Do parents seek to maximize the social value of their children?

by on October 17, 2013 at 7:04 am in Economics, Education | Permalink

Let’s say a genetic test indicated a 90% chance that a child-to-come would be troubled with obsessions and unhappy and unsuccessful, and a ten percent chance that the child would grow up to be one of America’s leading entrepreneurs.  Or more modestly, in the positive scenario the child would be comparable to a worker or a scientist who creates $5 million in social value a year.  I believe most parents would feel uneasy about this genetic lottery, even though its expected social value is unambiguously high.  Telling the parents that the expected value of the child for society would be high would not distract them very much from the costs of the risk.

As I see it, many upper middle class parents desire their child to be slightly more successful than they are, and in related but not identical fields and ways.  They certainly would be happy if their child turned out to be the next Bill Gates (and more secure in their retirement), but not that much happier from a parental point of view.  Parents qua parents can get only so happy, and if your kid turns out well by your standards you are already pretty close to that maximum.

Notice how children differ from money.  Big dollar prizes induce risk-taking, at least from some entrepreneurs who have a strong desire for more and more money.  But big “parental prizes,” such a siring a true genius, might not induce much risk-taking with the identities or natures of children.

This is one possible institutional failure if there were “market-based” eugenics, namely that parents would be too risk-averse a social point of view.  We would end up with too much sameness, both across children and across the generations, and not enough monomaniacal creators.

1 Jon F October 17, 2013 at 7:37 am

Almost every entrepreneurs this day use Linkedin to present themselves and look for potential employees. We might think we already have a job, we won’t need that but you might check this article out:

2 careless October 17, 2013 at 11:50 am

jonF has been taken over by a spambot?

3 Clay October 17, 2013 at 7:59 am

Desiring that their child be successful does not mean that desire isn’t just a second or third-order concern, with respect to parental value. The market question would be more interesting if you could link it to genetic factors that have a stronger bearing on parental happiness. In my experience, parents just don’t want their children to struggle financially, but once that threshold is crossed, other concerns dominate.

Even something as simple as the fertility of one’s children (i.e. the prospect of grandchildren) might count for more parental happiness than worldly success.

4 Andrew' October 17, 2013 at 8:04 am

Unsurprisingly, I’d take that bet if the alternative is abortion. But the reality is a little different. We don’t get to make the bet. We optimize the hand we have been dealt. I just want schools and society to accommodate the different when it costs them less than nothing to do so.

5 Richard Sprague October 17, 2013 at 8:24 am

I don’t mean to distract from the excellent thought experiment about tradeoffs, but keep in mind that in reality there may not (usually) be a tradeoff. Often (usually?) parents can have both: a kid who is happy AND wildly successful.

6 Hedonic Treader October 17, 2013 at 9:06 am

A 10% chance of $5 million social value per year is just $500,000 in expectation value.

The unhappiness, unsuccess and obsession in the 90% case would then have to cost less than $55,600 per year. Or rather, their avoidance would have to be worth less than $55,600, in quality of life, productivity, health care costs and so on. Not to mention the speculative scientific assumptions behind the calculation.

As for the title question, do people in general make private life decisions with the intent to maximize social value?

7 Stannis Eddy October 17, 2013 at 9:31 am

“As for the title question, do people in general make private life decisions with the intent to maximize social value?”


8 Millian October 17, 2013 at 11:50 am

You’re out by a few orders of magnitude. The magic figure for unhappiness is $556k minus 1/9th of a talented neurotic’s social value per year worked; perhaps the latter term is $20k for a talented neurotic in the United States. Of course, for the vast majority of people, these figures are fictitous and generous and exclude chance in high salaries, so your error is mild in comparison to the unreality of the thought experiment..

9 Rob October 17, 2013 at 11:55 am

Aren’t you double counting the probabilities here? You would be indifferent if their suffering had a disvalue of around $555,000, and prefer it if it was lower:

0.1 * $5,000,000 – 0.9 * $555,000 ≈ 0.

10 Hedonic Treader October 17, 2013 at 12:29 pm

Oops. You’re right, of course.

11 Frank Somatra October 17, 2013 at 12:36 pm

Logarithmic utility preferences combined with quasi-hyperbolic (beta-delta) discounting for a choice that will affect the parents in 20 years? I wouldn’t not surprised if the utility of that drops like a stone.

12 Sigivald October 17, 2013 at 2:48 pm

What is “social value”, anyway, exactly?

