Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Bad Child

I don't recall when I first heard this; it was sometime in the past few years. An economist made the observation that, in the United States, children had gone from an economic necessity to a luxury good, in the sense that modern children for most American families cost much more than they will every return, economically speaking.

I was listening to a series of interviews with Ta-Nehisi Coates by some editors of The Atlantic, and at one point, he made a point that I'd also come to; injustice (in this particular case, White Supremacy) tends to exist when it is in the interests if the broader society for it to exist. In other words, injustice exists because it brings advantages.

And in this, you can understand a means of combating injustice that is analogous to the reduction in family sizes.

When injustice effective represents a direct increase in the standards of living across a society (and not just for the people who behave unjustly) you can imagine that it would be quite widespread, in much the same way that in places where children are effectively a form of working farm animal, large families tend to be the norm. As the relative price of injustice goes up, it will eventually become a luxury good, and people will cut back. Family sizes have dropped in part because the greater "investment" that people are expected to make in their children has raised their price, but social changes in gender roles have also raised the opportunity costs of childbearing (something that many people understand to be a form of discrimination against women), and this has also resulted in fewer children being born - there are more economically advantageous uses for the time and resources. (And it is in this sense that children become a luxury good. They're no longer broadly useful as either semi-autonomous home or farm equipment or as a buffer against old age and infirmity.) And one can understand that in a lot of ways discrimination is a modern-day status marker. Prejudices aside, the willingness to write off large swaths of the overall population means missing out on the things that those people could bring. This means that injustice tends to be the province of people who can afford it, rather than the broad populace at large.

But at the same time, it gives us a reason to understand that most forms of injustice will always be with us, no matter what. After all, people who decide to have (or to risk having) children when they cannot afford the expense of it are fairly thick on the ground. Not to say that "everyone does it," but it's common enough that stories are easy to find. And so even once both the direct and opportunity costs of injustice are high, there will still be people to whom it is important enough that they'll indulge themselves when they can.

Like many analogies, this one is imperfect. But I think that it's useful as a way of organizing thoughts around what my need to happen going forward, if things are to change.

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