Jul 27, 2010

Lazy post: Childless by Choice


A few weeks ago, I gave an email interview for an online piece about women who choose to remain childless. It all ended up on the cutting room floor - fame, dear reader, continues to elude me - so I thought I'd share it with y'all anyway. It's easier than writing a whole new post, that's for sure.

Q: Why did you choose not to have children? Was it a conscious choice?

I never wanted children; it's just something that never appealed. I did read "The Handmaid's Tale" aged 14 and was deeply influenced by it, but that could have just made me deeply pro-choice (which I am), I don't think Atwood can be blamed here!

I used to get a vast amount of interrogation and aggression around this subject, though not so much anymore as I get older and more divorced. But in my twenties when I was getting married etc., it was a never-ending barrage of having to justify myself. I played the game, and came up with better and better rationalisations to explain myself: feminist rebellion against biological determinism, the state of the planet, the population time bomb, fear of being a bad parent, inability to take responsibility, relationship issues with husband, financial instability, how selfish and insufferable people (of my class and background) get once they have kids... I even used my Jewishness, saying that I don’t want to go through the dilemmas and struggles of raising bi-ethnic children!

But to be honest that was all just excuses. In reality, the more people asked me “why don’t you want children?” the more I thought “well, do I? Should I?”, and navel-gazed and examined my own desires. And because of this emphasis on wanting, desiring children, the more I didn’t find this burning need within myself, the more I became convinced about not wanting to be a mother. It’s a bit circular, but that’s how it worked.

These days I’m a bit more sceptical about exactly how much of a burning desire having a family is for women, and more in the camp that gender and even class expectations have something to do with it. But the short answer, for me, is that I was warned about my biological clock so much that when I couldn’t hear it ticking, I thought this was a significant fact about myself and that I that should make decisions based on it. Reverse psychology!

Q: Do you think people choosing to be child-free is a good or bad thing for society? Why?

I think it’s fairly neutral. You could speculate that there will be some unforeseen long term consequences from changing the demographic makeup of human societies so drastically, but I think the aging of the population would have more to do with it than the fall in the number of children. If you want to be a bit evo-psych about it, then they used to be just as much of a scarce resource as old people, because infant mortality was at something like 50% for most of human evolution. Anyway, you could equally well speculate (with some basis in observed fact) that fewer children mean that every child will get more care and education and be less vulnerable to abuse and neglect, which could ultimately only be a good thing for society as a whole.

In the short to medium term though, societies like Japan where the birth rate is low but immigration is almost zero will be the most vulnerable to the economic and cultural impact of an older population. The US and Europe, with all of their kvetching and occasional posturing on the topic, will continue to benefit from the influx of skills, enthusiasm and population that you get through migration. And that’s a good thing from start to finish, because it takes demographic pressure off of places like India and Africa that can’t necessarily support growing populations right now and redistributes it to where more economic and social agents are needed.

Will it mean the loss of ethnic purity in some places? Yeah. Will there be some evolution or even disappearance of the current national/regional cultures in the host countries? You bet. So what’s new? It’s not as if the Italian espresso can be dated to the Pleistocene. Or Italian. Or the Italians. I can’t get excited about that aspect of things, which makes me a terrible Jew and a traitor to my entire clan of aunties, but there you have it.

Q: Would you say the class expectations that you mention are middle class expectations?

I'd say where I came from - a working class area in Jerusalem, which is a very traditional city as you might expect - the expectation is that you have a large family because "children are a blessing" and it's what women do, and then you work very hard and make sacrifices to give them what you didn't have in life. Or just work very hard and make sacrifices because it's what you do, even if you don't have class aspirations for your children. It's seen as deeply and bewilderingly strange to not want to have "a family", because family is such a strong social glue in that environment.

In the middle class culture I ended up belonging to as an adult, there's definitely something consumerist about having children. It's dressed up in the language of nurture and sometimes "science", but it's also and economic life stage. It's something to upgrade to - you need to get a bigger house, and change your car to a 4x4, and then there's all the accoutrements like four different buggies and two car seats and a high tech cot and developmentally correct toys and and and. There's endless consumption around the growth of the family, and if you're my age and don't have a large house and a large car there's something wrong with you. I'm struggling to put it into words, but it's almost like if you're my age and living in a small flat and take the bus then you're an economic failure. And if you say "you know, you don't *need* any of this stuff", people immediately say "oh well I do, because I have the kids to drive around and I just couldn't do that if we only had one car". They use their family as a pretext to consume.

There are, of course, also just nice people who love children and have well adjusted normal families because, you know, they love each other and have the urge. And upper middle class people who have the luxury to "opt out" and bake organic home woven birthing yurts. And there are different class dynamics associated with those scenarios. But the above two are the main aspects of my personal experience.

Jul 26, 2010

Why economics is not a science

If you're not familiar with the Prisoner's Dilemma, here's a nice Wikipedia article about it for you. For the purposes of this discussion, all you need to know about it is that it's a simple experiment that has shown, time and time again and all over the world, that people almost never make the choices they'd be expected to make if they were purely rational beings.

Rational choice theory (oh, alright - but do your own Googling next time!) is the theory that says that even though that is patnetly the case, we should still govern our lives (and set policy, and make economic predictions) as if they did. Because it's the right, or more correctly "rational" thing to do. I very much suspect that rational theorists' definition of "rational" is "that which will make our mathematical models work".

Imagine if medicine was run that way: "yes, sometimes people don't respond as they should to treatment, but that's just because they're irrational! Everyone will have penicillin shots and peanut butter for breakfast, because that's what's best for them. Even when it isn't."

Modern economics - mostly microeconomics, but macroeconomics takes some of the former's assumptions and runs away with them, too - just can't be made to work without the assumptions of rational choice theory. And rational choice theory is flat out wrong, in the scientific sense of being incogruent with observed reality.

Which is why we should be very, very wary of anyone who dismisses our objections to, e.g., severe public spending cuts on the basis of economic forecasts and economic theory. Not because it's always and necessarily wrong, but because it is an ideology dressed up as science. So we should evaluate the claims of the current government as ideological rather than evidence-based: not "is it necessary, based on economic forecasts, to privatise GP surgeries and cut housing benefit?" but "is it the right thing to do to expose surgeries to potential bankruptcy and people to potential homelessness?".