Thursday, July 16, 2015

Big decisions

Naked Man sent me a query a little while ago about the idea of parents being particularly good or bad at making decisions for the future of communities or humankind in general.  That is, does having children grant a person a particular stake in the future that causes them to make better long term decisions?  On the other hand, does the myopic focus on one's own children at the expense of everybody else make a parent especially unsuited to making decisions affecting everyone?

I tend to think that both extremes are foolish and the correct answer is that we can't draw much useful information from knowing that a person has children when it comes to deciding how society will unfold.

I have an eight year old kid and although I am a very different sort of person now then I was back before I had a kid I can't say that doing so made me a better governor.  I now know how I react when pushed to my emotional breaking point, what it is like to deal with extreme sleep deprivation, and how greater conflict with my spouse feels.  I have felt protective towards Elli, but I certainly haven't felt the extremes of irrational overprotectiveness that parents are so often portrayed as feeling.  People seem to take that sense of desperate worry as a sign of good parenting and see valuing my own offspring above all other things as a virtue.  I don't see it that way, and certainly haven't had my feelings go that way.  Elli is important to me but not in the way most people's kids seem to be important to them.

All the time I spent taking care of Elli could have been spent learning other lessons.  I could have taken courses on history, learned about social work, volunteered, or read more about politics in that time I invested in her.  I am pretty sure those sorts of things would have given me a better understanding about how to make policy then playing peekaboo ever would.  

Being a bit nuts about your kids is, it seems, the default state for parents.  I have seen plenty of people stand around agreeing that helicopter parenting is a problem and wish for the good ole days where kids could just play... and then admit that their kid has nearly every hour from dawn to dusk booked solid with activities, weekdays and weekends alike.  They know that the activity treadmill isn't good for kids, they don't like it, and yet they can't get away from feeling like their particular kid needs ALL THE THINGS or they will somehow fall behind.  They want the absolute best for their children no matter how much it makes things worse.

But I don't think that this tendency really matters much when making policy.  People tend to want things that will protect their interests and the interests of people like them regardless of whether or not they have children.  In any case most parents I know are desperately focused on getting past the next day or week, just trying to keep their heads above water.  They aren't going to be overprotective of the future because they can barely figure out how to have time to look at the future at all.  Maybe they start sacrificing the present to deal with the future after the kids move out and things quiet down, but generally I don't think you can count on parents to spend their time figuring out what will be the best for everyone twenty or fifty years from now.

Basically decisions should be made by those who are best informed and who recognize both that preparing for the future is important and that because we know so little about how the future will look we can't place too much faith in our models.  A model of the future from 1990 would essentially ignore the internet of today and that makes the model pretty much useless.  We should think about the consequences of our actions while acknowledging that our certainty drops off drastically once we go more than a few years out.

Whether or not you have squeezed out a couple of rugrats in your past has little to do with your ability to do these things.  Have children or don't, but the idea of placing people who chose differently as being unfit to make policy decisions is hubris and nothing else.


  1. I think you missed my point.

    As you note, you've invested hundreds/thousands of hours into parenting. Arguably, she is the most valuable thing you have produced in the past 8 years from a "hours spent" perspective. This is why parents value their children. While it is a sunk cost, that doesn't mean it doesn't have great value.

    People without children rarely have a single object that holds so much of their invested time (your WoW account?). Thus, they may not be able to appreciate the value of children. Thus, are they the best people to make decisions that can dramatically influence children such as sending them to war, or letting them starve or be homeless?

    As you say, the people who are most informed should make the decisions. Are people without children sufficiently informed? Can they possibly understand the potential costs of certain decisions?

    And to be clear, I'm not talking about tariff policies or diplomatic relations with France. I'm talking the stuff that impacts children heavily. Should the people controlling foreign policy have no experience with diplomacy? Then why should people controlling the policies that impact children?

    To be fair, I could learn about diplomacy, or I could possibly use related experience to design child policies. My question, which I don't know the answer to, was whether anything really approximated having children when it comes to experience. Most people seem to say "no". But I may be talking to the wrong people - some may have a similar relationship with a younger sibling they raised, or possibly be extremely close to a cousin or even their own parents in a way that generates the same feeling. Heck, some may be emotionally invested in their pets or their art or their work.

    Your point on "parents are tired" is irrelevant. It could be people who had children 30 years ago and are comfortably at peak income in their 50s running policy with decades of education and experience. No one is suggesting that high school drop out mom's with twin infants should be designing policy just because they have kids.

    You raise an interesting point that I hadn't intended - do people with children have more stake in the future? Should climate change be left to the childless? That's not a position I'm comfortable with. My concern for my children 20 years after I'm gone is not as powerful and doesn't feel as relevant.

    I suspect there's an argument that people with children should *not* be allowed to make certain decisions. Perhaps those who have suffered horribly from violent crime should be involved in designing sentencing rules. Or perhaps they are the only ones who should be.

  2. Could a parent see the forest of society as a whole but for the trees of their own kids?

  3. I think an awful lot of people have an object that has as much time invested as kids. Careers are regularly going to be an even bigger investment, though those aren't objects. People who spend their lives trying to succeed with an invention, piece of artwork, or the like definitely would have a similar investment. Lots of folks have houses that would be similar. Even more relevant though we should consider things like spouses. I have an outrageous investment in Wendy.

    So yes, people that don't have children should absolutely be able to make decisions about declaring war or worrying about people who will be homeless. My investment in Wendy doesn't make me qualified to declare war or not, and neither does having a child. Parents are definitely going to be warped when deciding if their child should go to war or not (and they won't all decide against!) but their judgement about the *country* going to war isn't likely to be any better than anyone else's.

    If anyone wanted to convince me that parents should be the only ones making certain sorts of decisions, especially ones that relate to the future, then they would have to demonstrate that parents consistently make excellent decisions for their children. They just don't do that, in nearly any situation. It is *possible* they focus more on the future, but I don't even buy that, and even if they do that focus doesn't make them make *good* decisions for the future.

    This whole argument feels like a bunch of people claiming that their particular experience makes them uniquely qualified to make important decisions. Maybe they are doing it to try to justify decisions they made that they have hesitations about, maybe they just want to denigrate those who are different from them. I don't know, but there is nothing that makes me think that having parent or not-parent be a requirement for important policy decisions is anything but foolish and discriminatory.

  4. I would say that until I had children, I would be much more willing to commit to military action that costs lives - both soldiers and civilians. Once I had kids, I realized just how horrific it is for parents to lose their children and I suspect I am much less willing to press the war button - it truly is a last resort. I understand the real cost better than I did/could before I had kids. I am less likely to be an effective general as sometimes you have to sacrifice people to achieve a critical objective (or so I am led to believe) and I might hesitate.

    Maybe I was just carefree with lives as a teenager in my war games - perhaps Risk wasn't the best training ground.

    So many new parents are surprised by what it's like to be a parent. That suggests there's a body of knowledge that many non-parents lack. I'm suggesting that that body of knowledge might be relevant to decision making. I think you're saying that that's ridiculous, the only body of knowledge that matters is the ability to convince millions that they'd make a good leader. :-)

    I think I'd at least like a few parents in the room for the discussion?

    Would you say that having kids is a requirement for telling people how to raise kids? That's an area that causes a lot of resentment.