What it feels like to lose a family court relocation case

“I was forced to raise my kids in Texas for 14 years” (NY Post) is an interesting piece regarding how it feels to come out of a garden-variety U.S. family court lawsuit.

The husband and wife both want to get rid of each other, but are trying to be strategic about it (and certainly neither of them seems to care about the kids!). The wife is unwise enough to agree to move to Texas where divorce is not a terrifying prospect for the loser parent. Child support is capped and, by statute, the loser parent can take care of the kids up to 43 percent time, including a 30-day summer vacation. Alimony is capped and generally disfavored. The husband figures this out and sues her in Texas before they end up in some jurisdiction that is less favorable to the “breadwinner parent”.

The mom/author becomes the winner parent, but experiences the win as a loss because the husband won’t agree to let her move with her winnings (the kids) to New York or Boston (the author doesn’t mention it, but if she had moved and the husband ever moved out of Texas, she might have been able to collect 5-10X as much in child support cash; see “Relocation and Venue Litigation”).

The author forgives herself for her role in breaking up the kids’ home:

I was afraid to tell my daughters about the divorce, and I delayed the conversation. Finally, one day when they were playing catch, I told them that sometimes parents live in two different houses and that is what we would be doing and everything else would be the same. They said OK and asked if they could go back to playing catch. I realized at that moment that if I could, in fact, keep everything else the same, or close to it, their lives would be as good as any other kid’s.

This perspective is not supported by the research psychology literature, but Americans have convinced themselves of it. (some references) The “single parent” believes that she will be a role model for the girls:

In Texas, I raised my children and myself, I like to say. Being stuck first in a bad lonely marriage and then held by law in a bad lonely place turned me to steel. For 14 years, I believed that I could withstand any assault and resist weakness of any kind. I could do anything, say anything, fight for anything. I was independence personified, a show of strength that my daughters could rely upon and emulate.

This is true, statistically and anecdotally. The researchers say that children of single parents are more likely to become single parents. The lawyers say that daughters of moms who collect child support are more likely to become child support plaintiffs.

The kids’ inheritance and college funds are diverted to the lawyers:

Although our divorce was finalized in 2003, for a stretch of years after that, there were additional lawsuits over custody and visitation rights, one after another.

Not having read the Nurture Assumption, she believes that her 14 years of litigation and living where she didn’t want to live have influenced how the kids turned out:

[the now-adult daughters] are remarkable people, something I knew from the start and fought to preserve. I am proud of the fight.

Maybe this article will inspire married folks to talk to a divorce litigator at the proposed destination before they move to a new state?

Related:

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

Window into the costs of family court litigation

“Mel Gibson’s ex sued for $ 108K over child support fight” (Page Six) provides an interesting window into just how much Americans spend on transaction costs in family court:

Court documents obtained by The Blast reveal the forensic accounting firm that Grigorieva, 47, hired to investigate baby daddy Mel Gibson’s finances in her child support fight, is suing the singer for $ 108,000 for unpaid fees.

Grigorieva hired White, Zuckerman, Warsavsky, Luna & Hunt following her 2015 bankruptcy filing, and the company claims they aided Grigorieva in getting her child support payments increased to $ 22,500 per month for daughter Lucia.

In their filing, the firm noted that Gibson, 61, paid the bulk of their charges with the exception of the unpaid balance of $ 108,887.24.

I.e., the accounting fees were in excess of $ 218,000 for this child support modification action (Gibson paid at least 50 percent if it was “the bulk of the charges”). Just imagine the legal fees!

Note that, despite the fees, litigation should have been a rational strategy for the plaintiff. Her daughter is now yielding tax-free revenue of $ 270,000 per year. That’s nearly $ 5 million over the 18 years during which a child can yield a profit under California family law. Legal and expert fees might be pretty close to the $ 5 million number, but her defendant will pay most of them.

[The defendant in this case is famous, which is why the lawsuit is in the news, but this scale of fees is consistent with what is spent when ordinary high-income Americans are sued.]

Young readers: Remember that going to accounting school doesn’t mean being stuck filing 1040 returns!

