America’s One-Child Policy?
The high cost of raising children is making it difficult for many Americans to have multiple children.
Under the provocative headline “America’s One-Child Policy,” Brandy Zadrozny argues that the high cost of raising children makes having more than one unaffordable for most Americans.
Turns out you don’t necessarily have to go to China to find a one-child policy.
Right here in the U.S., many working-class women are being forced to give up their larger domestic ambitions due to the crippling costs associated with raising a family with more than one child.
Let’s stipulate at the outset that this formulation is outrageous, if effectively attention-grabbing. It being hard to afford a middle-class lifestyle while juggling two careers and child care expenses is world’s apart from a state policy of forced abortions, female infanticide, and other draconian pressures to enforce a law against having a second child for urban dwellers.
Forty years ago, a third of American families with kids had just one child. Today, 43 percent do. That adds up to some 16 million one-child families in the U.S., or one of every five homes. Some 18 percent of married women have only one child by the end of their childbearing years, double what it was 30 years ago.
But forty years ago, most middle class families with kid could afford to have mom stay at home with the kids and it was socially normal to do so. That changes the calculus considerably and not mostly for economic reasons.
To be sure, explanations for declining family sizes are complicated. The end of the 1960s Baby Boom accounts for some of it, as does “a delay of child-bearing for educational and career opportunities,” says Jamie Lewis Thomas, a statistician at the U.S. Census Bureau.
But the increasingly prohibitive cost of parenting can’t be ignored, and the middle class is getting particularly squeezed.
The USDA estimates middle-income parents can expect to spend over $15,000 a year to raise a single child. Add another and the bill soars to $26,000. Keep in mind, though: this number takes into account parents who report “some child care,” including after-school programs or babysitters, so the figure for working parents with kids in full-time daycare would be much higher. Even the study’s author, Mark Lino, tells me, “All my friends with kids say this [estimate] is way too low.”
Well, most of his friends are probably highly educated professionals living in the northeast corridor. Not only is the cost of living higher there but the social expectations are much different. Sending the kids off to KinderCare in Des Moines is cheaper than sending them to Montessori in Manhattan.
Apart from housing, child care is indeed the priciest item on the baby receipt. In 35 states and Washington, D.C., it’s cheaper to send your kid to an in-state university than it is to put an infant in daycare, according to Child Care Aware of America (CCAA), an advocacy group that tracks daycare costs. The organization pegs the average annual cost of full-time infant child care in the thousands—from a low of $4,600 in Mississippi to almost $15,000 in Massachusetts.
That is indeed exorbitant. Note, though, that this is the rate for infants. Costs go down considerably for toddlers. Still, it’s high enough that, for families with two or more children, it often costs so much to put the kids in childcare that it makes little economic sense for the lowest earning parent to continue working.
And for middle-class families, the burden of this cost falls solely on the parent. About $10 billion in federal money goes into a funding stream to states that then assist low-income families with child care. But only one out of every six eligible children is getting the subsidies; according to the Government Accountability Office, many states lack the resources to serve all eligible families and some who would receive benefits just don’t apply. Not a single program offers relief for middle-income earners.
On the face of it, that hardly seems unreasonable. And I say that as a widowed middle-income earner with two pre-school children.
That’s unfair for working parents above the poverty line who are also suffering from the “unsustainable” costs, says Michelle Noth McCready, senior state-and-local-policy adviser for CCAA. “This is not just a low-income issue. It’s a middle-class issue.” she says. “If you aren’t a wealthy person, this is definitely going to affect you.”
The state doesn’t subsidize most of my living expenses; I’m not sure why taking care of my kids should be any different. We’ve decided as a society to help out the very poor. The rest of us are expected to feed ourselves and our kids.
A closer look at the data shows just how much of a middle-class issue it is. The two groups that are still having lots of babies according to Census data? The very rich and the very poor. Americans in the lowest income quintile are having the most children, followed by earners in the top 5 percent.
The link goes to a series of links, so I’m not sure how the data are being weighed. But I suppose it wouldn’t be shocking if there’s a modest bimodal tendency in the number of children. Presumably, those near the bottom of the distribution are less well educated and have less family planning support. And, certainly, there are fewer constraints on having children for those who are very well off. But where’s the evidence that there’s a critical mass of people desperately yearning for a second and third child but are forgoing that experience for economic reasons?
Parents who fall into the middle have to hustle to find affordable care for their children, of which the quality can suffer. Policymakers, McCready argues, don’t relate to that struggle. “They think, ‘Why don’t you just stay home or find a friend?'” she says. “They don’t understand the challenge for working women and families.”
Some families are forced to either spend less time with families or work more hours to supplement the cost difference. For others, especially those with two children, it makes more economical sense to drop out of the workforce entirely and join the stay-at-home ranks—now 5 million strong, or a quarter of married women.
No doubt. But it’s not immediately clear why that’s a bad thing. Presumably, the overwhelming number of these are people who, to use Chris Rock’s formulation, have jobs rather than careers. So, it makes sense for them to shift to raising their kids rather than taking outside employment from which they derive little satisfaction if there’s no significant monetary upside. But, of course, there will be exceptions.
McCready, herself a parent to a 4-year-old, can relate to the sacrifice a mother would have to make to add a second: “I can’t imagine having another child. What is it worth? Do I stay home and give up everything I’ve ever worked for?”
