Choices: Having Babies and Buying Porsches

Oh Mankiw…. Sigh… It is no secret that Lady Economist is not enthusiastic about Mankiw-style economic education and theory. Harvard Professor Greg Mankiw is the epitome of conservative economist, serving as Mitt Romney’s economic advisor during his campaign and training generations of young economists to advocate capitalism without acknowledging its very existence. But the man has done it again, relying on his free market economic ideology to argue that it the Affordable Care Act’s provision for the coverage of maternity care in health insurance doesn’t make sense.

babyporscheaHe is quoted from his blog in the Atlantic as having said, “having children is more a choice than a random act of nature. People who drive a new Porsche pay more for car insurance than those who drive an old Chevy …. Why isn’t having children viewed in the same way?” On his blog entry, he goes on to say, “it does seem that fairness in health insurance pricing is being viewed very differently than fairness in pricing other types of insurance.  I wonder why.”

Hmmm. I do wonder why. These women are just “choosing” to have babies of their own free will, all on their own, and their future children have only importance to these singular women, with no effect on society as a whole.

First of all, Dr. Mankiw, as brilliant as he may be, needs to take a basic class on biology to learn about how reproduction works. Second, it would be nice if he also acknowledged that having children is not something that only affects women. All of society is influenced by our continued propagation.

The Atlantic brings up some very important points about the conservative criticism of the ACA for it’s provision of maternal care. In particular, the extension of affordable health insurance to cover childbearing disproportionately affects single mothers. Married women are more likely to have insurance in the first place. Not unimportantly, single mothers are also more disproportionately women of color and poor women. So this is just another example of simple sexism, racism and classism, all intertwined into one dumb argument against providing maternal care.

But in term’s of the economics Mankiw preaches, his belief in choice is truly religious. His economic paradigm is incapable of taking into consideration the social and personal conditions under which choice takes place, and whether using the word choice to describe having children for women really makes sense in the first place. If we want to talk about economic theory, choice, and making babies, a good place to start is Amartya Sen, who has written extensively on the act of choice with more realistic assumptions about how the world works.

Sen writes in his 1997 article “Maximization and the Act of Choice” that, “choice functions and preference relations may be parametrically influenced by specific features of the act of choice (including the identity of the chooser, the menu over which choice is being made, and the relation of the particular act to behavioral social norms that constrain particular social actions).” Which is to say, this stuff is complicated! We do not choose in a vacuum. Particularly, the behavioral social norms and biological considerations of having children affects women in ways it doesn’t affect men, but does not imply that men and society at large do not also bear responsibility for the act of having children.

Sen goes on to say in the same piece, “a chooser, who may have to balance conflicting considerations to arrive at a reflected judgement, may not, in many cases, be able to converge on a complete ordering when the point of decision comes. If there is no escape from choosing, a choice decision will have to be made even with incompleteness in ranking.” So while, yes, women get pregnant, the choice to have a child (which, granted, conservatives would not think should be a choice after the moment of conception) involves a decision among imperfect ordering of desired life outcomes and the ability to choose among them. To decide to risk conception or to decide to plan conception, and to decide to carry a baby to term are choices, sort of, but under imperfect conditions. (Side note: it should also be said that perfect conditions about choices is not even a possibility if we just got rid of all “constraints” to choosing, as Mankiw might argue for economic policy. Constraints are just a fact of society.) These imperfect conditions are determined by a broad array of factors, and the outcome of these decisions should be born by the society that creates these conditions by pooling their costs and reaping the benefits from them. (Biology, too. Other people beside the mother are generally involved in baby making, but do not bear the consequences in the same way.)

It would be worthwhile for Mankiw to take his head out of his econ 101 syllabus and think about the world in a more open-minded way. Maybe a sociology 101 or anthropology 101 class would be good for him. But if I’ve learned anything about how Harvard teaches their econ 101, he might want to look elsewhere for those other classes too.

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Categories: Girl Math-1, Means of Reproduction

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