A list with counter-commentary:

  1. “In the past kids assisted in farm work, and child labor was legal; the incentive then was to have many kids. But today kids take forever to be economically productive and are much more expensive. Thus many people have fewer kids. Circumvent the incentive structure by training your kids useful at younger ages.” -Various authors

    I don't think this is a factual representation of the dynamics. In the past people had lots of kids for two reasons. One, sex caused children. Two, any group which failed to have enough children survive into adulthood would die out quickly and visibly. Making children useful at younger ages might give us some semi-useful 8 year olds, who are helpful with the little ones. However, in a larger family one parent is still going to be a 4/5 time domestic engineer, even with help from the 8 year old and not contributing to GDP. I don't see how this pronatalism 3+ kids stuff works without pulling one parent out mostly out of the GDP equation. TANSTAAFL.
  2. “Technological innovation is more likely when the next generation is bigger. As the gains from technology slows to a halt, so too will the stock market cease t o grow. In a world that is not growing, many financial instruments will collapse.” - https://pronatalist.org/

    AI is probably going to allow GDP to keep rising. Eventually, we won’t need people at all, and the stock market will be fine. Don’t worry about it.
  3. "National greatness, and staying ahead of China for world influence requires that we have the biggest economy. To do that, we need more people." -Matt Yglesias, One Billion Americans.

    Yeah, the guy who has chosen to have one child is going to inspire me to make the sacrifices involved in having four. It might be good for America, but the ‘ask’ here looks like it is that I sacrifice my utility for Matt’s one kid, and thus is not cooperate-cooperate. I’ll jump when you jump.
  4. "You might not like the sacrifices of having children now, but look out over the course of your life. The cost of children is finite and the pleasure of grandchildren is, while not infinite, very high. Most people don't want to limit their number of grandchildren. On the margin, you should increase your chances of having more grandchildren by having more kids!" -Bryan Caplan, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids

    Bryan Caplan, at least, has three four kids. Looking out over the long-term sure sounds good. And, I remember Solon of Athens identifying eudaimonia with being a grandparent of healthy, smart grandkids. It sounds so nice! But, first economists told me to move for more productive work, and now they want me to have kids with no grandparents around to help me with them. Thanks guys! This sucks.

    Long-term thinking for someone in their late 20s about grandchildren only works when there is enough financial and psycho-social slack to make the long-term optimizing choice. I mean something like the following: The cost of children is not merely financial, but also a huge logistical problem - random sickness, work-life-friends schedule conflicts, transportation costs, shifts in the network of people you have time for. Just as people living paycheck-to-paycheck don't invest, nor does a couple up to their eyeballs in career capital investment invest in having more than the minimum acceptable number of grandchildren.
  5. “Don’t be a mesa-optimizer for sexual stimulation. Try to recouple sex and children in your life. In fact, not only that, become a meta-optimizer! Create social environments that make sex reinforce your love of partner and increase the quantity of love both partners offer to the next generation (by increasing children). Those children will in turn become lovers of others, accelerating the growth rate of love in the world!” - LoveBot 2084

    Evolution doesn’t care whether we circumvent the sex->children dynamic, because evolution is not a person. I’m not cheating nature by not having kids. Some moral rules might make evolutionary sense, but evolution does not create right and wrong. That’s a Naturalism Fallacy.
  6. “Children are not that hard to raise. Lower your obsession with saving for college and buying expensive summer camps and caring so much about having the highest consumption standard of living. Only the first few years are tough in terms of sleep and work.” -Bryan Caplan again, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids

    Except, when I have four kids, that “first few years” is actually 15 years, and the lovely spouse who has the higher income job would experience a huge opportunity cost staying home, and the other spouse who specializes in prosocial nonprofit work would experience an opportunity cost too. How is that tradeoff going to work?
  7. “If you are not willing to make the sacrifices to have 2.1+ kids, why should anyone else? Hypocritically you wish for other people to carry the burdens, while you reap the benefits of a consistently and sustainably growing society. Free-riding scum. Irresponsible lout.” - Deontology-ish

