/How Much Do We Really Care About Children? (Ep. 447)

How Much Do We Really Care About Children? (Ep. 447)


They can’t vote or hire lobbyists. The policies we create to help them aren’t always so helpful. Consider the car seat: parents hate it, the safety data are unconvincing, and new evidence suggests an unintended consequence that is as anti-child as it gets.

Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple PodcastsStitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

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Hey there, it’s Stephen Dubner. You’re about to hear our first new episode of 2021. We have a big year planned for Freakonomics Radio and our whole little podcast network — including occasional episodes of the Freakonomics Radio Book Club, which has proved to be very popular. Reading ahead is not at all a requirement but, if you’d like to do so, the next book we’re doing is Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, by Caitlin Doughty. She’s a mortician and self-described “funeral industry rabble-rouser.” It’s a fascinating book and a great episode, you’re going to love it. And now, on to today’s episode. What would you say if I told you there’s a safety device that just about every parent is required to buy, but many of them hate?

KIMMY: They are terrible. I have a hate-hate relationship with this sucker. They’re horrible. 

And that this safety device doesn’t really seem to improve safety:

Steve LEVITT: They were so shocked by the results that they thought there must have been a mistake.

And what if I told you that device designed to protect children had the unintended consequence of causing fewer children to be born?

David SOLOMON: If you look at the whole time series, you get to about 145,000 fewer births. 

Once I told you all that, would you know what I’m talking about? It is a simple, two-word answer:

EVAN: Car seats.

DAN: Car seats.

ADA: Car seats.

ANONYMOUS 2: I hate car seats.

And what does the car-seat story tell us about how we treat children generally?

Melissa KEARNEY: I feel very strongly that kids get short shrift in our policy and political environment.

How much do we really care about children? 

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Stephen DUBNER: Do you have any children or things like that? 

KEARNEY: I do. I have three children. They are currently ages 15, 13, and 10. We bought a minivan as soon as I was pregnant with our second kid, actually. It was definitely a good day in my life when no kids needed a car seat.   

DUBNER: Because why? What was it about the car-seat ecosystem that made it undesirable or unpleasant?  

KEARNEY: Honestly? It’s a hassle. I just want to run into the grocery store and get two things and I got to unbuckle three kids and pick them up and put them out, and I got to then buckle them back in. It’s also a hassle because you can’t readily have someone else drive your kid around. You have to move the car seat into their car.

Melissa Kearney is an economics professor at the University of Maryland. Most of her research has to do with child poverty, and questions around what academics like to call “family formation.”

KEARNEY: Some people sort of look askance when economists ask these kinds of questions and some economists would say this is the purview of sociology. Actually, some sociologists would say this is the purview of sociology. But I think it’s important that economists bring our clarity of modeling and our rigor with econometric and empirical techniques to really understand how prices and income and costs and preferences affect family formation and fertility decisions.

Kearney has been on our show in the past.  She once told us about the educational benefits of Sesame Street; she told us how a lottery-linked savings plan can help low-income families increase their savings; she told us how the fracking boom led to more babies but fewer marriages — and how this was part of a larger trend.

KEARNEY: So, in 1960, 5 percent of births in the U.S. were to unmarried mothers. 

And in recent years?

KEARNEY: Over 40 percent of births in the U.S. were to unmarried mothers. 

Lately, Kearney’s been looking at how the Covid-19 pandemic will affect family formation in the U.S.

KEARNEY: So, this is work I did with my frequent collaborator, Phil Levine. We are expecting a pretty large baby bust. Up to half a million fewer babies being born next year.

We spoke with Kearney in late 2020, so half a million fewer babies “next year” now means this year, 2021. As a share of total births, half a million would be a massive decline.

KEARNEY: Yeah, there were like 3.75 million live births in 2019.

How did Kearney and Levine reach their pandemic baby-bust estimate of a half-million? First, they looked at employment data. When employment spikes, as it did in the fracking boom, births tend to rise also. When employment drops, as it has during the pandemic, births tend to drop. When they analyzed employment and birth data from the Great Recession, for instance:

KEARNEY: The relationship looks quite linear. It’s like 1 percentage point increase in the unemployment rate leads to a 1 percent reduction in births. So, the unemployment rate on account of this pandemic is way up. Let’s say over the course of the year, it’s a 7 to 10 percent percentage point increase in unemployment. Just based on the recession effects alone, we would expect a 7 to 10 percent reduction in births. 

