Ben Stein discovers children are expensive

Ben Stein, the economic commentator still most famous for playing a boring high school teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, is questioning whether people should have children.

In his inaugural column in Fortune, he tries to explain a declining birth rate in the U.S. as an effect of the rising cost of having children. But there's something missing from his quirky analysis.

Stein starts by pointing out how birth control makes it possible to have sex without children, thus letting women work longer before having children. Then Stein moves in for the cost-benefit analysis kill. After bemoaning the costs of raising an upper middle class child -- from horseback riding lessons to private college ($70,000 a year by his estimation) -- he notes that such an expensive upbringing often leads to an ungrateful and unemployed "adult" who lives at home. (He makes it clear, however, that this argument does not apply to him and his wife since they have done such a marvelous job of raising their son.)

I agree with Stein in part -- the cost of raising a child is really high and it's grown. But as an "economist", he leaves out the benefit side from his cost-benefit argument. This might be good politics because it leaves to the reader's imagination how he might put a number on how parents benefit from having children -- and frees him from the resulting criticism.

Instead, he alludes to ways of quantifying the benefits. He suggests that when parents worked on farms, children were valuable to the extent that they saved farmers from hiring laborers. But now there is no way to put a number on the value of children. If the children earn salaries and make profits on their investment decisions, none of that money flows to their parents.

So Stein should never have tried to apply a cost-benefit analysis to children -- or if he does so, he should go out on a limb and try to quantify their benefit.

Stein has some quirks of his own. As Gawker reported, he calls himself an economist even though he has no graduate training in economics -- he has a BA in the subject from Columbia. Perhaps the fact that his father, Herb Stein, was a trained economist has something to do with this exaggeration.

And he was recently fired as a New York Times columnist for appearing as a spokesperson in TV commercials -- such as one from FreeScore which gives consumers their credit score for free but charges them $30 a month for the credit report behind the score. But Stein has landed on his feet at Fortune -- which still shares parent Time Warner (TWX) with Daily Finance.

For the record, I am a big fan of having children and believe that while they are expensive, they're worth every penny even though I cannot find any economic justification for them.

Peter Cohan is amanagement consultant, Babson professor and author of eight books including, You Can't Order Change. Follow him on Twitter. He has no financial interest in the securities mentioned.

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