Jennifer Roback Morse on the mess we’re in
How did a nice economist like you transition to being a culture critic? Was there a defining moment or trigger event?
The trigger event for me was motherhood. I have told this story in many of my talks, including this talk for the Magnificat Catholic women’s organization in San Diego. The short version is that we adopted a badly neglected toddler from a Romanian orphanage in 1991, the same year we gave birth to our daughter. Raising those two children together taught us how much children really do need their mothers and fathers, and that if mom and dad aren’t there for the kids, the substitutes are pretty lousy. That convinced me that the “laissez-faire” attitude we’ve developed toward the family simply does not work. That set me off on the trail of analyzing the family from the perspective of social science or a social institution. Economists had not really done that before.
Some of the most helpful analyses of social problems arising from the sexual revolution, contraceptive use at the country-level, abortion, STDs, etc. are being written by economists — George Akerlof, David Paton, Peter Arcidiacono, Catherine Pakuluk and many others — what do economists bring to the discussion?
I would add Douglas Allen and Joe Price to that list. Economics taught me two things. First, we learn to think analytically and in a logical sequence. Second, we learn to pay attention to incentives. How will changing the price of X ripple throughout the economy? It is natural for me to ask, “How will changing the rules around marriage and its definition change the incentives for people’s behavior?” Once you start asking that question, you see that the issues are far more complex than the current discussion would suggest. Removing the gender requirement from marriage doesn’t just change incentives for same sex attracted people: it changes incentives for everyone. Just like changing the rules for getting a divorce did not just affect the handful of people who would have gotten divorced anyway. It changed the rules for everyone, and changed pretty much everyone’s behavior.
As you were reviewing past articles for inclusion in this compilation, were you surprised by anything? How quickly your predictions were coming true, for example?
I was surprised by how long I have been talking about these issues, and how the same issues keep coming up again and again. If we don’t learn the first time, we have to keep going and going until we finally figure out that kids have some needs that really can’t be negotiated away by adults.
Your introduction describes an ideal society and I can see that it’s important to give people a vision of how things ought to be. But what makes you think that the toothpaste can get back into the tube?
Honestly, I do not know what toothpaste has to do with a failed social experiment. I find that people bring up that analogy when they don’t really want to consider whether or not the Sexual Revolution is a failed experiment. The toothpaste is a diversionary tactic.
Why do you have an image of Marilyn Monroe on the cover?
When Art Director Todd Bingham came up with the cover for this book, I knew the concept was perfect. Who better to represent the empty promises of the Sexual Revolution than Marilyn Monroe? She remains an iconic figure of sex appeal. But there was a darker tragic side to her life.
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