This choice disproportionately impacts women, particularly those in the early stages of careers. That is, they’re at the point where they’ve invested significant time and money in obtaining formal education and are still in the phase of their trajectory where earnings are low. Taking five or six years off—or longer, with multiple children—to care for children before they transition to school full time is indeed a major sacrifice.
But what is it that we’re supposed to do about all this? A massive federal subsidy to families with children, regardless of income level, in addition to the existing tax credits? Apparently, yes.
There may be a silver lining in three federal policies currently under consideration: the reauthorization to the Child Care and Development Block Grant and a proposed rule from Health and Human Services that would both improve the quality of child care and President Obama’s recently unveiled early-learning agenda. Obama’s proposal aims to make child care and education more affordable and available for kids from birth to age 5, and encourages states to expand services to middle-class parents.
These moves are positive, but if past is prologue, any real change could take years to enact. The only measure that currently supports all working families is the Family Medical Leave Act, signed into law in 1993 by President Bill Clinton after a decade-long fight.
These hard-won incremental steps prompt the question: at a time when women have become the primary breadwinners in this country, why not just institute sensible policy that includes affordable child care and universal preschool—like most of the rest of the industrialized world enjoys?
But FMLA only supports those working for large companies; small businesses are excluded. And, while I don’t necessarily object ideologically to the notion of some sort of universalized preschool and/or child care program, I’m highly skeptical that what works in Norway is scalable to a continental land mass that’s, especially in the parts of the country where the needs are greatest, sparsely populated.
Go ahead…drive a fuel efficient car, drive shorter distances, recycle, install more efficient light bulbs, and replace your refrigerator and windows with energy-saving versions.
Not having that kid will save around 20 times what all those other things do.
We are the worst thing that ever happened to this planet…a few less kids wouldn’t hurt.
@C. Clavin: The existence of the planet would be completely irrelevant without human beings on it.
One or two kids? Sounds good to me.
I have 8 brothers and sisters, I’m pretty sure that my parents did not consider their quality of life when they “decided” to have 9 children.
@C. Clavin: I have to second what James said. What a misanthrope you are.
I happen to generally agree with this “Clavin” statement:
My thought is this – have as many children as you can responsibly care for.
I can only speak anecdotally, but my experience is exactly what he’s describing. My wife and I have a son of toddler-age, and we desperately want another. But it’s simply impossible financially. My wife and I make good money, definitely well into the middle class for the northeast. We have a relatively modest (certainly not extravagant) home, and paying for another child in daycare would financially crush us (about another grand per month). The cost of daycare at that point would be higher than our mortgage and car payments combined. And having my wife stay home is not an option either, I simply don’t make enough to pay all of the bills.
I also don’t really get how you can say that childcare costs go down considerably for toddlers compared to infants. We are paying just as much for daycare now that our son is almost 3 as we were when he was 3 months old. No daycare I’ve ever talked to provides any kind of discount as a child ages.
@ James Joyner
I hope you are kidding…
@Ben: At least in these parts, there’s generally a premium for infants, who tend to require a much smaller staff to child ratio.
“The existence of the planet would be completely irrelevant without human beings on it.”
I can think of numerous species of animals which would disagree.
That said, this seems remarkably overblown for an increase of 10 percentage points in the number of families choosing to have only 1 kid (from “a third” to 43%).
@anjin-san: Man is the measure of all things. How important is Venus, really? Without sentient, sapient life, it’s essentially a curiosity.
Of course, there are subsidies in the tax code that are not mentioned here: deductions for dependents, per child tax credit, and, for those who work for firms, the flexible spending account where you can pay child care with pre-tax dollars. Even though I totally benefit from these, I would like to see a rational tax system instead.
As James points out the feds already subsidize child care expenses. First, with a tax credit equal to 20 to 25% of the cost of child care. Second, with an employer-child care exclusion, which makes the first $5,000 tax exempt. As to the second, I don’t know why this subsidy has to be employer-based, since I suspect only the largest companies would bother with the paperwork.
The more income a family has, the more they will spend on childcare. What people spend is not necessarily what something costs. A subsidy has to be carefully drawn to avoid increasing the cost to the extent of the subsidy, thus eliminating the benefit.
Edit: Scott beat me to this.
It’s good to know you have such a complete understanding of God’s plan. Nothing is important or of value unless you say it is.
Not sure I would look to the ancient Greeks to explain how the universe works. Or does the sun orbit the earth on your world?
@James Joyner: “Man is the measure of all things. How important is Venus, really? Without sentient, sapient life, it’s essentially a curiosity. ”
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why JJ, no matter how much he dislikes the current direction of his party, will always be a Republican. “The only thing in the universe that matters is me, or those who are like me, and the only way to judge the entire universe is how its exeistence or non-existendce affects me.”
The most perfect statement of Republican philosophy I have ever seen.
Here’s a one-page summary of the findings from the U. S. federal census.
If conditions around here are any gauge, most of the families with multiple children, particularly with more than two children, are religious conservatives. Mormons, Orthodox Jews, evangelicals, Muslims, etc.
@Ben: Where I live, the cost of childcare is also age-based, with a significant drop at about 15 months.