And why would anyone care about it in this context, rather than expected personal value to the person in question?

(And what’s the social value created by the 90% chance there?

Presumably not negative – and we should be talking about marginal social value rather than net, if we’re going to consider it at all, even if it was negative there; that would just make the marginal value greater.)

13 buddyglass October 17, 2013 at 9:26 am

The parents’ position looks more rational when you consider recent happiness research. More money = more happiness, but the curve flattens out once you hit about $75k/year in income, if I recall. There is a steep drop in happiness at the lower end of the curve. So if my hope for my children, as a parent, is that they’ll “be happy” then I mostly want them to end up “upper middle class or higher”.

14 Hedonic Treader October 17, 2013 at 10:32 am

If you want your children to be happy and use gene selection to this end, you should directly look at the genetic predictors of happiness. Surely there are some that don’t go through high income paths, but through direct mood modulation etc.

You should also look at pain sensitivity research. Huge subjective disutility can be clustered in a few minutes of intense agony, which anyone who has been tortured can confirm. An intensity cap on pain well below the agony level may be one of the best things we could engineer for our children and maybe our pets. I would certainly pay to have such a cap myself.

15 Tracy W October 17, 2013 at 1:48 pm

Though an intensity cap on pain could also prove dangerous by increasing the time people spend in painful situations.

16 Finch October 17, 2013 at 2:31 pm

It would be scary for avid exercisers.

17 albatross October 17, 2013 at 2:49 pm

There would be some people who would be enabled to do stupid things, but for most of us, maxing out our pain levels at “uncomfortable and annoying” rather than “nightmarish and incapacitating” would still leave us with plenty of reason to avoid things that were both painful and damaging.

18 Hedonic Treader October 17, 2013 at 2:51 pm

It would have to be high enough that damage is still clearly recognizable.

Either way, I would want it for myself. And I find it obvious that agony is not for children, morally speaking.

The callousness of Darwinian evolution must be mediated by human benevolence and intelligence.

19 N October 17, 2013 at 9:30 am

Wired had a good article on China’s pursuit of the genetic basis of IQ.

“Within a decade their research will be used to screen embryos during in vitro fertilization, boosting the IQ of unborn children by up to 20 points.”

Very soon we will be able to genetically engineer smart people. Will that be the threshold for the world to seriously address inequality or will it lead to hyper inequality? Many smart people and geniuses are successful because they compete against average people. You don’t have to outrun a cheetah to survive – you just need to outrun the other people running away from the same cheetah. What happens when we’re able to create “faster people” – more geniuses and smart people – and pump them full of smart drugs (e.g. Provigil) and free online education? Will the native geniuses embrace a new generation of created genius or will they lash out – because their native genius will become diluted?

Another question: let’s say the average reader of this blog is very successful and has an IQ of 140. Will you welcome a world in which we can move the average IQ from 100 to 120 (i.e. making people 20% smarter) – leaving you at 140 – or will you be against this new world because increasing intelligence for the new generation makes you less unique and will threaten your livelihood? Would you want to have a 140 IQ in a world where the average IQ becomes 140 or would you prefer to live in a world where your 140 IQ puts you in the top tiers of intelligence?

From the end of the article:

“The last time I see Zhao, I put the same question to him. It’s a freezing day in November when he swings through Boston, near where I live, and I meet him at a bar. He’s not old enough to legally drink in the United States, but no one cards him. He had spent the afternoon with a Harvard scientist who studies prosopagnosia, a condition that makes it difficult for a person to recognize faces. There’s evidence that the disease is strongly heritable, so Zhao and the scientist discussed sequencing the genomes of afflicted families to find the genes. Over our drink, I pose my earlier question to Zhao: Would he use his research to have more intelligent offspring of his own? His response is nuanced. “I understand both positions,” he says. “But I will have to respect my wife. It’s not only my child. It will be hers too.” He worries that some neurological complications, such as Asperger’s syndrome, might be genetically tied to IQ.”

20 8 October 17, 2013 at 11:07 am

The last line is my suspicion. Maybe China will push this to get results, but it won’t be as popular in the West because people will wonder about side-effects. And imagine how the greens will react. They don’t even want to put GM corn in their body; they won’t want GM sperm or eggs mixing with theirs. Mutants will need to be registered and kept separate to protect the natural gene pool, that’ll be on the green agenda.

21 DougT October 17, 2013 at 9:51 pm

“They will ask for a national registry next. We’ve seen all this before, Charles. Just don’t get in my way.”

