parenting. I think people feel the same kind of pressure towards the two.

Comment author: cata 28 May 2012 10:11:18AM *  3 points [-]

Well, you can live in an apartment, for one thing.

(I don't know how the math works out nowadays, so I'm not really advocating it, just pointing it out.)

Comment author: Will_Newsome 28 May 2012 11:00:51AM *  5 points [-]

Is leasing so uncommon, though? My mom always taught me that buying a house was retarded, admittedly contra what I took to be common wisdom.

ETA: Actually, I think it might have been me always teaching my mom that buying a house was retarded. I think even at ten years old I was better than my mom at economic rationality.

Comment author: wedrifid 28 May 2012 03:13:29PM 2 points [-]

Is leasing so uncommon, though? My mom always taught me that buying a house was retarded, admittedly contra what I took to be common wisdom.

Your mom seems to have instilled in you a politically incorrect and sometimes offensive word usage!

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 28 May 2012 03:32:56PM 0 points [-]

Your mom seems to have instilled in you a politically incorrect and sometimes offensive word usage!

What is it about people with practical-worldly-knowledge that causes their speech to be littered with so many un-PC words and phrases?

Comment author: wedrifid 28 May 2012 03:38:46PM *  4 points [-]

What is it about people with practical-worldly-knowledge that causes their speech to be littered with so many un-PC words and phrases?

The same thing as with people who don't have practical worldly knowledge that causes their speech to be littered with so many non PC words. But I would estimate to a lesser degree on average.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 28 May 2012 03:40:07PM *  5 points [-]

Well shucks; why didn't I think of that?

Comment author: Vladimir_M 29 May 2012 02:40:27AM *  1 point [-]

In the contemporary North America, buying a house definitely looks to me like a raw deal. On the other hand, the popular wisdom is indeed the opposite, i.e. that renting is a raw deal, suitable only for people whose tarnished reputation makes them unable to get credit. (The whole issue could be approached by asking some simple and obvious questions suggested by basic economics, but puzzlingly, nobody seems to be asking them.)

On the whole, however, I definitely have the impression that among the great bulk of people who aspire to live a middle-class lifestyle, home ownership is considered as an essential goal for any serious person, let alone family. A contrarian on this issue is likely to face enormous pressures from friends, family, spouse, etc., and risk coming off as seriously weird. (Maybe I am overestimating this phenomenon in the wider society by extrapolating from my own social circles. But it certainly exists to a significant degree.)

Comment author: TheOtherDave 29 May 2012 04:49:19AM 7 points [-]

In the contemporary North America, buying a house definitely looks to me like a raw deal.

So, perhaps this is a sign of how brainwashed by the status quo I am, but I don't see how this is obvious, nor indeed how it could be obvious, given that everyone who is renting a house is renting it from someone who bought it, who is presumably not losing money on the deal. (Or is that a false presumption? Do landlords typically spend more to purchase and maintain their property than they make in rental income? How could that possibly be true?)

So I would love some more explanation here. Is the idea here that buying a house N years ago was a good idea, but buying one in 2012 is not?

Comment author: Vladimir_M 29 May 2012 07:09:08AM *  21 points [-]

[E]veryone who is renting a house is renting it from someone who bought it, who is presumably not losing money on the deal. (Or is that a false presumption? Do landlords typically spend more to purchase and maintain their property than they make in rental income? How could that possibly be true?)

You can also ask a different question. If you borrow money to buy a house, you must find a lender willing to lend you at some interest rate. The interest rate is nothing but the price of renting money. So if it costs less to borrow (i.e. rent) the money to buy a house than to just rent the house directly, then how can the lender possibly be willing to lend you the money instead of investing it into a house himself and earning a rent higher than your interest?

When I make this argument, people usually try to argue that somehow you profit from buying by building equity with time. But if the money rent, i.e. interest, is equal to the house rent, then to build equity, you must make payments to the lender above this basic rent/interest rate -- otherwise you'll just keep renting the same amount of money indefinitely. And if you rent the house instead of making these higher payments, you can save and invest this difference, with the same positive effect on your net worth (which will also have an effect equivalent to the reduction in payments as the principal gets lower). Of course, this isn't true if the interest is lower than the rent, but then we get to the above question of why anyone would be so irrational as to lend at such terms. It also isn't true if the house price grows faster than any alternative investment -- but even ignoring the lessons from recent history, this again gets us to the question why someone would ever lend you the money at this cheap interest rate instead of investing the money himself into these fast-appreciating houses.

What these considerations show is that according to the textbook spherical-cow microeconomics, on a free market for housing, renting and buying should be equally good deals, since in efficient markets there is no possibility of arbitrage. And buying can be profitable over renting only if there is a strange opportunity for arbitrage where it's cheap to rent money but expensive to rent a house, even though money and houses are readily convertible into each other. A similar argument can of course be made against the possible advantage of renting -- except for the issues of risk-aversion and asset diversification, which decisively favor renting over owning.

In reality, of course, these simple spherical-cow models don't work, and there are lots of complicated and ill-understood factors involved, including all sorts of people's biases and signaling issues, high transaction costs, Knightian uncertainties, exuberant speculation, and not the least of all, huge government interference in the market by various subsidies, regulations, and other convoluted and dubious enterprises. The result is a complicated mess in which an accurate analysis of what's really going on is practically impossible, and in which there may indeed be possibilities for arbitrage.

However, regardless of all that, it seems to me that buying has some tremendous drawbacks, for which I can't see comparable upsides under any realistic circumstances. The first and foremost is that you're investing the bulk of your net worth (and on top of that a huge pile of borrowed money) into a single non-diversified asset, which seems like a crazy idea by the most basic principles of sound personal finance. [1] For various other drawbacks, one could perhaps argue that they are offset by the downsides of renting (though I would disagree), but this one really seems to me by itself like a decisive argument against getting into house ownership.


[1] Note that this is one possible solution to your landlord puzzle. The tenant may want to pay a premium to avoid placing most of his net worth into this asset because of risk-aversion, while for the (rich or corporate) landlord, it's just another item in a large portfolio with the risk well spread.

Comment author: Benquo 29 May 2012 09:51:34PM 8 points [-]

Here are some complicating factors:

The renter is paying the landlord to assume the risk of tenant mobility. That is, if the renter needs to move, they can do so and the landlord could be stuck with a vacant unit. On the other hand, someone who owns a home and needs to move, needs to find a buyer for the old place, and incurs material (~7%) transaction costs. People who want to stick around for a long time have no reason to pay a premium for an option they won't use, so longer-term residents tend to buy and not rent.

On the other hand, as long as they can make mortgage payments, homeowners almost never get kicked out of their homes. If you want to bring up kids and build memories/accumulate sentimental value in one place over your whole life, a rental is probably not for you. If you want to customize your home and/or make capital improvements, a rental is also probably not for you.

There's a kind of pooling equilibrium, and very little incentive to live in the "wrong" arrangement.

It's also a mistake to compare nominal rent with nominal mortgage payments, as you also have to consider tax deductibility, maintenance costs (which people often underestimate), heating/cooling/electricity/water bills, real estate taxes, and mortgage amortization.

Comment author: David_Allen 29 May 2012 09:42:02PM 4 points [-]

However, regardless of all that, it seems to me that buying has some tremendous drawbacks, for which I can't see comparable upsides under any realistic circumstances.

Before I bought my house I ran the numbers and came to the same conclusion, that home ownership would not maximize my net worth and would increase certain types of risk. As a result I see home ownership as a luxury, not as an investment. I bought my house because I wanted it as a luxury and believed I could manage the risk.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 29 May 2012 09:14:36PM 2 points [-]

If mortgage interest is tax-deductible but rent isn't, then you have to pay higher rent in order for it to be converted into an interest payment that would come out of pretax income. I think this is how Michael Vassar said the market got so messed up, though I don't know if I'm correctly attributing it to him, or if the notion is unique to him (I expect not).

Comment author: Vladimir_M 31 May 2012 03:27:49PM *  5 points [-]

There are two puzzling observations here, though:

  1. In booming real estate markets, rent may in fact be cheaper than the interest on the equivalent house price even considering the tax break. I suppose this is because people count on appreciation, but we know how good that assumption is.

  2. The lack of mortgage interest tax breaks in Canada doesn't make people's attitudes towards renting vs. buying any different than in the U.S. The only observable effect, as far as I know, is that Canadians on average struggle to pay off their mortgages more quickly.

Comment author: jsalvatier 30 May 2012 02:17:53AM *  0 points [-]

This is a common notion among econobloggers.

Comment author: Benquo 29 May 2012 09:28:09PM 0 points [-]

I'm not sure I understand what "conversion" you're talking about, but it sounds like you might be saying that the landlord has no mortgage interest deduction, so they need to receive a larger rent payment to break even, than it would cost the renter to own the same property. If that's not your point, then disregard the rest of this comment.

