Saturday, October 06, 2007

Preoperational Egocentrism? You Be the Judge

My sister was chaperoning a field trip of kindergarteners. On the bus on the way back the boys were playing "I Spy," including this hilarious gem:

"I spy something green."
"Your sneaker?"
"No . . . "
"Your other sneaker?"

Piaget says that from two to seven kids usually show "preoperational" forms of reasoning. One of the most childish logical lapses of little kids, from an adult perspective, is egocentrism - that is, the kid's belief that everyone sees things the same way the child does. I have seen film of a wonderful experiment in which two kids are looking at an identical array of oddly shaped objects, but they can't see one another. One child is then supposed to describe one of the objects, so the other one can pick out the identical object. An adult doing this experiment might say "I am looking at the red ball," which would be readily understood by another adult looking at an array that included one red ball. A little kid, on the other hand, is likely to say "I am looking at this one." The other child might reply "So am I!" - though each is looking at a different object, with no idea what the other means.

So, is the above exchange an example of preoperational egocentrism in kindergarten boys, or an ingeniously subtle way to play "I Spy?"

Friday, October 05, 2007

No Efficient Number of Divorces

Stevenson and Wolfers continue with their assessment of marriage and divorce up to the point where economists and marriage advocates part company. S & W allow that married people are happier, healthier, and richer, but withhold judgment whether marriage is cause or effect. They ask

even if we isolate factors that create more or less divorce, these insights would only yield policy recommendations if coupled with an understanding of whether we currently have an efficient number of divorces, too many, or too few.

The concept of an "efficient number of divorces" is distasteful, at least, to marriage advocates. Even if we allow that sometimes divorce is the least of the available evils, it is still an evil. In thinking about the efficient number of divorces, Stevenson and Wolfers raise the analogy with the "churn" in the labor market. However, leaving a job can be a matter of indifference to the worker, as well as to the analyst looking down from on high. Not so, I think, with leaving a marriage.

Marriage changes people more than any other voluntary institution. Marriage and divorce are not just arrangements for material advantage. Every marriage carries the hope of building up husband, wife, their children, even their whole lineage. Every divorce is a social loss because it dashes that hope. Economists don't count the social costs of dashed hopes for personal and social upbuilding. But we can.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

U.S. Marriage Rate Lowest Ever -- But Still Above Europe

Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers have an interesting working paper on the "driving force" in marriage and divorce changes. Stevenson and Wolfers are the Wharton School professors who cleared up the puzzle about the erroneous Census Bureau report that most marriages don't reach their silver anniversary.

One finding that they put in stark relief is that the marriage rate in the United States is at the lowest point in recorded history. Indeed, the marriage rate peaked in 1972, and has been dropping ever since. Americans still couple at high rates, but many of them are cohabiting rather than marrying. Most cohabiters think they will marry -- but they don't.

On the other hand, "Americans marry, divorce, and remarry at rates higher than in most other countries with comparable income levels." Compared to Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, and Sweden, Americans are more likely to marry and more likely to believe in marriage. For example, only 10% of Americans think marriage is an out-dated institution, versus a quarter of Britons and a third of the French.

Of course, they are facing a demographic crisis of falling birthrates, and we aren't.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

National Center for Marriage Research

The Department of Health and Human Services has created the first federal marriage research center at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Sociology professors Wendy Manning and Susan Brown will direct the center. Manning and Brown already direct the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Bowling Green. They are each experts on cohabitation. This is a hopeful development. I am looking forward to their conferences and research reports beginning a year or two from now.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Census Error on Divorce, Part Two

Betsey Stevenson, the Wharton professor whose critique of the erroneous Census report on divorce I noted yesterday, has provided a helpful clarification of why every marriage cohort is wrong in the Census table. The original report made the provocative claim that most marriages made in the late '70s did not make their silver anniversary. Stevenson and her colleague Justin Wolfers pointed that, actually, most did make it. The Bureau had done their tally before 25 years had elapsed.

I noted that all cohorts showed an unexpected 5% leap in divorce from 1999 to 2004. Prof. Stevenson elaborated in a gracious response to my query:

The problem is that for every group there is a fraction (about 10%) who haven't had a chance to make it to the last anniversary assessed by the census. The 2004 survey was conducted from July to September 2004, and hence it is impossible for around one-in-ten of those surveyed to have reached the last assessed anniversary. For instance, a couple who married in October 1994 were counted as part of the 1990-94 marriage cohort, but even if they stayed together forever, they could not have reached their tenth anniversary by the survey date. Thus the percent in that cohort reaching the 10th anniversary was understated. This problem affects all of the numbers along the diagonal--these numbers reflect only the percent of couples in a group that have celebrated that anniversary. Those not "making it" can be divorced, dead, or simply still waiting for their anniversary to roll around.

Stevenson and Wolfers will be releasing a more thorough critique soon. I plan to report on it when it appears.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Census Bureau is More Than a Little Wrong on Divorce

The Census Bureau recent released an alarming report that most marriages from the late '70s on did not make it to their 25th anniversary. More careful examination by Justin Wolpers and Betsey Stevenson of the Wharton School reveal an elementary error. The Bureau was including marriages made in the latter half of 1979, but counted their longevity from mid-2004 -- before 25 years had actually elapsed. When those last few marriages were included, most of the late '70s marriages -- 53% -- did indeed celebrate their silver anniversary.

There is some further wrong, though. It was not just the Baby Boomers who showed a high divorce rate. Every generation of marriages showed a sizable jump in divorces in the five years preceding 2004 over the five-year period just before that. For example, for men married between 1975 and 1979, 5.6% divorces in the five years between 1995 and 1999, yet the Census Bureau shows nearly twice as many, 10.1%, divorced between 1999 and 2004. The late '70s were a bad era for marriage, but the marriage cohorts around this one, from the early '60s to the late '80s, show nearly identical huge leaps.

It is possible that divorce became much more likely for everyone in the early '00s. What this looks like to me, though, is that the Census Bureau changed the way it measured some aspect of divorce, causing an apparent leap in the divorce rate, without a real change in the underlying facts. More as this story develops.