Damn, I am going to need another cup of coffee. If man is the measure of all things, we could fit the cosmos in a swimming pool.
Your math is bad, unless you are also considering that kid’s descendants as well. In which case, I don’t think you can predict the number. (Said another way, you can’t tell me a kid will use 20x the resources of its parent.)
The tax savings people are talking about here are not as big as you’re making it sound. The tax credit is capped at 3k for one child or 6k for two children. However, if you take advantage of the Child-Care FSA, which lets you deposit up to 5k tax-free to pay for daycare, the amount you put in the FSA is taken out of that tax credit. So if you do the FSA, the tax credit is basically meaningless. The absolute maximum amount of tax credit or pre-tax benefit you can get is 6k. Which is all well and good except that having two kids in daycare in this part of the country costs more than 20K a year.
@James Joyner: @Rob Prather: @James Joyner: How did you get from @C. Clavin: “a few less kids” to an absence of Homo Saps on the planet? And how did Ms. Zadrozny manage to get so exercised over a trend that went from 33% to 43% over forty years? Is there really much going on here beyond the well known trend that better educated populations tend to have fewer kids?
When we had to change daycare providers last fall (right around when my son turned 2), the daycare prices were precisely the same as they were when he was an infant, so all I know is my own experience.
Well, let’s not lose sight of the fact that government is pushing up a lot of the cost. Granted, trained, certified childcare workers is a good thing. However, when government mandates training and certification for a job, the cost of that training and certification goes up, usually way up since now it is no longer a consumer (childcare worker) choice. As such, the cost to those who use those government-mandated trained and certified childcare workers goes up, i.e., parents. Add in government mandated requirements for facilities, increases in insurance, etc. and you have expensive childcare.
Now parents are whining because the cost of childcare is expensive. Add in childbearing age parents moving remotely from family and older women working longer in any case and you lose the family (sister, aunt, grandma, retired family friend) childcare option.
But if we provide universal childcare because we as a society prefer the state raising children vs parents, how long before we hear the complaint that charging a penalty for not picking you child up by 6 pm is unfair. And what about a 5 am drop off. Otherwise, those children are interfering with the parent’s (mother’s) career.
It’s 20 times the carbon footprint saved by other means of limiting your carbon footprint…and yes it includes offsprings offspring.
The idea that man is the measure of all things is pretty damned arrogant…but it’s why we now find ourselves in the anthropocene epoch…and humans are in control of the planets thermostat.
If you are really certain humans make the earth relevant…you need to look at this geologic clock…the time humans have been around does not even show up at this scale.
Now put those two ideas together…that humans have been here an infinitesimally short time…and yet we are adversely impacting environmental processes.
Frankly, I think man could stand to be a little less the measure of things. But then, I tend to be humble that way.
@C. Clavin: “We are the worst thing that ever happened to this planet” …
To which James replied @James Joyner: “The existence of the planet would be completely irrelevant without human beings on it.”
Having read all the critical responses to James’ retort, they all fail to realize that the basic flaw of Clavin’s comment is that he offers a value judgment (“we are the worst . . “) with the implication that somehow the earth would be better off had human beings never lived.
But no such value judgment can be made without a sentient entity to make it. The statement falsifies itself.
Furthermore, if one affirms evolution (with no hint of intelligent design or creationism) then there is also no way to make an objectively-true value judgment. There is no better or worse off, there is nothing but what happens in evolutionary processes that have no teleological component. Clavin’s opinion that humanity is the worst thing that has ever happened is only an opinion that is itself nothing but the result of blind evolutionary processes. James’ opinion that absent humanity, the earth would be irrelevant is only an opinion that is itself nothing but the result of blind evolutionary processes. Both are equally valid or invalid, take your pick, understanding that your pick is only a choice that is itself nothing but the result of blind evolutionary processes.
What does one have to do with the other? Just because you put two things in a sentence it doesn’t make them related.
Especially if one of them is pure fiction.
I made no such implication…and I am in no way responsible for your inferences.
James please buy me
James – I urge you to get a telescope. Spend some time looking at other worlds in real time with your own eyes. Check out some other galaxies. Give some thought to the vastness of the cosmos, and just how small our role in it is. The perspective that can be gained by doing this is worth the effort.
A friend is retired from being an attorney at EPA. He tells me he knew a brilliant toxocologis (“two PhD’s!”) who with a couple of glasses of wine in her regaled a party he was at with the belief that the human race is an execrabel scourge (“like a pathological virus spreading on a petri dish”) on the planet earth. “She is a woman,” he says, “who could engineer a virus to wipe out the whole human race if she felt moved to do it.” That was years ago and at times he still worries about it.
Then the planet could resume it’s proper place in the universe as a ‘curiosity’ like venus.
Childcare! What about health care, what about the possibility that your child has special needs of the sort that your health plan (should you be fortunate enough to have one) does not cover? Then you have to factor in tens of thousands of dollars in educational and emotional therapy in those early years.
And what about college?
I have three children. I would like for them to get through college debt-free. Figuring that our “special needs” child will need a small college (and hence, a private one) and the other two will simply have to go to big public universities (increasingly expensive too because only 15% funded by the actual public), we are looking at about half a million dollars for tuition, room, and board. Since the kids are close in age, this means $500,000 in a 7-year period.