To the landlord the mortgage interest is a business expense and can typically be deducted. So there's (ceteris paribus) no difference between the net cost of the mortgage to the landlord, and to a homeowner.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 29 May 2012 10:28:07PM 5 points [-]

What I'm saying is that you can either pay $2000 of rent using post-tax income or $2000 of mortgage using pretax income. This might work out to the difference between a $3300 mortgage payment (pretax income) or a $2000 rent payment (after the $3300 has been taxed at an e.g. 39% marginal rate by state and feds).

Comment author: Strange7 29 May 2012 09:11:31PM 1 point [-]

Owning a house has the advantage that, even in extreme contingencies, you will still have your Maslovian need for shelter under control. Same reason someone would eagerly trade gold for an equal weight of grain in a sufficiently severe famine.

Comment author: gjm 30 May 2012 12:10:55AM 5 points [-]

This is true if you actually completely own your house. However, many "homeowners" don't; they have mortgages which they are not yet in a position to pay off completely. Given sufficiently extreme contingencies (which needn't, actually, be all that extreme) they could find themselves without shelter as easily as their renting peers.

Comment author: Strange7 30 May 2012 02:35:36AM 1 point [-]

Paying the mortgage involves a marginal step toward that desirable condition of true homeownership in a way that rent does not. Essentially, a mortage is rent + a commitment to investing part of your income every month, which many people would not otherwise have the willpower to do.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 29 May 2012 01:24:13PM 1 point [-]

OK. Thanks for clarifying.

Comment author: asr 29 May 2012 06:32:37AM *  2 points [-]

Comparing monthly costs is a bit misleading. There are a whole bunch of less-direct costs and benefits to ownership. A bunch of these depend on your estimation of future economic conditions and of your future desires.

1) If you own a house, you're incurring the risk that you have to move for personal or professional reasons, and then can't easily sell. Landlords typically don't have to sell on short notice -- it's perfectly possible to be an absentee landlord. Not an absentee resident.

2) As a landlord, you can potentially hold the house as one asset in a portfolio. As a homeowner, you've locked up a lot of your potential capital in that high-risk illiquid asset; you're much more exposed if property values go down.

On the flip side:

1) Residents with a mortgage get a tax break that landlords don't.

2) Being an owner means you don't have the risk of future rent increases, and can profit if property values go up.

3) Being an owner entitles you to make structural or other changes -- repainting, say -- that a tenant can't easily.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 29 May 2012 01:29:58PM 2 points [-]

Regarding 1... can't a resident of a home, should the need arise to move on short notice, become an absentee landlord on the same property? If the monthly costs of renting equal or exceed the monthly costs of owning, presumably the rental income covers the cost of owning the property, and the former resident can go rent property wherever they happen to need to be.

I would add to your second list:
4) Owning the property means I get more upside if property values go up.
5) Renting the property means I am subject to the owner's whims in addition to my own.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 29 May 2012 03:53:36PM *  0 points [-]

Being an owner means you don't have the risk of future rent increases...

That is true, but as far as I can tell, rent increases don't follow soaring house prices during real estate booms. Rather, the price to rent ratio tends to go out of whack. (Check out these graphs -- I can't vouch for the accuracy of their numbers, but they are consistent with what I observe on the ground. Since I've been renting my current house, my rent hasn't gone up by a single cent, not even to compensate for inflation, while the house prices where I live have gone up by something like 40%.)

Moreover, the standard ways in which mortgages are done leave one exposed to the risk of future interest rates increasing, and they can go up much faster and higher than rent. (And as far as I can tell, one must pay a huge premium to get a permanent fixed rate and avoid playing this financial equivalent of Russian roulette.)

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 30 May 2012 03:28:50PM 2 points [-]

In the US, the large majority of mortgages are fixed rate. Until about 10 years ago, virtually all were. I think mortgages are a lot more popular in the US than in Europe. I'm a bit surprised that fixed rate mortgages haven't spread into Canada simply by proximity. Maybe they're propped up by Fannie Mae.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 31 May 2012 03:19:15PM *  1 point [-]

I have no idea what the ultimate reasons for it are, but in Canada, I don't think it's even possible to fix the rate for more than ten years. When Canadians speak of "fixed rate," they typically mean fixing it for only five years or so.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 13 August 2012 09:06:17AM 0 points [-]

Maybe I am overestimating this phenomenon in the wider society by extrapolating from my own social circles.

No, that sounds about right.

Comment author: waveman 29 May 2012 10:31:18PM *  0 points [-]

It's interesting to see that the common-sense view is now that buying a house is a bad idea. Just a few short years ago anyone questioning the wisdom of buying a house was seen as mentally deficient, if not downright evil.

This just as prices have reverted close to fair value and buying is starting to make a lot of sense compared to renting. [As long as you have the capacity to pay the loan and you are not likely to move soon.]

This I take to be a sign we are close to the bottom in housing.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 30 May 2012 02:24:46AM 2 points [-]

This I take to be a sign we are close to the bottom in housing.

Absent some very extraordinary insider information, there's never any good reason to believe that. At any moment, prices are where they are because they could go either way.

Comment author: Sewing-Machine 29 May 2012 08:27:22AM 0 points [-]

In the contemporary North America, buying a house definitely looks to me like a raw deal.

In US, a 3000-dollar-per-month mortgage lowers your taxable income by 36000 dollars. The standard deduction for a married couple (perhaps renting a house for 3000/mo) is 12000. Can't this go a longer way toward explaining it than peer pressure?

Of course, property taxes are high in good school districts.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 29 May 2012 03:02:58PM *  7 points [-]

Honestly, I think that for the overwhelming majority of people, these tax issues are way over their heads. (I have no confidence that I understand them myself. In finance, reliable and accessible information is very hard to find.) So I think that such considerations, while not completely irrelevant, are easily trumped by the combination of peer pressure, deeply ingrained but obsolete folk wisdom, the sheer emotional appeal of home ownership, the intuitively appealing but fallacious view that renting means giving away money while paying a mortgage means saving it, and the irrational optimism about future trends in house prices (which has abated in recent years in the U.S. but is still rampant in Canada).

On the other hand, the counterargument about asset diversification seems to me unassailable. Putting all your eggs into one basket is correctly considered as a crazy financial strategy, and a fortiori, putting a bunch of borrowed eggs along with them is crazier still. Yet houses are somehow considered an exception.

[Edit to add: Looking at this a bit more, I realize I didn't even know there was such a straightforward tax deduction for mortgage interest in the U.S. However, this only strengthens my point, since no such thing exists in Canada, but people still think and act the same way.]

Comment author: juliawise 29 May 2012 02:36:10AM 2 points [-]

A house in a place where your kids will grow up with -- and, in particular, go to school with -- kids from respectable middle-class families is very expensive.

This may be true in suburbs, but not everywhere. My mother grew up in a small college town in Kentucky. Her parents, and the parents of her friends, were mostly college educated but below national median income. They lived in small, inexpensive houses. Local kids had access neither to ballet and karate lessons nor drugs and gangs. Her social life focused around church and folk dancing. From what I understand, it was a high-quality, low-cost childhood.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 29 May 2012 03:06:38AM 3 points [-]

I believe you, but places of the sort you describe are increasingly rare. For most people, I don't see any plausible way how they could move to some place like that and organize their lives there.

Comment author: jsalvatier 28 May 2012 05:12:13PM *  2 points [-]

As phrased above, your position seems like a reasonable starting point for a discussion, and I probably would not have made my comment if you had first commented with something closer to that.

I was trying to comment on the way you presented the argument before rather than argue that your object level point is mistaken, since I don't have strong views here. It's not a serious issue, just something I thought you might like to be aware of. The more I think about this, the less 'justifiable' it seems to bring this up.

You used several adjectives with a normative tinge "enormous debt", "edge of solvency" and colorful imagery "precariously holding onto a rope above a pond full of crocodiles", which sound like they're designed to get the reaction "Oy My God! What has America (or pick your favorite country) come to?!", rather than the reaction "buying a house in an expensive area sounds risky".

Does that make things clearer?

On the object level topic, your argument seems very focused on debt, do you think renting a house in a similar area substantially lessens the burden?

Comment author: Vladimir_M 29 May 2012 01:41:04AM *  2 points [-]

You used several adjectives with a normative tinge "enormous debt", "edge of solvency" and colorful imagery "precariously holding onto a rope above a pond full of crocodiles", which sound like they're designed to get the reaction "Oy My God! What has America (or pick your favorite country) come to?!", rather than the reaction "buying a house in an expensive area sounds risky".

I have no problem with your comment, and I'm glad to explain the reason why I made my original comment that way. The reason why I used such emotional imagery is that I wanted to depict the way people feel about their situation, which is the relevant thing in this context, even if the way they feel is unrealistic and biased. (Since the way they feel, and not some ideally objective evaluation of the situation, will ultimately determine their decisions about having kids.)

(By the way, do you really think that "enormous debt" and "edge of solvency" are not perfectly realistic descriptions of how many, if not most people in their child-bearing years live these days?)

On the object level topic, your argument seems very focused on debt, do you think renting a house in a similar area substantially lessens the burden?

I'm probably over-focusing on debt, since I myself consider any serious indebtedness with horror. I would guess that debt by itself is probably a much lesser source of worry to most people.