22 Kevin C. October 18, 2013 at 8:25 pm

Hence the likes of UNESCO’s Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights. If I remember correctly, I believe the World Health Organization has also called for a global ban on human germline engineering.

And as to the Greens, I’m sure that in the event human germline engineering gets done, in China or elsewhere, at least one environmental group will go Blue Cosmos.

23 buddyglass October 17, 2013 at 12:33 pm

That’s not so much “engineering” higher IQ (i.e. by modifying an existing embryo) as it is “recognizing” higher IQ and eliminating all the potential children that lack it.

24 N October 17, 2013 at 1:42 pm

Good point, but the end game is similar — you can pick the “smartest” genome from a batch of 20 embryos. Natural coupling would give you the “smartest” genome with less regularity.

25 DougT October 17, 2013 at 9:42 pm

“And they’ll want a national registry, Charles. We’ve seen this before. Just don’t get in my way.”

26 Cliff October 17, 2013 at 3:06 pm

Most smart people have probably asked themselves that question. Even though there are tremendous arbitrage opportunities for smart people, I concluded life would be WAY better if the average IQ was the same as mine. Very high confidence of that.

27 Claudia October 17, 2013 at 9:38 am

recall, not everyone’s utility function is as flat as yours … marginal utility drops like a rock (risk aversion is high) for many. I doubt this is new and in my survey experience it’s amplified by dependents … we are more willing to take risks that impact us alone than risks that also impact innocent dependents. (The money gambles and children’s career gambles are not comparable.) What’s new, or on the horizon, is our ability to better control the shocks that put us and our kids far out in the distribution. Until we have more tolerance for monomaniacal creators, the occasional ZMP workers, or others with more serious conditions we going to minimize their presence. Don’t blame parents, though.

28 Hadur October 17, 2013 at 9:42 am

I’m not sure parents even try to maximize the value of children to themselves. Many people just reproduce for the sake of reproduction, despite indicators telling them that they should not.

29 Joe Barry Williams October 17, 2013 at 10:20 am


30 Thiago October 17, 2013 at 3:54 pm


31 careless October 17, 2013 at 12:00 pm

This is definitely one of those subjects whore Tyler needs to be treated like a Martian, unfamiliar with the species.

32 careless October 17, 2013 at 12:00 pm

‘Whore”? Seriously, auto correct?

33 Andrew' October 17, 2013 at 12:19 pm

I told you. We work for the machines now.

34 cpearce October 17, 2013 at 9:46 am

I think a potential factor is that parents don’t want to be embarrassed by their kids. They don’t want kids who are unhappy, unsuccessful, or somehow deviate from the norm. In your example, that happens 9/10 times, so it’s easy to see why a parent wouldn’t take the risk if they get real disutility from having kids who are “unsuccessful.”

Also, “Notice how children differ from money” is the best sentence I’ve read in a while.

35 Alex Godofsky October 17, 2013 at 9:47 am

When would we ever actually face this hypothetical choice? Maybe some people would react differently? Why should we trust your intuition about a choice that probably will never be faced by even a single human being?

36 Cambias October 17, 2013 at 9:50 am

A parent who conceives and raises a child in order to maximize “social value” would almost certainly be the worst parent ever. Once you start thinking of someone as an instrument to some goal, that person is going to suffer. See just about every totalitarian ideology ever for examples.

37 Joe Betty Simms October 17, 2013 at 10:27 am

It’s all academic because it’s not even possible to quantify the maximization of “social value.” Steve Jobs invented cool things but his “social value” is TBD. Many people insist he stole his greatest ideas and every great person has an army of great people behind them.

I feel we’re all going to be marginalized by technology and globalization (Average is Over) so I’m not only on the fence with regards to the best way to raise my child (other than the obvious – healthy food, love, good education, etc.) but I’m on the fence on whether or not to have another child. I think the future is going to be horrific – so I’m leaning towards one child but everyone thinks I’m crazy not to have a second child because of my views of a dystopian future. Thoughts for the parents in the house?

38 Andrew' October 17, 2013 at 11:44 am

It’s the experiment we call capitalism, and praxeology aside, yes, it’s too soon to tell.

39 careless October 17, 2013 at 12:02 pm

I think we can close the book on the Newton’s social value.

40 asdf October 18, 2013 at 1:15 am

Don’t have the second kid. Given the reality of the situation, she will not be grateful for that.