But of course, a recession isn’t the only damage that’s been caused by this pandemic. So, for a deeper historical parallel, Kearney and Levine looked at what happened to the U.S. birth rate after the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918.

KEARNEY: We looked back at what happened to say, does the public-health crisis itself exert a downward force on birth rates?

That pandemic, they found, produced a baby bust of around 12 percent.

KEARNEY: And there’s two things that are really noteworthy about that. The first is the Spanish flu did not have an associated recession, because of the war effort. So, this is a response due solely to the public-health crisis. And two, people didn’t have access to advanced contraceptive technology back in 1920 the way they do now.

And so, factoring those responses into the current pandemic, with its unemployment spike of 7 to 10 percentage points:

KEARNEY: So, we up our estimate, and we say maybe we should expect a 10 to 13 percent reduction in births and based on annual birth rates, that leads us to predict 300 to 500,000 fewer births next year. 

DUBNER: And of course, it may extend beyond one year’s worth of decline, correct? 

KEARNEY: Exactly. One might say, “Well, people are just delaying births until things recover.” I suspect that many of these delayed births will wind up being permanent because, the recovery is likely to be pretty lengthy and slow. And so, some women biologically will age out of having more kids. But even the ones who don’t, they and/or their partner might experience persistent loss in income, right?

To the extent that this pandemic recession translates into permanent income losses, I expect that some of this will be permanent. If this is true for a number of years and we have a fairly large reduction in births over a longer cohort, that has demographic implications for the workforce. Now, a silver lining — perhaps that’s a bit flip — but smaller cohort size would mean smaller class sizes in school, less competition for limited college slots, so those individuals might benefit in that way.

The Covid baby bust Kearney is predicting wouldn’t be so noteworthy if not for this fact: the U.S. birth rate before the pandemic was at an all-time low. As of 2019, the total fertility rate was 1.7 — that’s 1.7 babies born per woman of child-bearing age over her lifetime. During the baby boom after World War II, the U.S. fertility rate was more than 3.7, so more than double the recent rate — and, again, that was before the pandemic.

The so-called “replacement” fertility rate — what some people call the optimal rate — is 2.1: that’s the rate needed to keep a population steady, although population is of course affected by migration as well. Some countries gain population by migration, some lose; the U.S. is a perennial gainer — although those numbers have also fallen lately, due to both policy and the pandemic. The U.S. is not alone in having fallen below the replacement rate.

KEARNEY: So, the number of children a woman is expected to have over her lifetime has been falling, the number of babies born each year per 1,000 women has been falling, and this is true for many, if not most, high-income countries.

Most of Europe is well below the replacement rate; so are Japan, Singapore, and the U.A.E. South Korea has the lowest fertility rate in the world, at 1.1; last year, for the first time, it registered more deaths than births. Now, there may be upsides to a declining global birth rate, since overpopulation presents a variety of resource and economic challenges. But there are problems when you get below the replacement rate too.

KEARNEY: Fewer kids born skews the age distribution older. And in fact, in the U.S., the average age and the age distribution of the population has been getting older because people are living longer and having fewer babies. So, you’re getting pressures on both sides. Fifteen percent of our population is over the age of 65. The two big reasons in my mind as to why that matters are, one, because of productivity. A younger workforce is generally more productive. The fact that the population is skewing older means we have a lower employment-to-population ratio, so that is bad for productivity and overall G.D.P. growth. The second real issue is that having an aging population puts pressure on our social insurance systems. And that threatens the solvency of those systems. And to be clear, this is not a uniquely U.S. challenge. 

What are the causes of this global birth decline?

KEARNEY: There’s no obvious single explanation for why child-bearing rates have been falling. I think the two most likely explanations — though it’s really hard to nail down in the data — economic opportunities for women have expanded, and for many women, having a career is in conflict with having kids or more kids. And access to really effective contraception has been improving. So, the combination of those two trends, those are my best guesses as to why we’ve seen fertility declining in most high-income countries. 

DUBNER: Is the cost of child-raising and the cost of having a family generally — everything from housing to education — a significant contributor to the lower fertility rate, or is that too hard to know? 

KEARNEY: Kids do look like they are what economists call normal goods. So, when people get more money and they can afford more kids, they have more of them. And when the costs associated with having kids goes up, people have fewer of them.

There is another pair of academic researchers who have come across another child-rearing cost which they argue has also contributed to the birth decline.