Now, when it comes to the issue of renting vs. buying, this is one of those things where people, including otherwise smart and successful people, tend to have opinions that seem seriously crazy to me. As far as I can tell, among the North American middle classes, it seems to be near-universal belief that a basic prerequisite for serious family life is owning a house, so the idea of renting is a non-starter. There is also the near-universal belief that renting is somehow a raw deal compared to buying, so that renting sends a strong signal that you're either stupid or, more likely, can't be approved for credit because of some shameful history you're hiding (and all the bad qualities it likely implies).

All this despite the fact that basic economics strongly suggests that renting should be a better deal for nearly everyone. (Unless perhaps the relevant markets are distorted to an enormous degree by subsidies, regulations, and perhaps also status signaling games, but in reality I see only the latter in sufficiently strong form.)

However, this gets us to the more general issue of various other expensive status games that one is supposed to play in order to be accepted among one's social group nowadays. This is a difficult and complicated topic, but on the whole, it seems to me that for a variety of reasons, these signaling requirements tend to expand as one's career and income advance, so in the end, it's difficult to avoid the situation where one is constantly walking on the edge financially. Needless to say, all this certainly isn't conductive to having kids.

Comment author: juliawise 29 May 2012 02:38:29AM 3 points [-]

I wanted to depict the way people feel about their situation, which is the relevant thing in this context, even if the way they feel is unrealistic and biased.

So it seems we all agree that your crocodile-pit description does not necessarily reflect reality.

Comment author: Will_Sawin 30 May 2012 01:50:47AM 4 points [-]

Except for certain child-bearing zoo employees.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 29 May 2012 02:53:23AM *  2 points [-]

It depends on the concrete place and people we're talking about. There are ways to escape falling into the underclass even with very little money, but that requires luck and talent that many (and I'd even say most) people don't have.

Comment author: juliawise 29 May 2012 01:14:00PM 4 points [-]

Well, in 15 years I'll let you know whether my decision to live and reproduce in a city that has poor people has turned my kids into underclass wrecks.

Comment author: Konkvistador 31 May 2012 04:37:45PM *  6 points [-]

It would be mere anecdotal evidence. I kind of feel you are trying to tell or signal something other than offering to eventually share with us the results of a long term experiment.

Comment author: juliawise 31 May 2012 10:47:43PM *  4 points [-]

...you're right, I'm not making housing and childrearing decisions with the main goal of providing a useful data point to LW 15 years in the future. And I am trying to signal that I think poor people are not a crocodile pit. Enough so that I am choosing to share a neighborhood with them.

Comment author: Multiheaded 01 June 2012 05:15:51AM *  3 points [-]

As Julia said, people are offended by the suggestion to treat their own class position with extreme cynicism, and to believe that there's, like, a separate species of people in their country - their compatriots, mostly, not just illegal immigrants - who are dangerous animals to be avoided at all costs. While certainly such a position could increase personal safety, I'm adamantly against it.

For fuck's sake, I grew up in Russia in the 90s - a time of danger, opportunity and rampant inequality/unfairness - and no-one back then had a "bubble" (well, except for the top 0,1% maybe), so I mixed with kids from rough neighbourhoods and not-so-good families, was even friends with one (after we fought for years and then grew up a bit). Our school was an ordinary one, but well-run, with good and savvy teachers, so there was no violence outside of the usual scuffles and playing at gangs; I think that every one of us would be offended were our parents to try and "bubble" us away from the "underclass".

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 30 May 2012 04:58:19AM 4 points [-]

The important thing is the neighborhood not the city. I think it also depends on the type of poor people.

Comment author: juliawise 30 May 2012 10:43:08PM 2 points [-]

Cambridge, MA. Lots of lefty professorial and computer types, also lots of Haitian and Cape Verdean immigrants in housing projects.

Comment author: jsalvatier 29 May 2012 03:45:39PM 1 point [-]

At least in the US, there is a big subsidy for homeowning in that you can deduct the interest on you mortgage (I think this only applies to your first home ).

Comment author: Vladimir_M 30 May 2012 04:40:51AM *  2 points [-]

I wasn't aware that the tax breaks on mortgage interest were so straightforward in the U.S. Here in Canada nothing similar exists.

There seems to be an interesting natural experiment here -- in Canada, even though there is no such deduction, people's attitudes and behavior with regards to renting vs. buying are still more or less the same as in the U.S. (In fact, the recent crash has probably left Americans less eager to buy on average.) So while the tax break changes the math in favor of buying significantly for people in high tax brackets, it looks like this isn't the crucial factor motivating people to buy in practice.

Comment author: Ghatanathoah 01 June 2012 01:44:21AM *  0 points [-]

I'd be curious to hear about any contrary evidence, though.

Perhaps another reason peer effects don't show up is that situations consisting of one kid of upper class background completely surrounded by lower class kids and having no other options but them as a peer group are relatively rare. In most cases there are a number of other middle classish kids in the same boat to form a peer group with.

I base this conclusion on two pieces of evidence, the first is anecdotal, my own school background. My school had a variety of kids that included a large amount of lower class kids from a nearby trailer park and a large amount of respectable kids. For the most part nothing the trailer park kids did rubbed off on me or any of the other respectable kids because we rarely socialized with them, we naturally tended to interact with the kids we had something in common with (although most of the trailer park kids were friendly enough in class, I can't really say that most of them were unpleasant to be around). The only long-term impact they had on me was to help me realize that the underclass are usually trying to be nice people, even if they fail at it a lot.

The second piece consist of articles (mostly by Thomas Sowell) I've read about various immigrant communities in poor neighborhoods and how kids from groups with middle-class values (i.e. Chinese, Jewish immigrants) tended to cluster together and interact with each other and not the poorer kids around them. So it seems plausible to me that the ability to form small clusters of like-minded peers might mitigate peer effects.

Also, I second jsalvatier's points about some of your comments having a "political" feel. In particular it seems like you have a tendency to work in angry-seeming statements about how awful and unpleasant poor people are that can be rather off-putting, to say the least.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 02 June 2012 06:32:46AM 5 points [-]

In particular it seems like you have a tendency to work in angry-seeming statements about how awful and unpleasant poor people are that can be rather off-putting, to say the least.

I didn't say anything about poor people as such. In fact, I would bet that I have more experience with actually being poor myself than most people here (and almost anyone here who is posting from a first-world country).

Now, it certainly isn't a source of any pleasure to me when I observe that in North America, and especially in many parts of the U.S., the class system has been evolving for several decades in a direction where there is an increasingly wide and severe chasm between the growing underclass and the middle classes, with rampant social dysfunction among the underclass, and increasing correlation between being poor and belonging to the underclass. (Note that I distinguish merely being poor, i.e. non-affluent, and belonging to the underclass, which is dysfunctional by definition.) But that's what the actual situation seems to be.

You characterize my statements as "off-putting," but you don't indicate what exactly you find inaccurate about them. Do you believe that I'm exaggerating the above described phenomenon? Or do you think only that I should be expressing myself more diplomatically about it?

Comment author: Ghatanathoah 06 June 2012 11:06:40PM 0 points [-]

Sorry to take so long getting back to you, I've had internet problems all week.

Now, it certainly isn't a source of any pleasure to me when I observe that in North America, and especially in many parts of the U.S., the class system has been evolving for several decades in a direction where there is an increasingly wide and severe chasm between the growing underclass and the middle classes

I'm somewhat familiar with Charles Murray's research on this subject, I assume you are too. But he has argued that the middle-class' efforts to separate themselves from the underclass make the situation worse, not better, because they make it harder to middle class culture to spread to the underclass, and he has advocated attempting to close the chasm in various ways. By contrast in your original comment you seemed distressed that it was so financially difficult for the middle class to separate themselves from the underclass and I got the impression you wished it was easier. Do you disagree with Murray, or was I drawing an incorrect inference from your comment? Feel free not to answer if you think doing so would break the "no discussing politics" rule.

You characterize my statements as "off-putting," but you don't indicate what exactly you find inaccurate about them. Do you believe that I'm exaggerating the above described phenomenon? Or do you think only that I should be expressing myself more diplomatically about it?

What I find off-putting is primarily that they sound rather political and we aren't supposed to discuss politics at Less Wrong. If you were making the point at some politics forum I wouldn't necessarily find it off-putting. Admittedly this sort of discussion is something of a gray area since it's hard to discuss this type human social behavior without mentioning ideas that are parts of major political ideologies. I am reticent about voicing my personal opinion on the accuracy of your description is because I'm afraid I'm skirting the edge of political discussion already.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 08 June 2012 03:03:54AM 6 points [-]

[Murray] has argued that the middle-class' efforts to separate themselves from the underclass make the situation worse, not better, because they make it harder to middle class culture to spread to the underclass, and he has advocated attempting to close the chasm in various ways. By contrast in your original comment you seemed distressed that it was so financially difficult for the middle class to separate themselves from the underclass and I got the impression you wished it was easier. Do you disagree with Murray, or was I drawing an incorrect inference from your comment?