Related:

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

A Massachusetts family…

Christmas Eve and time to gather the extended family. From a Massachusetts case titled “Adoption of Paula”:

The mother and the father met in January, 1981, and commenced living together shortly thereafter. In addition to the parents, the household included the father’s father, his two children by his first marriage (Robert and Belinda) and Paula, the mother’s eldest daughter. The parents had five daughters in rapid succession, the first of whom, Phyllis, was born on October 11, 1981. They married in 1984.

Both parents were episodic users of drugs and chronic abusers of alcohol during their marriage. The parents’ relationship was characterized by a high level of conflict. The father physically abused the mother. He also hit the children, focusing this violence in particular on Paula, who was not his daughter. The mother was aware of his treatment of the children. After confrontations with her husband, the mother would “run” from the household. She would be absent for periods ranging from a few days to several weeks at a time. At first, she took the children with her. When the number of children increased, she would leave them behind. The care of the younger children was often delegated to Robert and Belinda, especially when the mother left the home.

Dangerous weapons were openly displayed in the home. In addition, a number of transient people, many of them adolescents drawn by the availability of drugs and alcohol, frequented the home. Some of these people also acted as caretakers for the children.

After the mother left the marital home, she became involved with a man and became pregnant by him (with Elizabeth). This man died of an overdose of heroin in July, 1989. When Elizabeth, born on March 9, 1990, was an infant, the mother participated in a residential drug treatment program at the Medford Family Life Education Center. She was terminated from the program almost immediately for violation of the program’s rules. She spent nights drinking with a new boy friend, attempted to bring alcohol into the shelter, and left Elizabeth with other program residents for extended periods of time.

At the time of trial, the mother had been living with Gerald, the father of her son, James, born on July 16, 1991, and had named him as a potential caretaker of her daughters. There were allegations that Gerald had physically abused his children by other women, and had the potential to repeat this violent behavior and that the children, with the exception of Phyllis, regarded him with reservations as a caretaker. Several people had observed episodes of his inappropriate physical contact with some of the children, and in particular with Phyllis, whose sexualized behavior placed her at high risk.

The father has remarried and at the time of trial, had three additional children by his new wife. He testified that he was not seeking custody of his children (Phyllis, Jennifer, Susan, Kimberly, and Diane), but took the position they should be returned to their mother’s custody.

That’s 13 kids total. Wouldn’t it be interesting to follow up with these children and see what kind of adults they’ve become?

Happy Christmas Eve to everyone and I hope that your dinner table is surrounded by less fractious family members than the above.

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

Eventually a society comes to resemble its family court?

Our media is full of reports of who was victimized by whom, e.g., through being touched in some way or because X had sex with Y without informing Z (see Jurvetson). These kinds of reports were previously easy to find by walking down to the local family court and looking at the files or sitting in on a hearing or trial. Claims of abuse are pretty much standard in any kind of divorce litigation despite the apparent irrelevance to the subject matter (who will have to pay how much to whom).

A friend sent me this story about Roy Moore representing a grandmother in a 1991 custody lawsuit against a mother. The mom who was on the losing end of the lawsuit has now come forward to allege that her butt was grabbed by Moore. Thus we the public are now asked to evaluate the kind of claim that formerly only family court judges had to hear.

I’m wondering if a society will come to resemble its family court, maybe with a 20- or 30-year lag. The European countries generally have low cash stakes in their family courts (e.g., having sex with a dermatologist will not yield the spending power of a dermatologist). Are Europeans less interested in hearing about X grabbing Y’s butt 25 years ago?

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

Idea for a TV show: Saudi Royal Family

The Saudi royal family has been in the news lately (example). The Turkish TV show The Magnificent Century (about the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century) has proved popular on Netflix and around the world (and, as a bonus, was produced without a lot of Hollywood folks having sex with each other and then litigating afterwards). A lot of the drama in the Ottoman Empire was driven by competition among members of the royal family and nobility. Saudi Arabia is one of the few modern governments that has a similar family dynamic.

Why not a TV series about the modern-day Saudi royal family and its intrigues?