Jordan NICKERSON: My name is Jordan Nickerson. I am a financial economist visiting M.I.T.

SOLOMON: I’m David Solomon and I’m an associate professor of finance at the Boston College Carroll School of Management. 

NICKERSON: This essentially started out of a conversation, just an anecdotal account from one of Dave’s friends. And he brought up these crazy costs of having children. He pointed out needing to get a minivan to fit the kids if they wanted to have a big family, and this was not something he was particularly willing to do.  

SOLOMON: And it’s really weird when you think about it, because this guy can afford a minivan. But this was one of the things he mentioned which got me thinking about the project.

The project they got to thinking about began with a hypothesis. A hypothesis about child car seats.

NICKERSON: Car seats are bulky items. For the average car, the average sedan, it’s not going to be able to fit three car seats in the back. And so, the prediction would be that when I have two children that are both required to be put in car seats, it’s going to make it more difficult to have a third child.

DUBNER: I guess to be devil’s advocate — or maybe it’s not quite devil’s advocate, but it’s the advocate of something — I’m thinking any parent or parents who will be discouraged from having a third kid because it’s a little bit too much hassle to figure out the car-seat arrangement is probably the kind of parent that we should be grateful are not having more children. 

NICKERSON: I’m not going to go that far. If this was somebody who had all the means and they still said, “You know what, that’s just a little too much hassle” — okay, I can see that argument. But at the same time, just realizing there’s so many people where every dollar counts. Upgrading to a minivan, that’s a non-trivial expense for a large portion of the population. 

SOLOMON: It’s very rare to find people that say, “This was why I didn’t have a third child.” But it is surprisingly common to find people that say, “This was a big pain in the butt.” It just has to be a non-trivial cost for someone who was on the margin.  

What does Solomon mean when he says, “someone who was on the margin”? We asked Melissa Kearney to explain.

KEARNEY: This is the game economists play. Whenever we say something matters, we always — in our own minds and sometimes we explicitly say this — mean “for people on the margin.” 

Meaning people who might reasonably make a certain decision but, depending on the incentives, might just as reasonably make the opposite decision.

KEARNEY: So, there are people for whom you could give them a car, you could give them a fancy Lexus S.U.V., and they’re still not going to have a third kid.

Those people are not on the margin. Those were not the people David Solomon and Jordan Nickerson were trying to identify. They were trying to identify someone who had two kids and was thinking:

SOLOMON: “Well, and then we’d have to buy a minivan, and that’ll be another 15 grand.” In the scheme of life, 15 grand is much less than you’re going to pay for the kid. But that budges you a little bit. 

Car seats are required by law in all 50 states and in roughly 80 other countries; they’re largely absent in Asia and Africa. In case you’ve never seen or used a child car seat: they are something you buy separately from the car, since the seatbelts in cars typically don’t adjust to fit a child. They can be fairly complicated contraptions, costing up to a few hundred dollars. They are an assemblage of straps and buckles and padding that’s secured to the back seat by the car’s existing seatbelts or a latch buckle, and they’re designed to hold a child in place so they won’t be tossed around in the event of a crash.

SOLOMON: The first batch of laws started in the early 80s, saying children had to ride in some sort of mandated car-safety seat. The early laws applied to like ages 1 to 4. Starting in the mid-90s, you saw a gradual but increasing lift of the minimum age at which you’re allowed to just ride in the seatbelts.   

Car-seat laws differ from state to state. In California, children up to age 9 are required to ride in a car seat or booster seat; in Florida, children age out at 6.

SOLOMON: The data sets on car seats came from an extraordinarily painful three weeks or so of manually reading through state legislative histories. 

NICKERSON: Basically, constructing an entire history of law changes across each state from the early 1980s until 2018.

Not only do different states have different laws, but those laws were passed at different times. These variations gave Nickerson and Solomon a research opportunity.

NICKERSON: This is going to let us compare states in any given year where the age is 4 years old to the age is 8 years old and look at the rate of third-birth fertility.

“The rate of third-birth fertility” meaning how often families who already had two kids were having a third kid, and whether the first two kids were still of car-seat age. To measure this, they needed to merge the car-seat-law data with population data.

SOLOMON: The population data sets come from the American Community Survey, conducted by the Census Bureau. 

This included information on family makeup, including the number and age of children in every household in the survey. These data could be used to infer fertility decisions for each year in the sample, which could then be measured against state car-seat laws to see if car-seat requirements were indeed decreasing third-birth fertility. What did Nickerson and Solomon think their analysis would predict?

