Nothing Matters So Have More Kids

The Gist: Why having kids is better for YOU.

A review of Selfish Reasons To Have More Kids by Bryan Caplan.

Our last correspondence discussed why having more kids is good for America.

This article discusses why having more kids is good for you. 

In Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, Bryan Caplan argues we underestimate kids’ benefits and overestimate their costs.

Even if kids have high startup costs, the investment matures better than practically any other. To confirm, ask any grandparent. Caplan relates: “Unfortunately, when a couple of toddlers are running around, you lose sight of the big picture. Namely: Your kids will grow up. Your workload will lighten. By the time you have teens, you’ll wish your kids had more time for you. Once they move out, even three of them won’t seem like enough. You’ll want more phone calls and more visits—and some grandchildren while you’re still young enough to enjoy them… If you were good at being self-interested, ‘How many kids will I want when I’m sixty?’ would interest you as much as ‘How many kids do I want right now?’” The solution? Think ahead, master the marshmallow test, and get that delayed gratification!

Star Trek

Figure 1. “Hey! I’m you from the future! I’ve come back to tell you to have more kids! Is it too late to tell you not to invest in Theranos? I also need to find some humpback whales.


Like any advisable investment portfolio, having more kids spreads your risk. More kids means more possible grandchildren, more possible caretakers, more possible people to thank you on national television after winning the Super Bowl. But will it be fair to your kids to spread your resources? Caplan suggests asking, “How bad would your life have to be before you’d wish you’d never been born?”

Kids playing

Figure 2A. “Listen, Ted, I don’t think my kid is going professional. But yours has a chance. What’s it going to take for me to option your son?”


Very few regret having kids: In “the highest-quality survey ever conducted on the subject… 91 percent of parents said they would have children all over again. Only 7 percent said they wouldn’t.” Compare that to the results of a survey of childless adults over 40, where over 2/3 confessed regret.

Teds Wife

Figure 2B. Ted’s wife was less than pleased to discover that he was part of the 7 percent.


But why more kids? Because if you’ve already had one, you’ve bitten the bullet: “The main hit to parental happiness comes from child number one. Otherwise identical people who have one child instead of none are 5.6 percentage points less likely to be very happy. But once you’ve got a child, enlarging your family is practically painless. Whenever parents install another child seat in the family car, their chance of being very happy falls by a barely perceptible 0.6 percentage points. Intuitively, people sharply rearrange their lives with the arrival of their first child. They lose privacy and stop going out Saturday nights. When more children come along, however, parents’ lifestyle stays about the same.”

Swing Set

Figure 3. The swinging lifestyle has dramatically different meanings before and after kids.


More kids means you can benefit from economies of scale. The marginal cost of each additional child is lower than the previous one. One analysis of government data suggests “‘if you have two kids, ages 13 and 16, your costs as a middle-income family will be $23,000 per year’ to feed, house and clothe them. ‘However, if you have three kids, ages 11, 13, and 16, your costs will be $25,880 — in other words, the third kid is costing just $2,880 extra.’” You only need so much more house (or toys) for each additional kid, who himself can be babysat cheaper by an older sibling.


Figure 4. “If this trend continues and my calculations are correct, by our 9th kid we should be making money!”


We are having fewer kids even though having more kids is easier than ever. Americans are 3x richer than we were in 1950. “You can see our mounting riches in our homes. Compared to the tiny dwellings of the Fifties, modern families live in castles, with air conditioning.” And, what’s more, the technology of raising kids has dramatically improved: welcome to “the modern world of disposable diapers, washer dryers, microwaves, dishwashers, WalMart, and Amazon.” 

Forget resources. What about time? Jonathan Last sets the stage: In 1965, 60% of kids had a stay-at-home mom married to a working dad. That average mom spent 10.6 hours per week with her kids; that dad spent 2.6. Today, the average working mother spends almost 10 hours per week with her kids and the average working father spends over 6.5! Stay-at-home moms today spend over 17 hours with their kids. And Caplan points out that “when parents get full credit for multitasking, measured child care shoots up about 50 percent.”

But do kids require that much time?

When surveyors ask parents what one wish their kids would want from them, they usually said more time. When surveyors asked kids what they wanted from their parents, “they rarely wished for extra face time with their parents. They were much more likely to wish their parents would be less tired and stressed. The parents were completely out of touch. Virtually none guessed that kids would use their one wish to give their parents a better attitude.” 

Caplan suggests that parents’ best guide to being better parents is to take more time for themselves. Indeed, “Kid time has crowded out couple time: Parents in 2000 spent about 25 percent fewer hours with each other than they did in 1975.” Caplan argues that “before you do something for your child, try asking yourself three questions. 1. Do I enjoy it? 2. Does my child enjoy it? 3. Are there any long-run benefits?” In other words, do you like taking your kid to piano? Does your kid enjoy piano? Is your kid actually going to benefit from piano in the workforce and life? (And to drive the point home: “How would you like it if an authority figure enrolled you in a weekly piano lesson?”)


Figure 5. Strongly believing that his employees needed to be well-rounded, Stephenson’s boss forced all company workers to spend time after work everyday practicing piano, attending cotillion, writing the corporate newspaper, playing on the company softball team, and rehearsing skits for the company retreat.


All that is almost common sense (even if uncommonly practiced). But the bulk of Caplan’s book actually rests on a super-controversial premise: your biggest contribution as a parent is conception. In the nature versus nurture debate, Caplan comes down almost entirely on the side of nature. The implication is that so long as you meet some minimum standards as a parent, you can have as many kids as you’d like without worrying about affecting their outcomes.

woohoo tv

Figure 6. Convinced he had now done his part, new father Humphrey was excited to spend his children’s adolescence mining the depths of Netflix’ library. 


How does he come to this conclusion? Caplan digs deep into research surrounding adopted kids and finds that kids consistently bear much stronger resemblance to their genetic family than their adopted family.

Caplan summarizes: “A small army of researchers has compared adoptees to their relatives—biological and adopted. They find that when adopted children are young, they resemble both the adopted relatives they see every day and the biological relatives they’ve never met. However, as adopted children grow up, the story has a shocking twist: Resemblance to biological relatives remains, but resemblance to adopted relatives mostly fades away… Instead of thinking of children as lumps of clay for parents to mold, we should think of them as plastic that flexes in response to pressure—and pops back to its original shape once the pressure is released.”

Or put another way: “Think about all the times in your childhood when you got in big trouble and vowed, ‘I’ll be good from now on.’ How long did your change of heart last? A month? A week? Five minutes?”