Related:

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

Family dynamics of the luxury cruise

Last year Mom and I were cruising on Royal Caribbean, whose slogan could reasonably be “cheaper than staying home and a lot more organized.” This year it was Crystal from Lisbon to the Azores, Madeira, Canary Islands, Morocco, and back to Lisbon. Crystal Cruises is a higher-end operation, about $ 1,000 per day for two people in a balcony room, and therefore attracts a wealthier demographic.

Median age of a passenger was probably close to 70 years and median wealth was “sufficient to blow $ 20k+ for a little over two weeks, including airfare and maybe some hotel stays on either end.”

A common concern and source of disappointment for many of these financially successful 70-year-olds was the comparatively unsuccessful trajectories of now-adult children. The Son Also Rises: economics history with everyday applications says that we should expect a lot of correlation in success through multiple generations of a family, but the statistical phenomenon of regression to the mean is not revoked. So if the Crystal passenger had been the most successful member of his or her family, Gregory Clark’s research suggests a significant probability that the children of that passenger would achieve at closer to the mean level for the extended family. The still-married-to-their-original-sweethearts parents also fretted about how their children hadn’t been able to replicate that stability. The explanation for the divorce lawsuits and children raised by just one parent was generally a change in character quality. Young people had inferior characters compared to old people. Nobody mentioned the updates to U.S. family law as a possible reason why a 50-year-old American’s domestic life might have unfolded very differently from that of the 80-year-old parents. The mother of a physician, for example, talked about how a young woman had lied about being on birth control and was now harvesting child support from her son. She never looked at the question of whether or not the 1990 child support guidelines made this a rational economic strategy. Although both she and her son live in a state that provides for potentially infinite child support revenue, the choice of becoming a child support profiteer was seen as a sign of bad character, not evidence of economic rationality.

Most of the passengers were organized into apparently heterosexual cisgender couples. There was a bimodal distribution in age gap among the couples. The first marriages typically involved a gap of less than 5 years. For those men against whom a divorce lawsuit had been filed, the second marriage seemed to be to a woman roughly 10 years younger. “The wives are a lot better looking than the husbands,” said one first-time Crystal passenger.

The ship advertised an LGBT gathering one afternoon and it turned out to be 7 men with an average age of about 55 and all but one traveling in a couple. Our host was the cruise director, a former onboard dancer who had worked his way up in the Crystal career ladder. Readers will be proud of me, I hope, for refraining from pointing out the cruise line’s failure to welcome the transgendered with “all gender restroom” signs” (the public restrooms on the ship were divided simply into “men” and “women”).

[Are you skeptical that I would fit in at an LGBT event? Keep in mind that I was traveling with my mother, listening to Broadway show tunes every night, and looking forward to an Elton John tribute concert on the last night of the cruise.]

I also attended a semi-official “singles” gathering. Nine people showed up, all women. How did they get to be “single”? Most had been successful divorce plaintiffs 10-15 years earlier, which led one passenger to quip “That’s how they’re able to afford Crystal.” This was only partially correct. These plaintiffs had obtained alimony and/or child support orders sufficient to provide them with a luxury lifestyle at the time of their original lawsuit. However, their revenue from the discarded husband had not been adjusted to compensate for inflation in the price of comfortable downtown hotel rooms, three-star restaurants, etc. Therefore their alimony checks were not sufficient to fund a truly luxurious lifestyle by today’s standard. They had thus sought to supplement their alimony and/or child support profits by tapping into the spending power of rich boyfriends. Unfortunately, the guys who met their minimum income and wealth requirements were apparently falling short in terms of personality and age. Thus the singles gathering ended up being a round-table discussion of the shortcomings of these men and why the most recent romance had fizzled.

Not all of the single females on the ship had gained wealth through divorce. One lady of about 60 had been the higher-earning spouse. She got sued by her husband and had been paying him alimony. She was not looking for a new mate. Another had earned her fortune by founding and managing a couple of matchmaking services. The latest has men as the only paying clients because “women are too emotional; they complain that ‘I didn’t pay you to get rejected’ after unsuccessful dates.”

