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Economist Bryan Caplan is a fervent rationalist.
He calls news “a waste of time” and the readers are “myopic” for believing “the lie that something important happens every day”.
He is skeptical of democracy because voters have a common malaise he coins as “rational irrationality” leading to acts against economic principles. In his 2007 book The Myth of the Rational Voter, he proposes that in a way to secure their own interests, voters tend to be pessimists, despise markets, foreigners and productivity. They choose likewise leaders during elections.
As a behavioral economics professor at US-based George Mason University, Caplan is a fundamental believer of statistics and history. An ignorant Weberian at his worst, he was heavily criticized for saying that women are more free in 1880 than today for their deeds were considered their husbands’ responsibilities.
He disconnects the fact that women in those days are free from taxes and government scrutiny because they barely had individual rights and were almost seen as possessions of their husbands.
To do him some justice, the 41-year-old scholar does not challenge popular notions only to make himself stand out. In the criticism to democracy, he highlights the innate flaw of the system widely franchised in modern world: What benefits individuals may not good for the society and they tend to defend their own rights before the greater good. Voters are also heavily influenced by media, pollsters and politicians in making their decisions.
His cold, rational approach turned out to be handy in raising his three sons. His second book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, is a parenting book fueled by behavioral research on twins and adoption that basically tells parents to relax and enjoy the journey with their children for the world, statistically, has become a better place.
Strictly dedicating the book to middle class families in developed countries, Caplan offers the anti-thesis of Amy Chua’s best-seller Battle Hymn of Tiger Mother. He proposes that among the first rules to happy parenting is relieving the thoughts that parenting determines a child’s future.
He posits that behavioral genetics studies have proved that “nature”, the impact of hereditary genes, is more influential to a child’s life than “nurture”, the consequence of parenting. In fact, the impact of nurture would largely fade out except in terms of political and religious identity. Heavy discipline as famously introduced in China, according to Chua’s book, would only burden parents and hurt their children.
If parents insist to make upbringing matter, he suggests them to adopt children from the third world.
Caplan deconstructs every typical downside of becoming a parent with surveys and studies. Among them is regarding happiness and sacrifices.
A US General Social Survey states that married people with children are more likely to be happy than those who are single and childless. The survey also revealed that the main hit to parental happiness comes from child number one.
Citing a 2004 study on working mothers by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, he highlights that although mothers enjoy many things other than caring for their children, they saw parenting are more enjoyable than working, housework and commuting. Which sends a thought-provoking note for feminists: women enjoy being at home and raising their children more than going to the office.
Caplan suggests that parents should stop defining their children’s happiness and making unnecessary sacrifices for it. Smart sacrifices reduce the cost of parenting, making having more children become reasonable.
Parents should give up on enrolling their children too many extra classes they dislike and spending time driving them there. Because in the end, proven by another survey, at the top of children’s wish list is a desire to see their parents less tired and less stressed.
Involving children in parents’ hobbies is another trick. Parents should not sacrifice only watching movies that their children like in cinemas, but rather buy separate show tickets that each like.
As with his other provocative views, the book issues many challenges. Caplan dedicates a chapter to address a few of them. Mary, the supporter of canonical parenting, calls his approach “lazy” for “dumping parenting responsibilities” on his wife.
Mary, a stay-at-home mother with five children, acknowledges that she has a lot of responsibilities in terms of taking care of her children, but she doesn’t complain and she thinks that discipline will yield good behavior.
Princeton University’s international affairs professor Anne-Marie Slaughter also may have many things to say to Caplan. A mother of two teenage sons, she recently wrote an article in The Atlantic magazine on her sacrifices to be a better parent. The article, titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All”, tells of her bitter-sweet resignation from a top post at the US State Department.
For many years, Slaughter could satisfy both Caplan and feminists by successfully surviving the work-home dilemma facing working mothers.
She eventually surrendered because of the growing distance with her 14-year-old son during her two-year tenure in Washington. She views the sacrifice as necessity and reacts with fury to those who perceive her decision as indicative of substandard commitment to her profession.
One may argue that she needed to make sacrifices because the workload and responsibility for the Washington job were extraordinary. But for women at any level, now the message is clear: parenting requires a lot of work and women tend to bear the lion’s share of the burdens. Millions of career women face difficult circumstances to make it work.
“Although women, as a group, have made substantial gains in wages, educational attainment and prestige over the past three decades ... women are less happy today than their predecessors were in 1972, both in absolute terms and relative to men,” Slaughter concludes.
Being as selfish as Caplan apparently only works for men.
Considering parents’ happiness and capacity, having more kids, in the end, is not precisely a way out. It is rather about better plans on the exact number of children that a couple wants to have.
Fomer president Soeharto sums it with “dua anak cukup” (two children are enough) slogan in his family planning program.
Economists call it an optimal level of consumption.
Selfish Reasons To Have More Kids
Basic Books, 2011