And here’s a more mathematical explanation you can skip if you just want the results:

“It’s easy to understand what it means for nature or nurture to have zero effect. What does it mean, though, for nature or nurture effects to be ‘small’ or ‘large’? The clearest measures come from a thought experiment I call ‘Switched at Birth’: Imagine you have an identical twin, but there’s a mix-up at the hospital: A nurse accidentally switches your twin with another family’s baby. You and the strangers’ baby grow up with your biological parents. Your twin grows up with the strangers. Decades later, the hospital discovers its mistake and arranges a meeting between you, your identical twin, and your accidentally adopted sibling. To measure the effect of nature, just answer this question: Suppose you’re higher on some trait—height, intelligence, income, conservatism, you name it—than 80 percent of your peers. How high on this trait should you expect your TWIN from Switched at Birth to be? To measure the effect of nurture, just answer this question: Suppose you’re higher on some trait—height, intelligence, income, conservatism, you name it—than 80 percent of your peers. How high on this trait should you expect your ADOPTED SIBLING from Switched at Birth to be? …Intuitively, if nature didn’t matter at all, you would expect your separated twin to be average—in the 50th percentile. If nature were destiny, you would expect your separated twin to match you in the 80th percentile; Similarly, if nurture didn’t matter at all, you would expect your adopted sibling to be average; if nurture were destiny, you would expect your adopted sibling to be in the 80th percentile, just like you.”

So, what are the results? Parenting – that is to say non-genetic contribution – has little to no effect on kids’ measured intelligence, grades earned in school, the amount of school kids will complete, adult sexual behavior, divorce rate, happiness, income, criminality, number of hospital visits, and life expectancy. Studies are mixed on whether parenting affects kids’ smoking, drinking, and drug use. Parenting has a moderate effect on when daughters start having sex – but much smaller on sons. The only places where Caplan finds parenting has a strong effect are religious and political identity – but not how often kids ultimately attend services or vote.

In other words, studies suggest that if you never met your identical twin, you’d wind up having closer IQ, grades, degrees, happiness, income, criminal records, and health than those genetically unrelated people you spent all your time with growing up. You may have different religious identities – but you’d attend services on a similar schedule. 

These results are not intuitive – and certainly you’d like to think you have a much bigger impact as a parent. But what if they’re true? Read the book and closely examine the studies yourself. Caplan’s exhaustive presentation is scary in its scale.

To give you a taste, one study looked at 1,600 Korean kids adopted by a variety of American families in 1955. The result? “Neither family income nor neighborhood income increased adoptees’ academic success. If you ever thought it unfair for rich parents to buy their children’s way through school, be at peace; apparently they don’t get what they pay for.” Another study looked at 1,700 high school students across America: “If you’re in the 80th percentile of your class, expect the identical twin you’ve never met to be in the 71st. Parental effects, in contrast, were literally invisible. The GPAs of unrelated kids raised together were no more similar than strangers.’”

Or looking to Scandinavia: “Swedes have almost no financial privacy; researchers can collect your complete lifetime earnings history from tax records. One study of over 5,000 Swedish twins was therefore able to confirm that the effect of nurture on men’s income changes with age. Family has a moderate effect in your early twenties. Suppose you earn more than 80 percent of your peers. You should expect your adopted brother to make more money than 58 percent of his peers when he is twenty to twenty-two years old, and 55 percent when he is twenty-three to twenty-five years old. By the time your adopted brother reaches his late twenties, however, the effect of upbringing on income completely fades out—and remains invisible for the rest of his career. When children first become adults, their parents might find them a good job, or support them so they don’t have to work. Within a few years, however, young adults get on their own two feet, and stay there.”

Bear in mind that Caplan is an indifferent libertarian when reading this next one: “Every major twin study finds that identical twins are more alike in their sexual orientation than fraternal twins. Yet genes are far from the whole story—if you’re gay, your identical twin is usually still straight. Upbringing might make a difference, too. In surveys, adopted brothers of gay men and adopted sisters of gay women are about six times as likely to be gay as the general population. This would normally be a smoking gun, but sexual orientation remains a touchy issue. The adoption results might merely show that gays with gay adopted siblings were six times as likely to mail in their surveys.”

Ultimately, Caplan concludes “the most effective way to get the kind of kids you want is to pick a spouse who has the traits you want your kids to have.” And before you decide to spend all your time on vacation, read his citation from Judith Harris: “People sometimes ask me, ‘So you mean it doesn’t matter how I treat my child?’ They never ask, ‘So you mean it doesn’t matter how I treat my husband or wife?’ and yet the situation is similar. I don’t expect that the way I act toward my husband is going to determine what kind of person he will be ten or twenty years from now. I do expect, however, that it will affect how happy he is to live with me and whether we will still be good friends in ten or twenty years.”

Selfish reasons to have more kids

Figure 7. Click here to buy Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. 7/10. I did not expect that the bulk of the book would be dedicated to proving that nature triumphs over nurture but it certainly has implications for parenting and the studies are worth reading. Regardless of whether you buy that specific argument, there are other selfish reasons to have more kids (spread your risk!) and the costs are overstated (economies of scale!). There is also some good data about how kids are safer than ever (only about 1 in a million chance per year your kid will be kidnapped) and happiness (“If you’re married with children, you’re [18% more] likely to be happy than if you’re single and childless. Taken too literally, the statistics imply that married couples require over a dozen kids to feel worse than childless singles.”). If you’re still not convinced, remember America!


Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, forward it to a friend: know anyone with kids? How about anyone who is thinking about having them? How about anyone who was once a kid?

For more, check out my archive of writings, including my review of the Tech-Wise Family, which includes 7 specific and escalating steps to spend less time with your favorite screen. 

    More Kids = More America

    The Gist: Schedule date nights with your spouse as soon and as often as possible.

    A review of What to Expect When No Ones Expecting by Jonathan Last.


    You haven’t had enough kids.


    At least, not enough to save America.

    Family flag

    Figure 1. Who will wave the flag when you’re gone?


    Even if you beat replacement – that is, you had more than 2 kids to account for you and your spouse eventually departing – there are still too many people like my parents who failed to spread their risk and only had one. And too many people like me, past 30 and childless (Average for postgraduate modernity, an embarrassment in every prior century).


    Figure 2. “30! You should be a grandfather by now. Who will inherit the Duchy?”


    Jonathan Last’s What to Expect When No One’s Expecting is a book about the frightening demography of depopulation.

    Who cares? Couldn’t fewer people mean shorter lines, less traffic, lower pollution, and more stuff for the people left over? 

    If you believe that, move to Detroit.


    Figure 3. No waits for robberies. Only police.


    There are three big reasons why we need to continuously grow our population.

    First, our reckoning is fast approaching from entitlement economics: in the coming years, we will have fewer taxpayers and more demands on government services. If we somehow manage to reform entitlements, there’s still…

    Second, places with smaller proportions of young people tend to be significantly less entrepreneurial and innovative. There is an absolute lower number of creators willing to challenge conventional ideas and able to take risks. Because of their relative population, there are fewer young people in positions of authority. And there is a smaller pool of customers who will instantly adopt new technology, therefore limiting the capital for innovators. 

    Relatedly, Adam Smith observed “the most decisive mark of the prosperity of any country is the increase of the number of its inhabitants.” Nobel prize winning economist Simon Smith Kuznets explains: “More population means more creators and producers, both of goods along established production patterns and of new knowledge and inventions.” This can be taken too far – you’d rather be dealing with Hong Kong’s problems than Pakistan’s. But Hong Kong’s potential is inherently limited by its small size.

    Third and finally, there’s the prospect of war: The Pentagon now spends 84 cents on pensions for every dollar it spends on basic pay. And whatever form our future military does take, families with just one child will be less willing to accept military casualties.” The good news? “The Chinese entitlement scheme is even worse than America is: it covers only 365 million Chinese citizens and it is already unfunded to the tune of 150% of the country’s GDP.” Then again, no data exists on whether ISIS’ pension is fully funded.