One of the more amusing conversations was between the expert matchmaker and a 40-something career woman who asked “Aren’t men looking for their intellectual equals?” and “Wouldn’t these successful men rather have a somewhat older woman with an education and a successful career than a younger woman with nothing but looks?” The answer was that her clients were essentially indifferent to a woman’s educational and career attainment; they wanted beauty and an agreeable personality. “The more successful the woman the harder it is to find a match for her,” said the expert. “There must be some guys out there who aren’t that shallow,” said the career gal. Of course that was my chance to interject “I haven’t met one.”

[I asked how it was possible to operate a matchmaking operation for truly affluent men. Instead of incurring the risk of not getting picked for a marriage and walking away with nothing, why wouldn’t some women try to get pregnant on the first date and then harvest child support? The matchmaker was intimately familiar with California family law, its unlimited child support guidelines, and the challenge of reaching the 10-year marriage bar in order to collect alimony: “That’s why all of the women dating or married to Hollywood stars try to get pregnant as soon as possible.” Her staff tries to screen out women with mercenary motives via interviews and research into the family background. The goal is to find women who want to get married and stay married, but certainly some of the women labeled “family-oriented” by the professionals have turned out to be more cash- and litigation-oriented. The service guarantees introductions, not a litigation-free long run.]

The worlds of business and real estate have so much volatility that they generate a lot of rich old guys and there were a handful of three-generation groups on the ship, each one funded by a patriarch. The adult children couldn’t imagine being richer than their parents and a few of them, after seeing me and my 83-year-old mother together, said “it is so nice of your mom to take you on this trip” (i.e., they assumed that mom was funding our adventure).

[Separately, you might ask if the extra cost for Crystal is worth it compared to Royal Caribbean. The Indonesian-owned and LA-managed (through this month by CEO Edie Rodriguez; going forward by Tom Wolber) Crystal is an impressive operation, but so is Royal Caribbean. For me the main difference is that Royal Caribbean is like a floating city while Crystal is a small town. On the 2,500-passenger Serenade of the Seas we would run into people we knew a few times per day, but we were typically surrounded by strangers. On the 900-passenger Crystal Symphony we were almost always in a room with someone we’d met before.]

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

Don’t marry a partner from a lower-class family if you want to avoid a custody dispute (unless you’re also lower class!)

At the International Conference on Shared Parenting 2017, researchers noted that at least some of what drove custody was differences in what people believed was the norm: “What do sisters, brothers, and friends say?” Marriages that mixed partners from different social classes tended to result in the most intense litigation: “People from lower social class families are more accustomed to single moms. So if you have a mom who was herself raised by a white trash single mom and a dad who grew up middle class raised by two parents, they’re never going to agree on whether shared parenting is good for the kids.”

Related:

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

German family law, shared parenting, and conflict with European and UN law

North Americans at the International Conference on Shared Parenting 2017 tended to be sentimental. Presenters sometimes showed maudlin videos of fathers playing with kids. Therapists and psychologists would talk about the complex emotions that centered around a desire to win sole custody of kids, never mentioning that being the winner parent was more profitable than being a shared parent (see an example from our Massachusetts chapter:

if each parent earns $ 125,000 per year, for example, child support would be $ 0 in a 50/50 arrangement, $ 10,000 per year in a 60/40 arrangement. $ 20,000 per year in a 67/33 custody arrangement, and $ 30,000 per year or more in a 100/0 arrangement (discretionary with the judge). Over a 23-year period, therefore, the parent who earns $ 125,000 per year and has roughly the same expenses (a dedicated bedroom) regardless of the timeshare can collect anywhere between $ 0 and $ 690,000 tax-free depending on the outcome of the custody fight

).

