The Agenda

Matt Yglesias on the Kind of People Who Choose Small Families

As people get richer, they tend to eat fewer potatoes. Is the taste for child-rearing similar to the taste for potatoes? That’s a crude rendering of a debate that’s been raging elsewhere, and I’ve mainly ignored it. My sense is that people have been using fairly crude metrics, e.g., it would be helpful to know what happens among people at the top of the spectrum rather than among over-$75K households. One possibility is that while middle and upper middle class couples might see the decision to have children through the lens of the quantity-quality trade-off, extremely wealthy couples, who can afford to outsource more households production (hiring more than one night nurse, etc.) might see large families as a Veblen good. 

Moving right along, Matt Yglesias makes an interesting observation on this front:

 It seems to me very plausible that people are obtaining higher incomes because they don’t want to have large numbers of children. After all, a person who doesn’t want many children seems to me to be a person who’d be likely to prioritize education and career over romantic relationships in her teen years and early 20s. A household that doesn’t want many children is also a household that’s likely to locate itself in a high housing cost metropolitan area where median incomes are higher. If you move from New York City to Oklahoma City, your nominal income is overwhelmingly likely to fall, but your per square foot housing costs will also fall. Whether or not this makes sense as a tradeoff is going to have a lot to do with how much desire you have for space. People who want unusually large families should have an unusually high demand for space, which will make them unusually likely to be willing to forgo income-earning possibilities of the coasts in favor of the space-consuming possibilities of lower-income metro areas.

This argument makes intuitive sense to me, perhaps because I’ve recently returned home to New York, with its crazy housing market, from a brief visit to Chicago, where housing costs are somewhat less crazy.

Ah, now I remember why I was thinking about parents, etc. David Roberts of Grist has written a short essay on what he calls “the medium chill“:


“Medium chill” has become something of a slogan for my wife and me. (We might make t-shirts.) We’re coming up on 10 years married now, but we recognized our mutual love of medium chill within weeks of meeting, about the time we found ourselves on her couch watching scratchy bootleg VHS tapes of The Sopranos I ordered off eBay, drinking Two Buck Chuck, and loving life. We just never knew what to call it.

We now have a smallish house in a nondescript working class Seattle neighborhood with no sidewalks. We have one car, a battered old minivan with a large dent on one side where you have to bang it with your hip to make the door shut. Our boys go to public schools. Our jobs pay enough to support our lifestyle, mostly anyway. If we wanted, we could both do the “next thing” on our respective career paths. She could move to a bigger company. I could freelance more, angle to write for a bigger publications, write a book, hire a publicist, whatever. We could try to make more money. Then we could fix the water pressure in our shower, redo the back patio, get a second car, or hell, buy a bigger house closer in to town. Maybe get the kids in private schools. All that stuff people with more money than us do.

But … meh. It’s not that we don’t think about those things. The water pressure thing drives me batty. Fact is, we just don’t want to work that hard! We already work harder than we feel like working. We enjoy having time to lay around in the living room with the kids, reading. We like to watch a little TV after the kids are in bed. We like going to the park and visits with friends and low-key vacations and generally relaxing. Going further down our respective career paths would likely mean more work, greater responsibilities, higher stress, and less time to lay around the living room with the kids.

I can see how this might be a sensible and attractive approach to life for some. But Roberts takes a more evangelical approach, arguing that we’d be better off if more people embraced his “medium chill,” satisficing approach to life. 

My own view is that a fairly large number of people are believers in “medium chill” and that a relatively small group of people — I call them “killers” — constitute a neurotic, ultraproductive minority that drives our economy forward, and sometimes backward. Roberts might see these people as deeply mistaken about the sources of the good life. I think of them as differently wired, like the sleepless elite, and their tireless efforts account for many of the things the rest of us enjoy. Killers are the people who found high-growth business enterprises and who work crazy hours staring at spreadsheets or running regressions. Sometimes they do it in the often false belief that it will improve their status, thus winning the affection of members of the opposite sex, etc. There are also killers who just like the thrill of competition. Killers can be found in non-profits and the public sector, though not quite as often as they are found in lucrative slices of the for-profit economy. I’d like to see more killers in the public sector, which is why I favor more autonomy for public sector workers and more dispersion in public sector compensation. I tend to think that our policy environment is not sufficiently pro-killer, but of course others will disagree.  

With regards to Matt’s observation, one interesting question is whether the childless high-achievers (to use a slightly less murderous term) are free riders, as Ramesh Ponnuru or Rob Stein might argue. We all depend on someone to have and to raise children to keep our economy growing and to keep our entitlement programs on a sound footing, yet a growing share of adults are choosing to forego the rigors of child-rearing.

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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