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The bourgeoisie baby blues

There are those instances when you see a plot that resonates with your experience so much that you don’t need to say anything. You just share it. Those who know, know. Those who don’t know, won’t know until they are in a position to know.

Median household income in the United States today is $59,000. “Household” is a broad category. All families are households, but not all households are families. The median family income is $72,000. If the plot above is correct households in the bottom 25% and somewhere in the top 1% are above demographic replacement. The 1% cut-off is $430,000, and from what I can tell poking around the households making $1,000,000 per year are probably the 0.1%. In other words, between the 75th percentile and 0.10% percentile Americans are below replacement in total fertility.

There is a particular trough between $50,000 and $250,000. From the core of the middle class into the heart of the upper middle class.

From $50,000 a year household income of $250,000 a year may look comfortable, but these are the children of Epictetus. The modern world is filled with those who lack freedom but live with some modicum of comfort, as well as avenues for leisure and self-cultivation. But freedom is reserved for capital, in particular, those with a lot of liquid capital.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a slave with a substantial income remains but a slave at the end of their days. Their comforts persist only at the sufferance of those who have inherited or grasped their freedom.


22 thoughts on “The bourgeoisie baby blues

  1. Thank you, Mr. Khan! I believe I asked for this data at one point in our discussions about fertility falling and then rising with income in the U.S. And this is completely consistent with both my experiences and what I have observed.

    One thing I should also note is that as income rises, people tend to be more “independent” and less reliant on neighbors and the community at large (I can’t recall which study it was right now, but I read a study on this fairly recently). In other words, poor people tend to rely on each other more, because they have to – they have no other choice (for the same reason they tend not to move to chase higher paying jobs away from family and friends). The thing is, you can have lots of kids when you have help from your family, neighbors, and the community at large (and don’t obsess about “school quality” and such – you just want them fed and clothed).

    At the other end of the spectrum, those with very high incomes can afford to pay for help (especially with children) without affecting their financial soundness… which means that those who are middle class and particularly the upper middle class find having a large number of children the most difficult. It’s tough for them to spend a lot of money on childcare while also paying for schools, whether directly for private schools or indirectly for property taxes in desirable school districts.

    The “hack” for this as such is to join a religious community. I belong to several concentric Catholic and homeschooling communities. Almost every day I get emails and phone calls about “meal trains” for families in the group who just gave birth (well into the forties for some of the members). These are basically tribes with strong cohesion and much mutual-help (of course the LDS take the cake on this).

    Even so, I must admit that these tribes are rather well-to-do tribes. Many parents in the group own businesses or are highly-paid professionals, definitely on the right side of that curve. Traditional Catholic (no contraceptives)/homeschooling tribes definitely attract those with the economic means to enable the way of life.

  2. I second twinkies comment about the lack of social capital. I would also point to the cost of housing and the cost of education. Both of which are driven by government polices of subsidized demand and restricted supply.

  3. The bit about fertility being higher for rich people seems to agree with related claims I have seen previously about the US. It is also consistent with what many Koreans have told me – they would typically like to have more babies, but can’t afford it.

    But I don’t know what the deal with Europe is. Does every country have an “X point, where “X point” should be substituted with a name for the lowest point on the graph – after which TFR rises? Is that typically the point at which you have enough after paying for the costliest school, housing and childcare facilities?

  4. Another factor is simply delaying marriage. The upper middle class has internalized the message of “you shouldn’t marry (and definitely shouldn’t have kids) until you’re through school, have a job, can afford your real dream house, or as some sociologists put it, as the “capstone” to your life instead of the foundation.

    When you don’t start having kids until your thirties or mid or even late thirties, you’re less likely to have that second one, and you’re much, much less likely to have that third bundle of joy seven or eight years after the first like so many in prior generations.

    Having kids later as a capstone is of course related to wanting to be independent enough to handle it without friends and family, and housing prices making it harder to be in your dream house instead of living through those first couple years in an apartment, etc., so there’s a lot of synergy.

  5. 1. Is there somewhere that you have written a more extended treatment on your idea that anyone without complete financial autonomy is a slave?

    2. This graph ignores life-cycle effects. 12% of Americans will earn enough to be in the top 1% at some point in their lives; 39% will earn enough to be in the top 5%. People tend to have children when they are younger, and people typically earn less when they are younger.

  6. I am really curious to know where Twinkie lives. I am ready to move to a nicer place .

  7. Wow Razib – discussion of fertility rates / wealth correlations without reference to Ronny Fisher. His genetical theory of the fall of the Roman Empire is bags of awesome.

  8. I am really curious to know where Twinkie lives. I am ready to move to a nicer place.

    I don’t mean to be curt, but it’s not where. It’s who.

    Of course, you should live in a “nice” place… as nice of a place as you can afford. But what makes a place truly nice – in my view – is being able to find people with whom you share a certain sense of moral kinship and building a community together. And that takes work on your part. And it’s something you can do just about anywhere – even in the dreaded “liberal urban cesspools.”

