Marriage, Illegitimacy, and Social Norms

Last week I had the privilege of chairing a discussion as part of the annual Charles Street Symposium. The discussion was based on three essays, which considered the question, Why Do Societies Prosper? David Ruffley MP acted as the discussant for the session.

The first essay was titled More on the What and Less of the Why, by Bernardo Fazendeiro1. Bernardo argues that we are asking the wrong question and before considering why societies prosper we must first consider what we mean when we talk about prosperity. He concludes by stating that “taking a step back is more necessary than ever, so that we can deliberate on versions of the good, whatever that may be…”

The second essay titled The Ethics of Disutility was by Mats Ekman2. Mats’ considers whether it is morally right to force a person to maximise his/her own utility, ultimately concluding that it would be wrong to do so, arguing that “right” and “good” are separate qualities.

The third (and most provocative) essay titled Social Norms, Illegitimacy, and Liberty was by Carissa Mulder3. Carissa argues that “America is suffering from an illegitimacy crisis.” Drawing on evidence that compares the life outcomes of children from married families versus children from unmarried families, the essay argues that people from higher socio-economic groups are more likely to marry before having children compared to those from lower socio-economic groups due to the presence of social norms/expectations, which are absent among the lower class (note: the essay uses US data and focuses solely on the US).

Social norms can only exist if there are consequences for violating them” argues Carissa. “Conforming to these behaviours results in societal approval. On the other hand, people must experience negative consequences for violating these norms if they are to be effective.

In an issue as complex as this, it is far easier to diagnose the problem than it is to prescribe the right solution – a point that came through clearly in the subsequent discussion. The essay offers some suggestions (with examples) but struggles to reach a practical path for progress, partly due to the complexity of the problem and partly due to the limited space available (the maximum word count for essays was 1500 words). The following paragraph offers some broad-brush suggestions:

Elites should preach what they practise: present the picture of a married couple raising their biological children as the paradigmatic example of the good life; be explicit about why fathers are important; emphasise the benefits to children in terms of staying in school, avoiding abuse, avoiding drugs, and avoiding involvement with the justice system. People who are married and those delaying childbearing until marriage should be frank about why they are doing so. This should be done in a sensitive manner. But sheepishly muttering the truth, rather than explaining it in a straightforward manner, doesn’t make it any less true. It just means that those who most need a clear plan of life to follow will not understand it.

It may be tempting to see this essay – that essentially advocates marriage as a prerequisite for having children – as a classic right-of-centre, pro-marriage argument the like of which is familiar among American conservatism. With this in mind, it’s notable that the essay steers clear of the familiar anti-government, pro-individual liberty arguments that one might expect. Indeed the essay argues that the government can play an active role in providing a solution, citing the example of the US government’s “decades-long anti-tobacco campaign”, which has resulted in a dramatic fall in tobacco use, despite tobacco products remaining legal and available.

The essay concludes with a thoughtful discussion on some of the obstacles to establishing social norms. The section on virtue was particularly good: “Positive social norms often require the exercise of virtue—work, continence, delayed gratification. Virtue does not come easily to most of us. Developing virtue requires sustained effort and self-denial…So the first difficulty in establishing positive social norms lies in the difficulty of conquering ourselves.

As I have said, arriving at a practical solution to a problem such as this presents a huge challenge. The statistics on children’s outcomes highlight a serious problem requiring a serious solution. But it’s a big step to then say that marriage is therefore the right prescription for everyone who has children. Forcing (or indeed strongly encouraging) this could easily end up with a completely different set of social problems.

That said, there is a strong case for helping people understand that a two parent married couple offers the best environment for children. Providing people with the statistics on this will allow them to make informed decisions about whether or not to have children. As the essay makes clear, it’s about gradually changing social norms rather than introducing heavy-handed policies that might result in negative outcomes. In theory, this is all well and good. But devising a method to achieve it is incredibly challenging.