We are in a pretty high income bracket and we don’t figure on getting financial aid. Still, who can save up that kind of money, while paying off a mortgage and saving for retirement? Having one or two kids would have been SO much more prudent. No regrets, mind you, but having more than two children is a journey of insanity and insolvency.
Are we going to get back to the actual subject of the article at some point in this insane navel-gazing party?
@JohnMcC: D*mn. Just to set the record straight, I do know how to spell toxicologist and execrable. Just when you think you don’t need to proofread….
With the projected shortfalls in Social Security and Medicare, I see it in the State’s interest (read: all of our interest) to encourage at least a replacement-level reproduction rate (including immigration), when measured across all social tiers. (My understanding is this rate is about 2.1 children per couple.) The current trend of middle income famlies shown in this article will make that very difficult. An expanded childcare subsidy should at least be on the table for this economic reason, even ignoring the “social impact.”
Otherwise we end up as Japan, which seems to have been very painful since the turn of the century.
Worse than the Chicxculub impact that resulted in the extinction of 75% of plant and animal species on Earth at that time?
Worse than the Permian-Triassic extinction event that resulted in the extinction of 96% of plant and animal species on Earth at that time?
I hope you were simply exaggerating for effect.
I think I know what you’re trying to say, but it strikes me as an extremely odd thing to say.
I guess its a matter of relevant to who – and even then it’s strange (or mind bogglingly specie-centric) not to include life on earth in general as part of “who”. And that’s even assuming there is no other intelligent life in the galaxy (let along universe), which is starting to look like is a pretty bad bet.
One of my brothers and his wife, with three kids spaced out over five years, ended up poaching one of the classroom assistants at their kids’ daycare to be their daytime nanny. They were able to find a sweet spot of compensation such that my brother is paying a few hundred dollars less per month, and the nanny is getting a few hundred dollars more each month than she was making at the school.
Just something to consider if you’re paying exhorbitant daycare fees.
A popular solution to the multiple child care problem, at least in my area, is hiring an au pair. It’s less costly to pay one au pair to watch three children than to put all three in day care.
Yeah…I am aware of those singular events.
But considering that we, as a species, show no interest in abating our behavior…only time will tell. Do you know what amount of damage the anthropocene epoch, which we are just entering, will do? What changes will be rendered? There are other things that can happen, beyond just extinction.
On a species level, yes. I don’t get the reaction to saying the planet is irrelevant without us, since we’re the ones giving relevance to things.
I don’t back expansion of solar and wind energy because it’s good for the planet in and of itself – I back it because it will allow us to live on the planet longer without ecological collapse endangering our survival.
And this is supposed to engender…what? Humility? Why should I be humble before a neutron star or a nebula? These things are unthinking forces of nature, they have no social aspect that I need to respect. The dude who signs my paychecks has far more influence over me than swirling balls of gas light-years distant.
I’m not dismissing nature, I just don’t understand what you guys have against the view that the Earth would be irrelevant without us to assign it relevance to our survival. Hell, if theoretical physicians are right, the whole universe dies in the end anyway.
Maybe it would’ve made a better impact if James had said, “Man is the measurer of all things.”
@Gromitt Gunn: Friends of mine in Nashville hired one of the teachers, who has a masters degree, and came out ahead as well. Of course, their point of comparison was a full-time nanny, not a child care facility.
Which is why many women think 4″ = 8″.
I’m just sayin’…
Man is certainly the measure of some things. All things? What a vast conceit.
Man has determined that the age of the universe is 13.77 billion years. Now consider the duration of the age of man. It’s worth thinking about.
IMO more American ways to deal with this at the national level include becoming immigrant-friendly and designing a strong day care entitlement.
I don’t agree that we show no interest, in fact there have been major leaps forward in environmental protection during the last 50 years (phaseout of CFCs, widespread adoption of catalytic converters in automobiles, just two examples).
The fact is we are very early in our awareness of our impact on the planet. Don’t mistake that for a lack of interest. Eventually even the GOP will get on board. (OK, maybe a bit optimistic on that last one…)
@anjin-san: I mean, I don’t know about you, but every measurement I’ve ever come across (like the age of the universe) was done by a human, or a tool a human made to do the measurement with.
No doubt. But the other creatures on this planet evaluate their environment, and we should not be dismissive of that simply because (so far as we know) our own measurements are the most sophisticated.
It’s also not a bad idea to consider the possibility that, out of the 100 billion or so galaxies out there in the observable universe (that we know about) other life exists. There is a pretty good chance that a lot of them would think of us as low grade morons.
Almost every point of light in this image is a galaxy. This represents a tiny slice of the total space available for observation.
Brazil has generous childcare policies(Daycare, preschool, 180 days of paid maternity leave) and still has a low fertility rate.
@Andre Kenji: Interesting, a quick google shows Brazil’s fertility rate dropped below the U.S. around 2006. (Now, Brazil is 1.81 and U.S. is 1.89) I would not have expected that.
The financial disincentives for having multiple children in the USA, for a middle-class family aspiring to give their kids a certain kind of life, are very clear. But as we point those things out we should also consider that western Europe does not have many of those disincentives and has a lower birth rate than we do.
In Europe there is universal health care. Especially for children, some countries are truly the nanny state plus. Child care is subsidized. Public schools are often very good. In many places kids ride public transportation (buses, even trains) for free. College is incredibly cheap and even programs like medical school may be free or near-free.
