What are children?

08/12/2011 § 1 Comment

Little kids, little kids, everywhere I turn I can see them. Susan St John in the Dom Post, responding to Karl Du Fresne reacting to Bryan Bruce on TV3. Offsetting Behaviour’s series on charter schools [update: link improved]. My own children’s end-of-year gala events.

It got me thinking, what are children? If we think in terms of the usual partial or general equilibrium models, either blackboard or computable, it’s not clear where they fit. They aren’t products — goods or services. They aren’t consumption. They aren’t agents unto themselves, and certainly aren’t the Representative Agent (but that would be a fun model to build). They aren’t factors of production or property. Including them in households is the common fix, but that just shifts the question into a black box.

Children seem to exist in a triad: parents — children — society. We generally try to honour parental preferences regarding their children, but only up to a point. Society also has preferences regarding children. It seems that there are at least two components to the preferences. One component is society standing in place for the future adult the child will become, looking after his or her interests intertemporally. The other component is contemporary: the preferences of other people regarding children as they are right now.

For example, society wants children to go to school because (a) we see education as a way for people to realise their full potentials as adults, and (b) it keeps them from breaking into our houses right now. But, when we exercise this control, we try to do it by acting on their parents. We fine the parents for the children’s truancy, for example.

So, we allow parents control over their children, but not as they would control their property or consumption goods. The limit is not just where the control starts harming society generally, but also where it starts harming the future adult.

In the main, children seem largely absent from economic analysis. They have, to borrow a term, ex-sistence; they stand outside the models. I think this makes it difficult to talk about either charter schools or child poverty. The individual who is arguably most affected doesn’t really have a standing (in a legal sense) in the models used for analysis.

One way into the problem is to think about Marx’s reproduction of labour. Raising children is exactly that: reproduction of labour for the future. For Lacan, repetition was a key idea. We keep things alive through repetition. When we cease to repeat things, they disappear from the culture.  Raising children involves reproducing not just labour power but also culture, language, and relationships, the soft infrastructure of the economy. Alternatively, Deborah Cobb-Clark at the NZAE 2007 conference suggested that each individual’s childhood incurs a debt. She didn’t say who held the debt — society, perhaps? Raising children is then one way of repaying that debt (presumably, there are other ways).

I’m not sure where these ideas take us….

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§ One Response to What are children?

  • Thanks for the poke, Bill; added the tags to the other couple of posts.

    The big problem when children enter into the analysis is that a whole lot of policies that affect the quality of life of children brought into existence also affects the quantity brought into existence, and utilitarian analysis has big problems when N is a choice variable.

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