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01 / 05
Freeing American Families

Blog Post | Health & Medical Care

Freeing American Families

In their new paper, Vanessa Brown Calder and Chelsea Follett propose reforms to make family life easier and more affordable.

Summary: As fertility rates decline, policymakers are considering costly interventions to boost population growth; however, international evidence suggests that the proposed measures have limited effectiveness in raising fertility rates. This article makes an argument about which sorts of reforms are likely to be counter-productive, and which measures can actually have a positive impact on fertility while also benefiting families in other ways.


Fertility is on the decline in the United States and around the world. Although some commentators celebrate population declines for environmental or other reasons, others fear that below‐​replacement fertility will result in negative economic and social consequences. As a result, many countries are pursuing various policies intended to boost fertility rates, such as baby bonuses, cash benefits for families with kids, paid family leave, and universal childcare. In the United States, members of Congress in both parties favor greater federal intervention to boost fertility rates or to support families more generally.

However, such policies are costly and have limited effects on fertility. International evidence indicates that expensive efforts to subsidize childbearing have failed to raise countries’ fertility to replacement levels and sustain fertility rates there. They typically fail even to meet policymakers’ more modest fertility objectives. Recent estimates suggest that fertility initiatives in the United States would be similarly misguided, with some $250 billion in annual subsidies needed to achieve a modest increase of 0.2 extra children per woman.

Although policymakers should avoid implementing similar initiatives, many other reforms would make family life easier and more affordable. This study proposes reforms to labor laws, child safety policies, tax and trade policy, and health policies that affect birth and conception, in addition to education, housing, and safety policy changes that would reduce the cost of raising children. Evidence suggests that some of these reforms could boost fertility, for instance, by reducing work‐​life tradeoffs or other intensive parenting requirements. However, these reforms are also worthwhile as standalone measures that improve family life.

Read the full paper here.

Blog Post | Leisure

The New York Times Banned Word Games Before Embracing Them

In April it was revealed subscribers to the New York Times played its selection of games more than they read its editorial content – in 2022 it acquired Wordle – leading people to joke it was now a gaming company.

The amusing irony? The Times once turned its nose up at word games.

When crossword puzzles first swept across North America in the mid-1920s, the New York Times sneered, calling them “a familiar form of madness” and the next fad after MahJong. Claims these puzzles were good mental exercise and a way to expand one’s personal lexicon, via a dictionary, were dismissed.

In another piece published the following year titled “See Harm Not Education,” the Times argued that learning obscure three-letter words was useless — but it didn’t stop there. “The indictment of the puzzles goes further and deeper,” it said, citing The New Republic, which posited that there wasn’t a worse exercise for writers and speakers due to it fixing “false definitions in the mind.” 

This piece prompted a letter to the editor by a reader who retorted, “I am afraid that a good many of your readers will disagree with the views expressed,” pointing out that it was generally agreed that crosswords were educational.

Crossword Puzzles: A National Menace

This animosity makes more sense when you understand the origins of crossword puzzles in America: They were popularized via the pages of the original tabloid, The New York World, the “new media” of the day. As far as the journalistic establishment was concerned, crosswords were another mindless fad used as a substitute for good editorial, to keep readers coming back. Tabloids were looked upon as trashy, childish, and plebeian. These publications were labeled the “yellow press” after one of the numerous comic strips contained within them – another childish novelty. The New York Times would refuse to publish crosswords for another two decades.

Across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom, the Times of London reported on the U.S. crossword craze with similar disdain, using an ironically tabloidesque headline “An Enslaved America.” Published in 1924, it read:

All America has succumbed to the allurements of the cross-word puzzle. In a few short weeks it has grown from the pastime of a few ingenious idlers into a national institution and almost a national menace: a menace because it is making devastating inroads on the working hours of every rank of society.

The omnipresence of crosswords in the U.S. was described in detail. This “fad” was “in trains and trams on omnibuses, in subways, in private offices and counting rooms, in factories and homes, and even — though as yet rarely — with hymnals for camouflage, in church.” Along with other modern trends, the crossword had supposedly “dealt the final blow to the art of conversations.”

Crossword Puzzles: An Invasive Weed

In its estimate, over ten million people spent half an hour each day working out the puzzles when they should be working, noting “this loss to productive activity of far more time than is lost by labor strikes.” It even compared them to an invasive weed, stating “The cross-word puzzle threatens to be the wild hyacinth of American industry.” 

Judging by reports at the time, this proverbial “wild hyacinth” had invaded the UK by the following year, when reports of Queen Mary — wife of King George V — taking up the pastime appeared. Headmasters scorned them as the “the laziest occupation” and an “unsociable habit.” One British wife took her husband to court for staying in bed until 11 am doing crosswords. Public libraries fought a “war on crosswords” by blotting out the games in their freely available newspapers and limiting access to dictionaries within reading rooms.

Credit: Newspapers.com

An essay from the UK titled “In Abuse of the Cross-Word Puzzle” exonerated radio and the BBC as the reason for a dip in book sales, pointing to crosswords as the real culprit. The writer pointed out that early adopters of golf and bridge were abused for their frivolity but now appeared intellectual giants “in this era of puzzles!” The piece also reminded readers that – “Incredible though it may seem” – novel reading was once scorned by parents. Crossword puzzles (and jigsaws) lacked the benefits of previous amusements according to the author: “Was any age ever given over to such stultifying pastimes or labeled with signs of such mental degradation?” 