Into this Kumbaya-singing party walked Professor Dr. Hildegund Sünderhauf, a researcher from Nuremberg: “I used to be a divorce litigator, but I didn’t want to be a rental weapon against the other parent.” She explained that she’d been kicked out of the German Association of Women Lawyers due to her work on shared parenting. Why didn’t they like it? “The aim of the women’s movement has shifted from equality to mothers as owners of children getting paid as much as possible for the purpose of enjoying their freedom.” (see the feminism section of the Rationale chapter for a North American view)

Prof. Dr. Sünderhauf gave us some statistics: 91 percent of Germany’s “single parents” are women. 95 percent of separated German parents share legal custody while about 15 percent of them have a 50/50 care arrangement for children, “a big shift” from just a few years ago. (see our interview with a German litigator) As in a lot of U.S. states, German mothers can block shared parenting and win primary parent status by asserting the existing of conflict. Simply appearing in court without a packaged settlement shows a judge that there is conflict and that shared parenting could therefore be inappropriate.

Prof. Dr. Sünderhauf noted that the “mom wins” aspect of German law is now likely in conflict with EU law, notably the European Convention on Human Rights, articles 8, 14 (see also Protocol 7, Article 5, in which “Spouses shall enjoy equality of rights and responsibilities … in their relations with their children, as to marriage, during marriage and in the event of its dissolution”). The “unless she is too busy smoking crack, it is always in the best interests of children to be with mom” practical outcomes of German courts is in conflict with the Council of Europe Resolution 2079, which made a non-binding recommendation that a “shared residence principle” be adopted by EU states. (In the meantime, what happens to the child of a divorce or separation will be completely different from one EU country to another, but purportedly the child and the parents have the same “rights” in all of these places. Is the EU diluting the term “right” to the point that it is meaningless?)

At a coffee break I asked Prof. Dr. Sünderhauf if Germans could actually be motivated by the cash, given that the numbers were so small compared to most U.S. states’ guidelines. It wasn’t possible to become a middle-income spender by having sex with a high-income earner, as would be straightforward in many U.S. states, was it? (In retrospect, this was a dumb question because the research on Danish men and women shows dramatic responses to child support orders that are similar in financial scale to Germany’s.) She pointed out that wage incomes are a lot lower in Germany than in the U.S. (countries ranked by GDP per capita). When you consider child support from the father plus subsidies for single moms and parents in general from the state, that wage income is taxed, that child support and the various subsidies are tax-free, and that it is possible for a woman to run a portfolio of cash-yielding children (rather than just one), the possibility of collecting maximum dollars through the family law system begins to look more exciting.

[Of course, if Germans were exclusively motivated by cash and fully aware of U.S. law, you’d expect them to fly over to Boston, New York, and Los Angeles to get pregnant with American co-parents and then return to Germany to collect at U.S. rates. (see the “American Child Support Profits Without an American Child” section of “Child Support Litigation without a Marriage”).]

It will be interesting to see how the Europeans resolve these conflicts. In the U.S., the Supreme Court has ruled that states can dispose of children, defendant spouses, etc. more or less as they wish. A child who loses a parent hasn’t been deprived of a “right” under federal law or the Constitution. A parent who loses 110 percent of income to child support and/or alimony can borrow from a relative or go to prison. Even if it turns out that 100 percent of a state happen in this situation happen to be of one gender, law professors say that isn’t a problem under federal law. But the Europeans can’t seem to resist making grand and vague pronouncements that are supposed to apply to their diverse group of member states (so diverse that often parenting time outcomes are radically different from region to region within an EU country!).

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

Family law (divorce, custody, child support) summer media round-up

Barbara Whitehead’s The Divorce Culture (1996), quoted in “A Brief History of Divorce in America”:

Before the mid-1960s, divorce was viewed as a legal, family, and social event with multiple stakeholders; after that time, divorce became an individual event defined by and responsive to the interests of the individual. … divorce moves from the domain of the society and the family into the inner world of the self.

Let’s take a look at some articles readers have sent in this season and compare them against the above-noted trend.

“11 Questions to Ask Before Getting a Divorce” (nytimes). The word “children” appears twice in the article, published by a newspaper in a winner-take-all jurisdiction (see the New York chapter), and once it is in the sentence “If there are children, who will take the lead in keeping track of their activities calendar?” (not, “How will they go to college if 100 percent of the family’s savings are spent on divorce litigation?”). The paper tells adult readers that the important stuff is adult happiness and emotions: “Do you still love him or her?”; “Would you really be happier without your partner?”; “What is your biggest fear in ending the relationship?”; “Are you letting the prospect of divorce ruin your self-image?” There seems to be no question that if one adult can become happier or better off, a unilateral (initiated by one partner against the other partner’s wishes) divorce is a good idea. Part of the “better off” calculation is financial and the Times wisely advises people considering suing for divorce to meet with financial advisors and litigators, with the implication that it might make sense to stay married if divorce isn’t sufficiently lucrative.