NICKERSON: It’s not going to predict that birth rates for all families are going to go down. It’s not even going to predict that birth rates for families that have two kids are going to go down. What it really is going to predict is that birth rates are only going to go down for families that have two kids as long as those two kids are below the ages that you need to be in a car seat.

The paper that Nickerson and Solomon wrote, and released recently as a working paper, is called “Car Seats as Contraception.”

KEARNEY: I definitely applaud the authors for their creativity. 

Melissa Kearney again.

KEARNEY: I also found the idea that this cost — that might strike some as trivial, as it being a significant determinant for couples who were on the margin of having three versus two kids — that doesn’t strike me as totally implausible. 

I asked Kearney what she thought of their methodology.

KEARNEY: I dug in a little bit on the methodology but nothing jumped out at me as clearly something the authors might need to change or improve. So, I’m open to believing their estimates.  

Okay, so what are the estimates? To what degree have car seats acted as contraception? Here’s David Solomon:

SOLOMON: You can think about two numbers. What’s the change in birth rates? It’s 0.0076. So, it’s slightly less than .01 children per woman. That sounds small, but bear in mind, that’s averaging over women that have no children at all, that’s averaging over women that only have one child, or four children.

Alright, so what about the subset of people who do fall in the car-seat sweet spot?

SOLOMON: For those people, it’s about a 7.8 percent decline.

And how does that percentage decline translate to magnitude?

SOLOMON: So, if you want to talk magnitude, the easiest way to think about it is just: how many children are we talking total? In 2017, we estimate that there were about 8,000 fewer births as a result of the state of car-seat laws in the U.S. 

And what if you look at the whole time series, from the first car-seat laws in the early 1980s?

SOLOMON: If you look at the whole time series of the U.S., you get to about 145,000 fewer births. And 60 percent of that effect is since 2008, which is a pattern worth noting. Remember, car-seat laws have been getting stricter. If current laws had applied since 1980, we would have had 350,000 fewer children born.

To put this in perspective, that’s 145,000 fewer births during a period when roughly 150 million babies were born in the U.S.

SOLOMON: When you think about those numbers, is that a big or a small number? I think it’s big enough to move the needle on the fact that we’re not talking about a handful of children. And given this is an effect that I don’t think has been thought about very much, it’s strange that it’s having this large of an effect on total births when that wasn’t even the intention of the policy. 

DUBNER: So, the cost of a new bigger vehicle — a minivan or S.U.V. — is one thing, but the cost of college or the cost of childcare is obviously much, much more. So, do you know any research on how those costs impact the decision to have more children? 

SOLOMON: Not tightly, no. And the reason this isn’t a paper about education and housing is that I haven’t yet figured out how to measure that tightly. And if I do, I’m going to write it, because I think those are hugely important. But with all this stuff, it’s very difficult to pin down really tight predictions that are going to withstand criticisms, like, “Isn’t this just something about the overall macro economy?” The answer is, “Yeah, maybe it is.”

So, by peeling off an incredibly narrow question for which the data were available, Solomon and Nickerson are confident that car seats have, at least to a very small degree, influenced family planning. There’s one particularly interesting wrinkle in their research. The overall U.S. birth decline, according to Melissa Kearney, has been driven by women at the lower end of the income spectrum. But the car-seat decline is driven primarily by higher earners.

SOLOMON: Now, that, on the one hand, might make it sound bogus, like we’re just picking up something that’s wrong. Except — and going back to the fact that my friend that first mentioned it — he could afford a minivan. Like, he makes enough money. That’s not what it’s about. And I think, honestly, part of it is just class and aesthetic connotations. Like, minivans are ugly, and that’s not the kind of statement you can put in an academic paper, but who would disagree with that?  

Who would disagree with that? Melissa Kearney would.

KEARNEY: I laughed when I read the line in this paper that people are really averse to driving around in these ugly, uncool minivans. I guess I’m just sufficiently practical that I think the minivan is awesome. It seems to have infinite space, not just for people, but we seem to be able to just throw tons of stuff in the back, slide open the doors. 

DUBNER: So, it wasn’t a hardship for you in any direction, it sounds like, yes? Style or cost. 

KEARNEY: I don’t want to be flip and say that having a third kid wasn’t something I thought very hard about, but the minivan was not the hold-up for me personally. 