41 asdf October 17, 2013 at 10:40 am

This is how libertarian spergs think. Every single person in their lives is just a resource for their own ends. The entire human experience is broken down into utility functions. Love is entirely absent, its just self interested materialist utility maximizes who only treat each other nice when there is something to gain. The fact that this is extended to their own children should be no surprise. When one does something for ones kids its only because of the chemicals it releases into their brains that make them happy, and if those chemicals aren’t released for whatever reason there is no reason to love their offspring.

Here is a little dialogue someone made up for related libertarian sperg Bryan Caplan:

SCENE: The Caplan Household, as Junior arrives back from school.

*Junior comes through the door, and sees Bryan Caplan playing with another child, one of indeterminate Asian ethnicity*

JUNIOR: Dad, what’s going on?

CAPLAN: Don’t call me that anymore. I have a new son now…Ming.

JUNIOR: What do you mean?

CAPLAN: Well ex-son, Ming is just the more efficient choice. If you look at these indifference maps, you’ll see that my utility is maximized when I use Ming as my son over you. He’s just a more efficient choice, ex-son. I spend much less on child care, and he is happy eating a bowl of rice a day. And he takes care of himself, not only meaning he’s going to be a much better libertarian son than you’ll ever be, but also allowing me to post more on my blog about how things like “borders”, “nations”, “cultures”, and “family” are all just irrational thoughts that keep us from total efficiency.

*camera cuts to a close up of Junior crying*

This originally came up talking about borders, but as you can see the same attitude crosses over to family in this post. What was originally meant to shock and make fun is now openly claimed by libertarians.

In addition to this awful view of parenthood and human relations, you’ll note the outright advocacy for dangerous genetic experimentation on ones own children. Not only does he feel its a moral duty, but anyone who won’t step up to the plate represents a *market failure* that I have no doubt will require “nudging” in the future.

42 Andrew' October 17, 2013 at 11:45 am

“This is how libertarian spergs think.”

This always strikes me as kind of dumb. Everyone should do the rational track analysis and then do the other tracks and even combine them for a total answer. It’s just that libertarians “spergs” can do this.

43 Urso October 17, 2013 at 12:18 pm

I certainly didn’t get that impression of Caplan from reading his parenthood book. He’s clearly a little “different” but he seems to love his kids.

44 Andrew' October 17, 2013 at 1:59 pm

I’ve probably spent 12 hours so far trying to find a non-toxic waterproof mattress pad that probably doesn’t exist for kids who, have I mentioned recently, don’t even sleep without considerable input. I spend most of my time thinking “FOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOCK!!!”

If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is.

45 Andrew' October 17, 2013 at 2:30 pm

The organic fruit and veg that I buy them that they don’t eat I put in a blender and drink right before it triggers my gag reflex. The meat I throw into an omelet right before it walks away on its own power.

This is a love that ONLY a “libertarian sperg” is capable of.

46 Cliff October 17, 2013 at 3:10 pm

Uh, try Amazon? I have loads of those. They won’t stay waterproof all night but you don’t want them sleeping in pee all night anyway, right?

47 Andrew' October 17, 2013 at 3:57 pm

No they don’t have plenty of those. They may have none. If they have any they are difficult to identify.

You don’t understand what I’m trying to find. And sure, I’d take them sleeping all night in urine. That’s not really a problem. That’s an emotional thing.

48 Andrew' October 17, 2013 at 4:04 pm

Btw, it’s an illustration by way of parable. If you REALLY love your kids the experience is harrowing and frustrating.

Most of the mattress covers are vinyl which might be really bad not to mention you are on it for 1/3 of your day, or polyurethane which is mildly toxic, or are non-toxic but not acceptably waterproof. So, what I did was order polyethylene film and will make my own. There are tons of different types of mattress covers, almost none of them the one, correct solution.

49 Marie October 18, 2013 at 2:28 pm

Not to get diverted, but your solution (semi) may be layering. All you need to do is protect the thing that can’t be washed, so lay one or two covers over the mattress, then lots of stuff on top of it that can be washed and will sit between your kid and the vinyl. And remember the exposure is limited because less than 30% of children are still wetting the bed by college age.

And urine is sterile in healthy people.

50 Finch October 17, 2013 at 3:00 pm

He holds certain opinions, such as his views on immigration(*), that are hard to square with his placing a lot of weight on his children’s future welfare. Arguably loving your kids is a form of self-interest, and he seems to advocate putting aside that self-interest in the pursuit of higher principles.