    Figure 4. “Our most devious strategy yet: encouraging reservists to retire in Shanghai”


    We are not quite as doomed as most of the industrialized world. Japan and Italy’s “fertility rates (now around 1.4) are within a range demographers call ‘lowest-low.’ This is a mathematical tipping point at which a country’s population could decline by 50 percent within 45 years. It is a death spiral from which, demographers believe, it might be impossible to escape. Then again, that’s just theory. Modern history has never seen fertility rates so low.”

    Our total fertility rate (TFR) is 1.93 children per woman but demographers believe we really need to be above 2. 

    Immigration is the primary reason our population is expanding: Immigrants add to our population when they enter but they also have more children than natives over the course of their lifetimes. “Between 2000 and 2010, the total population of the United States increased by 27.3 million, yet more than half of the entire increase came just from Hispanics. Most of that increase was due to fertility. Between 2000 and 2010, a net of 7.02 million people immigrated to the United States from south of the border.  Which means that, over [that] decade, 30 percent of America’s total population growth was the result of the labors of a group that makes up only 16 percent of the country.” Interestingly, “immigrants to America tended to have higher fertility rates than the country women they left behind.” And yet immigrants bring their own challenges. But for context, “When you break it out by demographic group, you see that black women have a healthy TFR of 1.96. White women, on the other hand, have a TFR of 1.79. Our national average is only boosted because Hispanic women are doing most of the heavy lifting, having an average of 2.35 babies.”

    History offers important context for our fertility decline: “In 1800, the fertility rate for white Americans was 7.04… By 1890, the fertility rate for whites had fallen to 3.87 [before] settling at 2.22 in 1940.” Then the Baby Boom exploded and collapsed. “For 20 years, the fertility rate spiked, reaching a height in 1960 of 3.53 for whites and 4.52 for blacks… From a combined TFR of 3.7 in 1960 (the end of the Baby Boom), the fertility rate in the United States dropped to 1.8 in 1980, a 50 percent decline in a single generation.” We’ve had a decent uptick since 1980 but, again, primarily due to immigrants. 

    So why haven’t we yet seen a population decline? The answer has to do with demographic momentum – and the fact that the Baby Boomers are mostly still alive.


    Figure 5. An attempt at an actually useful though very simplified cartoon. Demographic momentum means that until the last big generation dies off, our population will appear to be growing. Here’s an example that starts with two Baby Boomer couples but ends with their passing.


    So, how did our fertility rate get so low?

    First, parents have fewer kids because children survive longer in America than elsewhere or in the past. The reason the official replacement number has to be above 2 is because kids die. In Third World countries, replacement actually has to be much higher. In America, “in 1850, 2 out of every 10 white babies and 3.4 out of every 10 black babies died during infancy.” Much more died before adulthood. With more children surviving, intentional parents can reasonably plan the number of family members.

    Second, children have evolved from economic assets to family costs. Not so long ago, kids served two extremely practical purposes for parents: they were able to produce additional income for the family while they were young and take care of their elderly parents down the line. Whereas in the past parents were heavily economically incentivized to have more kids, now they’re fiscally punished.

    Kids were once considered useful farmhands; now they’re expensive dependents. “It is commonly said that buying a house is the biggest purchase most Americans will ever make. Well, having a baby is like buying six houses, all at once. Except you can’t sell your children, they never appreciate in value, and there’s a good chance that, somewhere around age 16, they’ll announce: ‘I hate you.’” Apparently as concerned with raising kids as crops, the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that the cost to raise an American child born in 2015 will be on average the suspiciously precise $233,610 – a more than 20% increase from their 1960 projection in real dollars. And yet Last notes this is a significant undercount because it does not fully consider “three big-ticket items”: “childcare, college tuition, and mothers’ foregone salaries.”


    Figure 6. “You need to start pulling your weight around here. If you can’t explain to me how we can make money off Bitcoin, I guess we’ll just have to think through other ways you can contribute. Are you good enough at Fortnight for endorsements? I’m investing over $200,000 in you and I expect at least an 18% return. Otherwise, I should have just put it all into an index!”


    Government has made having kids even more expensive. Consider the example of requiring children to sit in special car seats, first enacted in 1977 by Tennessee. “If you had five small children in 1977—a situation not at all rare back then—few vehicles could accommodate enough car seats to transport the entire brood at the same time…  In 1976, when car seat laws were sweeping from sea to shining sea, 16 percent of women had four children and 20 percent had five or more. Today, the percentage of women who have five or more children is 1.8 percent… (As a side note, they didn’t radically transform auto safety, either. The most optimistic estimate is that between 1975 and 2005, car seats saved a grand total of 7,896 lives. Every one of them is a miracle for which we should be thankful. But saving 263 lives a year isn’t exactly conquering polio.)”


    Figure 7. Fertility really plummeted when the safety advocates convinced the government to require that each child be under the supervision of three adults at all times.


    But there’s another fascinating story about entitlements. To quote Last at length:

    Since the 1970s, young white men have seen a 40 percent decline in income relative to their fathers (young black men have seen a relative decline of 60 percent), largely because of taxes. So Social Security and Medicare have placed a serious and increasing burden on families, making it more difficult to afford the—also increasing—cost of children… There were two larger consequences of establishing government-funded programs for care of the elderly. The first was that children were no longer needed to look after their retired parents. Where people’s offspring had for centuries seen to the financial needs of their parents, retired people with no offspring now had access to a set of comparable benefits. They could free-ride on the system. This new system undermined the ancient rationale for childbearing. In a world in which childbearing has no practical benefit—the government will care for you if you don’t have children to do so—parenthood becomes a simple act of consumption. People have babies because they want to, seeing it as either an act of self-fulfillment or as some kind of moral imperative… You can spend your $ 1.1 million raising a child to become a productive worker, but an increasing share of his labor will go to the government. And the government hands out equal shares of retirement benefits from his labor both to those who spent the money raising children and those who didn’t.”

    Demographers guess this decreases the total fertility rate by 0.5 points – the difference between replacement and disaster!

    Third and finally, a constellation of social changes has limited the window in which women have children. Because of workforce participation, time in school, debt, and new norms, women are delaying childbearing toward the close of their biological viability. The invention of contraceptives has given women more control over when they get pregnant. The legalization of abortion has given women control over whether they deliver their kids. Sex outside marriage has led to more kids born out of wedlock, less likely to be joined by others in the same family unit. And “the routinization of divorce allowed married couples to split before they finished having children”

    From the late 1930s until the late 1960s, Gallup asked Americans how many children they’d ideally like to have and nearly two-thirds consistently said three or more. Today, only one third of Americans want three or more kids. Last reminds us: “with easy access to birth control and abortion, increased educational demands, and the rising cost of raising children, the ‘desired fertility’ metric is an upward limit on ‘actual fertility.’ In practice, actual fertility is often much lower than desired.” In 2011, 58% of women wanted two or fewer children – but 72% wound up there.