Well, even if we assume for the sake of the argument that it exacerbates the problem, this still doesn't mean that it's irrational for individual middle-class people to separate themselves from the underclass. All that this assumption would imply is that there is a tragedy-of-the-commons effect. But this doesn't change the perspective and the incentives faced by individuals at all.

I am reticent about voicing my personal opinion on the accuracy of your description is because I'm afraid I'm skirting the edge of political discussion already.

Don't worry. As long as your comments are polite, well-argued, and made in good faith, you won't break any social norms here. Especially if the discussion is about general and long-standing social issues, and not about the ongoing political controversies from the headlines.

Comment deleted 22 June 2012 02:13:00AM *  [-]
Comment deleted 22 June 2012 02:29:21AM *  [-]
Comment deleted 22 June 2012 03:33:45AM *  [-]
Comment author: BarbaraB 05 June 2012 02:54:24PM 0 points [-]

Upvoted. Why was it downvoted before ? Perhaps the last paragraph irritated someone ? Apart from that, all the other statements I consider a sheer wisdom :-)

Comment author: sabre51 01 June 2012 02:20:37PM 0 points [-]

I agree with you about peer effects but I think you assume without cause that they are lasting. Twin studies, despite their flaws, would seem to be the best way to establish that, whatever their influence now, differing peer groups and adolescent environments will not lead to different adult characteristics. Any efforts that parents take NOW to improve children's peer groups, in order to improve current well-being, are valuable. But if the effect fades over time, then the harm is less than most parents think it is, and therefore on the margin children are less costly and Caplan's conclusion is warranted.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 28 May 2012 04:54:26PM *  6 points [-]

Nisbett claims that heredity is much less important for IQ than thought (see also counterclaims posted below).

Heredity, per se, is irrelevant to the argument.

The question is how much family environment and particularly effort matters. Nisbett's title ("schools and cultures") suggests that he is not arguing for parental input. The quote about parents' time suggests otherwise. Shea admits that Nibett admits that there are declining returns. The quote "smaller (but still potent) effects" is a substantive disagreement, but it's pretty weaselly. The question is not whether bad parenting is possible, but whether it is likely in the people Caplan addresses.


Added: Lots of people on this thread make the same error.

Comment author: BadAstronaut 30 May 2012 09:06:54PM 5 points [-]

Not directly related to the book, but a question I've been thinking about lately is: If I don't feel any desire to raise children and I believe it would have a strongly negative impact on my quality of life, are there any reasons why I should still consider doing so? Either moral reasons or self-interested ones (ie. the possibility that I'm wrong about the net utility to me). Another factor is that it's quite likely that I could end up in a long-term relationship with a (female) partner that does want children, and refusing could either result in the end of the relationship or a decrease in the partner's life satisfaction.

Comment author: beberly37 01 June 2012 07:33:41PM 7 points [-]

This is entirely anecdotal, however I once was entirely against the idea of having children. I had many justifications; personal, selfish, environmental, social, etc. Though, in hindsight, I probably just didn't want kids.

Right now all I want to do is go home and lay on the floor with my babbling, drooling, high maintenance alarm clock/poop machine. I can't say that meeting my wife made me instantly want kids because we knew each other for a few years before dating, but at some point in time I went from not wanting kids to wanting kids. The conscious choice to have children happened slightly more than 18 months ago, our daughter in now 9 months old. And I should emphasis it was a conscious choice.

I would strongly discourage having children unless you really want them, the negatives will be magnified and the positives will be reduced. For example, going to work after a week of only sleeping 2 hours a night is a lot easier if you can look forward to a happy, two-toothed smile when you get home. If the presence of said smile holds no intrinsic value, then you are in for a long day at work. Likewise, the shear enjoyment of seeing your baby crawl for the first time is soiled if it is accompanied by, "Oh great now we have to baby-proof the lower 3' of the house".

I will grant that I have an incredibly small about of data from a very narrow range of the existence that is parenthood.

Comment author: Shephard 01 June 2012 05:42:16PM 2 points [-]

I don't think you should consider doing it if you don't actually feel any over desire, but it might be worthwhile to take a closer look at that lack of desire. I feel the same way, actually, and I plan on never having children, but I often wonder if that ties into deeper, subconscious issues that might be doing me a disservice.

Also keep in mind that agreeing to have a child out of a sense of obligation or a desire to please your partner could have a detrimental (if unintentional) impact on how you treat the child (especially if something went awry with the original relationship, which can happen).

Comment author: BadAstronaut 01 June 2012 07:59:38PM 0 points [-]

I also think there must be some kind of psychological issue behind my lack of interest in children. For instance I have an infant nephew that I see regularly and people ask me if I want to hold him, play with him etc. The answer is no (although sometimes I do it anyway). The strange thing is if I was around a puppy I would want to hold it and play with it - this doesn't seem right. Shouldn't I be adapted to find the young of my own species more loveable than any other?

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 01 June 2012 08:12:11PM 6 points [-]

Puppies might be bred to be a supernormal stimulus for some people.

Comment author: Desrtopa 28 May 2012 03:43:06PM *  17 points [-]

This seems to have been alluded to in some other comments, but I'm going to make it a bit more explicit and point out that observing the parenting of adopting families is likely to impose a rather strong filter on the parental environments under observation. Adopting families are not only very much in the minority, they're likely to have a systematic tendency to differ from the majority in specific ways.

Comment author: jsalvatier 28 May 2012 06:00:11PM 3 points [-]

This seems plausible to me. Can you think of specific ways in which they might be biased in an important way?

Comment author: Desrtopa 28 May 2012 07:09:55PM 13 points [-]

I suspect that families who adopt are likely to fall into a particular cluster of parenthood values, but I'd be hesitant to actually try to detail those values without reference to any actual study. I would speculate though, that they might be less invested in seeing their children grow up to be similar to themselves.

Comment author: DSimon 31 May 2012 06:55:22PM 9 points [-]

I'd further speculate that adoptive parents have on average more prior interest in raising children than biological parents.

Comment author: jsalvatier 30 May 2012 02:10:51AM 1 point [-]

That's a pretty plausible bias.

Comment author: CuSithBell 28 May 2012 05:43:45PM 0 points [-]

Also, what happened to the attitude that published studies are often wrong? Where did the skepticism go? Why do LWers suddenly think they understand how parenting works???

Comment author: wedrifid 28 May 2012 06:12:14PM 4 points [-]

Also, what happened to the attitude that published studies are often wrong?

Even if published studies are often wrong they still constitute evidence in favor of the conclusion they present - just weaker.

Where did the skepticism go?

Got beat up by the arrogance and the phenomenon whereby some kinds of subject seem to be limited to the realm of experts or professional while others are considered fair game for everyone to have an opinion on.

Why do LWers suddenly think they understand how parenting works???

Most of us have seen it happen. We've probably at least got the basics down.

Comment author: mfb 30 May 2012 10:06:03PM 1 point [-]

I have an additional problem with the studies. How do you determine how parenting style influenced the child? You cannot re-run the experiment. A correlation between the scores of parents and adopted children (in any test) implies an influence. However, it is not required.

To give a simple example, take some test which has just two options: "Yes" and "No", both for parents and children. Assume that 50% of the parents have "yes" and 50 "no". There are two different parenting styles: One guarantees that the children will get "yes", and one will guarantee "no". Clearly this is a large impact of parenting! But what happens if all parents choose between those two styles with 50% probability? You won't see any correlation between the parents and the children. While this example is unrealistic, it is not so absurd to imagine some children which try to become different from their parents, while others try to become similar. The parents are important in that case, but a simple correlation will not show this.

Twin studies are better to find influences of parenting.

Comment author: Emile 27 May 2012 08:50:08PM 4 points [-]

I'm currently reading "The Nurture Assumption", that goes into more details on the research showing the small effect of parenting styles, and the bigger effect of genetics and peers. There's still some stuff I'd want to research more (specifically, some parenting choices have effects on peer groups, like choosing where to live and where you send your kids to school; if Harris is right about the importance of peers I would expect that to show up as an effect of parenting style, but I haven't seen it discussed yet).

The lesson I get from all this isn't that as a parent I won't make a difference, but rather that making a difference is difficult, that requires solid knowledge and careful thought, and that most people don't put the effort into acquiring the knowledge or making sure it's reliable or thinking strategically, and instead follow what is normal or fashionable.

(I have a blog where I occasionally jot things down, though I haven't written much there lately)

Comment author: jsalvatier 28 May 2012 12:25:36AM *  1 point [-]

Absolutely! I'll take a look at your blog.

Comment author: jsalvatier 28 May 2012 12:18:38AM *  9 points [-]

Interpreting Adoption Studies

This is supplementary.

Understanding some key facts about twin and adoption studies helps make their results seem less counter intuitive.

The data discussed here is primarily on children and parents in first world countries who are non-poor. This data does not help answer questions about parenting effects that are very different from typical first world non-poor parenting styles. The data does not help address the effect of growing up in malnourished or without access to education. Indeed, twin and adoption studies with adopted kids in extremely poor households show that nutrition is an important predictor of life outcomes (link)

It also doesn't address extreme parenting styles. Not many people raise their kids in the woods cut off from the rest of society and this kind of variable is not included in the regressions, so the data has little to say about this kind of parenting.