(*) I’m not saying support of more open immigration is at odds with overweighting your kid’s welfare at all. I’m saying Bryan’s equal weight on every human’s welfare – maximally redistributive approach is. He seems pretty callous about the welfare of Americans who are not him, and for most of their lives his kids will be Americans who are not Bryan Caplan, and not sheltered and nurtured children. Presumably he actually loves his children, and is just caught up in the emotion of argument and hasn’t thought things through. I’m just a reader, but he really doesn’t seem like a jerk to me, expect when he gets on a few topics where he just turns his brain off. If you’re a moderate on immigration (and on immigration, I’m most definitely a moderate), it’s easy to read his writing and think he’s insane. I might be wrong, but I’d guess that’s where a lot of the Caplan-hating comes from.

51 Tracy W October 17, 2013 at 2:33 pm

That bears no relation to anything I’ve read of what Caplan’s written. And I own his book “Selfish reasons to have more kids”.

52 Tracy W October 17, 2013 at 3:12 pm

Caplan’s actual comment on kids:

I have a massive endowment effect vis-a-vis my children. I love them greatly simply because they exist and they’re mine. If you offered to replace one of my sons with another biological child who was better in every objective way, I’d definitely refuse.


53 asdf October 17, 2013 at 10:39 pm

Notice how he puts it. He cares about his kid because his kid is “mine”. Even the title of his parenting book has the word “selfish” right in it. It’s all about Bryan. He only cares about his children because of the effect it has on him. He wouldn’t trade them for another one because he would know it wasn’t his, and by an accident of evolution that would affect how much joy he could extract out of the child for himself (endowment effect). If this endowment effect was removed or if it could be tricked somehow (he wouldn’t know his child had been switched) he wouldn’t care. All the same to him. It’s like a woman that says she will love you so long as the transaction costs of changing partners (endowment effect) isn’t greater then the happiness she would receive from trading up.

Healthy people create life because it a miraculous blessing, and then love their children even when they don’t bring them joy. All Caplan proposes is that his utility curve happens to line up the right way in these given circumstances. Such love is self focused on contingent. I don’t see a fundamental refutation of the logic in the scenario, only a claim by Caplan that current circumstances fit in with his philosophy.

Also, we have to remember that Caplan is a paid liar who is willing to perpetuate immense evil on all but his immediate relations so long as it advances his interest (pays for his bubble). Saying anything other then the above would alienate him both in public and with his family. And they theoretical trade is not possible today, so he’s never faced with it. We know that on issues where his reputation and personal interests align he is perfectly willing to lie because he does it all the time. Since we can’t square his philosophy with all but the most crass and utilitarian form of “love” either he’s lying above or he’s lying about his philosophy.

Of course, I really do hope, and its entirely likely, that he does love his kids. He’s an opportunistic hypocrite, and I think the likely scenario is he loves his kids but has trained himself to believe in crazy bullshit that is incompatible with such a sentiment when he puts his wonk hat on because that’s how he makes his money.

54 Tracy W October 18, 2013 at 3:56 am

Uh did you read even the quote I posted? Caplan again explicitly disclaims the position you state. Contrary to your assertion he explicitly says he wouldn’t want another *biological* child instead of his actual children. That totally contradicts your assertions above.

That’s twice now you’ve criticised Caplan based on positions you’ve made up out of thin air. And once that you’ve done it despite the quote disproving your assertion being directly in front of you.

And, what’s more, you haven’t even made the slightest acknowledgment that your assertion in your original comment about Caplan’s beliefs was wrong (nor made the slightest attempt to defend it). Why are you being so dishonest on this topic?

55 asdf October 18, 2013 at 9:00 am

Yes, I read the whole quote. No, it doesn’t refute anything. I explained why it doesn’t refute anything.

“he explicitly says he wouldn’t want another *biological* child instead of his actual children”

Only in certain circumstances which fit his utilitarian model of the world. Since he can make no absolute claim given his model of life, he has to prove a utilitarian argument. Any such argument will be self focused and contingent. The point being discussed is just this fact. I have no doubt that in current circumstances Caplan wouldn’t trade his kids, but only because current circumstances don’t cause the utility curves to fall just right (that’s what his post says). If they did he would, assuming he is consistent with his philosophy.