Different people respond to incentives differently. That’s not very surprising. The bigger point here is that incentives matter even when it comes to fertility choices. And that an incentive you might never have even considered can have significant unintended consequences. But what about the intended consequence of car seats? That is, their protective ability. Even if car seats are preventing thousands of births, they must be saving many, many lives, right?

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What have we learned so far? The pandemic is expected to produce a significant baby bust. This will be on top of a U.S. birth rate that had already declined to the lowest in history. And one suspected contributor to that decline — albeit a very small contributor — is car-seat requirements, which are apparently so onerous as to discourage some parents from having a third child. Here’s one parent who wasn’t thus discouraged:

Steve LEVITT: I have six different children, ages 20 down to 2.  

That’s Steve Levitt, my Freakonomics friend and co-author. He’s an economist at the University of Chicago. How’d he get around town back when he had four kids under 6 years old?

LEVITT: In a trusty minivan, loaded with car seats. And I always had this inkling. So, most of my research always comes from inklings that the conventional wisdom might be wrong. And I certainly had this inkling as I strapped my kids into these car seats, which were especially back then, incredibly hard to install and were flopping around all the time. It just didn’t really seem to me that car seats were an obvious solution to the problem. 

“The problem” being that most cars have seatbelts designed to fit adults, even in the back seats, where most passengers are kids.

LEVITT: There’s no doubt that an adult seatbelt is a terrible way, in general, of trying to protect kids in crashes. I mean, it’s obvious. They don’t fit well. They’re not designed to fit well. And so, it wouldn’t be a surprise if kids suffered some injuries when they’re in severe crashes using this suboptimal technology.

We should note that when seatbelts were introduced, back in the 1950s, there was considerable pushback. Some automakers didn’t like the idea of adding a device that might accentuate the fact that their products were dangerous. Others began selling them as an optional add-on. During a congressional safety hearing in 1957, one congressman asked a Ford executive if seatbelts were just another “gadget,” as he called them, designed to drive up car prices. It would take decades, and a lot of laws, to drive seat-belt compliance up to the roughly 90 percent where it is today. The good news is: crash data show that seatbelts are very effective.

LEVITT: Maybe one of the greatest interventions for saving lives in terms of cost effectiveness we’ve ever had.  

But again, they weren’t optimized for children. A few carmakers did build adjustable restraint systems, and some made an integrated booster seat, with a panel that would fold down from or out of the back seat of the car. But the vast majority of cars simply provided adult seatbelts. After enough children were thrown from cars during crashes and killed, there arose a movement to do better, and that movement led to the car seat.

If you wanted to be cynical, you could look at the car-seat solution this way. Three points here. No. 1: carmakers were absolved of their duty to safely secure their youngest passengers, even though roughly 55 percent of all back-seat passengers are 12 years old or younger. No. 2: car-seat manufacturers were given a bonanza, since every parent forevermore would be legally required to buy their product. And No. 3: all the adults involved in car-seat legislation got to feel satisfied that they were doing a great job protecting kids. But let’s not rush to cynicism. Let’s assume that car seats are a great solution for protecting kids.

LEVITT: Very early on, conventional wisdom became that car seats were an amazing life-saving device. 

But Levitt had been doing a lot of research about auto safety.

LEVITT: What jumped out at me was that in the raw data, it appeared that children who were restrained using adult seatbelts seemed to do just as well in car crashes as the kids who were in car seats. And the raw data aren’t everything. They’re just a start. But it got me interested in looking further. 

When he went to look, he found there hadn’t been much research on the performance of car seats. There was one major study from researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

LEVITT: They had used survey data collected after crashes had happened, working in conjunction with a large insurer, where they would call parents on the phone and try to get them to describe what had happened in these crashes.  

Survey data, as we often say around here, is not the cleanest data.

LEVITT: In addition to the guilt that parents had around things that had happened to their children in the crash, there’s also a question of lawsuits, and it’s coming from the insurance company, and you wonder whether they’re doing it because they don’t want to pay off your claim or whatever. So, there could be real incentives, I think, to not tell the truth.

So, Levitt went looking for better data. NHTSA — that’s the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — maintains a database called FARS, which stands for Fatality Analysis Reporting System. It contains police reports for every car crash in the U.S. that produces a fatality.

LEVITT: If you’ve ever had the misfortune to have been around a fatal crash, they’ll shut down the entire highway, they spend hours trying to document what had happened.

But Levitt also wanted to include non-fatal crashes.