    The decline in desire can be traced to the new opportunities in the workforce – but also just looking around and seeing what other people were doing. Interestingly, “from 1879 to 1930, American men and women graduated from college at roughly the same rate.” The GI Bill dramatically altered the equation. “By 1947, 2.3 men graduated from college for every woman.” Women started going to college in greater numbers over the coming decades to the point where today more women graduate than men. Simultaneously, until about 1965, the percentage of women working outside the home was about 44%. Today, it’s about 70%. The desires to get educated before having kids, to pay off some debt before having kids, to advance in career before having kids all contribute to delays.

    But “delaying children is not as simple as it sounds, because while our social institutions are often malleable, biology is not. Between the ages of 24 and 34, a woman’s chance of becoming infertile increases from 3 percent to 8 percent. By 35, half of women trying to get pregnant over the course of 8 months will not succeed. After 35 it gets even dicier. By age 39, a woman has a 15 percent chance of being unable to conceive at all. And by a woman’s 43rd birthday, her chances of getting pregnant are nearly zero. All of which is why today, 1 out of every 100 babies born in the United States is created via in vitro fertilization. You can only push off pregnancy for so long… In 2009, fully 37 percent of all births were to women over the age of 30.”

    Ironically, “Margaret Sanger willed the Pill into existence so that the educated classes would not be ‘shouldering the burden of the unthinking fecundity of others.’ Instead, it has been the educated middle class—Sanger’s people—who have used the Pill to tamp down their fertility.” Surprising to me, only 17% of women aged 15-44 use the Pill; less surprising, that percentage is concentrated in the educated. As a result, the total fertility rate of women who have graduated from college is 1.78. For women with a graduate degree, it’s 1.61. For context, during the period in which China aggressively enforced a one-child policy, forcing women to get abortions or sterilization, their birthrate was 1.54.

    Only so many people use birth control effectively (or at all), and so accessible abortion also prevents childbirth. “In 2000 the RAND corporation tried to estimate the numerical effect of abortion on the TFR. It concluded that for white America, abortion on demand lowered the fertility rate by about 0.08—or 4 percent. Among black Americans the effect was much stronger: the Roe regime pushed fertility down by 0.34—or 13 percent.”

    And finally the instability of relationships has taken its toll on our fertility rate. “There’s a 64 percent chance that a first marriage will last at least 10 years. Fifty percent of cohabitations break down after just the first year…The chance that a person in 1910 who was married would someday be divorced was around 15 percent; by 1960 the odds rose to around 32 percent; and by 2000 to around 45 percent.” Married couples can just have more kids. Finding another partner, especially as a single mom, has big costs that results in fewer children, regardless of desire.

    So what can be done? Last concludes: “The government cannot get people to have children they do not want. However, it can help people have the children they do want.”

    Examples abound from throughout history around the globe of countries trying to spur their populations to have more kids. Almost nothing works. “Comrade Stalin announced the creation of the motherhood medal, given to any woman who bore at least six children… In ancient Sparta, fathers who sired three sons were exempted from Garrison duty and those with the four lads to their name paid no taxes at all. Caesar Augustus levied a ‘bachelor tax’ on unmarried aristocratic men.” Singapore, which waged an incredibly successful campaign to reduce their birth rate, reversed course and attempted to increase it by offering subsidies, preferred entry to good schools, relocating grandparents nearby — and nothing has worked. Just about the only thing that HAS worked is in the country of Georgia, where the local religious leader, Patriarch Ilia II promised that “he would personally baptize any child born to parents who already had two or more children.” The birth rate jumped an astounding 20%. America’s only hope may be Beyoncé agreeing to only perform concerts for mothers of three or more kids.

    A significant challenge is that state tax breaks, subsidies, and encouragements tend to influence the timing of kids’ births, rather than the number. If you are delaying having kids because you don’t think you can afford them, a government grant may cause you to have them earlier, but not many more than you already wanted. “The consensus is that subsidies produce returns mostly at the margins: Studies of European countries show that for every 25 percent increase in benefits, fertility increases by 0.6 percent in the short term and 4 percent in the long term.” 

    One interesting suggestion about Social Security which may help alleviate demographic problems but would exacerbate financial ones: “Phillip Longman proposes a ‘Parental Dividend’ system by which a couple’s FICA taxes would be reduced by one-third with the birth of their first child, by two-thirds with the birth of a second, and then eliminated completely with the third (until the children turn 18).”

    Ultimately, Last has “three golden rules for natalism.” First, “Below a certain point, there’s no turning back.” Once you drop below 1.5 kids per woman, it’s practically impossible to get back on track. 

    Second, “any efforts to stoke fertility must be sustained over several generational cohorts… A four-year tax credit is useless. So is a long, but feckless, string of hopscotch initiatives, like Japan’s. What you need is a serious, decades-long commitment to family growth.”And those efforts need to be concentrated on making life easier for parents, as opposed to specifically orienting toward having more kids because…

    Third, “people cannot be bribed into having babies.” Because kids are a lot of work! (I know my parents had their hands full with just one. But that may be a special case.)

    What to expect

    Figure 8. Click here to buy What to Expect When No One is Expecting. 7/10. An amusing guide to a scary subject. The book touches on but does not fully address some big questions: should we be indifferent about who is having kids as we strive to exceed replacement? Is a larger fertility number inherently good or is there a sweet spot above replacement? There are also some interesting insights tangentially related to fertility, like the fact that premarital cohabitation started among the poor in the Depression, not among hippies in the Sixties. The book ultimately makes a subversive argument: society needs to empower women to have the number of children they want, a number higher than they currently have. Of course, the book fails to note the truly correct answer to its title.


    PS. If you really want a blast from the political past, read Teddy Roosevelt addressing the National Congress of Mothers: “There are many good people who are denied the supreme blessing of children, and for these we have the respect and sympathy always due to these who, from no fault of their own, are denied any of the other great blessings of life. But the man or woman who deliberately foregoes these blessings, whether from viciousness, coldness, shallow-heartedness, self-indulgence, or mere failure to appreciate aright the difference between the all-important and the unimportant – why, such a creature merits contempt as hearty as any visited upon the soldier who runs away in battle, or upon the man who refuses to work for the support of those dependent upon him, and who though able-bodied is yet content to eat in idleness the bread which others provide.”

    Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this review, please sign up for my email in the box below and forward it to a friend: know anyone with kids? How about anyone without? Know anyone who is concerned with the downfall of America?

    I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

      When Are We Ever Going to Use This?

      The Gist: Conventional school teaches disturbingly little worthwhile.

      A review of Bryan Caplan’s the Case Against Education.

      When was the last time you used geometry? 

      Was it important for you to have spent a year studying the subject? Was it vital that the rest of us were forced to study it for a year?

      Most likely the first time people use geometry after leaving school is incompetently helping with their kids’ homework, perpetuating the cycle of uselessness.


      Figure 1. Solve for x. Was that worth a year of your life?


      Economist Bryan Caplan makes the Case Against Education in a provocative book that takes on the question of the class clown: What does any of this have to do with life? And why are we making everyone spend 12+ years studying it?

      I hope my obituary includes the following sentence: “He helped end the teaching of French in Tennessee public schools.” French is a language spoken by less than 2% of Earth’s population, a large portion of whom also speak English, and practically none of whom the average American student is likely to encounter. If he does, his high school education is unlikely to be as useful as Google Translate. It’s not difficult to guess that just about the only job in America that requires learning French is teaching French, again perpetuating the cycle of uselessness.