The scenario first came up to mock Caplan’s utilitarian argument about immigration. Since if utilitarianism was a good enough argument to force people to accept immigrants into their nation and communities, it was a good enough reason for Caplan to accept them into his family. Its supposed to show how utilitarianism can run amok by showing a ridiculous scenario. If the counter to that is, “well its not currently the case,” that misses the entire point. It concedes the point that if it ever were the case you’d have to accept that wacko scenario.

I see nothing here that refutes that, unless Caplan is about to pull one of his classic “my utilitarian case failed so now I’m going to switch gears and claim some absolutist moral case, but not work that into the rest of my philosophy or allow people to do so themselves.”

56 Tracy W October 20, 2013 at 4:50 pm

Sigh, indeed it does contradict the views you attributed to him. He explicitly says he would not trade his actual children for another child, not even one that was objectively better.

He makes absolutely no comments about certain circumstances. That makes three times you’ve criticised Caplan based on positions that you’ve made up out of thin air.

And heaven knows where you’re getting all this weird stuff about utilitarianism from.

57 Tracy W October 20, 2013 at 4:54 pm

Note that Bryan Caplan explicitly denies he’s a utilitarian, and criticises utilitarians on a moral basis, see

So that’s four times you’ve criticised Caplan based on positions he explicitly denies. Why?

58 Urso October 17, 2013 at 10:43 am

On the list of things I want for my children, success as Prof. Cowen defines it — economic success — is probably fifth or sixth. I’m much more concerned with my kids growing up to be pleasant, polite, sociable, hard-working, and moral. If they also happen to get rich that’s nice.

59 Joe Betty Simms October 17, 2013 at 11:34 am

I’m confident in my abilities to raise a human who is pleasant, polite, sociable, hard-working and moral – those are traits I have (on a good day, LOL). But the middle class now solely consists of government and healthcare workers and TC predicts more of the same – the hollowing out of the middle class. I hope we’re able to turn the inequality around so more than 15% of our kids can have a good life (financially), but being average myself (and married to an average person) I’m very concerned for my child’s ability to provide for himself in the future. Not everyone can be an engineer or computer programmer – and even if you have those skills you’re still competing against the Russians, Indians, Chinese, etc. – people with lower standards of living who charge less per hour. I know several people who outsource programming, web development and graphic design to lower wage countries.

The marketing stuff TC promotes isn’t believable – there won’t be any disposable income, so marketing will be less important – people will only be able to afford the necessities and an Internet connection. The days of spending the weekend at the mall and filling the living space with unnecessities are coming to an end.

60 Cliff October 17, 2013 at 3:11 pm

What the heck? You act as if GDP is going down or something. Even with “stagnation” living standards are rising. They’re WAY higher than say the 1950’s. Would you not want to have children in the world of the 1950’s because it was so terrible?

61 Joe Betty Simms October 17, 2013 at 7:11 pm

GDP growth is slowing and the current trend is for GDP growth to eventually stop. Regardless, we currently have terrible employment, equality and entitlement issues and TC predicts a pretty crappy world for 85% of us. I’m not keen on the idea of having to support kids forever. Nor am I keen on the idea of them living in a trailer in Texas – subsiding on beans – anesthetizing themselves on video games and 24/7 football.

High GDP doesn’t mean that everyone enjoys it equally. Plenty of immigrants are working 80 hour weeks – sharing rooms – all sans luxuries.

62 DougT October 17, 2013 at 9:49 pm

I was *so* confident in my parenting abilities, just until my daughter turned 13… To (mis)quote Mark Twain, when my child was 10 I was amazed at what a good parent I was; when she turned 13 I was astounded at how poor a parent I had become in just three years; when she turned 23 it was (not so) astounding that I’d picked up so many good skills in only a decade…

63 Andrew' October 17, 2013 at 11:39 am

I’ll go you one further. I’m going to recommend they run screaming from research because although the social value is high the captured remuneration is negligible.

More generally, I think you are as good a parent as you maximize your child’s personal value.

64 Norman Pfyster October 17, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Surely self-supporting would make your list, which is economic success.

65 Urso October 17, 2013 at 9:04 pm

Not as it’s defined here. “Self-supporting” financially is actually a very low bar to meet; trivial, really — it mostly takes not being addicted to anything, and being willing to show up on time regularly.

66 Dan Weber October 17, 2013 at 10:14 am

Family size matters.

With many kids, I would take the 10% chance with one of them. If I had to do it with all of them, I wouldn’t take it. But with siblings who can support the outlier in case of a bad situation, I might take it.

