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Capitalism Promotes Equality: Equality in Consumption Is Now the Norm by Barry Brownstein

Highway traffic began to slow outside of Boston as we made our way to the airport. My wife was driving, so I took out my $100 Android phone and opened Google Maps. Google Traffic instantly showed me, in real time, the best route to avoid delays and estimated the number of minutes we’d save by altering our route. Thanks to Google, there was no threat of missing our flight.

It was not too long ago that we relied on traffic reporters in helicopters, and their advice was often useless by the time we heard their updates.

Have you wondered how Google Traffic does it? The answer is crowdsourcing. If you are among the two-thirds of American adults who own a smartphone, and if the GPS locator on your phone is enabled, you are generating real-time traffic information. Google Traffic measures how fast cars are moving compared to normal speeds and generates location-specific reports.

Rich or poor, most of the drivers on the highway that day had access to the same miraculous traffic report and the same opportunity to make better driving decisions. This is just one example of how the marketplace generates equality in consumption.

The cars we drive are another indicator of consumption equality. We were driving an inexpensive Subaru Outback. There are more expensive, comfortable, and bigger cars on the market, but the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that there are none safer than the Outback.

Would a rich individual, on this same drive to the airport, have any noticeable advantages over me? He or she could hire a driver and use the drive time for something more productive, but even that advantage will dwindle as driverless cars become the norm.

In his Wall Street Journal commentary “The Rise of Consumption Equality,” former hedge fund manager Andy Kessler writes:

Just about every product or service that makes our lives better requires a mass market or it’s not economic to bother offering. Those who invent and produce for the mass market get rich. And the more these innovators better the rest of our lives, the richer they get but the less they can differentiate themselves from the masses whose wants they serve.

“What does Google founder Larry Page have that you don’t have?” Kessler asks pointedly.

Page’s income is unimaginably larger than most of ours. But in terms of consumption, the differences are negligible — which is remarkable, given how much Page and Google have improved our lives.

All-time football great Tom Brady earns roughly $10 million a year. His diet made the news recently. Does Brady enjoy health advantages not available to Americans with a fraction of his income? Brady hires a cook. Our family doesn’t do that, but we eat much like Brady — organic vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, and fish make up the bulk of our diet. From May to October, a local organic farmer provides an abundance of vegetables that are picked fresh for us based on an order we place the day before. In the summertime, our produce may be fresher than Brady’s. Compared to any of us, what real dietary advantage does Tom Brady’s income afford him? It is his commitment to a healthy lifestyle, not his income, that makes the difference.

In 1900, Americans spent approximately 50 percent of their household income on food and clothing; today, we spend closer to 20 percent. Today, fresh produce from all over the world, not even available to a king a century ago, awaits common consumers when they enter the supermarket.

In 1900, only 25 percent of households had running water; fewer still had flush toilets. It would be decades before such wonders as electricity, automobiles, and indoor plumbing were ubiquitous. The faucets in the famed Hearst Castle in California may have been gold plated, but was the water any better than what the average household received? The water running in my home comes from an artesian well over 400 feet deep. More evidence of consumption equality: my water is every bit as good, if not better, than a billionaire’s in a big city penthouse.

Wealth is not a good predictor of a rich life. Psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky found that only 10 percent of the variance in Americans’ happiness is due to income and other circumstances. “Happiness more than anything,” she writes in her book The How of Happiness, ”is a state-of-mind, a way of perceiving and approaching ourselves and the world in which we reside.”

And what of the elements of emotional intelligence that make life richer? In the book Big Magic, best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert observes:

If money were the only thing people needed to live rich creative lives, then the mega-rich would be the most imaginative, generative, and original thinkers among us, and they simply are not. The essential ingredients for creativity remain exactly the same for everybody: courage, enchantment, permission, persistence, trust — and those elements are universally accessible. Which does not mean that creative living is always easy; it merely means that creative living is always possible.

The same universally accessible elements are essential ingredients for entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs persist, driven by their vision and by the equality of opportunity that capitalism affords. The entrepreneur’s choice to be persistent and courageous is the not-so-secret engine that drives success.

The essential consumption goods we couldn’t even imagine a hundred years ago are almost universally available in the United States today. The marketplace, aided by many creative, pioneering entrepreneurs and every person who strives to put in a good day’s work, is generating consumption equality.