So what non-economic disincentives are crossing borders here? Maybe in part a parental ideal of spending a huge amount of time protecting, nurturing, and understanding each child? This certainly has to be sacrificed when the third (and even the second) child comes along. Many of my friends with only children don’t want more because they would be distracted from their perfect relationship with #1. This is possible in a civilization where we feel secure that that one child will survive and thrive.
@ElizaJane: This article shows how simply having “incentives” to have more children isn’t effective unless they’re the proper incentives.
Overrated. Americans “helicopter parent” far too much. Let the kids be kids, get their bumps and bruises, learn how to interact and deal with each other. Set reasonable limits and just let them go.
Living in a country with rather generous childcare facilities (our daycare is around $100 per month for 40h per week) I can state two things:
1) Without the childcare and other benefits we could not have afforded our child until much later in life. Late graduation ages in most European countries make this a relevant factor in same-age relationships. We would have had to defer until it would have become biologically difficult.
2) While those benefits are a great enabler, the decision for more children is less dependent on benefits (which secure a minimum standard) than on job security. I would nor make the decision to live close to the poverty line for 20+ years willingly. Nor would I like my children to grow up under such circumstances. As such it matters to me if I can expect to be employed gainfully and continuously in the future. As such the statistic may less reflect the increased cost for middle-class families than the decreased job security that comes with globalisation, economic instability and the job market glut.
Oh, yeah, that’s what you said, I just read it wrong. BUT, it’s still not clear how you would predict how many offspring’s offspring one would have, and if it goes infinitely (offspring’s offsprings’ offspring, etc.), which would be infinitely as much footprint, right?
Anyway, reminds me of the old Jack Handy saying: “I believe in making the world safe for our children, but not our children’s children, because I don’t think kids should be having sex.”
I think this is the first time I’ve had more downs than ups.
Now I know what it’s like to be Jenos, or JKB, or Florack.
Well…no…actually I have no idea about that.
@PD Shaw: A big problem is the illegitimacy rate between the lower income people. It´s common to see teenagers wanting to have babies because they have emotional issues, then, they have a child, they see that´s demand a lot of work and they never have children again.
On the other hand, few people sees that as a problem, and that´s odd, specially considering the generous pension system in the country.
If an ecosystem falls apart in the woods and there’s no human there to hear it…
Sorry to break with my fellow liberals, but Joyner is completely right: minus human awareness Earth does not exist for us as a species and would obviously have zero meaning for us. What with us not existing and all.
Would it mean something to animals? Who gives a sh!t? If we don’t exist then animals don’t exist to us, either. So speculation about what the place might mean to them is absurd. I mean, what of the plight of the endangered Groffulans of Planet Cheesedik eight billion light years from here? Do you care? No, of course you don’t, because you have no idea if they exist and have no opinion on their worth.
Just because we love the environment let’s not get weird, here.
As to the main question, does the economy make it impossible to raise more than one kid? No. It’s a question of priorities. If your highest priority is having more kids you have them, and instead of feeding them well you feed them poorly. Instead of lots of doctor visits you only see the doctor when absolutely required. You don’t get a good car, you drive an old beater. You shop Wal-Mart and flea marts.
In other words, it’s hard to have more kids and maintain a pleasant lifestyle. That’s a choice.
@ C. Calvin
That’s what you get for saying the universe does not orbit around
the earthhuman beings.
There is a reason why Europeans working in the US under B-1 visas return home prematurely if they have children.
If humans ended up extinct then the Earth would take some million years to clean up the tracks after us and then, through evolution, there might very well be time enough for another intelligent species. And that one might turn out a lot better.
Or as a acquaintance of mine told the beaming civil servant who said that they could finally offer her citizenship: “That’s awfully kind but I would like to return to civilization when I have kids”.
I’m told that the nice lady nearly had a heart attack. Seems not like an answer they get a lot in that office :D.
If we’re going to do comparatives, we might look at the chart on this report. on page 3. It shows the gap between the number of children women desire and the observed fertility rate across an assortment of OECD countries (sorry no Brazil).
It looks like the average woman wants from 2.0 children (Austria) to 3.0 (Ireland), but the average woman only has from 1.5 children (Italy) to 2.4 Children (Ireland). The gap is smallest between desired and observed in Austria, the greatest is in Sweden and Japan, followed closely by Australia. The United States doesn’t seem very remarkable, its close to the OECD-20 average.
I guess I would submit that where the gap is greatest, economic incentives/ disincentives could have the largest effect, but there are also cultural differences that aren’t entirely materialistic.
Which basically says that human relevance only exists if human exist. Which is certainly true enough, but since its basically a tautology, is pretty uninteresting.
My impression was that he was making a stronger statement, that the only things humans find relevant are things that effect them (or at least humanity) directly. And I don’t think that’s true for most people. For a start, much of modern science is based on research that no one dreamed would effect us (consciousness of the link between science and technology is fairly recent), and yet many people put an inordinate effort into discovering things just because it seemed meaningful in some way. You can argue much of modern particle physics belongs in that category – we may well never find a practical way to harness the Higgs particle, or a black hole, but many find the search fascinating. Similarly, most kids who are interested in dinosaurs (and there are a lot of them) do so without thinking of the possible benefits of paleontology and geology.