Credit: New York Times Machine

Less than five years after it derided them, the Times of London would give in and print its first crossword puzzle.

A Mental Illness Called “Crossword Puzzleitis”

Back in the U.S., the crossword puzzle habit was being pathologized and medicalized, the term “crossword puzzleitis” was coined — likely in jest — but it would eventually get attention from medical authorities and physicians. One doctor concluded “crossword puzzleitis” “stole” the memories of his patient​. “Crossword insomnia” was another phenomenon reported, akin to late-night smartphone fiddling, some optometrists claimed the habit caused headaches and weakened eyesight.

Credit: Newspapers.com

Magistrates lambasted  court attendants, policemen, lawyers, and their clients for “clogging up the wheels of justice” by pondering over the puzzles. Academics made similar complaints about their students, and the University of Michigan instituted an outright ban in lecture halls.

Credit: Newspapers.com

Crosswords, the Cause of All Societal Problems

Crosswords were cited as a reason for divorce in more than one case, receiving widespread press attention, including from the New York Times, which ran the headline “Crossword Mania Breaks Up Homes.” Other papers published amusing cartoons featuring weeping grooms and puzzle-engrossed brides.

Credit: Newspapers.com

American libraries had the same complaints as British ones in regard to their effect on library habits, and when the U.S. district attorney was two hours late to a speaking engagement, he blamed a crossword puzzle that he started on the train ride. Physical assault and even murder-suicide were blamed on the crossword puzzle too.

Credit: Newspapers.com

Ironically, many of these sensationalist reports appeared in the very papers printing them, sometimes right next to the crosswords themselves.

Credit: Newspapers.com

Newspaper editors defended them, insisting they were beneficial, but it was unconvincing since they were financially benefiting from the craze. Eventually the New York Times relented, as the U.S. entered World War II — editors decided people needed a distraction and escape. The Gray Lady printed its first in February 1942, and it would become the most famous and coveted crossword in the world.

Welcome, Wordle

A century later, word game manias are still happening. Scrabble saw a renaissance on the web and then mobile via Words with Friends in the 2010s. 2022 saw the indomitable rise of Wordle — a familiar madness — first gaining mainstream coverage in the New York Times. It was praised as free from the pressures of the hyper-capitalist attention economy. Its constraint of one game per day was held up as enforced digital moderation, ignoring its Pavlovian-esque nature. It was supposedly fun for the sake of fun, not profit and attention. 

Then on January 31st 2022, the New York Times announced they had bought Wordle for a figure in the “low seven figures” from its creator, promising to keep it free “initially.” Regarding the acquisition, the Times called games an “essential part of its strategy” to increase subscriptions: fun and moreish brain teasers to make the New York Times a part of one’s daily routine, just like the New York World did almost a century ago.

The following article is syndicated from a 2022 BigThink.com article we wrote inspired by the New York Times acquisition of Wordle. It was republished at Pessimists Archive on 6/10/2024.

Axios | LGBT

Study: Same-Sex Marriage in 20 Years Had No Negative Effects on Marriage Rates

“A review of nearly 100 studies examining the consequences of same-sex marriage on multiple measures of family formation and well-being found no harm to different-sex unions, a report from RAND and UCLA found.

The analysis found that after states legalized marriage for same-sex couples, marriage numbers jumped in those states at rates greater than what could be accounted for by the new marriages of same-sex couples alone. Researchers found no consistent evidence of an increase in divorce as a consequence of legalizing marriage for same-sex couples. The analysis suggests that issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples had, if anything, led to a small positive impact on marriage attitudes among high school seniors.”

From Axios.

Curiosities | Science & Technology

I Deployed a Fleet of Lawn Robots to Save More than 65 Hours of Work

“One of my favorite parts of winter changing to spring is when the grass begins to grow and it’s time for the first cut of the season. However, when it takes about two and a half hours to mow all of my lawn, it quickly becomes a big time drain with a busy family. But when I tested my first robot lawn mower, the Husqvarna Automower 430XH, nearly two years ago — I gained the power to control time.

OK, I don’t really control time, but the robot lawn mower takes on one of my biggest weekly chores and gives my family and me more time together. While the Husqvarna Automower 430XH opened my eyes to what a robot mower can offer in terms of getting time back, I’ve since tested more advanced autonomous models.

The result? A beautifully manicured — not just cut — lawn and even more time to spend on summer fun. With important new features such as GPS guidance.”

From CNET

Curiosities | Happiness & Satisfaction

How Much Happiness Can Money Buy? Researchers Can’t Agree

“Once your income hits $75,000, have you hit the peak salary for happiness?

Not quite.

The oft-cited $75,000 figure—now about $110,000 in today’s dollars—comes from a 2010 study by two Nobel laureates that made the crossover from academia to personal-finance meme. More recent research suggests that there may be no household income at which happiness peaks, and that our money might influence our emotions well beyond that threshold…

Much of the current thinking on this debate can’t be summed up in a single number, but rather 10 words: Money buys happiness. With diminishing returns. And no magic number.”

From Wall Street Journal.