If adopting parents treat their adopted children with “less intense” parenting than their biological children, then adoption studies will understimate the effect of parenting. In the extreme case, if all adopting parents treat their adopted children the same as other adopting parents but vary in how they treat their biological children, we will measure a zero effect size even if parenting has important effects.

Parenting could have a big effect on combinations of outcomes while only having small measured effects on each individual outcome. For example, parenting could have a large effect on “having a major drug or alcohol or gambling problem” but the measured effect of parenting on each of these individually could still be small because the adoptees and their adopted sibblings can have different symptoms (one has a drug problem and another has a gambling problem).

It's also the case that adopting parents are probably systematically different from non-adopting parents. It could be that non-adopting parents tend to have parenting styles that do have important effects on long term child outcomes, while adopting parents have parenting styles that have very small effects.

When an adoption study finds that parenting does not affect outcome X, it does not mean that parenting cannot affect it, just that the parenting styles in the data set did not affect it.

Comment author: CuSithBell 28 May 2012 12:30:03AM 1 point [-]

just that the parenting styles in the data set did not affect it.

Nitpick: Probably did not affect it differently.

Comment author: DanielVarga 28 May 2012 10:52:25AM 0 points [-]

Maybe I should know this, but what does it formally mean when a study claims "parenting does not affect outcome X"?

Comment author: jsalvatier 28 May 2012 05:00:43PM 1 point [-]

As I understand it, it means that they did a regression between some aggregate measure of family environment (like total family income) and the outcome of interest and it put a small regression coefficient on the aggregate measure and/or that the differences in outcomes between adopted children in the same home were not smaller than the differences between adopted children in different comes. In the later case, I think you can compare adopted children both to adopted and unadopted siblings. Have I explained that clearly?

Here's an arbitrary adoption paper cited in the book: Sacerdote, B. (January 01, 2007). How Large Are the Effects from Changes in Family Environment? A Study of Korean American Adoptees *. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 122, 1, 119-157.

Comment author: juliawise 29 May 2012 02:41:23AM 1 point [-]

Note that the Sacerdote is the only study I've been able to find on adult outcomes of adoptees. There's not much out there.

Comment author: jsalvatier 06 June 2012 10:13:26PM 0 points [-]

If you're interested, I posted the swedish study.

Comment author: juliawise 06 June 2012 11:14:03PM 0 points [-]

Thanks! It seems to say that how well you age is more determined by genetics than who raised you, which is unsurprising given that you've had decades of other environmental influences by that time.

Comment author: jsalvatier 04 June 2012 02:06:43AM *  0 points [-]

I see at least two twin-adoption studies which deal with adult outcomes (in Ch 2. of Caplan's book), but I haven't searched very thoroughly:

(I've requested this paper, but don't yet have it Edit: here it is ). Age differences in genetic and environmental influences for health from the Swedish Adoption/Twin Study of Agings this one has adult outcomes, but Jennifer Harris et al., "Age Differences in Genetic and Environmental Influences for Health from the Swedish Adoption/Twin Study of Aging," Journal of Geroontology 47 (3) (May 1992), pp. 213-220.

I haven't gone though all the citations thoroughly though, so there might be more there. You're right that there doesn't seem to be that many.

This one talks about adult outcomes, but I can't find out what ages they're actually talking about, so it may be that most of them are early in life. Thomas Bouchard et al., "sources of Human Psuchological Differences: The Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart," Science 250 (4978) (October 1990), p. 223.

Comment author: jsalvatier 29 May 2012 03:46:54PM 0 points [-]

I want to say "That can't be right", but I don't have Caplan's book with me to check his references. I'll check this evening.

Comment author: juliawise 31 May 2012 11:08:39PM 0 points [-]

That study pretty much changed my mind about adopting, so if you find anything else, I'd like to know.

Comment author: adamisom 31 May 2012 12:40:32PM 3 points [-]

"On the margin, you should consider having more kids. If you were planning to have zero kids, consider having one. If you were planning to have 3 kids, consider 4, etc." Wait, I thought happiness research indicates that the step from zero to one is a decrease in happiness whereas the step from, say, 3 to 4 would be only a negligible decrease in happiness. So there's that asymmetry, if I remember one of Caplan's blog posts correctly.

Comment author: Shephard 29 May 2012 09:18:41PM *  11 points [-]

I've commented more extensively on the scientific and logical basis for Caplan's ideas elsewhere, including my serious concern about his reliance on separated-at-birth twin studies, but I'll limit my comments here to something a little more subtle.

While some of his data about intelligence and physical health seemed pretty sound, I remember his conclusions about personality and happiness seeming a lot sketchier. Which makes sense since the psychological health of any given individual is extremely difficult to quantify (much less the effect of one person's psychological health on another's). But I think it's these aspects that good parents are most concerned with: Will my child live a life that is largely stress free? Will I pass on my bad habits? How can I teach my child to be able to form strong and healthy emotional connections to others?

When I (non-scientifically) observe the reasonably sane parents I know, my general fear is not that they're making their children stupid or that they're sabotaging their child's future health. My fear is that they're passing on a host of much more insidious problems - body image issues, co-dependency, repression of anger, etc. When adults go into therapy, it's usually not because they're worried about their lack of income or talent or intelligence, it's because they're struggling with complex issues relating to self-esteem, trust, and identity.

Now I admit that these are extremely fuzzy concepts - the "science" of psychological health is still extremely young and hard data is difficult to obtain - but I'm not the one writing a book on parenting. What I'm trying to get at is that while I agree that the modern trend of "tiger-parenting" is useless at best and damaging at worst, that doesn't mean there might not be some less-cartoonish improvements that parents ought to adopt. And Caplan's book doesn't just present the research for your consideration, he makes a point of boldly telling you to just stop worrying. I think his evidence doesn't justify such boldness, and that he's trying to take the air out of a question which still deserves a great deal of cultural attention.

Comment author: Multiheaded 01 June 2012 03:14:36PM *  0 points [-]

Damn straight. This common-sense observation really is needed to balance the (oh-so-contrarian) original post; techincal/quantitative concerns about overpopulation, heredity, etc all seem less much less important in contrast with the point above - at least to my limited psychosocial understanding.

Comment author: Gastogh 28 May 2012 10:25:37AM *  4 points [-]

Adoption studies indicate that differences in parenting styles have mostly small impacts on long term life outcomes of children, such as happiness, income, intelligence, health, etc..

What exactly is "parenting style" understood to mean here? I have a feeling it's something seriously counterintuitive, as many of the findings cited, e.g. parenting having "a small effect on adult drinking, smoking and drug problems" diverge radically from every other source on the subject I've ever seen. The top results of my ten-second Googling were far more in line with what I've seen before - that the children of smokers are twice as likely to smoke as their peers, which is hardly a "small effect." Given all these things, the claim that parenting has no effect on "overall health" etc. seems very, very dubious, which casts an unfavorable light on the whole set of claims. Or maybe these findings are simply specific to adopting families and shouldn't be generalized beyond that.

Comment author: jsalvatier 28 May 2012 05:22:01PM 4 points [-]

The idea is that those big differences are easily attributable to differences in heredity rather than differences family environment.

See this comment and this comment for more on adoption studies.

Comment author: wedrifid 28 May 2012 03:15:07PM 0 points [-]

What exactly is "parenting style" understood to mean here?

Among other things, whether the child is subject to mild physical beatings (corporal punishment).

Comment author: Jodika 15 September 2014 07:42:37PM 2 points [-]

I fail to see from this review how the idea that raising kids effectively is less difficult than commonly assumed (or at least that many of the stressful and time-consuming things parents do are less effective than assumed) necessarily leads to the conclusion that one should have more kids. Surely the conclusion ought to be 'you should have more kids if you want to have more kids'.

Comment author: [deleted] 07 June 2012 06:14:24PM *  2 points [-]

Unexpected data: I have a moderate desire to be a parent at some point but my vague impression of what parents should do required a significantly higher level of effort than this suggests. But honestly, if I spent less time fighting kids to do things which would not help them I would probably try to teach them calculus or programming just for kicks instead as long as they were willing to play along.(And martial arts, so they don't become the kid everyone picks on because they know calculus I guess...)

Comment author: ChristianKl 28 May 2012 05:04:27PM *  2 points [-]

If you want your kid to learn the violin so they’ll have fun right now, it may very well be worth it, but don’t do it because you think it will increase their future income or intelligence.

Maybe the standard good parenting advice is simply wrong. Having a kid who learns the violin is about status. It's not about intelligence.

If you want your kid to be more intelligent it might be more straight forward to get them to play dual-n-back regularly.

The same goes for helping a child to learn vocabulary for a foreign language. Testing them directly by reading out loud probably won't help the child to get better at learning languages. If you however teach a child to use SRS-learning that will have a massive effect.

Comment author: Emile 28 May 2012 09:52:33PM *  8 points [-]

Maybe the standard good parenting advice is simply wrong. Having a kid who learns the violin is about status. It's not about intelligence.

On the other hand, maybe parents know that, and correctly expect that status will help their child more than intelligence.