LEVITT: There’s a national dataset called the General Estimate Survey, which is a very small set of all crashes — 50,000 crashes — where they try to collect more detailed data. And then also New Jersey and Wisconsin have very detailed datasets where they collect for a broader set of crashes. And, in addition, in Wisconsin, we were able to link those data up to hospital admissions and discharge data so we got really detailed information about the kinds of injuries and the length of stays in hospitals and whatnot.  

Using these data, Levitt went on to publish two research papers. He analyzed the outcomes for children ages 2 to 6. Children under 2 are nearly always strapped into a car seat — it really isn’t practical, or advisable, to strap a baby into an adult seatbelt. And kids older than 6 were often done with car seats. So, he was focused on the universe of children 2 to 6 who had been in a car crash. Some of them were in car seats; some were restrained with adult seatbelts; and some were not restrained at all. So, what’d he find? Kids who weren’t restrained at all definitely suffered the consequences. But car seats versus seatbelts?

LEVITT: The comparison between children’s car seats and children aged 2 to 6 who were wearing adult seatbelts, no matter how I slice it, I never was able to find any benefit of the car seats in terms of preventing either death or serious injury. Although it is true that in a second paper I wrote with Joe Doyle from M.I.T., we did find that child car seats are about 25 percent better at preventing the least-serious kinds of injuries in car crashes. 

These papers were published in 2005 and 2006.

LEVITT: I was encouraged to see that a couple authors named Jones and Ziebarth wrote a piece in 2017 where they just tried to replicate and extend the first paper. Starting from scratch and extending the data the next 10 years in both the existing sample and in the future sample, they found exactly similar results.  

Could it really be that adult seatbelts perform just as well as child car seats in preventing serious injury and death, even though they’re not sized for children? One way to check would be to look at the research done with crash-test dummies.

LEVITT: In fact, every time a car seat wants to get government approval, it’s required that they go through a series of crash tests and pass with a minimum threshold of safety in various kinds of impacts. And so, I went to look in that literature expecting to find that there had been lots of research done comparing child car seats to adult seatbelts for children in a controlled circumstance with crash-test dummies. And what I discovered is that there were literally none.

This was around the time that Levitt and I published our first Freakonomics book. By now we were writing a monthly column for the New York Times Magazine. So, we thought it might be a good idea, for that column, to run our own experiment using crash-test dummies.

LEVITT: What I thought was really incredible when we decided to go and actually put some crash-test dummies on seats and strap them into adult seatbelts and see what happened in the crashes, was the reaction of the crash test sites to doing this. You were there, not me. Do you want to tell that story? 

DUBNER: Yeah, it is true. So, it was kind of a two-step amazement. No. 1 was, it was really, really hard to find a crash-test facility that would agree to do this. As it was explained to us over and over again, “All our business comes from the car-seat manufacturers. There’s no good in proving that car seats are not better than seatbelts.” And then some would say that they weren’t set up to do that. But that seemed a little bit odd because in order to do a car-seat crash, you need seatbelts. Finally, then, we found a lab that was willing to do it. The caveat was that we were not allowed to identify them by name or where they were.

I will say that I flew there and it was really interesting because the guy running the lab was a scientist. And he said, “I was really intrigued by this question because it’s something I would really like to know and I think it’s good for the science.” So, I had bought a couple of different size and brands of new car seats, and we started to hook them up and the technician who was installing the crash-test dummies in the seatbelts didn’t want to do it. There were actually two dummies — one that represented a 3-year-old child, with all these wires to measure the impact of the crash, and the other a 6-year-old dummy child. And the reason he didn’t want to do it is he was so sure that the seatbelts would fail and that the crash would break his dummy.

So, then I had to sign yet another indemnification form. I was on the hook for all kinds of indemnification in case something went wrong, because this wasn’t standard testing. And then we ran the tests. And the data from the crash test basically came to the conclusion that the seatbelt had done pretty close to, if not as good a job, as the car seat. And in fact, if you had just submitted the data from the crash where the crash-test dummy was in a seatbelt alone, that would have easily passed the requirements for it to be to have been a car seat, even though it was actually just a seatbelt. 

LEVITT: And I don’t know if you remember, but they were so shocked by the results that they thought there must’ve been a mistake, and they actually ran it over because they thought that something had to have gone wrong for the seatbelt to have done so well.

DUBNER: Yeah, that’s right. Now, we wrote up the results of these tests and your academic research in our Times column — and Levitt, how would you describe the reception to the news we delivered about car seats? 

