07 March 2013

Are kids the solution or the problem?

Last fall, I asked my students to recommend policies that would promote long-term thinking for sustainability and fighting climate change by lowering people's discount rates.

Several gave this simple and powerful answer:
Encourage people to have more children.
Now this conventional wisdom relies on the notion that parents look farther into the future due to their stronger interest in "intergenerational equity," i.e., a planning perspective that includes their kids' lifespans.

But I wonder if it's really good to encourage people to have more kids than they would on their own:
  1. First, because more kids stress resources and the environment.*
  2. Second, because it's not hard to think of parents with kids who are LESS, not MORE, likely to think of the future. This is especially true in LDCs, where parents break laws and take big risks to feed their kids. They are not just using more resources; they are taking bigger risks with the resources they have.
  3. Third, parents with more kids have fewer resources (time and money) to help those kids eat, learn, etc. If they grow up "hungry and stupid" then they may do more damage.
So why do governments subsidize children (via tax deductions, free education, income supports, etc.)?

I can see a few winners:
  • Priests who want more tithing faithful on earth and souls in their heavens
  • Politicians who want more voters
  • Generals who want more soldier
  • Businessmen who want more customers
But I don't see any positive impact on resources or the environment. Do you?

Bottom Line: Governments should tax -- not subsidize -- children to promote sustainability.

* Julian Simon argues that "humans" are the ultimate resource. That's true in terms of a Smithian "deepening" of the market, but not in terms of multiple markets, each with heavy resource needs.


  1. One thing that is definitely not sustainable if people have too few children.... Social Security.

    Probably goes for a bunch of other social welfare and pension systems too but I'm about 100% sure that if the next generations isn't bigger than this one, we won't be able to keep Social Security going.

  2. @Rob -- that's the problem with pay as you go, which FDR used to make SS attractive. The Swedes solved it by changing payment formulas. The Chileans solved it by returning to receive as you pay. Americans should get their act together instead of using babies as pension generators.

  3. From a purely theoretical standpoint, I agree with the students’ answer that people with children are more likely to think about long-term sustainability than people without children. However, I don’t think that people with more children will pay more attention to sustainability than people with fewer children. In fact, I would argue that there’s a big difference in attitude toward sustainability between people with no child and people with one child, but little or no difference between people with one child and people with more than one. It seems reasonable to assume that people would want the same kind of healthy, sustainable environment for their first child as for their nth child. To put it in econ jargon, I believe there’s a big jump in “sustainability” utility between no child and one child, followed by a decrease in utility for every child after that since those children’s resource needs are likely to foster unsustainable behavior (David’s point).

    This sounds like a great justification for a one-child policy (maybe I’ve been living in China too long): People would pay more attention to long-term sustainability, while the world’s population would slowly decrease, easing pressure on environmental resources. However, besides some of the obvious concerns surrounding such a policy (forced abortions, religious opposition, little emperor children), this also doesn’t seem to hold true in practice. China, the country that comes closest to such a policy, is certainly no poster-child for long-term sustainable development. From talking to people, it seems that most Chinese are very concerned with their child’s future, but not in terms of environmental sustainability. Instead, they worry mainly about their kid’s education, future employment and marriage prospects, and ability to obtain material comforts (“How can I ensure that my kid will be able to afford an apartment and a car?”).

    This makes me think that factors like educational background, state of the country’s development, culture, and personal preferences influence our attitudes (and consequently behavior) toward long-term sustainability way more than the number of children we have.

  4. I think you have one fundamental flaw with your logic…

    >Third, parents with more kids have fewer resources (time and money) to help those kids eat, learn, etc. If they grow up "hungry and stupid" then they may do more damage.

    Parents with more kids may have fewer resources… however… is this really a problem or is it an opportunity? I have very limited resources and our blended family will have a total of 5 children this summer… but I see this as an opportunity… an opportunity to NOT feed the children with material items, to not fuel the consumer demand, and to instead teach them a land ethic. My kids garden with me, we make our food from scratch, we only buy what we need, we play more family games instead of driving to the local cinema and spending money on pop, candy, popcorn and big screen movies. We see this as an opportunity to teach our kids the value of family, nature, and the land.

    Just a thought! (But I don’t necessarily think I would promote having more children, they are expensive and our planet is already crowded).

  5. @CM -- great point, but I was getting at kids in poorer countries, where they are more likely to end up working at 8 years old than in the garden. Your example may result in a LOWER impact than single child, high impact families...


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