Barry BrownsteinBarry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore. He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership. He blogs at BarryBrownstein.com, Giving up Control, and America’s Highest Purpose.

Social Science and the Nuclear Family by Steven Horwitz

The question of the importance of family structure, specifically marriage, is back in the limelight. Conservatives are promoting three papers that provide some strong evidence that children raised by married parents do better along a number of dimensions than those raised in other household forms.

For many commentators, this makes for a strong case against those who appear to claim that family structure has either a minimal effect or doesn’t matter at all. As someone who might well fall into that group, or at least appear to, I think there are several responses to these new studies, all of which can acknowledge the empirical evidence that being raised by two loving parents is better for kids than alternative family structures.

One side note: conservatives might wish to not use the term “family structure denialists” as Wilcox does in the link above.

Comparing a legitimate disagreement over empirical evidence and public policy to those who would deny the overwhelming evidence of the Holocaust is an unacceptable rhetorical move whether it comes from leftists speaking of “climate change deniers” or conservatives speaking of “family structure deniers.” The disagreements in both case are legitimate objects of intellectual discussion and the language of “denier” indicates a refusal to engage in good faith debate.

On the substance of this issue, the conservatives cheering these recent studies don’t always note that there are differences among single-parent households formed through: 1) the choice to have and raise a child by oneself; 2) death of a spouse; and 3) divorce. Each of these presents a different set of circumstances and tradeoffs that we might wish to consider when we think about the role of family structure.

The conservative defenders of the superiority of the two-parent family (and it’s presumably not just “two parents” but two parents of the opposite sex, which raises a whole other set of questions), might wish to disentangle the multiple reasons such a family structure might not be present. For example, the children of widows do better than those of women who choose not to marry the fathers of their children, and the children of widows have outcomes that look more like those of kids from two-parent families.

The empirical evidence under discussion has to be understood with an “all else equal” condition. A healthy marriage will indeed produce better outcomes than, say, single motherhood. But there is equally strong social scientific evidence about the harm done to children who are raised in high-conflict households. Those children may well be better off if their parents get divorced and they are raised in two single-parent households with less conflict.

When parents in high-conflict marriages split up, the reduction in their stress levels, especially for women, leads to improved relationships with their children and better outcomes for the kids. In general, comparisons of different types of family structures must avoid the “Nirvana Fallacy” by not comparing an idealized vision of married parenthood with a more realistic perspective on single parenthood. The choices facing couples in the real world are always about comparing imperfect alternatives.

In addition, to say that married parents create “better” outcomes for kids does not mean that other family forms don’t produce “acceptable” outcomes for kids. It’s not as if every child raised by a single mother, whether through divorce, widowhood, or simply not marrying the father, is condemned to poverty or a life of crime.

Averages are averages. Though these three recent studies do continue to confirm the existing literature’s consensus that marriage is “better” for kids, there is still much debate over how much better those outcomes are, and especially whether other family structures are or are not sufficient to raise functional adults.

And this leads to the next point, which is that parents matter too.

The focus of the “family structure matters” crowd is almost exclusively on the outcomes for kids. That parents matter too is most obvious with divorce, where leaving a bad marriage may be extremely valuable for mom and/or dad, even if it leads to worse outcomes for the kids. The evidence from Stevenson and Wolfers that no-fault divorce has led to a decline in intimate partner violence, as well as suicides of married women, makes the importance of this point clear.

We can acknowledge that higher divorce rates have not been good for kids, but we can’t do single-entry moral bookkeeping. We have to include the effects of divorce on the married couple, because adults matter too. When we add this to the idea that conflict in marriage is bad for kids, the increased ease with which adults can get out of marriages, and the resulting single parenthood, is not so clearly a net problem when we consider the well-being of both children and adults.

These calculations are complicated and idiosyncratic, which seems to suggest that they should be left to those with the best knowledge of the situation and not artificially encouraged or discouraged by public policy.

This last point raises the final question, which is what do these studies mean for public policy?

If two-parent families are better than the alternatives, what does this imply? Are conservatives suggesting that we subsidize couples who have kids? Should that apply to only biological parents and not adoptive ones? Isn’t this a case for same-sex marriage? Should we make divorce more difficult, and if so, what about the probable result that doing so would reduce the number of marriages by increasing the cost of exit?

