Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

January 19, 2005

Lawrence Summers, Women & Math

Filed under: — Different River @ 10:08 pm

Jane Galt has a fascinating analysis of Harvard President Lawrence Summers’ recent comments on possible (?) differences in average innate (?) mathematical ability between men and women. Actually, her comments on the reactions of other people are even more interesting.

By sheer coincidence — maybe — Meep has a post that doesn’t mention Summers or this incident at all, but does reference a May 2002 article by Doreen Kimura in Scientific American on “Sex Differences in the Brain” which begins:

Men and women differ not only in their physical attributes and reproductive function but also in many other characteristics, including the way they solve intellectual problems. For the past few decades, it has been ideologically fashionable to insist that these behavioral differences are minimal and are the consequence of variations in experience during development before and after adolescence. Evidence accumulated more recently, however, suggests that the effects of sex hormones on brain organization occur so early in life that from the start the environment is acting on differently wired brains in boys and girls. Such effects make evaluating the role of experience, independent of physiological predisposition, a difficult if not dubious task. The biological bases of sex differences in brain and behavior have become much better known through increasing numbers of behavioral, neurological and endocrinological studies.

The article even has charts showing different types of problem-solving which (the article claims) favor men or women.

So it seems that Summers is being excoriated for sexism for saying something that was said — apparently without controversy — by a trendy, certainly-not-right-wing publication, in an article written by a women over two and a half years ago. Which is based on a book written by a woman! (Sex on the Brain: The Biological Differences Between Men and Women by Deborah Blum)

Economics, and Having Kids

Filed under: — Different River @ 12:03 pm

Lots of people think that having kids is an economic burden, not only on the parents, but on the whole society. After all, if your measure of standard of living is “GDP per capita” then you decrease your standard of living when increasing the number of “capitas” (people) among whom to divide that GDP. But this is wrong, for many reasons.

Julian Simon made a whole career of pointing out the obvious fact that adding people produces more GDP too (i.e., you increase the numerator as well as the denominator), and the not-so-obvious fact that some types of products (e.g., cures for rare diseases, music only a smaller percentage of people like) are profitable only when there is a large enough total population that the small percentage of people who benefit large enough to make the product worthwhile. One great example: If 1 in 10,000 people has a certain fatal disease, then in a population of one million only 100 people have it and they all die. In a population of one billion, 100,000 people have it and it may well be worth someone’s trouble to find a cure. In essense, the 100 people in the smaller population who died, died of living in too small a world.

Steven Landsburg has made another arguement — if you don’t have enough children, Social Security will go bankrupt, so it’s good for society of people have more children. He also pointed out that if you have more children, each of them will inherit less from you, implying that if you have one child, it’s not in that child’s interest to have more since his or her inheritance will be smaller.

Personally, I’ve always thought that was a really dumb arguement, since you are also depriving your children of siblings, and that can be worth a lot more than any inheritance. My parents don’t have enough money for me to worry about an inheritance, partly because they spent it raising and supporting their five children (including me). But while I’ll inherit little if any money, I have four brothers and sisters who are my friends for life, and that’s worth more to me than any amount of money.

Now, Bryan Caplan, guest-blogging at EconLog, has another reason — based on the parents’ self-interest — to have more children

There is however a purely selfish argument for making another baby that most people overlook. I know a lot of parents who pull out their hair on a daily basis who are sure to disagree. But they are guilty of a grave error: Focusing exclusively on the present. When your offspring are ages 4 and 2, adding a newborn seems like a tough burden. And it is.

But think ahead to your golden years. How many kids do you need to get as many visits, phone calls, and grandkids as you would like? 5? 10? An old saying tells us that “One parent can care for five children, but five children cannot care for one parent.” It could happen to you.

Basic microeconomics recommends a simple strategy. Have the number of children that maximizes average utility over your whole lifespan. When you are 30, you might feel like two children is plenty. But once you are 60, you are more likely to prefer ten sons and daughters to keep you company and keep the grandkids coming. A perfectly selfish and perfectly foresighted economic agent would strike a balance between these two states. For example, he might have four kids total – two too many at 30, six too few at 60.

Trust me – you’ll thank me later. Your third child ought to thank me too, but we all know better than to expect gratitude from the young. Now all you have to do is convince your spouse!

I’d also like to add that I’ve noticed that after a certain age, perhaps shortly retirement, lots of people lose touch with their friends and lose the social outlets by which they used to acquire them — and if you get old, your are by definition likely to have outlived friends of the same age anyway. Thus, you are likely to be very lonely unless you have both had children, and raised them in such a way that they like to keep in touch with you. And I’m sure having siblings helps in this regard as well.

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