      Figure 2. While the class did turn him onto berets, Claude was shocked that learning French did not help him in his career as a mime artist.

      People are welcome to spend their own time and resources learning whatever they desire — but why do we spend a single tax dollar teaching French? More importantly, why do we waste an average of two years of classroom time teaching French when our kids can barely write in English, much less master math?

      But hey, French is easy to denigrate. What about Spanish? Set aside for a moment whether the usefulness of Spanish represents American failure to integrate immigrants. If we assume its utility, we still have to reckon with the statistics of success: less than 3% of students report learning a foreign language “well.” You might as well go to the Five Minute University: “in five minutes you learn what the average college graduate remembers five years after he or she is out of school.”

      Taco Bell

      Figure 3. Frequent customers of Taco Bell know as much Spanish as the average person taught for years.


      Disturbingly, even the “useful” subjects are often useless. All those mandatory hours on science? Less than 5% of Americans will use them in their career. There are certainly advantages to math, but we toil through calculus without learning to balance a checkbook. We study great works of literature (when they’re not eliminated by the PC police) without learning how to write a business report.


      Figure 4. Dr. Frankenstein credited his success to misunderstanding high school biology.


      But isn’t education about the soul? About becoming a good citizen? If true, no one cares: two thirds of high school students report being bored in class EVERY DAY. There is scant evidence that Shakespeare systematically makes better humans – but even if he did, he’s bound to soon be excluded from the curriculum as representing the cisheteropatriarchy. Whatever your values, can you trust the state to teach them?

      Yet it does not stop in high school. College is a vacation from responsibility. No parents, no boss. Caplan reports: “Fifty years ago, college was a full-time job. The typical student spent 40 hours a week in class or studying. Since the early 1960s, effort collapsed across the board. ‘Full-time’ college students average 27 hours of academic work per week.” College is a product that people pay a huge amount only to consume as little as possible. Instead of the quality of education, the biggest draw for a particular college is the quality of its amenities: how nice are the dorms?

      Gym Membership

      Figure 5. College is like a really expensive gym where you still don’t actually work out but you get all the benefits because you can brag about your membership.


      Even the classes that kids do attend are often in useless subjects — and not just absurdities like puppetry. Psychology is the most popular major in Tennessee colleges. Across the country, 94,000 students graduate with that major – but there are only 174,000 psychologists in the entire United States. History has 34,000 graduates a year – but there are only 3,500 historians. STEM majors are hard and can involve a practical education yet three quarters of STEM majors wind up in jobs that don’t use their specialized training.


      Figure 6. “Tell us first about your childhood” “No, no, tell us about your dreams” “Forget that bunk, tell us about your sexual inadequacies.”


      College is a game where students ask “Who is the easiest teacher?” not “Who is the best teacher?”; “What do I need to graduate?” not “What can I learn?”; “Will this be on the test?” not “Will this help me on the job?” And they’ve been rewarded over time with grade inflation, where B is now average (A- at Harvard). Despite that, most fail to finish: “About 25% of high school students fail to finish in four years. About 60% of full-time college students fail to finish in four years.” Publicly available debt finances the whole questionable enterprise, all the more a burden for those who don’t finish.

      And what do college graduates do? They’re more likely to be cashiers or waiters than mechanical engineers. More likely to work as security guards or janitors than computer systems administrators. More likely to be cooks or bartenders than librarians.


      Figure 7. “Yes, madame, here at Pierre’s we pride ourselves on hiring only the college-educated. Where else would we learn to pronounce ‘quinoa’?”


      So why do people go? Social expectation… that leads to individual payoff. Because going to college does pay off for lots of graduates. Interestingly, Caplan reveals that one of the biggest payoffs to going to college is finding a high-earning spouse. But even the college-educated waiter commands a bigger salary than the waiter without. This can be taken too far, of course: Bill Gates would not likely have earned 73% more if he had not dropped out of Harvard – and because the most ambitious do go to college, you don’t know if it’s the person or the college that is producing the result. 

      Caplan explains by compellingly arguing that our formal education system doesn’t actually teach all that much – but it signals to employers three key qualities: intelligence, conscientiousness (i.e. the ability to complete tasks), and conformity. Importantly, education does not TEACH those qualities, it reveals them. By completing college, you show an employer you can handle and complete tasks that society expects of you, even if they’re irrelevant to your specific job. Seems like the Army would be just as good a signal – and much cheaper – if society would get aboard. Strikingly Caplan asks: “Does education have any effect on genuine intelligence? Despite decades of research, we really don’t know.” 

      One of the most compelling statistics Caplan offers for signaling over actual teaching is the earning power of dropouts. If actual teaching was the key reason college graduates earned more, then we’d expect that someone who completed 99% of college but failed to earn a degree would earn practically the same. Instead, the differences are stark. Get a diploma and you will earn more than the expected bump in income from completing freshman, sophomore, and junior years combined. And, if you recall senioritis, that is not because senior year involves some massive education gain. If you had to choose between receiving a diploma without having attended a minute of class or attending four years of class while missing a diploma, the choice is obvious. And many of us came much closer to the first in real life.

      So what’s the implication? Caplan suggests that “subsidizing everyone’s schooling to improve our jobs is like urging everyone to stand up at a concert to improve our views. Both are ‘smart for one, dumb for all.’” His controversial preference is for a separation of school and state – for markets to effectively decide the proper role for education. Though it takes some math you might have forgotten from school, Caplan argues that more and more people going to college actually impoverishes society at large (do we really need to subsidize college-educated waiters?). 

      More modestly, Caplan suggests that the curricula at state schools from kindergarten through graduate school needs to be reorganized to get an actual return and government loans should not be available for a host of majors. In high schools, Caplan says we need a lot more vocational training: “Most education experts remain leery of vocational ed. Chief objection: it’s shortsighted. The vocational track teaches students specific skills they need for their first job. The academic track teaches students general skills they need for every job. The wise approach is to set everyone on the academic track. Let kids max out their general skills before targeting any particular vocation. This objection is confused. While literacy and numeracy are genuinely general skills, most academic classes amount to vocational training for ultrarare vocations. Think about classic college prep in literature, history, social science, and foreign language.” The vast majority of students will not wind up authors, historians, academics, linguists — or even mathematicians or scientists.

      But what about that which is actually within your control: the education of yourself or your kids? Caplan actually has an extensive section about what your expected payoff might be as an individual based on your early school performance – if you are a good student, college is going to be a very good financial bet, especially if you study STEM, even if you don’t use any of it. But if you are a struggling student, college is far more questionable. 

      Caplan himself went to Berkeley and got a PhD at Princeton. I took five years of Latin, studied history at Stanford, and went onto Vanderbilt law school — all to develop real estate and write book reviews. I think his self-label is correct: he reports as a whistleblower — someone who has thrived in the education system but is prepared to tell all its flaws. He does not succumb to the bias to just say nice things like “all education is good all the time.” But even if you do go through the faulty American way, don’t forget the immortal words of Mark Twain: never let schooling get in the way of your education.