I would certainly agree that we should stop subsidizing single-parenthood through various government programs, but I’d make the same argument about two-parent families as well. In any case, what’s not clear is what the conservatives trumpeting these studies think they mean for public policy.

Perhaps, though, they think the solutions are cultural. If conservatives wish to argue that these studies mean that we should use moral suasion and intermediary institutions such as houses of worship to encourage people to marry and stay married if they wish to have kids, or that we should encourage young people to use contraception and think more carefully about when and with whom they have sex, that’s fine. And in fact, teen pregnancies are down.

But if intermediary institutions can do all of that, then they can also play a key role in helping single parents who make the difficult decision to divorce or continue a pregnancy in the complicated circumstances of their lives. Such institutions will also likely do that more effectively than can the state.

So if we are genuinely concerned about single parenthood, we should be asking what are the best ways to deal with it. Libertarians like me might well agree with such conservatives if they think the solutions are cultural or should rest in the hands of such intermediate institutions. But if they think there are public policy solutions, particularly ones that limit or penalize the choices facing couples, I wish they would spell them out explicitly in the context of their discussions of these studies.

One last thought: It ill-serves libertarians to deny the results of good science and social science, whether it’s climate change from the left or family structure from the right. We should, of course, critically interrogate that work to make sure that it is, in fact, good. But if it is good, we should welcome it as we should first be concerned with the truth and not our ideological priors.

The next questions we should ask, however, are about the implications. In the case of these recent studies on family structure, it is incumbent upon us to assess both the quality of the work and its implications, and we should pay particular attention to what is not being seen and what questions are not being asked.

Just because one family structure is better for children all else equal means neither that other family structures aren’t good enough for kids, nor that all else is always equal, nor that we shouldn’t consider the well-being of adults when we discuss the consequences of alternative family structures.

This post first appeared at the excellent philosophy blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

Steven Horwitz
Steven Horwitz

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective, now in paperback.

Traditional Marriage: A Most Perfect Union

Opponents of traditional marriage try to equate any union as a perfect one. Two recent studies prove them wrong. The Daily Signal’s Leslie Ford reports:

“Those who marry are more satisfied than those who remain single,” claims a new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

But does marriage itself influence happiness? Or is it just that happier people are more likely to wed?

This study gives support to the idea that marriage itself contributes to happiness. (In other words, even the grumps that get married may find themselves happier because they are married.) Another finding from the study is that that friendship is a mechanism that may explain the link between marriage and life satisfaction. In fact, those who see their spouse as their best friend benefit even more from marriage.

Read more.

Joe Miller in a column titled “New Research on Same-Sex Households Overwhelmingly Shows Kids Do Best With Mom and Dad” reports:

A new study published in the February 2015 issue of the British Journal of Education, Society, and Behavioural Science appears to be the largest yet on the matter of same-sex households and children’s emotional outcomes. It analyzed 512 children of same-sex parents, drawn from a pool of over 207,000 respondents who participated in the (U.S.) National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) at some point between 1997 and 2013.

Results reveal that, on eight out of twelve psychometric measures, the risk of clinical emotional problems, developmental problems, or use of mental health treatment services is nearly double among those with same-sex parents when contrasted with children of opposite-sex parents. The estimate of serious child emotional problems in children with same-sex parents is 17 percent, compared with 7 percent among opposite-sex parents, after adjusting for age, race, gender, and parent’s education and income. Rates of ADHD were higher as well—15.5 compared to 7.1 percent. The same is true for learning disabilities: 14.1 vs. 8 percent.

[ … ]

Vocal critics, soon to emerge, will likely home in on the explanatory mechanism—the fact that two mothers or two fathers can’t possibly both enjoy a biological connection to a child—in suggesting the results of the study reveal nothing of value about same-sex households with children. On the contrary, the study reveals a great deal. Namely, there is no equivalent replacement for the enduring gift to a child that a married biological mother and father offer. It’s no guarantee of success. It’s not always possible. But the odds of emotional struggle at least double without it. Some critics might attribute the emotional health differences to the realities of “adoption by strangers,” but the vast majority of same-sex couples in the NHIS exhibited one parent with a biological relationship with the child. [Emphasis added]

Read more.

Even research on “planned” same-sex families—those created using assisted reproductive technology (ART)—reveals the significance of biological ties. (Read more about the research on the same-sex households HERE)

Traditional marriage, defined as between one man and one woman, is here to stay. Why? Because it is a most perfect union.

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