LEVITT: I would say somewhere between complete hatred and not even noticing. I mean, my favorite story is when the secretary of transportation at the time, Ray LaHood, came across our work. And what he writes in his blog is, “If you want to slice up the data to be provocative, have at it. As a grandfather and as secretary of an agency whose number one mission is safety, I don’t have that luxury.”

I mean what the heck? His only job is to keep people safe. And when evidence comes out that maybe the policies that his department has been pushing for the last 20 years are not keeping people safe, and he has a staff of statisticians who have literally nothing else to do except to look at data to see if it’s keeping people safe, it’s amazing to me that the response isn’t, “Hey, let’s go show that these quacks are completely wrong,” or, you know, “Let’s actually try to get to the truth.” But just to be dismissive of it because it doesn’t fit with what they’ve been doing for 20 years — it was really discouraging.

DUBNER: Now, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, some officials there, after we published these findings in the New York Times, wrote a letter to the editor, and it said, “Our research consistently shows that child safety seats and booster seats significantly lower the risk of serious injury compared to seatbelts alone.” They go on to say that your recommendations to rethink car-seat laws are,“irresponsible and dangerous.” So, how do you plead to that? Because you could say, “Well, maybe car seats are not as good as the authorities say.” But as you’ve said yourself, restraining of some kind for a child in a car is way better than no restraining. So, what’s the harm? Do you think you are being irresponsible and dangerous?  

LEVITT: I think what’s irresponsible and dangerous is accepting mediocrity, accepting our existing solutions as if they are the best solution. What I take away from the research is we’ve put in all of these laws about child car seats and we’ve built these contraptions but then when you look at the data, they’re really not doing better, certainly not much better, than this other invention, which never had kids in mind and shouldn’t work at all. 

So, if you believe Steve Levitt’s research: not only are car seats not a great safety device but — if you believe the Jordan Nickerson-David Solomon research — they’re also acting as contraception against more children being born. Here’s Solomon:

SOLOMON: For every child’s life that’s saved by these laws, somewhere between 57 and 141 children aren’t born. 

LEVITT: That doesn’t seem like the right way to think about it.  

Steve Levitt again.

LEVITT: Because there’s a difference between a conception that never happens and a child whose life is tragically lost. Our goal certainly isn’t to maximize the number of people on the planet. Our goal might be to maximize how good the lives are of people who are already born. 

So, has there at least been improvement in car-seat technology?

Shy MINDEL: I wouldn’t say none, but there is very little innovation in that industry today.  

That’s Shy Mindel. He’s an Israeli aeronautics engineer.

MINDEL: I don’t think there has been significant innovation in the last two or three decades. And it’s all based on the same seat-belt installation, Styrofoam for protection, and plastic.  

And as any parent can tell you, installing a car seat isn’t very intuitive.

MINDEL: The facts are approximately 70 percent of the child car seats are not installed correctly, which can lead to devastating results. 

He’s seen this first-hand:

MINDEL: I won’t mention names, but we tested one of the leading child car seats in the world. And the system simply detached from the base and flew 15 feet in the air. And when we analyzed that, we understood that the engineer in the lab didn’t install it correctly.

So, Mindel started a company to build a better car seat. It’s called BabyArk. He’s certainly not the first person to have this idea. His version uses carbon fiber instead of plastic and some electronics to signal correct installation — as well as to signal parents if they’ve forgotten to take their child out of the back seat when they leave the car. This is another potential side effect of laws requiring that children ride in seats strapped into the back; it’s called “Forgotten Baby Syndrome.”

MINDEL: Just last year in the U.S. alone, 52 kids died from heat stroke in the car. If you leave the kid just for a few minutes, they’re very vulnerable and they can unfortunately die.

Now, you might think that big automakers and big car-seat manufacturers would have been collaborating all these years to improve things. But we could find little evidence of that.

LEVITT: Now, am I surprised that that hasn’t happened? 

Steve Levitt again.

LEVITT: Not really, because the incentives aren’t there. The car seat manufacturers certainly don’t want to hand over their pretty lucrative business to the car manufacturers. But I think the car manufacturers also are probably terrified of the legal exposure if they start trying to build their own version of car seats into their seats. 

