Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The Freedom To Move

Here is what David Brooks said in a recent article in the New York Times (January 15, 2005):

”Over the past 30 years, the fraction of women over 40 who have no children has nearly doubled, to about a fifth. According to the Gallup Organization, 70 percent of these women regret that they have no kids.

It's possible that some of these women regret not having children in the way they regret not taking more time off after college. But for others, this longing for the kids they did not have is a profound, soul-encompassing sadness.

And it is part of a large pattern. Most American still tell pollsters that the ideal family has two or three children. But fewer and fewer Americans get to live in that kind of family.


For some, it's a question of never finding the right person to have kids with. Others thought they'd found the right mates, but the relationships didn't work out. Others became occupied with careers, and the child-rearing part of their lives never got put together.

But there is also one big problem that stretches across these possibilities: Women now have more choices over what kind of lives they want to lead, but they do not have more choices over how they want to sequence their lives.

For example, consider a common life sequence for an educated woman. She grows up and goes to college. Perhaps she goes to graduate school. Then, during her most fertile years, when she has the most energy for child-rearing, she gets a job. Then, sometime after age 30, she marries. Then, in her mid-30's, when she has acquired the maturity and character to make intelligent career choices, she takes time off to raise her kids.

Several years hence, she seeks to re-enter the labor force. She may or may not be still interested in the field she was trained for (two decades earlier). Nonetheless, she finds a job, works for 15 years or so, then spends her final 20 years in retirement.

This is not necessarily the sequence she would choose if she were starting from scratch. For example, it might make more sense to go to college, make a greater effort to marry early and have children. Then, if she, rather than her spouse, wants to stay home, she could raise children from age 25 to 35. Then at 35 (now that she knows herself better) she could select a flexible graduate program specifically designed for parents. Then she could work in one uninterrupted stint from, say, 40 to 70.

This option would allow her to raise kids during her most fertile years and work during her mature ones, and the trade-off between family and career might be less onerous.

But the fact is that right now, there are few social institutions that are friendly to this way of living. Social custom flows in the opposite direction.

Neil Gilbert observes in the current issue of The Public Interest that as women have entered the work force, they have adopted the male model, jumping directly into careers. Instead, he suggests, it would be better to make decisions based on what he calls the "life-course perspective." It's possible that women should sequence their lives differently from men, and that women may need a broader diversity of sequence options.

Gilbert, who is a professor of social welfare at Berkeley, points out that right now our social policies are friendly toward this straight-to-work sequence and discourage other options. Programs like day care and flexible leave help parents work and raise kids simultaneously. That's fine for some, but others may prefer policies that help them do these things sequentially.

It might make sense, for example, to give means-tested tax credits or tuition credits to stay-at-home parents. That would subsidize child-rearing, but in a way that leaves it up to families to figure out how to use it. The government spends trillions on retirees, but very little on young families.

I suspect that if more people had the chance to focus exclusively on child-rearing before training for and launching a career, fertility rates would rise. That would be good for the country, for as Phillip Longman, author of "The Empty Cradle," has argued, we are consuming more human capital than we are producing - or to put it another way, we don't have enough young people to support our old people. (That's what the current Social Security debate and the coming Medicare debate are all about.)

It would also be good for those many millions of Americans who hit their mid-40's and regret not having kids, or not having as many as they would like. As it says somewhere, to everything, there is a season.”

* * *

What David Brooks didn’t do was look at the declining American birth rate from a global viewpoint. If he had, he would have seen that too many children are being born throughout the world, and that more American babies just makes the problem worse.

But even were David Brooks’s suggested changes to social policies to be implemented, it still wouldn’t persuade the women of America to have more children since, by using excuses like damage to career and financial hardship, they are simply rationalizing that they don’t want children, but wish not to say so straight out. If they really want children they will have them, no matter what.

But David Brooks needn’t worry that there won’t be enough workers to keep the aging Baby Boomers in the manner to which they are accustomed, since the needed help will simply be imported. There are, after all, millions of workers beyond the borders of the USA who would give their eyeteeth to be able come in and partake of the riches Americans wallow in.

Those of you who don’t like what I’ve said, and so are grinding your teeth, should see the importing of workers in terms of the importing of goods. Just as Americans are producing less goods, and so have to import more and more of them, so are Americans producing less people, and so have to import more and more of them. Just as producing goods in the USA is now more expensive than importing them, so is producing people now more expensive than importing them.

Think what it costs a woman in time, lost wages, aborted career, and plain aggravation and worry to raise a child, and what it costs the American taxpayer to educate each child from when it starts kindergarten to when it graduates from Yale. Isn’t it cheaper and more efficient simply to import workers ready-made, the costs of whose education and training have been borne by the taxpayers of India, China, Russia, Mexico, the Philippines, or wherever?

It is the current conventional wisdom that goods and capital be free to move unhindered around the world. Why, then, is no-one advocating that this freedom to move also be accorded to people who, after all, as workers, are the third essential element, alongside goods and capital, in the economic equation? This is something those who complain that too many people are entering the USA to work and improve their lives, should think about.

Security, especially since 9/11, has become another fig leaf behind which those who don’t like immigrants can hide. But, by invoking security, the immigration-bashers are rationalizing that they simply don’t like immigrants - particularly the “non-white” ones - just as women who, by invoking careers and hardship, are rationalizing that they simply don’t want children.

Apart from its humanity, allowing people to move to wherever they want makes economic sense, since migration has been shown historically to be the most effective means of eliminating poverty and creating wealth.

It is not generally known that until World War One, there were almost no barriers hindering worldwide migration. Those set in authority over us, wherever we are, have steadily eroded our freedom to move over the past eighty years.

The freedom to move should be as inalienable a right as food and shelter. We should be as free to move and settle anywhere in the world as does a can of beans or a dollar bill.

It is an idea whose time has come.