The cash aspects of family law are buried pretty deep in the Times article. Perhaps New Yorkers aren’t mindful of the cash implications? “Hamptons bachelors are getting vasectomies so golddiggers can’t trap them” (New York Post) suggests that perhaps at least some are (maybe the Post and the Times are actually in two different cities that share a name?). Some excerpts:

“There’s a spike in single guys” who get the procedure in spring and early summer, said Dr. David Shusterman, a urologist in Midtown.

“They don’t want to be in the situation of being accused of fathering an unwanted baby,” said Dr. Joseph Alukal, a urologist at NYU. “That’s their fear — being told you’re paying for this kid until it’s [an adult].”

“This extortion happens all the time. Women come after them. [They get pregnant and] want a ransom payment,” said Shusterman. “Some guys do an analysis of the cost — for three days of discomfort [after a vasectomy], it’s worth millions of dollars to them.

“It’s not that they don’t want kids [someday],” he said. “They don’t want kids on other people’s terms.”

Manhattan matrimonial attorney Ira Garr said of such unplanned, paternity cases: “I deal with this every year. There’s potential to [have to] pay out a lot of money.”

Child support is 17 percent of the father’s salary up to $ 400,000, after which the amount is at a judge’s discretion, according to Garr. For someone who makes $ 1 million a year, Garr estimates annual payments of $ 100,000 — a total of $ 2.1 million until the child turns 21. Meanwhile, a vasectomy is typically covered by insurance or costs $ 1,000 out of pocket. [see also Burning Man: Attitudes toward marriage and children for a quote from a man who considers the internal rate of return on a vasectomy]

Here’s a detail I’m pretty sure that the New York Times won’t be covering…

She offered to dispose of the used condom, but when she was in the bathroom for a while, John got suspicious. He found the woman seated on the toilet and inserting his semen inside of her.

[One thing I learned on my most recent trip across the Atlantic: the above situation is covered in an annual lecture to schoolboys at an elite English “public school”, complete with references to caselaw in which an appeals court held that a plaintiff’s entitlement to child support was not impaired by her use of “a syringe”. (See also the Boris Becker case in our chapter on England, et al.)]

This obituary of a divorce lawsuit defendant (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) is a dog-bites-man story (see the “Children, Mothers, and Fathers” chapter for some statistics on the correlation between being an American divorce lawsuit defendant and committing suicide). Nonetheless it is interesting that a mainstream U.S. newspaper would publish it. Excerpts:

The cardiologist, researcher and educator at UPMC devoted his life to curing disease, doting on his children and making life better for those less fortunate. … After spending the first half of his life in a communist country, Dr. Nemec built what most would consider a successful life, admired by his colleagues and patients and an expert in complicated heart procedures.

But, even in the face of this happy and accomplished existence, Dr. Nemec refused to submit to what he saw as oppression and took his own life at his Swissvale home on May 8. He was 54.

Dr. Nemec’s daughter, Katerina Nemcova, 25, a psychologist from Sydney, Australia, said her father wasn’t depressed, but chose to end his life rather than pay nearly half of his annual income for spousal support as he was ordered to do in a recent divorce order.

What courts in Minnesota — where her mother filed for divorce four years ago — saw as fairness, he saw as injustice that he could not tolerate, said Ms. Nemcova, who received an email from her father on the day after he died, detailing his heartbreaking decision.

“He was always very, very anti-communist. This was definitely about his moral principles,” Ms. Nemcova said. “He thought this was a poorly designed system and just didn’t want to be a part of it and would rather give the money to a worthy cause.”

