The Economist as Parent and the Parent as Economist
Hunger and fatigue make me cranky. Food and sleep cheer me up. Somehow I reached adulthood without fully recognizing these truths. I knew them in the way that I knew Aaron Burr was the third Vice President of the United States, but I didn't know them in the way that I know not to step in front of oncoming traffic. They weren't built into my instincts.
With parenthood came wisdom. You can't live with a toddler and fail to discover the palliative benefits of a meal or a nap. Observing those responses in my child, I discovered them in myself. It's helped me to take better care of both of us.
My daughter Cayley, now aged nine and the apple of her father's eye, strove from infancy to focus my attention on certain principles of applied economics, beginning with the importance of material comforts. Cayley and I have been teaching economics to each other ever since.
I also teach economics in another guise, as a professor at a university. Professors and parents have a lot in common. A good professor, like a good parent, is there to teach, to learn, and, in the best of circumstances, to rejoice as his students surpass him.
If you're a parent, then you're an economics teacher. Economics is about facing difficult choices: earning income versus enjoying leisure, splurging today versus saving for tomorrow; developing new skills versus exploiting the skills you've got; searching for the perfect job (or the perfect marriage partner) versus settling for the one that's available. I want my students to think hard about those choices; I want my daughter to think hard about them too.
One of the great lessons of economics is that there is no single best way to resolve such choices; everything depends on circumstances; what's right for you can be wrong for your neighbor. Economics is the science of tolerance. Good economics professors teach their students that people can live very differently than you do without being either foolish or evil. Good parents teach their children the same thing.
Economics breeds not just tolerance but compassion. The economist's method is to observe behavior closely, the better to understand other people's goals and other people's difficulties. That kind of understanding is the basis of all compassion.
I teach a freshman honors seminar in economics. On the first day of class, I ask my students to tell me why today's grocery shoppers demand larger carts than their parents did thirty years ago. Here are some of the better answers: Today's working women can't shop every week the way their mothers did; they (or their husbands) must stock up more on each infrequent trip. Or: Today's working women can't cook dinner for the entire family as their mothers did; instead they buy enough food so that mom, dad, and the kids can all fend for themselves. Or: Today's wealthier families serve a greater variety of dishes at each meal. Or: Today's wealthier shoppers are willing to pay higher grocery prices for luxuries like wide aisles and the carts those aisles can accommodate. Or: Today's larger houses provide more storage space in the pantry. Or: Today's ubiquitous ATM machines mean that shoppers are no longer constrained by their unwillingness to carry lots of cash.
If things go well, students challenge each others' answers in insightful ways. One student says that today's shoppers buy more because advertising techniques have become more effective. Another objects that with a given income, shoppers who buy more of one product must necessarily buy less of another.
The point of the exercise is not to understand shopping carts; it's to understand the technique of understanding. To succeed at this game, students must be sensitive to the problems of families very unlike their own. Learning to see the world through someone else's eyes is an essential part of economic training; it's also an essential part of growing up.
There are a lot of good questions to practice on. Next year I think I'll ask my students why two-earner families generally save less than one-earner families with identical incomes. Is it because the two-earner family hires a housekeeper? Is it because working mothers care less about their children's future than stay-at-home mothers do? Is it because working mothers provide such good role models that their children can make it on their own without a large inheritance?
Or else I'll ask why, in every culture, men are far more likely than women to commit suicide. Is it because women feel a greater obligation to continue caring for their offspring? Or is it because women live longer, and can therefore look forward to surviving the spouse who is making life unbearable?
Teaching this stuff is a lot like parenting, really. When my daughter comes home in distress because she thinks she's been slighted in the schoolyard, I can help by encouraging her to imagine events through the other kids' eyes. There's a technique to that kind of imagination. You make a guess; you ask if it seems plausible; you check whether it's consistent with all the evidence; you refine your guess. That's exactly how a good economics student thinks about shopping carts.
Economics is about more than just individual choices. It's also about social choices: rewarding initiative versus promoting equality; preserving freedom versus preserving order; providing opportunities for the masses versus providing a safety net for the least fortunate. In other words, we want to ask: What is right? What is just? What is fair? My daughter is keenly interested in the same questions, more concretely posed: Is her allowance an entitlement or a reward for a clean room? Should she be free to ignore her parents' advice and wear a summer jacket on a winter day? Should she and her friends choose a video that most of them love or a video that none of them hates? Every time a child cries "That's not fair!", a parent is forced to confront some issue of economic justice.
I am bilingual. In the classroom, I speak the language of graphs and equations; in the living room I speak the language of dreams and imagination and the drying of tears. In the classroom I talk abstractly about the advantages of writing an enforceable contract; in the living room I talk concretely about why Cayley's friend Jessica doesn't like her to change the rules of checkers in the middle of a game. In the classroom I talk about the general problem of delineating property rights; in the living room I talk about the specific moral issues raised when one child lays claim to a quarter of the communal sandbox. Being bilingual doesn't mean you have twice as much to talk about; it means only that you get to talk about the same things twice.
But here's something odd: Sometimes issues that seem murky and difficult in the language of the classroom become clear and simple in the language of the living room, and sometimes the reverse is true. This suggests that parents and economists have a lot to teach each other.
That's what this book is about. It's a patchwork of essays about issues -- basic human issues like fairness and justice and responsibility -- that both parents and economists are forced to confront. It's about principles of right and wrong which are obvious to every parent, but must be taught to wayward children and wayward economists. It's about techniques of understanding. It's about teaching economics, and using ideas from economics to teach tolerance and compassion and intellectual rigor. It's about using economics to understand the family, and using the structure of the family to illuminate issues in economics.
Every now and then, an insightful college student challenges a professor and turns out to be right. To a conscientious professor, that's the most joyful experience you can have in a classroom. Parents -- at least the kind of parents who encourage the lively exchange of ideas among family members -- have ample opportunity to feel the same kind of joy. So do opinionated authors, if their readers are attentive. The arguments in this book are the product of sustained and careful thought, and they seem to me to be right. But when they're wrong, I hope that in the spirit of the classroom and the family dinner table, you'll let me know.
Copyright © 1997 by Steven Landsburg