There seems a Coasian way out, for a third-party interested in the positive case to insure the parents in case of the downside of the bet.

67 noob October 17, 2013 at 2:52 pm

The welfare state, right?

68 Wonks Anonymous October 17, 2013 at 10:19 am

In a Darwinian sense, there’s occasionally a Genghis Khan or Niall of the Nine Hostages to incentivize swinging for the fences. But that requires polygamy, which Greg Cochran argues will result in the accumulation of (mostly deleterious) mutations as a result of increased average paternal age.

69 Urso October 17, 2013 at 10:40 am

I would have to ask my iphone.

70 8 October 17, 2013 at 10:59 am

It used to be that many children died young. Luckily our ancestors were not economists.

Catholic answer to the question: why not have ten babies?

71 Norman Pfyster October 17, 2013 at 11:00 am

What kind of genetic test would predict what would have social value in the future?

72 josh October 17, 2013 at 11:56 am

Social value = working for money. Good to know.

73 Marie October 18, 2013 at 2:33 pm

And now I can laugh and turn the computer off for the day. Thanks!

74 Robert October 17, 2013 at 11:57 am

Are people really more risk averse for their children’s accomplishments than their own? On selfish grounds, I am pretty risk averse regarding my lifetime income because of declining marginal utility. I don’t feel differently about that for my children than for myself.

75 Bill October 17, 2013 at 12:38 pm

Pretty silly post, because it ignores that by the time the kid would be “extremely successful”–when the kid were 40-50 years old–the parent might be dead.

Can’t get much vicarious satisfaction in your kids success from the grave.

What I see is something quite different: parents bragging about where there kids are going to school, how much they are accomplishing, etc., as this reflects on them, somehow, more than it does on the hard work of the kids.

Kids as trinkets.

76 albatross October 17, 2013 at 2:53 pm

I suspect this is right. Engineering your kids to get into Harvard doesn’t just mean they’re likely to have a higher lifetime income than they would otherwise, or just have a more positive impact on the world as a whole. It also means you will get to bore the neighbors bragging about how your kid got into Harvard. That’s surely worth a few thousand dollars right there.

77 Sam October 17, 2013 at 1:17 pm

From the selfish gene’s POV, you’re happy as a parent if your kid does well enough to provide for his or her kids and carry on the lineage. That max comes quickly, with a decent job and health care. The gap between this and being Bill Gates is trivial compared to the gap between being at the median and being an impoverished, infertile, cuckold janitor.

78 lemmy caution October 17, 2013 at 1:35 pm

yeah gates only has 3 kids.

Plus, negative child outcomes are a big pain for parents.

79 Thiago October 17, 2013 at 1:58 pm

Are impoverished people infertile? Don’t their children survive in great numbers and carry on the lineage (“from the selfish gene’s POV”, it is enough that they live and be fertile)?

80 Andrew' October 17, 2013 at 4:13 pm

I have this conversation with myself about once per day:

“Hmm, the vinyl shower curtain costs less (we don’t need the non-toxic mattress cover, I’m sure they provide fine food at school). If they lose an IQ point or two I’ll still love them the same. Wait, you are being an asshole!”

81 John R October 17, 2013 at 6:12 pm

This just looks like a further development of what we have now. Upper-middles and “normal” uppers push their children into professionalized disciplines with high expected value and low variance — medicine law, consulting, investment banking, etc. So the professionalized “advisor class” tells the risk-takers how to do what they do, while the risk-taking entrepreneurs tend to come from among those who are “hungry,” i.e. those not on track for these low-risk-mid-high-reward options.

82 Steve Sailer October 17, 2013 at 8:11 pm

“Let’s say a genetic test indicated a 90% chance that a child-to-come would be troubled with obsessions and unhappy and unsuccessful, and a ten percent chance that the child would grow up to be one of America’s leading entrepreneurs.”

What evidence is there that rich entrepreneurs tend to be fragile personalities, tormented artist-types who could have easily turned out much less successful than the average man? Most of the successful entrepreneurs I’ve known have been broadly above average in looks, energy, health, popularity, athletic skill, interpersonal skill, and cognitive skill. (Yes, I saw “The Social Network,” but the reality is that Mark Zuckerberg is a handsome, sociable guy from a good family who always impressed the people around him as a natural leader of men.)

A big part of being a successful entrepreneur is attracting money and loyalty from large numbers of other people, who are loath to waste their money and lives on somebody who strikes them as fragile.