There’s a TV show that I saw a bit back, which takes a look at what would happen to the earth’s cities if humanity instantly disappeared. Lot’s of folks I talked to found it really interesting, though they shouldn’t have – what happened if we disappeared should be as irrelevant as what happened before we appeared.
Relevancy is whatever an individual decides is relevant.
I take what Joyner said as a comment on the obvious (as you agree) fact that minus humans earth is. . . well, nothing as far as humans are concerned.
@michael reynolds: There’s a kind of anti-humanistic, romanticized view of “nature” that’s far too common among liberals, who as the professed members of the reality-based community should know better.
In a dungy college classroom many many years ago, it was posited that Darwin and Marx were on a collision course.
Darwin and the belief in the survival of the fittest and the good gene pool surviving were gainsayed by Marx’s belief that the economic undercurrent of capitalism would carve up the family unit into one of a mere factor of production ergo, the demise of the family unit under unrelenting stress of capital’s incessant need to monetize everything.
I love goadingwingnuts who are so stridently pro capital by telling them the very same system they embrace will also produce many more Juans, Joses and Lupes since they are the only ones having babies and the whole Darwinian argument will be trumped by Marxist analysis.
In other words, the superior gene pool which should be replicating, is replaced by those at the lower end of the economic scale who must breed for survival because of the deprivations of the capitalist system.
When seen through this prism, the above article is wholly consistent with Marxist theory.
White people value money more than the societal benefit of having more superior genes in the gene pool since its “too expensive” to add another baby, hence the “anchor” baby hysteria among the wingnuts, but not the “we better destroy the greedy oligarchy via wealth redistribution” in order to save our society.
For decades I have followed this trend and on the surface, Marx to me is kicking Darwin’s ass.
The Reagan folks were always bringing up how much better the working class family was doing under them, but never acknowledged the family unit was smaller and that more people in the “family” were working vis a vis those in the 40s/50s/60s/70s.
Its amazing that Marx is looked at with complete boredom nowadays, whereas in the 1950s, colleges had many courses covering this philosophy.
We are so hamstrung in looking at the Gestault of these economic choices by morons on the right who “know the price of everything, but the value of nothing.”
@michael reynolds: “Sorry to break with my fellow liberals, but Joyner is completely right:”
michael, michael, michael. I and my fellow theists have to ask you to respectfully reconsider your position. Earth belongs to G*d, or Cthulla, or the Great Cookie Monster. Even the liberals with their Gaia worship have a point, though they will be damned by G*d, Cthulla or the Great Cookie Monster, so its somewhat a minor point if some piece of slime emerges someday to ask for a Big Mac. Simply put, Earth doesn’t belong to man, it belongs to the meaning that man places on it.
Yes, of course, because as we all know, government is the source of all evil in the world, it’s just so obvious…
That´s not the point to me. Sorry, but no paid maternity leave and no daycare is not what we would expect from a Civilized country, much less from a World Superpower. A Children is asset to the society, not an expense.
How does thinking that nature has a intrinsic value all it’s own beyond that assigned to it by human beings “romanticizing” it?
I don’t think “romanticizing” means what you think it does.
We have already decided “as a society” to professionalize the raising of our children – thus the discussion around child care costs.
This specialization is not all bad, but let’s not pretend working parents are ‘raising their children’, when they hire the work done 50 or more hours a week.
And what do you think it means, Inigo? I mean “dealing with in an unrealistic and idealized manner.”
Just to clarify…what I typed was that we are the worst thing that ever happened to the planet. That does not mean I endorse the elimination of humans. I do think we take ourselves far too seriously in many ways…and fail to recognize the seriousness of our existence in other ways. We didn’t have to make many of the choices we have made…taken the paths we have taken. But we did and thus we are not stewards, but free-loaders…taking and rarely giving back.
We all know that if you want your kid to have a good career, that kid needs* to go to college Also, it is highly preferable that they graduate from college without massive debts. One way of making this happen is to reduce the # of kids you have.
For my wife and I, that wasn’t really why we stopped at 2. We stopped at 2 because caring for 2 kids is enough work, thankyouverymuch. The expense is there, in the background, looming. But if we’d wanted 3, we could have managed it financially.
That said, going from #1 to #2 involved letting go of some dreaming I’d been doing about a vacation home on a lake or early retirement. Not happening now! Now we’re staring down… what, ~$400k in present-day dolllars worth of college expenses? So no vacation home and no early retirement, probably. But no reduction in current lifestyle either. The financial implications of 2 kids meshed well with our other reasons.
* – yes, I know. Exceptions happen. You do not plan that way, though.
Well, what I’ve been saying (and I think what others on this thread are saying) is that nature has value beyond that which is assigned to it by human beings, and that value would not vanish if human beings did. So how is that “unrealistic and idealized “?
Or are you just trying to to make some point about how moonbeam liberals think nature resembles a Disney movie?
I’m interested to learn how nature could have value when there’s nothing around that’s capable of making a value judgment. (Except maybe the dolphins. They’re pretty sharp.)
Not exactly, but some do think nature has an idyllic “balance” that we nasty, brutal humans have damaged with our selfish ways. Hence my inclusion of the term “anti-humanistic.” Humans are as much a part of nature as any organism. Our evolutionary processes are no different simply because we’ve evolved the ability to mold our environment to suit us.