[Illustrating the critical importance of venue, note that Dr. Nemec’s plaintiff wouldn’t have suffered any financial hardship from her defendant’s suicide had she lived in Massachusetts. The family courts there would have ordered the cardiologist to purchase life insurance with his plaintiff as the beneficiary. She actually would have been better off as a result of his death because she would have gotten all of her alimony entitlement in one lump sum. Note further that Dr. Nemec would have been better off (and perhaps still married) if he had stayed in almost any European country (not the U.K., though) due to the fact that the financial incentives for divorce plaintiffs are comparatively limited there. If he had been determined to emigrate to the U.S., he would probably still be alive if he’d read Real World Divorce and settled in a state that disfavors alimony (e.g., Alaska) or simply doesn’t offer it (Indiana).]

Meanwhile, in Italy the courts have essentially done away with alimony (Business Standard; see also The Local), bringing that country into line with where Germany went in 2009 (with child support limited to less than $ 6,000 per year, the only way to make a profit from marriage in Germany is to stay married).

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

Thoughtful perspective on family matters

Woman behind counter at Blick Art Supplies in Ft. Lauderdale, when I said that I needed directions to the part of the store selling items to keep a 1.5-year-old and a 3-year-old busy:

Having children is like getting a tattoo on your face. You have to really want it because you’re going to be looking at it every day.

Louis Zamperini, in Devil at My Heels:

The mayor asked, “Did anything good come out of your two and a half years as a prisoner of war?”

“Yes,” I said. “It prepared me for fifty-three years of married life.”

Readers: What’s your best quote along these lines?

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

The role of family in a market economy

Especially during election years one angle that politicians like to work is “family.” Vote for my party and the family unit will be strengthened.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Harari) says that it is the state and market economy that are inherently the enemy of family cohesion:

Over time, states and markets used their growing power to weaken the traditional bonds of family and community. The state sent its policemen to stop family vendettas and replace them with court decisions. The market sent its hawkers to wipe out longstanding local traditions and replace them with ever-changing commercial fashions. Yet this was not enough. In order really to break the power of family and community, they needed the help of a fifth column. The state and the market approached people with an offer that could not be refused. ‘Become individuals,’ they said. ‘Marry whomever you desire, without asking permission from your parents. Take up whatever job suits you, even if community elders frown. Live wherever you wish, even if you cannot make it every week to the family dinner. You are no longer dependent on your family or your community. We, the state and the market, will take care of you instead. We will provide food, shelter, education, health, welfare and employment. We will provide pensions, insurance and protection.’ Romantic literature often presents the individual as somebody caught in a struggle against the state and the market. Nothing could be further from the truth. The state and the market are the mother and father of the individual, and the individual can survive only thanks to them. The market provides us with work, insurance and a pension. If we want to study a profession, the government’s schools are there to teach us. If we want to open a business, the bank loans us money. If we want to build a house, a construction company builds it and the bank gives us a mortgage, in some cases subsidised or insured by the state. If violence flares up, the police protect us. If we are sick for a few days, our health insurance takes care of us. If we are debilitated for months, national social services steps in. If we need around-the-clock assistance, we can go to the market and hire a nurse – usually some stranger from the other side of the world who takes care of us with the kind of devotion that we no longer expect from our own children. If we have the means, we can spend our golden years at a senior citizens’ home. The tax authorities treat us as individuals, and do not expect us to pay the neighbours’ taxes. The courts, too, see us as individuals, and never punish us for the crimes of our cousins.

The deal between states, markets and individuals is an uneasy one. The state and the market disagree about their mutual rights and obligations, and individuals complain that both demand too much and provide too little. In many cases individuals are exploited by markets, and states employ their armies, police forces and bureaucracies to persecute individuals instead of defending them. Yet it is amazing that this deal works at all – however imperfectly. For it breaches countless generations of human social arrangements. Millions of years of evolution have designed us to live and think as community members. Within a mere two centuries we have become alienated individuals. Nothing testifies better to the awesome power of culture.