I encourage you to read the essays in full, which are available at the following link (Carissa’s begins on p 38).

http://www.li.com/docs/default-source/publications/css2014_essays_web.pdf?sfvrsn=4

 

 

1 Bernardo is a research associate at the Centre for Critical Thought at the University of Kent

2 Mats is a doctoral student at the Helsinki Swedish School of Economics

3 Carissa is the Special Assistant to Commissioner Peter Kirsanow of the US Commission on Civil Rights

Talk at the Brookings Institution

Last week I was in the US and spent time in Washington DC, Boston, and New York. I gave several talks and hosted various meetings including giving a talk and moderating a panel session at the Brookings Institution (video below).

The subject of the discussion was “Opportunity and Prosperity” and the four panellists were: Carol Graham (Brookings Institution), John Prideaux (The Economist), Richard Reeves (Brookings Institution), and Charles Murray (American Enterprise Institute).

 

This event page on the Brookings Institution website provides more detail about the event: http://www.brookings.edu/events/2014/11/18-prosperity-beyond-economic-growth

Recent Media Coverage

Nathan Gamester - Prosperity Index 2013 cropped

Over the last few weeks I have spoken to many journalists about the latest edition of the Prosperity Index. The global coverage has been extensive and so a full run down would be difficult. However, I thought I’d pull together a selection of articles either that I’ve authored or in which I’m quoted.

  • Four Major Changes to Global Prosperity
    Harvard Business Review (link)

It was Abraham Maslow who gave us that famous observation — “when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”  We all understand the implication: Anyone attempting to solve an ambiguous problem should start out in possession of a broad set of tools. It is curious, then, that we continue to fall into the trap of…

  • How Prosperous is the United States?  
    Foreign Policy, Democracy Lab (link)

The results are in! The Legatum Institute has just launched the 2013 Prosperity Index, a broad measurement of national success that looks beyond GDP. Norway tops the rankings (for the fifth year running) followed by Switzerland in second place and Canada in third. The United States ranks outside the top ten, placing 11th overall…

Continue reading

On International Development Policy

If you are a British taxpayer, then right across the developing world are children who have been vaccinated against a multitude of deadly diseases because of you. Today millions of children are going to school for the first time – because of you. Fewer women are dying in childbirth – because of you. More AIDS sufferers than ever before have access to antiretroviral therapy and are thus living with, rather than dying from, their disease – because of you. British people should be proud of this.

This is an extract from an article I wrote on British International Development policy for ConservativeHome. The article coincides with the launch of a new policy pamphlet authored by Andrew Mitchell MP (published by the Legatum Institute).

I conclude the article by praising Andrew Mitchell and the government for sticking to the promise that they have made to the world’s poor, despite the challenging economic circumstances at home:

Many people who have served in government can take credit for ensuring Britain keeps its promise to the developing world. But perhaps the most significant of those is Andrew Mitchell. Mitchell has been called many things over the last six months, many of these it now appears were untrue. However, his lasting legacy – and perhaps one of this government’s most significant legacies – will be the commitment that is being shown to the world’s very poorest people.

Poverty in the UK

A recent FT article describes a child in Liverpool who chews on wallpaper at night to relieve his hunger. He. Chews. On. Wallpaper.

I have no idea how to even process this information. This is England, 2013.

A couple of weeks ago, I was chatting with some friends in their house in a deprived area of Liverpool when they showed me a haunting crayon picture. Drawn by a local child, it featured a large, empty plate with wobbly letters stating baldly: “Do you see any food?”

“There’s a lot of little kids going hungry round here,” explained one friend, who works in a local community centre. Indeed, just the other day she had spoken to a family where the child had been chewing wallpaper at night. “He didn’t want to tell his mum because he knew she didn’t have the money for supper,” she explained. “We hear more and more stories like this.”

Source: Where Austerity Really Hits Home, Gillian Tett, Financial Times

Can Money Buy Happiness?