Comment author: jsalvatier 29 May 2012 01:39:17AM 5 points [-]

Though you'd think that if that were the case, such effects would show up in income statistics. A better argument is that having a kid who does violin etc gives parents a status boost (this is how I originally interpreted Christian's statement).

Comment author: Emile 29 May 2012 09:23:41AM 2 points [-]

I mostly agree; though there's also the aspect of having your kid associate with the kind of kids who get sent to violin lessons, which is probably a "better" peer group than what you'd get from many other activities.

Comment author: juliawise 29 May 2012 02:45:03AM 3 points [-]

Having a kid who plays violin is more about the parent's status than the kid's. This may help the kid learn to eventually jockey for status as adults. But I have to question how much that improves their quality of life, if that's what we care about.

Comment author: Emile 29 May 2012 08:55:40AM 5 points [-]

I wouldn't say "Jockey for status" as much as "give him tastes and references that make it easier for him to come off as high status / associate with high-status people" (those might be ways of saying the same things, but "jockeying" calls to mind dominance and put-downs).

I expect it would improve their quality of life, all else being equal, but I don't know if Violin lessons would be a good way to improve one's status (probably far from the best one). I agree it's probably mostly about the parent's status, and the kind of kids the peers wants their kid to associate with.

Comment author: shminux 27 May 2012 05:46:54PM 4 points [-]

I like the summary given by one reviewer:

It says that REASONABLE parenting, with love, affection, attention, and fun times spent together is sufficient to let your child make the most of their potential. You do not have to be a SUPER parent, just a loving attentive normal parent, to achieve the same results.

What the book IS saying, is that in the LONG RUN, into their 30s and later, THAT is when your upbringing with begin to fade away. It doesn't matter how you bring up your kids, they're likely to end up with roughly the same earning power, roughly the same IQ, roughly the same level of happiness, and a couple of other measures, whether or not you insisted on taking them to ballet class when they objected, or to practice team sports even though they hated it. And THIS is why the book says (see point 1), RELAX. Have FUN with your kids, rather than stress them and yourself out over activities neither one of you is enjoying. Give them your attention when you're happy and relaxed, and if you need to let them watch TV for an hour to get some quiet time for yourself so that YOU can relax, and then spend QUALITY time with them, allow yourself to do that. You won't be hurting your kid's future income.

Certainly "love your kids and have fun with them, the rest will work itself out" is an attractive message. It contradicts my anecdotal short-term observations, but they don't claim any short-term effects, only long-term.

Comment author: MileyCyrus 27 May 2012 10:08:45PM 8 points [-]

You don't even have to be a "reasonable" parent. Parents in the 1960's were "bad" by today's standards*, and the kids turned out fine.

*The book talks about how parents spend far more time on childcare today than they did in the 1960's.

Comment author: waveman 29 May 2012 10:40:54PM 1 point [-]

It is worth pointing out I think that the baby boomers were far more violent that the current generation and were dysfunctional in many other ways. They also produced the biggest bubble and the worst financial crash since the great depression, and a marked decline in many aspects of American life such as the economy (rampant deficits and declining living standards for average people). And look at the ethical standards of the politicians from the baby boomer generation.

The fact that most people mostly recover from their childhood by their thirties does not mean that it did no damage. Your teens and 20s are supposed to be the best years of your life.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 29 May 2012 11:12:05PM 1 point [-]

Your teens and 20s are supposed to be the best years of your life.

(blink)

I assume you mean "supposed to be" here in the sense of conventionally understood to be, rather than some kind of obligation. Even so, though, it seems like a poor convention to endorse.

Comment author: wedrifid 29 May 2012 11:37:03PM 2 points [-]

I assume you mean "supposed to be" here in the sense of conventionally understood to be, rather than some kind of obligation.

If not, anyone who had lousy teens and 20s but are going great in their 30s should be ashamed of themselves and start making self destructive decisions so as to rectify the situation!

Comment author: TheOtherDave 30 May 2012 03:54:57AM 2 points [-]

Yeah, that seems to follow. Of course, the alternative reading simply means we should look forward to life getting worse and worse.

Me, I only really started getting the hang of this life in my early 40s, and am looking forward to seeing what comes next.

Comment author: loup-vaillant 31 May 2012 04:45:49PM 2 points [-]

and if you need to let them watch TV for an hour to get some quiet time for yourself so that YOU can relax, and then spend QUALITY time with them, allow yourself to do that.

I've seen recently a kenote (french) on the effects of TV on people. While this sentence seems reasonable, I would say (if the keynote is as solid as it looks) that you should go real easy on TV. 1 hour a day is already much too much. During the very first years of development, this would be a catastrophe. (To name just one example, we have reasons to believe TV is almost entirely responsible for the recent 10% drop in SAT scores — from the 60s to the 80s. I don't know how many IQ points that would be.)

(Now the effects of TV do not all come from the screen itself. There are priming effects (smoking, violence, food), there are attentional effects, there are sedentary effects… Those different effects can be addressed differently.)

But if you're already a "good enough" parent, you probably cut TV for quality time anyway.

Comment author: CuSithBell 31 May 2012 04:56:56PM 3 points [-]

I heard a horror story (anecdote from a book, for what it's worth) of a child basically raised in front of a TV, who learned from it both language and a general rule that the world (and social interaction) is non-interactive. If you could get his attention, he'd cheerfully recite some memorized lines then zone out.

Comment author: Swimmer963 31 May 2012 05:27:18PM 3 points [-]

Was the book "The boy who was raised as a dog?" Because I remember reading the same story in that book.

Comment author: CuSithBell 31 May 2012 05:41:02PM 0 points [-]

It certainly could be - I read the anecdote from a book I picked idly off a shelf in a bookstore, and I retained the vague impression that it was from a book about the importance of social factors and the effects of technology on our social/psychological development, but I could have been conflating it with another such book. After reading an excerpt from "The Boy who was Raised as a Dog", the style matches, so that probably was the one I read. Would you recommend it?

Comment author: Swimmer963 01 June 2012 12:48:30AM 2 points [-]

Yes yes yes! An awesome book!

Comment author: CuSithBell 03 June 2012 04:17:41PM 0 points [-]

Well! I may have to take a more in-depth look at it sometime this summer.

Comment author: taw 29 May 2012 06:43:33PM 3 points [-]

Caplan is drastically overinterpretting evidence for heredity of features, and his main thesis relies on them far too much.

Comment author: gjm 30 May 2012 12:04:45AM 2 points [-]

This seems plausible on the face of it, but do you have some evidence or argument to back it up?

Comment author: taw 30 May 2012 01:45:58AM 2 points [-]
Comment author: NancyLebovitz 30 May 2012 05:59:39AM 4 points [-]

Also, twins share their uterine environment.

This wouldn't apply to IVF twins reared apart, but I doubt there's much of that in the studies.

Comment author: taw 30 May 2012 10:23:13AM 2 points [-]

As we know from natural experiment of Dutch famine of 1944 mother's health is extremely important. This brief event had significant effects on two generations.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 30 May 2012 01:29:48PM 1 point [-]

I get the impression that multi-generational effects don't get into the popular press much. I'm guessing that people don't want to think about problems which would take a long time to get better.

Do you know whether two generations was enough to undo all the effects of the famine?

Comment author: tut 05 June 2012 03:55:06PM 1 point [-]

...whether two generations was enough to undo all the effects of the famine?

It didn't.

Comment author: gjm 30 May 2012 08:28:11AM 2 points [-]

Why's that relevant, when the question is what parents can change by how they treat their children? (It would be highly relevant if the question were "how much of these differences are genetic?", but on this occasion it isn't.)

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 30 May 2012 01:25:46PM *  0 points [-]

I'm addressing the piece taw linked to, which was about flaws in studies of twins separated at birth.

Some degree of topic drift is normal here. Have you been in venues where all comments are supposed to address the original topic?

Comment author: gjm 30 May 2012 03:48:46PM 1 point [-]

No, I have no problem at all with topic drift. It just wasn't clear to me that that was what had happened. My apologies for any unnecessary confusion.

Comment author: taw 30 May 2012 10:19:45AM 0 points [-]

Caplan's arguments are totally wrong, it doesn't make his thesis wrong. I'd expect his thesis to be very likely to be at least mostly correct.

Comment author: gjm 30 May 2012 08:27:30AM 2 points [-]

Looks (though I've barely skimmed it) like good evidence that twin studies say less than one might naively think. Doesn't say anything about Caplan. Care to say a thing or two about what Caplan thinks twin studies say and how it differs from what analysis like that reveals that they say?

(Perhaps I'm just unduly lazy; I was hoping to find an easier way of assessing your claim versus Caplan's than by procuring a copy of Caplan's book, reading it carefully, reading a technical paper on twin studies, examining the particular studies on which Caplan's claims depend, and comparing his use of them with the analysis in the aforementioned technical paper. Of course that's the only way if I want to be really sure, but ... well, I'm lazy and was hoping there might be a shortcut :-).)

Comment author: taw 30 May 2012 10:25:30AM -1 points [-]

You're too lazy, no shortcuts this time.