83 albatross October 18, 2013 at 9:55 am

OTOH, being successful in many fields does require a rather obsessive level of drive. That can easily make you a hard person to live with, or someone who isn’t usually all that happy.

84 deluks917 October 17, 2013 at 8:20 pm

Maybe I have a very weird perspective but I am not especially opposed to my child being unhappy and unsuccessful. I honestly do not think it is a life with sorrow is any worse or less worth living than a life filled with happiness.

85 Max Factor October 17, 2013 at 8:31 pm

Yup – sounds like a weird perspective to me!

86 Steve Sailer October 17, 2013 at 9:45 pm

Explicitly eugenic techniques are currently used by, say, Orthodox Jews to avoid having children with Tay Sachs disease, and by lesbians picking sperm donors.

My guess would be that the next niche as the market develops would be the intensely ambitious and dynastic: backstage mothers and sideline dads, for instance. E.g., a rich self-made man whose main regret in life is that he wasn’t tall enough to carry on his quarterbacking career after high school. How much would he pay a genetic engineering company to make his son six inches taller?

87 albatross October 18, 2013 at 9:57 am

Isn’t Tyler’s point here that individually rational choices in engineering your children might not be socially optimal? I think eugenics was ultimately about *socially* optimal outcomes, not so much about individually optimal outcomes.

88 Finch October 18, 2013 at 10:05 am

He could probably achieve that with growth hormone today.

A certain very tall Boston athlete has much shorter parents, one of whom wrestled on an eastern european olympic team in the 70s, and has a face characteristic of “supplementation.” This isn’t a smoking gun, like Ben-Johnson-eyes from oral steroid-induced liver damage, but it’s enough to make me suspicious.

89 Tyler Fan October 17, 2013 at 10:48 pm

The hypothetical is off in some faraway post-singularity world. China managed to produce a Yao Ming by pairing his parents and grandparents up. We don’t understand the genes of height but the phenotype is obvious. But what about the phenotype of a high-IQ brain? Einstein’s brain is in a vat somewhere and it’s pretty unremarkable. Presumably his connectome is something special but that’s the result of nurture as much as nature.

90 albatross October 18, 2013 at 9:58 am

We’ve been running a several-generations-long experiment in pairing off very smart people by getting smart women to go to top universities and go into intellectually demanding fields. If you go to Princeton and meet your wife there, you’re probably both pretty bright people, and so there’s a good chance that your kids will be, too.

91 Finch October 18, 2013 at 10:08 am

> If you go to Princeton and meet your wife there, you’re probably both pretty bright people, and so there’s a good chance that your kids will be, too.

Even more so if you go to a great school.

92 Lupus Yonderboy October 18, 2013 at 12:03 am

More proof that western economics think – proved through the death of millions in India in the last century via introduction of quantitative census thought – is the enemy of humanity. I wish I had been born into a native american tribe 200 years before the white man arrived on our shores.

93 Thomas October 18, 2013 at 1:17 am

The first result of market-based eugenics in the US would be more girls than boys.

94 Lupus Yonderboy October 18, 2013 at 1:21 am

How long to you sit at your keyboard wondering what to type in a sparing match with economists? Seriously?

95 Anon October 18, 2013 at 12:11 pm

There’s some thought already on this topic.


From wikipedia: “In some of his publications he has argued for the following: (1) That parents have a responsibility to select the best children they could have given all of the relevant genetic information available to them, a principle that he extends to the use of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) and preimplantation genetic diagnoses (PGD) in order to determine the intelligence of embryos and possible children.”

96 Noelle October 20, 2013 at 7:57 pm

I find this topic to be extremely relevant. As a young woman, I constantly ponder upon the pros and cons of what it would be like to have children. Do people see having children as a social risk, expecting some form of returns? My guess is, absolutely. In the mid to late 1800s, Sir Francis Galton consumed himself with studies of eugenics. He believed that intelligence was inherited. From this idea, he tried to convince the people of Great Britain to mate accordingly. In other words, those with desired traits would breed a dominant population. We can actually relate this to food markets. Genetically modified products are, in essence, a form of eugenics. As these clones become the bulk of what is produced, consumers lose nutritional value and support for local farms. If children were genetically modified, as Cowen said, we would end up with too much sameness. There would no longer be any variability. As a result, everyone would experience an extreme version of diminishing marginal utility. We would lose inventive ideas and simply become a monotonous society.

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