The flip side of this is, as beings who are both self-aware and conscious of our impact on the environment that sustains us, we have a responsibility to maintain it and do the best–as far as our technology allows–to utilize resources in a minimally impactful way. And you’ll likely agree with me when I say on that particular count we have often failed.
So there cannot be intrinsic value without a human being standing by to make a value judgement? The lives of every non-human living thing on earth have no value unless one of us gives it the homo sapiens seal of approval? Only humans have value and only humans can assign value? I guess you are another one of those that has been given access to the master plan.
We have, in fact, done considerable damage to the environment. It’s possible that our level of intelligence is an evolutionary mistake that nature will correct. You are more or less saying that since we are a product of evolution, anything we do must be part of the plan. You might want to consider giving that more thought.
First, I don’t believe in a “master plan” and therefore don’t have access to one.
Second, read closely what I wrote: humans are the only creatures capable of making a value judgment. Animals don’t have any concept of “bad” or “good” or “evil” or “virtuous.” They don’t have self-awareness or any consciousness of the finite nature of existence. They don’t even understand why they have the urge to eat each other. They lack the ability to make value judgments. So when you ask, “only humans can assign value?” the answer is “yes.”
So, how do you arrive at a value judgment when there’s nobody capable of making one?
What I’m saying is the tendency of some people to consider humans as somehow being separate from nature is wrong, not that our existence within nature automatically means the damage we do is somehow part of an evolutionary “plan” (that doesn’t exist anyway).
Good point, though I would argue that we have a responsibility to defend the environment beyond what technology allows. A great deal of environmental damage is the result of greed, shortsightedness, and laziness, not technological shortfalls.
@anjin-san: Yes, I agree. I would expand my statement to include that.
I would argues that while perhaps only humans can assign value, the absence of that value judgement does not mean that no value exists. It only means that we are not measuring it.
This brings up an interesting question. I, as a human being, my say that the snail darter has immense value and must be protected. The guy standing next to me says that it’s just a stupid fish and we need to build that dam.
What then, is the value of the snail darter?
I’m reminded of an Einstein quote:
“Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.”
@Ben: I’m in the same boat. My husband and I have one child, and she’s all we’re going to have. But we originally wanted 2-3 – we just couldn’t afford it.
Childcare doesn’t go down significantly from infancy to toddlerhood, but it is a much more difficult task to find childcare for infants. Because they can’t yet walk and would need to be carried in the event of an emergency, the adult to child ratio is higher for infants than for toddlers. For this reason, many daycares don’t accept infants.
Childcare does go down when children transition from preschool to afterschool care, due to fwer hours, and a larger permissible adult to child ratio.
@PD Shaw: The child care tax deduction depends on income. For my family, it’s never been more than about 10% of what we paid for childcare.
@C. Clavin: Exactly. I have always worked, because I have had to, and my daughter has been in daycare or afterschool care since she was 8 weeks old. That doesn’t mean I don’t raise my daughter, or that someone else is doing it in my place.
Doesn’t the fish get a say?
Of course not, because it can’t. It lacks the ability to make the value judgment. It is so lacking in this ability that it doesn’t even have value to itself.
So in that scenario, the value is judged by humans, the only creatures capable of making the judgment. If a species evolved that was especially well-fitted to eating snail darters, and ate them into extinction, that would be it for the snail darter. And if the predator then itself went extinct…so it goes. Nobody would care because there’s nobody capable of it.
The fact your question HAS to be posed from the perspective of the human, and cannot be posed from the perspective of the fish, is very significant.
@anjin-san: The attributes of a thing and the value judged of those attributes are not the same thing. The value is created by the judgment, not the other way around.
Which is also something that it’s necessary for the humans involved to accept. In the end, for better or worse, we as a species (and individual actors) need to accept that we *have* to take responsibility for matters of life and death of other species.
Working with an animal shelter, I have to be exposed to these issues pretty regularly. While you want to do right by every dog, you have to make (or be party) to tough decisions about who lives and who dies for the betterment (in theory) of all dogs. And it truly sucks when you’re the one recommending euthanasia for a sweet but potentially dangerously flawed animal.
@Matt Bernius: Absolutely. We do it because they can’t. And because we created the circumstances in which they live. And because caring for other species makes us better as a species. Indeed, as we’ve become more technologically advanced and affluent, we’re able to improve ourselves morally in that we: we can afford to give a damn.
But, ultimately, the reason the earth matters isn’t because we’re some inconvenience to its ecosystem but because it’s our habitat. Taking care of the rest of it makes sense precisely because we live here and so will our grandchildren and their grandchildren.
That’s a tough thing in any circumstance. I’ve had to put down two beloved cats (and had a third die in my arms) and there’s nothing more reinforcing of the reality of responsibility than that.
And I agree with you–we humans have to understand that responsibility extends to all our dealings with nature. As @James Joyner said, “we do it because they can’t.”
Well, according to you, animals are unable to make value judgements.
Consider a fish, swimming in the ocean. I would say the ocean has great value to the fish – without it he cannot live.
Just because the fish is not swimming around thinking “Man, i love the ocean. Without it i would be fu**ed”, does not mean the value of the ocean to the fish does not exist.