So, maybe we were right to be cynical earlier. Maybe this car-seat situation is a perfect illustration of the insidious way we sometimes settle for solutions that satisfy everyone except the constituency those solutions were intended to help. In this case: children. Up to and including the children who, because of car-seat regulations, aren’t ever born. The economist Melissa Kearney again:

KEARNEY: So, this idea that well-meaning regulations that might have some benefit have unintended costs that could exceed the benefit is so fundamental to the way economists approach policy problems. And this is a great example of it, because it shows a place where I think nobody would have really thought of this, right? And I mean, there are so many examples of this. 

For instance?

KEARNEY: A glaringly obvious one that economists debate all the time, is — if we raise the minimum wage, well that looks really helpful, but are we actually going to hurt some of the people who are trying to benefit? Or here, I’ll give you another one of my current favorite policy ideas to hate, which is this idea of free college. Okay, so most people would think, how could that possibly be bad? You’re going to give free college to everyone, that’s great. Well, from the data, we know that a lot of people who go to college don’t complete. We know that the rates of completion are particularly low in nonselective schools and community colleges. You make those schools free and they have even fewer resources to devote. So, it seems an obvious unintended consequence is we’re going to diminish the quality. 

But Kearney reserves her most intense policy wishes for young children.

KEARNEY: I always have — the plight of kids just, I guess, tugs at my heart, and so — pulled me in as a social scientist as well. 

DUBNER: Do you feel that kids are — I mean, this sounds surprising to say it, but I think it’s your argument — that kids are underrepresented in a lot of public policy discussions? 

KEARNEY: Oh, I feel very strongly that kids get short shrift in our current policy and political environment. If we cared about preventing child poverty as we do preventing elderly poverty, we could take care of that issue without that much money — as compared to other things we spend in the federal budget.

DUBNER: When you say that we could take care of those problems, give me some how’s and dollar signs attached to it. 

KEARNEY: If we just gave every kid who lived in poverty in this country the average Social Security benefit, that would essentially eradicate childhood poverty in this country for a price tag of around $180 billion. Now, $180 billion sounds like a lot of money—. 

DUBNER: Pre-pandemic, it sounded like a lot.  

KEARNEY: I mean, it’s very small compared to what we spend on Social Security and disability insurance or compared to what we spend on all sorts of write-offs in the tax code for higher-income people. So, again, if this were a political priority, then it wouldn’t be hard for us to move money around in the federal budget or even raise revenue to cover that kind of cost. And the point is just we don’t do more for kids in this country. We don’t do more for poor kids in this country in particular because they’re not a political priority. 

DUBNER: And when you say, “not a political priority,” do you mean literally that they don’t vote? 

KEARNEY: I mean literally that very little in the federal budget goes toward ensuring children’s well-being. This is cynical, but I suspect this is not unrelated to the fact that kids don’t vote and there’s no big lobbying group on behalf of disadvantaged kids.

DUBNER: It is strange, though, isn’t it, considering that everyone who is not currently a kid has been a kid? 

KEARNEY: It’s stranger than that because what’s really strange is that, you know, it sounds so trite to say, but kids are quite literally the future of our country. And so, a failure to make sure all kids are meeting their human potential means that we will be a less strong society and economy and country going forward. 

That’s our show for this week. If you want to hear some of the earlier episodes we referred to, here’s a list: “The Fracking Boom, a Baby Boom, and the Retreat From Marriage” is Episode 294. “Does ‘Early Education’ Come Way Too Late?,” Episode 288.  “Is America Ready for a ‘No-Lose Lottery’?,” that’s a two-parter, episode Nos. 12 and 13. Also, there are a couple other earlier episodes having to do with the birth rate and fertility: one was called “Misadventures in Baby-Making,” Episode No. 46; and — we got right to the point with this one — “Why Do People Keep Having Children?,” Episode 186. You can find all these episodes, and our entire archive, at freakonomics.com — and I’m happy to say that very very soon, you’ll be able to access our entire archive on any podcast app.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Zack Lapinski. Our staff also includes Alison CraiglowGreg RippinMark McClusky, Daphne ChenMary Diduch, and Matt Hickey. Our intern is Emma Tyrrell; we had help this week from James Foster. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple PodcastsStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:

SOURCES

  • Melissa Kearney, economics professor at the University of Maryland.
  • Jordan Nickerson, a financial economist visiting M.I.T.
  • David Solomon, associate professor of finance at the Boston College Carroll School of Management.
  • Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics and host of People I (Mostly) Admire.
  • Shy Mindel, founder of BabyArk.

RESOURCES

EXTRAS

Original Source