    If, for example, you didn’t share the love of the Catholic Church and its religious and moral teachings, you would not be able to enjoy the camaraderie with people in my Catholic/homeschooling circles I alluded to above. There are of course exceptions and caveats to this. For example, there ARE non-Catholics in my groups, but they are married to Catholics and are raising the children as obedient Catholics.

    The “hack” I described above is not a free lunch. It still takes commitment and work.

  9. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a slave with a substantial income remains but a slave at the end of their days. Their comforts persist only at the sufferance of those who have inherited or grasped their freedom.

    I don’t disagree with you that independent resources can enable a certain kind of freedom. Having grown and sold a modest business, my wife and I are now moderately affluent. We don’t have to worry about a job or kids’ college tuitions or retirement. We are not “wage slaves” and don’t have a boss (well, except God) and I suppose we can do what we please inside the law.

    But even that kind of freedom has limitations. If we gave into the worst impulses of our minds, we would eventually lose the affections and regards – perhaps even love – of our family and friends. We would incur alienation from those we hold dear, a fate worse than being destitute.

    The vast majority of human beings – being social animals and more (able to perceive the transcendental at our best) – thrive in a state of communal entanglements, which objectively-speaking limits freedom of action, but nonetheless gives meaning to our aspirations and dreams, to our lives.

    The freedom to be unhappy and miserable without social connections isn’t freedom at all. It’s solitary confinement without walls, a most oppressive and debilitating kind of prison.

  10. Further to Housing costs:

    California will mandate solar panels on new homes out of concern for climate change, a policy that will raise prices in the most expensive home market in the country …

    The five-member board of the California Energy Commission unanimously issued an edict Wednesday requiring all new homes to either be installed with solar panels or share solar power in a group system. The rules go into effect on Jan. 1, 2020.

    “The requirement is expected to add $8,000 to $12,000 to the cost of a home,” the Times added.

    The costs come to consumers already in a market where the median price of a single-family home is $565,000, one of the highest in the nation, the Wall Street Journal reported.

  11. The vast majority of human beings – being social animals and more (able to perceive the transcendental at our best) – thrive in a state of communal entanglements, which objectively-speaking limits freedom of action, but nonetheless gives meaning to our aspirations and dreams, to our lives.

    “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Kris Kristofferson, channeling Dostoevsky

  12. These averages are interesting, but it would be much more informative to see it broken down further.

    What is the variance at each income level? A few percent of families having 10-15 kids makes a big difference in the interpretation, especially when we are talking about 0.1% of the population at the highest income levels.

    I also suspect that at the high and low income levels, the men have much more children than the women do, but perhaps that is less true in the middle income levels?

  13. Actually, the low fertility of today’s elites must be some sort of historical aberration.

    In a polygamous society Trump could easily support 20 wives and 100 kids.

    Without birth control there would be an awful lot of baby Tiger Woodses running around too.

    I wonder if there is a historical precident for people accumulating vast wealth without transforming it into children.

  14. Yes, there is late Rome. Its reached a similar level of decadence and some of the women preferred a mondance lifestyle to giving birth and raising children in a healthy family.
    Also, Rome was a materialistic, money based society in which some of the elite had the morale that it is better to keep the wealth of a family together than having more than 2 sons.
    Guess what, one gets sick, the other dies in battle, family is gone…

    Augustus made laws and attempts to keep the elite fertile, yet even he himself was no great example for successful father of many.

  15. Where’d you find the graph? I’d like to cite it in a paper I’m writing.

  16. This graph has to be almost entirely about age at first child, right? Women on the left hand side don’t go to college and thus get started early. Women on the right hand side marry extremely well, so, while they may go to college, they don’t need to spend time establishing a career. Women in the middle don’t start having children until roughly their early thirties because they’re busy establishing a career up until that point.

    I think there are probably a few things which compound and reinforce this dynamic. Namely 1) people of various social classes are highly segregated, which leads objectively high earning families (say, $150k+), to subjectively feel like they are only doing okay (because their point of comparison is entirely other families in a similar income bracket), and 2) our memetic environment is dominated by memes (mostly advertising, but also lifestyle media of various kinds) which signal that there is more stuff that we *need* which we do not yet possess. My hypothesis is that these two factors cause people to miscalibrate their level of wealth with regard to the population as a whole.

  17. Interestingly, I know a few families who are in the middle of the graph yet have 3-4 children (including my own). The common thread seems to be that we pay much less attention to aesthetics and markers of status. So, live in the suburbs rather than a hip neighborhood in the city. Don’t drive cool cars. Etc.

  18. Re: ‘freedom’ v. ‘extraordinary luck’: Here’s two things to put together:

    “One thing which I must always keep in mind to prevent me from getting too conceited is that I was extraordinarily lucky over the piece of work I have just finished. The work consisted of a unification of radiation theory, combining the advantageous features of the two theories put forward by Schwinger and Feynman. It happened that I was the only young person in the world who had worked with the Schwinger theory from the beginning and had also had long personal contact with Feynman at Cornell, so I had a unique opportunity to put the two together. I should have had to be rather stupid not to have put the two together. It is for the sake of opportunities like this that I want to spend five more years poor and free rather than as a well-paid civil servant. — letter from Freeman Dyson, November 1, 1948, Hotel Avery, Boston”


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