Caplan's claim doesn't depend on this line of argumentation, but if it was true (which it's not) it would make his point extremely strongly. Weaker claim that normal parenting styles don't affect outcomes much, because the rest of environment (and genes) together have much greater impact is perfectly defensible.

Comment author: jsalvatier 30 May 2012 02:09:19AM 1 point [-]

As I understand it, the strongest evidence for his thesis comes from adoption studies, do you disagree?

Comment author: taw 30 May 2012 03:32:12AM 5 points [-]

The way I see it all heredity studies (adoption, twins etc.) are pretty much universally worthless due to ridiculously wrong methodology (see this for details).

It is trivially observable that populations change drastically in every conceivable way without any genetic change, including along every single behavioral axis claimed to be "highly hereditary" (and the same even applies to many physical features like height, but not others like skin or eye color). Heredity studies are entirely incompatible with this macro reality, regardless of their (universally awful) methodology.

The best argument for Caplan's thesis is that even if we accept that environmental effects totally overwhelm genetic effects (which we should), there's still very little evidence that parental effort within range of typical first world middle class parenting make a big difference.

Comment author: jsalvatier 30 May 2012 03:44:09AM 0 points [-]

Heredity studies are entirely incompatible with this macro reality, regardless of their (universally awful) methodology.

Do you just mean that if a feature is close to 100% heritable, then there shouldn't be big differences in that feature? Or do you have something else in mind?

Comment author: taw 30 May 2012 10:17:29AM -3 points [-]

If a feature is "100% genetically determined", then it cannot possibly change overnight with no underlying genetic change, and it should be possible to predict from just genetic information.

There are features like that - gender for example is nearly 100% genetically determined. Eye color is pretty much genetically determined. Skin color is reasonably genetically determined.

There's no way in hell to predict IQ, height, weight, or behavior from just genes, and considering entire populations they change drastically in a couple of generations. These are not genetically determined features in any conceivable way.

The very concept of "X% heritable" relies on awful statistical shenanigans, and is best forgotten.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 31 May 2012 12:32:52AM *  4 points [-]

The very concept of "X% heritable" relies on awful statistical shenanigans, and is best forgotten.

I recommend Neven Sesardic's book Making Sense of Heritability for a good treatment of this issue by an analytic philosopher. Sesardic shows pretty convincingly, in my opinion at least, that the intellectual shenanigans that have so badly confused and poisoned the debates about these issues have been mainly committed by anti-hereditarians. The book is short and very well written, although unfortunately it's a small academic edition that's likely to be quite expensive unless you're lucky to find a cheap used copy or have access to a university library.

Regarding the specific points made by taw, some of them have already been answered in the discussion thread following this post.

Comment author: taw 31 May 2012 07:07:03AM -3 points [-]

Answers in that thread were mostly totally misguided and most people didn't even bother to read the Kamin and Goldberger study before restating their cached beliefs.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 31 May 2012 03:05:18PM 6 points [-]

Well, then I'm puzzled why you didn't reply to these misguided assertions.

In any case, the paper you cite may well be correct point-by-point, but on the whole, it's a lawyerly argument that tries to overwhelm and misguide the readers by amassing a pile of hand-picked one-way evidence that will dazzle them and make them lose sight of the overall balance of evidence. As I wrote in that earlier comment thread in response to similar points:

As for heritability studies, you are certainly right that there is a lot of shoddy work, and by necessity they make a whole lot of wildly simplifying assumptions. If there existed only a handful of such studies, one would be well advised not to take them very seriously. However, the amount of data that has been gathered in recent decades is just too overwhelming to dismiss, especially taking into account that often there have been considerable ideological incentives to support the opposite conclusions.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 31 May 2012 05:12:04PM *  2 points [-]

As for heritability studies, you are certainly right that there is a lot of shoddy work, and by necessity they make a whole lot of wildly simplifying assumptions. If there existed only a handful of such studies, one would be well advised not to take them very seriously. However, the amount of data that has been gathered in recent decades is just too overwhelming to dismiss,

Piling up shoddy evidence does not make good evidence. (And it still doesn't if you -- that's the impersonal "you", not you in particular -- call it "Bayesian evidence".)

especially taking into account that often there have been considerable ideological incentives to support the opposite conclusions.

There are considerable ideological incentives on both sides.

The Sesardic book you recommended is in my university library, but when I went to look at it, I found at least a shelf-foot of books on the subject, some (I could tell just from the authors' names) on one side, some on the other. So I didn't bother looking any further and left all the books there. I could read Sesardic saying what you say he says, but then I could read Kamin arguing the opposite, and in that situation, to form a view of my own with any real basis I'd have to research the subject enough to write a book of my own. I have other things to do. Such is the nature of controversies: they cannot be settled by saying "read this book".

One observation though, that I haven't seen made on either side. Failing to find strong genetic causes for something does not imply that it's the environment; failing to find strong environmental causes does not imply that it's the genes; failing to find either does not imply that it's the interaction of genes and environment. I believe I've seen (but no cites) all three wrong arguments being made from time to time. All that failing to find the causes implies is that we have failed to find the causes.

Comment author: Vladimir_M 02 June 2012 05:54:49AM *  4 points [-]

There are considerable ideological incentives on both sides.

I don't think it can be reasonably argued that ideological incentives and pressures have been equally strong in both directions.

[T]o form a view of my own with any real basis I'd have to research the subject enough to write a book of my own.

At one point, I spent quite a bit of time trying to make some sense of these controversies, and based on what I've found, I disagree with this. Even though my initial bias back then was strongly against hereditarianism, it quickly became apparent to me that the writings of prominent anti-hereditarians raise many more red flags of kinds that are readily apparent even to a reader without an in-depth knowledge of the subject.

Now, of course, we may disagree about this when it comes to this particular topic. But as a more general point, I think it's neither necessary nor useful to approach controversies with the attitude that one must suspend judgement unless one is an expert. Often there is strong evidence in favor of one or the other side that can be correctly evaluated even if one has only a casual familiarity with the subject.

Comment author: wedrifid 31 May 2012 07:59:13PM 4 points [-]

Piling up shoddy evidence does not make good evidence.

Um... yes, often it does.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 01 June 2012 09:21:41AM 1 point [-]

The Sesardic book you recommended is in my university library, but when I went to look at it, I found at least a shelf-foot of books on the subject, some (I could tell just from the authors' names) on one side, some on the other.

I can imagine the titles giving clues to the slant of a book, but how do you make such deductions from the authors' names?

Comment author: taw 31 May 2012 10:57:08PM -1 points [-]

Well, then I'm puzzled why you didn't reply to these misguided assertions.

Sadly there are many blind spots here where groupthink rules, and people will just happily downvote anybody who has a different opinion. They are not worth replying to. I see the downvote brigade found this thread as well.

Comment author: drethelin 27 May 2012 07:37:58PM 3 points [-]

This is silly. Having kids is absurdly expensive*, and you STILL have to parent them somewhat. You can't just pop out a baby and have it be fine 30 years later if you don't touch it. Even if the impact of the outcome of each child on each other child is marginal, the impact on YOU is still large.

*http://www.babycenter.com/cost-of-raising-child-calculator

Comment author: jsalvatier 28 May 2012 12:14:49AM *  9 points [-]

The argument is not that kids are costless, but that people overestimate the cost of having kids. If you don't get much utility from kids then this isn't going to sway you, but if you like kids enough to have one or two, this might make your life easier or convince you to have more kids than you otherwise would.

Comment author: waveman 29 May 2012 10:46:27PM 2 points [-]

I haven't seen anyone mention the other issue with having large families. There are already more people than we can sustain at US living standards, Every extra child adds to the pressure on pollution, the environment, raw materials, land, water, and energy.

In my case we stopped at 1 child.

Partly because as one of four I felt I clearly missed out in ways that would have made a huge difference to my life. I did not want that to happen to my children.

Partly because I wanted to do other things with my life as well as raising children. Until you have children you do not appreciate the huge impact they have on time, money and most importantly on your energy - not to be a super-parent but just to be a good enough parent.

But also partly because of the "Crowded Earth" factor.

Comment author: sabre51 01 June 2012 02:04:26PM 5 points [-]

Downvoted- this is misleading. It might technically be true that we cannot sustain the population of Earth at US living standards currently, but the main reason is that a large portion of the population is nowhere near US levels of productivity. Even given this, we produce enough food for everyone on the planet with agriculture in Asia and Africa at productivity levels far below what could be achieved with common US technology. So if those people can generate enough prosperity to make houses and iPhones, which we did without the benefit of borrowing tech from more advanced societies, then the world can easily sustain many more people at US living standards.

There are certainly environmental problems remaining, but a child born today in almost any region of the world has the highest expected standard of living so far in history. As Caplan points out in the book, new people have large positive externalities, and their contributions more than make up for any drain on resources. And of course environmental problems tend to become less severe as societies develop.

A person enjoying life is an extreme good, overpopulation is really not an issue, so have more kids!

Comment author: gwern 29 May 2012 11:29:49PM 2 points [-]

I believe Caplan's reply is basically that choosing to have kids affects the margin very little because any abdication on your part will be picked up by developing countries, and that having a kid is a net benefit because the more people there are, the more innovations and whatnot are created (positive externalities).