    What’s with the ad hominem? You sound like some sort of reactionary, did you know that? In any case, immigration might solve the problem both in the short-term, through creating higher productivity, and the long-term, through cultural change. Though for now, who, of those who hope immigration will solve the problem, are being the solution they want to see in the world?
  8. “The statistical value of a human life is between 2 and 10 million dollars in a Western Country. The cost of raising a child to 20 is around $300,000. Those re turns after only 20 years beat every hedge fund in the world. If you allow that the dollar values there correlate to utility, then you’ve created a ton of utility at very little cost.” -Utilitarian-ish

    But no, this is a ridiculous accounting method! Comparing the average actual cost of raising a child to the statistical value of human life is apples and oranges! The real comparison should be the total economic cost of having children to the total economic benefit. And none of that, “existence-is-infinitely-valuable funny business either!” Still the scales probably would weigh in favor of children (median US lifetime income is $1.7 million). Nonetheless, this proves nothing! Children are utility monsters. Help! I am being utility mugged! If I accept this logic I'd be compelled to have as many kids as possible!
  9. “Life is good and worth living. Create more of it, because it is good. Eventually the sacrifice becomes sweet as your utility function updates towards an appreciation of kids. When you realize just how good it is that this new toddling space-invader is enjoying life, you will be at peace. Thus the righteous person considers kids as the default option and requires a very strong reason to not raise the additional kid.” - Virtue Ethics-ish

    When I understand how Aristotelians think, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, this “inherent sweetness of life” stuff seems mystical (along the lines of infinite utility). Having children is hard. Is Aristotle going to acknowledge that? No, he’s a dude and thinks kids are a woman’s job. Sorry, sorry that's an ad hominem. Stick to the object level! As for the argument, eudaimonia consists of a balance of many competing goods and for any couple that will include career and lifestyle sacrifices. How much consumption can we afford to sacrifice? It seems pretty bare bones already…

Are these reasons all bad? They are okay and yet, for many, not compelling. Can one really be intellectually convinced to go through the deeply visceral experience of conceiving and raising children? Yes, some people for sure; for us, perhaps especially! But we need more than that. We need visceral experience and a community of practice to clear the way.

So in addition to the reasons above I submit to you my visceral experience from yesterday as an additional reason to have kids.

"Welcome to the world Lórien!" - Big Brother Atticus





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I see and hear the claim "more people = better economy" made quite often (Matt Yglesias, in this case)

But nowadays most of the production of value is done either by: a) machines, and b) a relatively small number of highly skilled people in research and development (who design and build the machines).

My intuition is that increasing the proportion of people capable of working in R&D (through education, lifting people out of poverty) would be a better way to increase an economy's capacity to produce value than just dialing up the birth rate.

Is there a reason why people believe "more people = better economy"?

One reason people make this claim is that many models of economic growth depend on population growth. Like you noted, there are lots of other ways to grow the economy by making each individual more productive (lower poverty, more education, automating tasks, more focus on research, etc.).

But crucially, all of these measures have diminishing returns. Let's say that in the future everyone on earth has a PhD, is highly productive, and works in an important research field. In this case the only way to continue growing economy is through population growth, since everything else has already been maxed out. This is why Chad Jones claims that the long run growth rate limits to the population growth rate:


At least that's what the models say. Jones himself admits that AI might change these dynamics (I guess population growth of AI's would become the thing that matters more if they replace human labor?).

Thanks for sharing this.

Definitely agree with him that it can't go on forever:

"Many of the sources of growth historically — including rising educational attainment, rising research intensity, and declining misallocation — are inherently limited and cannot go on forever."

Also agree when he says:

"We are a long way from hitting any constraint that we have run out of people to hunt for new ideas"

We're way off everyone having PhDs. I'll hold off worrying about declining birth rates for a few decades.

Two papers that come to mind, both by Charles Jones at Stanford

  1. The Past and Future of Economic Growth: A Semi-Endogenous Perspective, about models that try to think about the impact of population and researcher proportion on growth.
  2. The End of Economic Growth? Unintended Consequences of a Declining Population, about how these models suggest a declining population would lead to a stagnation in economic growth.