      Case Against Education

      Figure 8. Click here to buy the Case against Education. 8/10. Very provocative arguments but gets bogged down by math in the middle. Feel free to skip ahead. 

      Thanks for reading!  If you enjoyed this review, please sign up for my email in the box below and forward it to a friend: Know anyone with kids in school? How about anyone who cares about education?

      I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

        Some Terrible Cartoons About Terrible Pirates

        The Gist: The scourge of piracy was ultimately defeated by punishment swift, certain, and severe.

        The first of a three part  review of The Invisible Hook by Peter Leeson and

        Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly.

        For part one about piracy’s awesome benefits, check out Why You’d Want To Be A Pirate. For part two’s ode to pirate law, check out Republic of Pirates.

        Ahoy me hearties! This email concludes the pirate trilogy. So far we’ve grasped that pirates were preferred employers and constitutional republicans. So why did everyone want to kill them? Did they just hate freedom?


        Figure 1. “Everyone in my kingdom is free to follow my orders.”


        They did hate freedom, but that wasn’t the principal reason. Pirates were not especially nice people. Pirates were thieves who committed larceny at the grandest scale. To achieve that end, they assaulted, tortured, and murdered victims who had the gall to resist.


        Figure 2. Sadly, pirates did not actually make people walk the plank. Instead they did things much worse. If you are squeamish, skip the next two paragraphs. 


        A gruesome standard was keelhauling, which involved tying you to a rope that circled under the ship and dragging you underneath to the other side, catching cuts from barnacles along the way. Or “woolding,” which described a favorite pirate technique that tied a rope around your head tighter and tighter until you talked or your eyes popped out. Montbars the Exterminator was a vicious original who preferred to “cut open the stomach of his victim, extract one end of his guts, nail it to a post and then force the wretched man to dance to his death by beating his backside with a burning log.”

        Under the Black Flag describes the array of options (which were also available to tyrannical merchantmen): “It is usual nowadays to regard a sailing ship as a thing of beauty, but it could be turned into a torture chamber by a sadistic captain. There were boat hooks and brooms and iron bars to beat men with. There were axes and hammers and cutlasses to cause grievous wounds. There were ropes of all sizes which could be used to whip, strangle, and stretch bodies and limbs. The shrouds and rigging were ideal places for hanging up a stubborn man by his arms for a few hours. And after a man had been flogged till his skin was flayed off, there were barrels of brine to throw over the wounds and plenty of salt to add to the brine to increase the pain.”

        So you can imagine the fear you’d feel standing in the crow’s nest at the top of your ship and spotting a Skull and Crossbones. That was precisely the point. The infamous flag was actually an invitation to surrender. The vast majority of pirate encounters left no one harmed precisely because they cultivated a reputation for inflicting horrors only upon resisters. Generally sadistic pirates had short and unprofitable careers. The successful pirate preferred not to fight because fighting meant his crew might suffer casualties, his ship might suffer damage, his treasure might not be captured. One Blackbeard biographer believes the man was an amazing marketer who never personally killed a man!

        Before after

        Figure 3. Going to that marketing seminar changed the course of Ed Teach’s career!


        But even in the “best” of circumstances, pirates still were stealing literally tons of goods that did not belong to them. Black Bart Roberts, perhaps the most successful pirate, captured over 400 ships in three years – while maintaining the Sabbath!

        weekly calendar

        Figure 4. Bart was the cafeteria Christian of his day. 


        So how was piracy finally scuttled? Britain gets the credit, but it took a really long time.

        Fighting piracy was a logistical nightmare. The Caribbean alone is over a million square miles – and piracy occurred up and down the East Coast of the United States as well as all around Africa (Madagascar was an infamous pirate hideout). To catch a pirate, the Navy had to rely on gossip, intuition, and pirates continuing to ply their trade along sea routes. But the Navy didn’t choose to make it easy. As late as the 1700s, there were only four ships patrolling the East Coast and only three patrolling the Caribbean, all with mixed capabilities. To save costs, ships were for a long time undermanned and not allowed to resupply in the West Indies. They were also not allowed to careen, a process that grounded a ship for repairs and removal of barnacles below the waterline – something vital for speed. There was also apparently a practice of Navy captains using their ships for personal trading ventures rather than hunting pirates. Worst of all, for centuries, all pirates had to be taken back to England for trial.

        Pirate globe

        Figure 5. “Well, we have 10 ships. Where do you figure the pirates will be?”


        Until 1536, a conviction for piracy in English courts required either a full confession or two eyewitnesses, neither of whom could be an accomplice. That was an incredibly high bar, especially as the witnesses were most likely sailors spread across the globe. Bizarrely, England allowed indicted pirates to plead not guilty but if they refused to plead at all, they would be tied to the floor and have heavier and heavier rocks placed on their chest until they pled or were crushed to death. Interestingly, to demonstrate that the Admiralty had jurisdiction, convicted pirates were hanged just off the shore, close enough for crowds to witness justice, but far enough out that their bodies would be submerged by the sea at high tide. 1536 provided only a marginal improvement by allowing accomplices to testify against each other. 

        The most effective punishment is swift, certain, and severe. England only initially succeeded with the last. No wonder pirates operated with impunity (and were all the more preferred as employers!). Pirates were so little worried about being captured that they could take two days after confronting a ship to survey its cargo. If the Navy was truly on their trail, they had tens of thousands of places to hide until the Navy was forced to return to England. The most fearsome pirates had faster ships with more men and more guns than the standard Navy patrol. And even if against all odds they were captured, they still had to be transported thousands of miles to England during a journey where a lot could happen. And then multiple witnesses would have to be produced who had been at the scenes of the crimes those thousands of miles away. And after all that, a pirate on trial might present evidence in the form of a classified newspaper ad that he or someone else paid for advertising that he had been conscripted by a pirate crew. The pirate might beg for mercy and insist that he participated in piracy only to save his own life.

        In the 1700s, Great Britain finally got serious. Pirates were an occasionally useful tool in harassing the Spanish and other European rivals, but they went too far when they threatened the British commercial empire. The British experimented with offering amnesty in hopes that pirates would give up their careers but it only had a limited effect: Woodes Rogers estimated that of 600 pardons he issued, 100 of the recipients were back pirating within 3 months.


        Figure 6. “Are you still offering amnesty? I accidentally stole another few ships since my last one.” 


        What really won the fight was financing the fleet and changing the law. Starting in 1700, merchantmen sailors who successfully defended their ships and cargo received financial bonuses. This principle was expanded in 1721 when the law provided that merchantmen sailors who failed to defend their ships and cargo forfeited their wages and suffered 6 months imprisonment. Captains of naval vessels who pursued personal profit over duty were finally punished. Anyone who traded with pirates would be treated as an accomplice. And most importantly, pirates could be tried and executed at sea or in the colonies. Suddenly, a pirate might be executed within days of capture. American Puritans had no tolerance for the traditional defense. The great preacher Cotton Mather ministered to captured pirates and violently reacted to their claims of conscription: “Forced! No; there is no man who can say he is forced unto any sin against the glorious God. Forced! No; You had better have suffered any thing than to have sinned as you have done. Better have died a martyr by the cruel hands of your brethren than have become one of their brethren.”