@anjin-san: The fish can’t value the ocean because the fish does not have the capacity to value anything. You’re saying the value is there, but that’s because you, the human, recognize that the fish would be screwed without an ocean to swim in. You are the assigner of value here. That the fish benefits from having an ocean to live in is scientific fact, not a value judgment.
You can have value judgments about scientific facts, but that doesn’t mean the value is intrinsic to the fact.
Exactly. I am not talking about value judgements as creators of value, I am arguing against that.
The value is there, regardless of the capacity of the fish to realize it. The value actually is, as you point out, a scientific fact. The ocean is always valuable to fish, it does not become so because human beings recognize it.
The value of an ecosystem is intrinsic. The value of say, a dollar bill, is subjective. It only has value because people believe it does.
@anjin-san: Explain the intrinsic value of an ecosystem. How is the universe better off because there is life somewhere?
Is the universe better off? Above my pay grade. I would say the creatures that live in the ecosystem are certainly better off. Does something have to have value to the universe as a whole to have value? Seems like a tall order. It has value to the fish, that is certain.
Are you questioning the value of life in general?
But the fish still can’t make that judgment. As far as the fish is concerned, nothing has “value.” It simply is, and when it isn’t anymore, it simply isn’t. The fish cannot choose as we choose. It has no self-awareness. It has no value even to itself.
The very concept of “value” contains within it the requirement of a judgment. Is this good for me, is it bad for me? Is it beneficial or detrimental? Is it useful as a means to an end, or as an end in itself? Does it provoke joy, or horror?
But a fish lacks the ability to do any of that. As far as it is concerned, nothing either has or lacks value.
Not even the fish has value to the fish.
Woah, this got all philosophical and stuff.
I’m going with the species-centric folks here. I’m human, and I’m self-interested. The way I see it, our self-interest, properly understood, includes avoiding fouling our own nest. I’m in favor of taking care of our environment primarily because we have to live here. Valuing other critters is a distant second (though it’s there).
“Not even the fish has value to the fish.”
And you know this how?
Not into fish? How about bears? Now go and try to take a cub in front of it’s mother – then get back to me on how they can’t value anything.
That’s iffy at best – all we can really say is that fish don’t seem to value things the same way people do. If you have a pet dog for instance, its hard to believe it doesn’t value some things and not others – their thought process (too lazy to write out a long description which boils down to neuron action being thought) is too complex to usefully describe as automatic, in the same way that say a basic computer program automatically links a given input to a given output. And when you get to whales, the great apes, and elephants its really hard not to believe their processes are complex enough to include values. Many people are making the same mistake with the higher animals as Skinner did with humans, assuming its all action/reaction without any higher processing going on.
Rocks don’t mourn the demise of other rocks. Insects don’t seem to do it either. Elephants, whales, and the great apes definitely do. And quite a few animals (dogs and cats for instance) seem to do it as well.
Basically it still seems to come down to either:
1) a boring tautology: if humans didn’t exist than nothing would value the earth like humans do (because even if there is other life out there which can value (say Vulcans or Romulans if you’re not sold on dolphins and chimpanzees), it won’t be exactly like humans.
2) a very questionable assessment that every species other than human react in a mechanistic way using Skinner’s atoms of behavior instead of feeling and value.
3) a very narrow definition of value that requires the ability to put the feeling into language to be valid (ie does a baby who cannot yet speak value his or her parents?)
As someone who has had a number of aquariums over the years & spent a lot of time observing how fish interact, I would go beyond “iffy”…
@anjin-san: That’s not a value judgment, that’s an instinctive reaction. Mama bear doesn’t understand why she wants to maul you for making off with her cub. She just does.
But even if I accept, for the sake of argument, that bears (or chimps or elephants or dolphins) are capable of making value judgments as humans are, my position on the source of value is still valid. Value requires a judgment and it doesn’t matter if a human makes it or a bear.
@Mikey: “But the fish still can’t make that judgment. As far as the fish is concerned, nothing has “value.” It simply is, and when it isn’t anymore, it simply isn’t. The fish cannot choose as we choose. It has no self-awareness. It has no value even to itself. ”
You keep saying this. How do you know? How are you so certain that other species have no awareness and make no judgments?
It makes us all feel good about eating them, true. But it’s also true that the same things were said about any group of humans by any other group of humans who chose to keep them slaves.
I’m not a PETA person. I’m not claiming that the hummingbird outside my window is composing show tunes in its head. But I do wonder what gives you this absolute certainty that because you don’t understand how other species think they must not think at all….
Because they don’t act in ways that indicate they are self-aware and are making value judgments.
I don’t think animals in general do, but I’m open to the possibility, especially for the higher primates. I mean, they are very close to us on the evolutionary tree, so it would make sense.
@Mikey: “Because they don’t act in ways that indicate they are self-aware and are making value judgments. ”
You mean that they don’t act in ways that YOU RECOGNIZE as indicating they are self-aware and making value judgments.
Which, again, comes down to “hey, they’re not like me, so we can do whatever we want to them.”
Again, I’m neither an animal-rights activist nor a scientist, but I don’t see any qualitative difference between this judgment and the moral decisions that said it was okay to work Chinese immigrants to death on the railroad — or kill them outright if they “got out of line” — because “life is cheap to that kind.”