He presented the first one in a lecture linked below at the Global Priorities Institute.

A few reasons we might at least want to consider believing more people = better economy

  1. Large increase in GDP per capita in the last few centuries was associated with a large increase in the global population. Obviously some of that increase in population is due to the economic growth itself but the connection could run both ways
  2. The per capita cost of R&D is smaller in a larger population, but the benefits are the same, since unlike in the production of goods, ideas can be shared by the whole population.
  3. More speculatively and qualitatively, a society which is growing in population is younger and potentially more dynamic and future-oriented than a society which is declining and aging

A reason for skepticism is that while population size is plausibly a major factor in long-run growth, it doesn't seem to have been the main factor in recent US growth. From paper 1 above,

Section 3 conducts a growth accounting exercise for the United States to make a key point: despite the fact that semi-endogenous growth theory implies that the entirety of long-run growth is ultimately due to population growth, this is far from true historically, say for the past 75 years. Instead, population growth contributes only around 20 percent of U.S. economic growth since 1950. Rising educational attainment, declining misallocation, and rising (global) research intensity account for more than 80 percent of growth.

I am open for correction here, but I believe it works like so:

Consider this argument from The New Geography of Jobs. Productivity is higher where jobs are of the smarter type. However in those places blue collar jobs are higher paid and in demand too. The high productivity job-holders have more income to dispose on a variety of service sectors. But if there is not enough saturation of the labor market there will not be the quantity and quality of service sector jobs will be lower and the cost will be higher. If the service sector labor market is significantly constricted, the productive, smart jobs will be less productive too.

[comment deleted]1

(9) is more straightforward utilitarian than virtue ethics: most kids can become self-perpetuating utility creators upon reaching adulthood, and indeed go on to create geometrically more self-perpetuating utility creators!

Agreed, though, that this does not acknowledge that raising kids takes a lot of work, and that for many people there are far cheaper ways to create utility.

The idea that life is inherently sweet and good is from Aristotle (Politics III.6). 

And therefore, men, even when they do not require one another's help, desire to live together; not but that they are also brought together by their common interests in proportion as they severally attain to any measure of well-being. This is certainly the chief end, both of individuals and of states. And also for the sake of mere life (in which there is possibly some noble element so long as the evils of existence do not greatly overbalance the good) mankind meet together and maintain the political community. And we all see that men cling to life even at the cost of enduring great misfortune, seeming to find in life a natural sweetness and happiness.

The idea that even if you don't currently enjoy raising children that you will eventually see the value is taken from the Ethics (that your character will develop towards the character of a righteous person) and Agnes Callard (that you can bootstrap to higher plane of values through aspiration). 

I think mine was a pretty fair representation of the classical Aristotelian view, except I said "update utility function" instead of "develop a more virtuous character."  

Ah, thanks for correcting me. I wasn't aware of that provenance.

I suppose what I really meant was "something close to 9, in utilitarian terms, feels pretty compelling to me." :-)

Thanks for the correction!

Sorry, Bryan!

H/t Milan for the help.

"National greatness, and staying ahead of China for world influence requires that we have the biggest economy. To do that, we need more people." -Matt Yglesias, One Billion Americans.

Yeah, the guy who has chosen to have one child is going to inspire me to make the sacrifices involved in having four. It might be good for America, but the ‘ask’ here looks like it is that I sacrifice my utility for Matt’s one kid, and thus is not cooperate-cooperate. I’ll jump when you jump.

Two pushbacks here:

(1) The counterargument seems rather weak here, right? Even if Matt Yglesias had no kids, that doesn't mean his argument isn't valid. EG, if a single non-vegan person claims that more people should be vegan, will you view that as evidence that people should not be vegan? ;-) (Not that I disagree with your claim. Just with your argument.)

(2) Did you actually read One Billion Americans, or are you just taking the citation and interpretting it as Matt Yglesias making an argument for people having more children? I didn't read the book, so I am not sure. But I listened to a podcast with Matt Yglesias, about the book, and my impression was that he was primarily arguing for changing the immigration policy, and (if memory serves) not really making any strong claims about how many kids people should have.

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