        The Golden Age of piracy produced an attractive republican society. They were only able to do so because they operated outside the law, but it’s fascinating that they chose the structure they did. Unfortunately, it was built on a campaign of larceny and murder that governments allowed for too long. Ultimately, only the swift, certain, and severe delivery of justice brought their mayhem to an end. Thankfully a great republic arrived within a century to deliver on the promise of meritocracy and democracy.

        Under the black flag

        Figure 7. Under the Black Flag. Score 7/10. Some great stories about pirates, but a bit scattered.

        Invisible hook

        Figure 8. The Invisible Hook: 7/10. Fun premise worth reading, some arguments more interesting than others.

        Thanks for reading!  If you enjoyed this review, please sign up for my email in the box below and forward it to a friend: Think – do you know anyone who loves history or the law? How about someone worried about crime? Or is there perhaps a person somewhere out there that isn’t yet fascinated by pirates?

        I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

          Republic of Pirates

          The Gist: Pirates self-governed through – surprise! – constitutional democracy

          The second of a three part  review of The Invisible Hook by Peter Leeson and

          Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly.

          For part one about piracy’s awesome benefits, check out Why You’d Want To Be A Pirate. For part three about how piracy ended, check out Some Terrible Cartoons About Terrible Pirates.

          Avast ye landlubbers! In my last email, you learned that pirates were preferred employers who offered workers lucrative stock options, generous health benefits, and equal opportunity employment. 


          Now discover that these swashbucklers intuited the same ideas as the Founding Fathers — except decades earlier and without having to read Montesquieu.

          Reading pirate

          Figure 1. “Sorry, lads, ‘twas only my other eye that could read. Should’ve finished school and learned letters with both.”


          Often conscripted into the merchant marine, sailors suffered under the very real tyranny of captains at sea. By becoming pirates, they quite literally were taking up the proposition: “Give me liberty or give me death!”

          And what device did pirates choose to keep their captains in line? Democracy.

          Campaign signs

          Figure 2. Campaign signs were harder to post without lawns.


          Bear in mind that no country at the time extended the vote to the typical sailor. Even in the comparatively restrained constitutional monarchy of the United Kingdom, the Magna Carta did more for aristocrats than it did for commoners. An unpropertied British sailor probably did not get to vote until the 20th century. America wasn’t available, and yet pirates were even more radical than America: each crew member, regardless of age, nationality, race, or gender, got a single vote. After all, each pirate was an owner.

          parrot pirate

          Figure 3. “Just because my parrot always votes like me doesn’t mean he should lose the franchise!”


          Captains were thus elected at the formation of the pirate crew but their term was not guaranteed to last. The crew could at any time oust the captain through a recall vote and, if the captain was as terrible as their previous merchantman leadership, he might very well be marooned. Interestingly, here was another example where the pirates’ very criminality served as a check on leadership: on a merchantman ship, mutiny was a crime; on a pirate ship, it was a formalized right.

          Palm tree

          Figure 4. Recalls resulted in lonely retirements. As you’d expect, the votes typically all came down to turnout in crucial Waukesha County.


          Pirates also understood something crucial: men, perhaps especially pirates, could not be trusted. So they also instituted separation of powers. The crew comprised a legislature, the captain the executive, and a separately elected quartermaster a quasi-judiciary with special executive functions

          The legislature elected the captain and quartermaster, held them accountable through recalls, determined ship destinations, and settled ambiguous controversies.

          Pirate committee

          Figure 5. “Thank you for that report from the Rt. Dishonorable member from the Plundering Destination Committee. I think we can all agree to avoid North America. We are stick figures, after all, and there are too many beavers.”


          The captain directed the operations of the ship but received special deference and extraordinary powers when the crew faced battle (not too crazily different from our own President’s war powers!). In the heat of conflict, pirates recognized the advantage of strong and decisive leadership. For that, the captain received a small multiple – up to 5x – of the typical crewman’s share, but received not many additional accommodations: he was expected to share his sleeping space and get the same provisions as the rest of the crew.

          Trump pirate

          Figure 6. “This is going to be the most fabulous voyage of all time! We are going to build a big beautiful ship and the Spanish are going to pay for it! Put me in the Sea Suite!” – Orangemane


          The quartermaster was considered the crew’s representative and was given powers that were generally abused by merchantman captains: He was responsible for allocating provisions, distributing loot, adjudicating conflicts, and administering discipline. Because quartermasters were often a natural alternative to failed captains, both competed for the crews’ affections and served as checks on each other. 

          But pirates did not simply rely on tradition or some version of criminal common law, they also insisted on another crucial restraint familiar to Americans: a written constitution or, in their parlance, a pirate code. With the election of a new captain, articles were drawn up that would specifically describe the rules of the ship: how plunder was to be distributed, what workman’s comp could be expected, how performance bonuses were to be rewarded, what activities were to be punished. Adoption of the code required unanimity so that pirates could hold each other accountable to what they all agreed. And when new crew members were recruited, they were specifically educated about the code’s provisions and made to sign their mark as a condition of employment.

          Pirate preamble

          Figure 7. An ordinary preamble. Later amendments protected the rights to violently assemble, keep and bear arms, give no quarter to soldiers of the crown, make unreasonable searches and seizures, inflict cruel and unusual punishment, etc.


          Interestingly, pirate codes tended to regulate (at least onboard) some of the very activities that pirates are famous for. In one, gambling was banned, women were prohibited, drinking was curtailed, and even bedtime was established. One of the main arguments of the Invisible Hook is that pirates achieved governance without government rather successfully.

          Were America’s Founding Fathers inspired by pirates? As far as I know, no. At the very least, there is no constitutional bedtime. Later Senators may have been inspired because “filibuster” is another name for pirate. But the Founders did consider piracy in one crucial respect: Article I, Section 8, Clause 11 of the Constitution specifies that “The Congress shall have Power” to do a specific number of things, including “To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.”

          What the heck is a Letter of Marque? Only the best part of pirating. A genuine pirate was an enemy of everyone and raided whatever ships appeared lucrative in his telescope. But if a pirate accepted a letter of marque, he instantly became legal – more specifically, a privateer. A privateer is a free agent authorized by a country to go attack its enemies and take prizes as compensation. While privateers were often financed by outside investors that substantially limited on-board democracy, the fact that you could go home safe after all your raids suggests a significant benefit. 

          Notably, this power remains available to Congress. So if you are in for an adventure, lobby your Congressman today! We could use the help in the War on Terror.

          In my final email (for now) on pirates, you can learn the darker side of pirates and how government continuously bumbled handling piracy until it eventually got its act together.

          Under the black flag

          Figure 8. Under the Black Flag: 7/10. Some great stories about pirates, but a bit scattered.

          Invisible hook

          Figure 9. The Invisible Hook: 7/10. Fun premise worth reading, some arguments more interesting than others.

          Thanks for reading!  If you enjoyed this review, please sign up for my email in the box below and forward it to a friend: Think – do you know anyone who loves history or economics? How about your favorite lawyer or lover of liberty? Or is there perhaps a person somewhere out there that isn’t yet fascinated by pirates?

          I read over 100 non-fiction books a year (history, business, self-management) and share a review (and terrible cartoons) every couple weeks with my friends. Really, it’s all about how to be a better American and how America can be better. Look forward to having you on board!

