We don’t think this way about other organs, though. Consider the stomach. For a century or more, we’ve had a more than adequate knowledge of how the digestive system works. Yet on average we’re fatter than ever. Why? Not because the science of stomach scans hasn’t progressed enough, but because we like eating more than we like exercising.
Tough’s rendition of Heckman’s research tends to deteriorate even further when generalist pundits relay it. For example, The New York Times’ goodhearted columnist Nicholas Kristof has recently been promoting Tough’s book in essays titled “Cuddle Your Kid!” and “The Power of Hugs.”
Until Tough’s new book came out, the cliché was that black kids averaged low math test scores because black moms didn’t talk enough. But now, Tough’s description of lab-rat studies has led to the suddenly fashionable implication that Sun People are emotionally colder than Ice People. (This may come as a surprise to anybody raised Episcopalian.)
A rule of thumb regarding male intellectuals is that the more experience they have with their own children, the less confidence they have in their theories. Rousseau, the most influential theorist of child rearing over the past few centuries, sent all five of his babies to an orphanage to starve to death.
Tough has one child, so he’s still in the self-assured phase. It’s not until the second child comes along with all his own individuality that you realize you weren’t really raising your first child; he was raising you to his own specifications.
Yet we shouldn’t give Tough a tough time. It’s hard to afford any children when living in the New York area and writing serious nonfiction. How many people read statistics-based books? The Bell Curve was a historic hit, yet hardly more than one out of a thousand Americans bought a copy. If intellectuals could afford to have a lot of children, we might live in a world where they could sell enough heavyweight books to afford to have a lot of children. But we don’t.
So what should policy be?
In a recent article in the Boston Review, Heckman began, “The accident of birth is a principal source of inequality in America today,” then went on to endorse the usual expensive “interventions” in poor families. Should we perhaps instead strive for a country with fewer accidental births?
All of Heckman’s data suggest that we should aim for fewer—but better—poor children. Encourage poor people to conscientiously concentrate their scant parental resources on one child rather than three or six.
The government has had a policy of dissuading teen births, which have indeed been declining. Why not try to similarly investigate ways to slow down the rate at which impoverished unwed mothers reproduce? For example, why not invest in R&D for better, easier-to-use long-term contraceptives? The FDA’s approval of an injection contraceptive in 1992 appears to have helped bring about both fewer teen births and fewer abortions. Wouldn’t continued improvement—and, just as importantly, continued encouragement of contraceptive use—be a win-win strategy for all of us?
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