Academically speaking, the answer to this question has, for a long time, been no. This is because of something called the Easterlin paradox – the theory that economic growth in a country does not result in greater happiness for citizens of that country.

But the theory is being challenged.

This week, writing in the Telegraph, Allister Heath cited two new academic papers that claim to disprove the Easterlin paradox. Both papers suggest that increased wealth does result in increased happiness.

The first paper cited by Heath is The New Stylized Facts about Income and Subjective Well-Being by Sacks, Stevenson, & Wolfers. This paper uses data on citizen’s life satisfaction from the Gallup World Poll and compares it against a measure of average income (real GDP per capita). The authors find that wellbeing does in fact rise with income. Moreover, the data show that the correlation stands within single countries, across countries, and over time.

The paper concludes with five “stylized facts” that include findings such as, “richer people report greater wellbeing than poorer people” and “richer countries have higher per capita well-being than poorer countries.”

The paper also offers an explain of why Easterlin came to the conclusions that he did in the 1970s: namely lack of data.

…[Easterlin] failed to find a statistically significant relationship between wellbeing and GDP …There was simply too little data to have the precision necessary to reach a conclusion in either direction.

The second paper cited in Heath’s article is The Easterlin illusion: economic growth does go with greater happiness by Ruut Veenhoven and Floris Vergunst.

This paper also finds that wellbeing rises with income. The authors reveal a positive correlation between GDP growth and a rise of in happiness in nations. They go on to say that both GDP and happiness have gone up in most nations, and average happiness has risen more in nations where the economy has grown the most.

So that’s it then. Money can buy you happiness after all. Or can it?

There remains a discussion as to whether disproving the Easterlin paradox is as simple as the two papers suggest. For example, wellbeing expert Carol Graham argues that it depends on the question that is asked in the survey.

Graham draws a distinction between life evaluation data and life experience data. Happiness data that capture citizens’ life evaluation correlate more closely with income compared to happiness data that capture life experience. This point is made by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton here.

So can money buy happiness? It seems the jury is still out. Academically speaking, anyway.

 

**More on this, including helpful summaries and useful context, can found here and here.

 

“Where you live should no longer determine whether you live.”

Bono-GWBushIn February 2006, Bono addressed the 51st National Prayer Breakfast in Washington DC. What he said – and how he said it – was quite remarkable.

Somehow, I’d not come across this until now (h/t to Matt Ellis who quoted a section of it in a recent sermon). Bono masterfully weaves together religious, political, and historical themes to make his point that the developed West (specifically America) should give a lot more to help the world’s poorest people.

Please do read the whole piece. Regardless of whether you like Bono or you agree with his argument, it’s an excellent speech.

A few notable extracts…

…I remember how my mother would bring us to chapel on Sundays… and my father used to wait outside. One of the things that I picked up from my father and my mother was the sense that religion often gets in the way of God…”

…God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.”

…But justice is a higher standard. Africa makes a fool of our idea of justice; it makes a farce of our idea of equality. It mocks our pieties, it doubts our concern, it questions our commitment.

Sixty-five hundred Africans are still dying every day of a preventable, treatable disease, for lack of drugs we can buy at any drug store. This is not about charity, this is about justice and equality.”

…Look at what happened in South East Asia with the tsunami. 150,000 lives lost to that misnomer of all misnomers, “mother nature.” In Africa, 150,000 lives are lost every month. A tsunami every month. And it’s a completely avoidable catastrophe.

…So on we go with our journey of equality. On we go in the pursuit of justice… united in the belief that where you live should no longer determine whether you live.”

…Preventing the poorest of the poor from selling their products while we sing the virtues of the free market…that’s a justice issue. Holding children to ransom for the debts of their grandparents…that’s a justice issue…And while the law is what we say it is, God is not silent on the subject.”

…I truly believe that when the history books are written, our age will be remembered for three things: the war on terror, the digital revolution, and what we did – or did not to – to put the fire out in Africa.

History, like God, is watching what we do.”