Monday , April 6 2020
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The Elephant’s family

Summary:
David Brooks essay in the Atlantic "The nuclear family was a mistake" has a lot of interesting ideas. We used to (1800s) largely live with extended family. In the mid 20th century we moved to mom, dad and kids, the nuclear family that David thinks is a mistake. Now we increasingly live the widely parodied Life of ...

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David Brooks essay in the Atlantic "The nuclear family was a mistake" has a lot of interesting ideas. We used to (1800s) largely live with extended family. In the mid 20th century we moved to mom, dad and kids, the nuclear family that David thinks is a mistake. Now we increasingly live the widely parodied Life of Julia (Taranto scathing review at WSJ, guide to parodies at Atlantic), individuals whose main relationship in life is to the federal government.

One aspect, tangential to the main theme, struck me. In all our economic discussions about inequality, when we stop shouting at each other, we come down to a commonsense middle ground: There are lots of obstacles in the way of economic, personal, and social advancement for Americans who start on the lower end of the economic ladder. Free marketers tend to point to government obstacles -- horrible schools in the thrall of teacher unions, land use policies that make it impossible to live near better jobs, social programs whose disincentives to work or move to work make that an impossible choice, and so on. Government-run-things advocates ask for more programs, a 58th job training program, UBI, government jobs, government provided housing, more money to the teachers unions, government-run pre-k and day care, gushers of money, and so on. Still, we get to a comfortable point that we agree on a problem, and we're talking about various ways to fix it.

Into this comfortable discussion, Brooks' essay points to the elephant in the middle of the room.  People on the lower economic end in this country start their lives in chaotic families.
In 1970, the family structures of the rich and poor did not differ that greatly. Now there is a chasm between them. As of 2005, 85 percent of children born to upper-middle-class families were living with both biological parents when the mom was 40. Among working-class families, only 30 percent were. According to a 2012 report from the National Center for Health Statistics, college-educated women ages 22 to 44 have a 78 percent chance of having their first marriage last at least 20 years. Women in the same age range with a high-school degree or less have only about a 40 percent chance. Among Americans ages 18 to 55, only 26 percent of the poor and 39 percent of the working class are currently married.
 In 1960, roughly 5 percent of children were born to unmarried women. Now about 40 percent are. The Pew Research Center reported that 11 percent of children lived apart from their father in 1960. In 2010, 27 percent did. Now, if you are born into poverty and raised by your married parents, you have an 80 percent chance of climbing out of it. If you are born into poverty and raised by an unmarried mother, you have a 50 percent chance of remaining stuck.
Nothing, nothing, in our pleasant dirigiste anti-inequality debate adds up to these kinds of numbers. A year of government run pre-K while not even talking about these facts is like handing out bandaids to cancer patients.


Brooks goes on to a later stage in life, the difficult transition to adulthood. 
Extended families provided men with the fortifying influences of male bonding and female companionship. Today many American males spend the first 20 years of their life without a father and the next 15 without a spouse. Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute has spent a good chunk of her career examining the wreckage caused by the decline of the American family, and cites evidence showing that, in the absence of the connection and meaning that family provides, unmarried men are less healthy—alcohol and drug abuse are common—earn less, and die sooner than married men.
This is not a new insight, really. It's just the great unmentionable. When in any inequality discussion did anyone point to the fact that hordes of children are growing up in chaotic family lives as the central problem, and the central thing that has gotten worse in the last decades? When in any job training discussion do we point out that young men growing up alone learn from their gang? Even elephants need families to grow up, and young elephants raised alone are ill-behaved and unmoored.

It is the great unmentionable:
Highly educated progressives may talk a tolerant game on family structure when speaking about society at large, but they have extremely strict expectations for their own families. When Wilcox asked his University of Virginia students if they thought having a child out of wedlock was wrong, 62 percent said it was not wrong. When he asked the students how their own parents would feel if they themselves had a child out of wedlock, 97 percent said their parents would “freak out.” 
But if we do not mention it, we're wasting our time.

A central question for all of us is the disincentives that government programs have had for families. As I see it, the life-of-Julia experiment has this disincentive. It's not a new or partisan view -- Daniel Patrick Moynihan started in the 1960s pointing out that giving welfare conditioned on no men being present was a huge mistake.

Brooks goes quickly to culture.  But culture also responds to incentives.

We are indeed not homo economicus, either individuals facing a market or individuals facing the array of government programs. Especially as we grow and mature, we are a social animal, homo of the family, of the extended family, of the village. Now absent.

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Response to Jeremy:

This is an excellent point, other than the snarky tone ("convenient"). I did not claim an exclusive list, just a starting point. The war on drugs, and the disastrous effects of the criminal justice system on many lives is surely a contributor. Here's a place I'm for a lot more government spending. Efficient law and courts are infrastructure too. In order to catch criminals, we do not need to ruin this many lives of innocent people. And we could do a darn better job of catching criminals too -- crime rates in low-income neighborhoods are shocking, destroying business, opportunities, incentives and lives.

John H. Cochrane
In real life I'm a Senior Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford. I was formerly a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. I'm also an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute. I'm not really grumpy by the way!

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