            Why You’d Want To Be a Pirate

            The Gist: Ninjas don’t get company stock, health insurance, or even a fraction of the pirate benefit package.

            The first of a three part  review of The Invisible Hook by Peter Leeson and

            Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly.

            For part two’s ode to pirate law, check out Republic of Pirates. For part three about how piracy ended, check out Some Terrible Cartoons About Terrible Pirates.

            Imagine you are in a boring yet stressful job where you are overworked for poor pay, no benefits, bad promotion prospects, no stock, and little vacation while a tyrannical boss subjects you to his greedy whims and degrading discrimination. 

            Now consider an offer from a group of entrepreneurs where you will immediately receive stock options, have a decent chance of earning 40x what you could in a year (and a smaller chance of 1000x), receive health insurance, and help select your boss (or become the boss!). The only small catch is that it’s highly illegal and if you are caught you could be executed.

            That’s the choice that faced sailors in the 17th century: remain in the merchant marine or become a pirate.

            pro con

            Figure 1. Honestly a tough choice.


            The Invisible Hook explores this and other questions about the economics of pirates. The title is amusingly inspired by the originator of free market theory, Adam Smith: “We can achieve very few of our self-interested goals, from securing our next meal to acquiring our next pair of shoes, in isolation. Just think about how many skills you’d need to master and how much time you’d require if you had to produce your own milk or fashion your own coat, let alone manufacture your own car. Because of this, Smith observed, in seeking to satisfy our own interests, we’re led, ‘as if by an invisible hand,’ to serve others’ interests too. Serving others’ interests gets them to cooperate with us, serving our own.” Crucially, Smith argued that no government is necessary in order to coordinate economic activities. The Invisible Hook claims that a similar force guided infamous maritime criminals into organizing themselves in particularly useful ways – all the more impressive because they operated completely outside (and indeed against) government authority. Under the Black Flag constitutes additional tales of piracy if you’re so inclined. 

            The typical sailor led a hard life. If you were lucky, you intentionally took the job but you could also be “pressed,” a euphemism for being kidnapped. On a typical voyage, you leave home for months, perhaps years. Mercantilist competitors and unfriendly natives await with violence. Tropical diseases ravage you – one white man in three died in his first four months in Africa. Half the crew might die of scurvy, a terrible disease derived from lack of Vitamin C. You’ve got plenty of opportunity for workplace injury and contemporary medicine insists on taking lots of your blood while doctors consider washing their hands inconvenient. Sounds worse than receiving the Black Spot!

            Orange juice

            Figure 2. Who knew OJ could save your life? If the carton don’t fit…


            Ship management is unsympathetic and there is no HR to whom to complain. Absentee investors finance your expedition and are very concerned about your “negligence in caring for the ship, carelessness that damaged cargo, liberality with provisions, embezzlement of freight or advances required to finance the vessel’s voyage, and outright theft of the vessel itself.” So they’ve empowered a captain, perhaps with a small share to align incentives, to load and offload as many goods as possible as fast as possible as cheaply as possible. According to the law, the captain can dock your already small wages and physically beat you. Outside the law, he might attempt sexual harassment. But even under the most benevolent of captains, you’ll have endless work: the average 200 ton merchantman carried fewer than 18 men. Once your trek is over, you don’t even have a guarantee that you’ll get to continue your miserable work.

            But perhaps you choose a different route. Pirates have boarded your ship, taken any valuables, and have an exploding offer to any able-bodied seaman to go on the account and join their motley crew. What exactly are they offering?

            As a pirate, you work a lot less! The average pirate crew has 80 members but could be a lot more – Blackbeard had 300! Pirates were looking to numerically overwhelm any of their targets and that has the wonderful benefit for you that the day-to-day seafaring work is spread around where four or even sixteen men are doing the work that one might do on a merchantman.

            Sleeping pirate

            Figure 3. Rest your weary sea leg by taking a caulk every once in a while. Just don’t fall over and feed the fishes!


            You graduate from wage labor to ownership! No longer are you a poor sailor stuck on the bottom rung no matter your talents, no matter the profitability of the voyage. As a pirate, you get a share in the expedition and instantly become part owner of the ship. “As historian Patrick Pringle described it, in this sense a pirate ship was like a “sea-going stock company.”

            Corporate pirate

            Figure 4. Brings new meaning to “corporate raider”


            You have a shot at vast treasure! Whereas as a merchant sailor you might earn $5,000 a year, your share in pirate plunder could yield over $330,000 – and $5,000,000 is not unheard of. Because you can’t sail into simply any harbor, you are still going to have to raid for provisions and supplies, but booty is out there: In just four short years between 1596 and 1600, Spain imported precious materials from the Americas equivalent to about $840 million.

            Bear in mind: no prey, no pay. Pirates structured their profit sharing to limit crew discord but also to vest in each member an incentive to plunder. While the captain and skilled crew members (like surgeons) might get a small multiple, the distributions were fairly flat to ensure that all pirates had their heart in the taking of the prizes until all were satisfied.

            treasure map

            Figure 5. Sadly, burying treasure is more common among fictional pirates than real ones. Here X marks the spot of the finest bar in Tortuga, where most treasure wound up anyhow.  


            You might want to hire a financial manager.  Much like professional athletes and lottery winners, pirates were not exactly great at managing their sudden acquisitions of vast wealth. After one voyage led by the French pirate Francis L’Ollonais dispersed $6,500,000, the crew spent it all in just three weeks, on gambling, rum, and wenches.

            Treasure chest

            Figure 6. You are going to need the right asset allocation. Burying your treasure doesn’t put your money to work for you! I primarily recommend a Royal Exchange index fund so you can focus on what you’re good at – you’re a pirate, not a stock-picker! Bank of England bonds should be reliable or you can invest in Dutch tulips if you have a high risk tolerance. My big recommendation is real estate: a fabulous island on the Hudson River just went for $24!


            You get health insurance! Although you may be really bad at spending money, pirates wanted to make sure you exerted maximum effort, so they try to de-risk violence for you a little bit. Specified in advance upon joining the crew, the awards ranged from $2,500 for loss of a finger to $15,000 for loss of a right arm.


            Figure 7. The offerings of Black Cannon Black Ship, the preferred pirate insurer. 


            You may work for an equal opportunity employer! An African on a legitimate ship invariably was a slave but some pirates were happy to consider highly motivated additional manpower. Pirate ships certainly had a larger portion of black crew members than their legitimate counterparts – up to 30%! A century before emancipation, pirates were prepared to not only recognize talent but to equally empower blacks in crew decisions. Of course, they were less enthusiastic about accepting women, who were considered a distraction to the crew, though famously two women, Anne Bonny and Mary Read, originally dressed as men, served on the crew of Calico Jack Rackham. When they were caught, they managed to avoid punishment by revealing that they were both pregnant.

            No wonder pirates had such an easy time recruiting! In my next email, learn how pirates were constitutional republicans. Savvy?

            Invisible hook

            Figure 8. The Invisible Hook. Score 7/10. Fun premise worth reading, some arguments more interesting than others.

            Under the black flag

            Figure 9. Under the Black Flag. Score 7/10. Some great stories about pirates, but a bit scattered.

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