Comment author: Shephard 30 May 2012 06:11:04PM -1 points [-]

That sounds like what he might say, but I agree with Waveman. For one thing, the overall economic and environmental impact of one child in the developing world far outweighs that of one child born in poorer countries. Furthermore, if there's any detrimental impact of the bloated world population, then we need as many people as possible encouraging self-restraint, even if any one group of citizens can afford to indulge themselves.

Also, the claim that the percentage of innovators born to each generation is enough to offset the overall negative externalities is dubious at best. I'd say that our pace of innovation is still very obviously struggling to keep up with the pace our reproduction.

Comment author: Emile 30 May 2012 08:00:30PM 9 points [-]

I'd say that our pace of innovation is still very obviously struggling to keep up with the pace our reproduction.

That's not "very obvious" to me at all.

Comment author: gwern 30 May 2012 07:15:42PM 9 points [-]

For one thing, the overall economic and environmental impact of one child in the developing world far outweighs that of one child born in poorer countries.

This also holds true for their positive impacts too. Not much good science is conducted by Africans in Africa.

Comment author: athingtoconsider 11 June 2012 06:31:13AM *  0 points [-]

any abdication on your part will be picked up by developing countries

Having trouble parsing, could you explain what that means, perhaps by example?

Comment author: gwern 11 June 2012 03:20:26PM 1 point [-]

The demand for offspring is sufficiently inelastic that a Westerner refusing to have offspring is replaced by a developing country kid (or multiple kids, inasmuch as a Westerner kid consumes so many resources).

Comment author: athingtoconsider 12 June 2012 12:13:27AM *  0 points [-]

I'm having difficulty mapping that line of reasoning for some reason.

How, in practice, might a Westerner couple not having a kid exert influence on a non-Western couple having a kid? By what mechanisms are non-Western births influenced by Western births?

Comment author: gwern 12 June 2012 12:14:46AM 1 point [-]

Prices are the obvious mechanism that comes to mind - prices of things like food or top American universities.

Comment author: athingtoconsider 12 June 2012 05:27:54PM *  0 points [-]

Wouldn't lower prices for top American universities, e.g., lower the number of children born? I am under the impression that poverty is conducive to birthing more children.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 30 May 2012 05:15:11AM 1 point [-]

Caplan would point out how Malthusian predictions of disaster never seem to come to pass, whereas disasters and atrocities happen whenever Malthusians get a chance to influence policy.

Comment author: gwern 30 May 2012 03:26:52PM 3 points [-]

I would hope he would not point that out; famines and similar overshoots happened all the time throughout history, and still do, even in the past few unusual non-equilibrium centuries.

Comment author: Eugine_Nier 31 May 2012 01:11:45AM 4 points [-]

famines and similar overshoots happened all the time throughout history, and still do, even in the past few unusual non-equilibrium centuries.

Caplan would argue, and I largely agree with him, that modern famines are caused by bad economic policies rather that overpopulation.

Comment author: DSimon 31 May 2012 06:31:53PM 4 points [-]

Are the negative effects of these bad policies increased by overpopulation?

Comment author: Estarlio 02 June 2012 02:20:29AM 1 point [-]

What age were these people adopted at? If the basic personality of a child is strongly determined by anything that occurred before the adoption date, (not just genetics,) then you wouldn't expect subsequent parenting to have much effect.

Given that many developmental psychologists (John Bowlby 1969, Hazan and Shaver 1987, Grossman and Grossman 1991, Quinton Rutter and Liddle 1984... and so on) found evidence to support the ideas that, among other things, infant attachment styles predict later friendships, later happiness in love, and eventual parenting styles - it seems likely that, even if the children were adopted quite early on in life, adoption studies wouldn't adequately differentiate between degrees of genetic and environmental influence.

Comment author: neq1 31 May 2012 03:11:54AM 0 points [-]

Adoption studies are biased toward the null of no parenting effect, because adoptive parents aren't randomly selected from the population of potential parents (they often are screened to be similar to biological parents).

Twin studies I think are particularly flawed when it comes to estimating heritability (a term that has an incoherent definition). Twins have a shared pre-natal environment. In some cases, they even share a placenta.

Plus, the whole gene vs. environment discussion is obsolete, in light of the findings of the past decade. Everything is gene-environment interaction.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 31 May 2012 03:36:31AM *  0 points [-]

So most of what you have written makes sense but there are some major issues with some parts.

heritability (a term that has an incoherent definition)

Can you expand on what you think about the definition is incoherent? This is a pretty standard term.

the whole gene vs. environment discussion is obsolete, in light of the findings of the past decade. Everything is gene-environment interaction.

The fact that many genes interact in a complicated way with the environment is not newly discovered. It doesn't change the fact that in some contexts genes or environment can matter more or less. For example, if one has a gene that codes for some form of mental retardation, in most cases, environment can't change that. (I say in most cases because there are a few exceptions especially related to issues related to trace nutrients or to bad reactions to specific compounds). Similarly, if someone has severe lead poisoning they are going to have pretty bad problems regardless of what the genes the person has.

The first two points you made while roughly valid connect to a more general issue- yes these studies have flaws, but just because a technique has flaws doesn't mean we can't use it to learn (especially when in this context the issues you bring up are well known to the researchers).

Comment author: neq1 31 May 2012 03:47:48AM 2 points [-]

The answer to the question "what proportion of phenotypic variability is due to genetic variability?" always has the same answer: "it depends!" What population of environments are you doing this calculation over? A trait can go from close to 0% heritable to close to 100% heritable, depending on the range of environments in the sample. That's a definition problem. Further, what should we count as 'genetic'? Gene expression can depend on the environment of the parents, for example (DNA methylation, etc). That's an environmental inheritance. I just think there is an old way of talking about these things that needs to go away in light of current knowledge.

I agree with you that we still can learn a lot from these studies.

Comment author: jsalvatier 31 May 2012 07:46:52AM *  4 points [-]

The definition of 'heritable' being underspecified (since you have to specify what population of environments you're considering) is not the same as being incoherent.

Comment author: neq1 31 May 2012 01:50:38PM 4 points [-]

I agree. Good point.

Comment author: moridinamael 27 May 2012 10:12:01PM 0 points [-]

Thanks for posting this, I am going to be a parent in a few months, so this type of thing is frequently on my mind.

I wrote a lot of words but deleted them and instead decided to simply say, without a concrete definition of what the author means by "parenting" I can't help but find the conclusions nearly meaningless. What is parenting? How is parenting measured?

The statement "differences in parenting have no effect on adult weight" is almost on face absurd. What if I make it my primary mission as a parent to enforce optimal nutrition for my child, and to lecture the child for five hours a day on nutritional science, and to give the child phobias of all sugary foods and taste aversion to sucrose?

Of course this will have some effect on adult weight. Would I be mistaken in thinking that these conclusions should be rephrased along the lines of, e.g. "typical deviations in attitudes of parents regarding their child's nutrition do not significantly effect the adult weight of the child," which says absolutely nothing about atypical deviations such as a lunatic trying to raise a Bene Gesserit might attempt.

Comment author: MileyCyrus 27 May 2012 10:47:31PM *  8 points [-]

What is parenting?

Reading to kids, driving them to soccer games, making their food, helping them with homework.

How is parenting measured?

Time use surveys.

What if I make it my primary mission as a parent to enforce optimal nutrition for my child, and to lecture the child for five hours a day on nutritional science, and to give the child phobias of all sugary foods and taste aversion to sucrose?

It might stick. Or your kid will forget about it once they get older. Or they'll rebel against your indoctrination and become even fatter than if you hadn't lectured them.

Comment author: jsalvatier 28 May 2012 12:23:58AM 1 point [-]

Exactly, one thing Caplan discusses in the book, which I didn't mention here is that the data is equally consistent with 'parenting has a small effect' and 'parenting has an equal chance of doing what you want it to and backfiring'.

Comment author: jsalvatier 28 May 2012 12:22:12AM 4 points [-]

Congratulations on your soon to be parenthood! See my comment on adoption studies. If you're interested in this, I do recommend the book. The kindle version is like $10.

Comment author: moridinamael 28 May 2012 01:05:01AM 3 points [-]

Thanks for the addendum regarding twin studies, you've answered several of my confusions. I originally felt that Caplan was making an unjustifiably strong claim, but you explained that he isn't looking at "extreme" styles of parenting.

Comment author: Laoch 17 September 2013 11:58:08AM 0 points [-]

A basic question here, what underlies Caplan's belief that having more kids so important?

Comment author: MBlume 29 May 2012 07:14:07PM 0 points [-]

Maybe this is wholly refuted by the adoption study, but from its summary, Ferber method sounds like it would lead to anxious attachment style in adulthood

Comment author: jsalvatier 30 May 2012 02:24:00AM *  0 points [-]

To clarify, evidence for the effectiveness of the Ferber method is completely separate from adoption studies. I suppose they do give some evidence that it's hard to make lasting changes to a person, by doing something in their childhood.