The market shapes to an ever-greater degree the way people conduct their romantic and sexual lives. Whereas traditionally the family was the main matchmaker, today it’s the market that tailors our romantic and sexual preferences, and then lends a hand in providing for them – for a fat fee. Previously bride and groom met in the family living room, and money passed from the hands of one father to another. Today courting is done at bars and cafés, and money passes from the hands of lovers to waitresses. Even more money is transferred to the bank accounts of fashion designers, gym managers, dieticians, cosmeticians and plastic surgeons, who help us arrive at the café looking as similar as possible to the market’s ideal of beauty.

The state, too, keeps a sharper eye on family relations, especially between parents and children. In many countries parents are obliged to send their children to be educated in government schools, and even where private education is allowed, the state still supervises and vets the curriculum. Parents who are especially abusive or violent with their children may be restrained by the state. If need be, the state may even imprison the parents or transfer their children to foster families. Until not long ago, the suggestion that the state ought to prevent parents from beating or humiliating their children would have been rejected out of hand as ludicrous and unworkable. In most societies parental authority was sacred. Respect of and obedience to one’s parents were among the most hallowed values, and parents could do almost anything they wanted, including killing newborn babies, selling children into slavery and marrying off daughters to men more than twice their age. Today, parental authority is in full retreat. Youngsters are increasingly excused from obeying their elders, whereas parents are blamed for anything that goes wrong in the life of their child. Mum and Dad are about as likely to be found innocent in the Freudian courtroom as were defendants in a Stalinist show trial.

In the previous posting on this book I noted that the author refused to consider the possibility that there could be either a genetic or a work/effort basis for why some humans are wealthier than others. The only factor was being born into a rich versus a poor family.

This section is kind of interesting for the omission of the rise of no-fault (“unilateral”) divorce in countries around the world, nor of welfare system incentives to have children without a partner (or a job). There is no reference to statistics such as “Fewer than half of U.S. kids today live in a ‘traditional’ family” (Pew Research, 2014; noting that “Fewer than half (46%) of U.S. kids younger than 18 years of age are living in a home with two married heterosexual parents in their first marriage.”). People can disagree on what impact this is having on children but surely there must be some impact?

[Separately, the author shows a lack of acquaintance with the U.S. family law system and the U.S. welfare system. Searching for an example of an impoverished person, he uses as an example “an American single mother earning $ 12,000 a year cleaning houses.” If she got to be a single mother by having sex with a zero-income man she wouldn’t have to work because she’d be entitled to housing, health care, food, smartphone, etc. from the government (see Book Review: The Redistribution Recession). If she got to be a single mother by having sex with a high-income man (Medicaid dentist?) she wouldn’t have to work because she should be getting $ 12,000 per month from the biological father of her child (see California, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin, for example).]

Was the family all that important in the old old days? Maybe not.

some evolutionary psychologists argue that ancient foraging bands were not composed of nuclear families centred on monogamous couples. Rather, foragers lived in communes devoid of private property, monogamous relationships and even fatherhood. In such a band, a woman could have sex and form intimate bonds with several men (and women) simultaneously, and all of the band’s adults cooperated in parenting its children. Since no man knew definitively which of the children were his, men showed equal concern for all youngsters.

Such a social structure is not an Aquarian utopia. It’s well documented among animals, notably our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos. There are even a number of present-day human cultures in which collective fatherhood is practised, as for example among the Barí Indians. According to the beliefs of such societies, a child is not born from the sperm of a single man, but from the accumulation of sperm in a woman’s womb. A good mother will make a point of having sex with several different men, especially when she is pregnant, so that her child will enjoy the qualities (and paternal care) not merely of the best hunter, but also of the best storyteller, the strongest warrior and the most considerate lover. If this sounds silly, bear in mind that before the development of modern embryological studies, people had no solid evidence that babies are always sired by a single father rather than by many.

How did families get to be so big? It was the Agricultural Revolution:

With the move to permanent villages and the increase in food supply, the population began to grow. Giving up the nomadic lifestyle enabled women to have a child every year. Babies were weaned at an earlier age – they could be fed on porridge and gruel. The extra hands were sorely needed in the fields. But the extra mouths quickly wiped out the food surpluses, so even more fields had to be planted. As people began living in disease-ridden settlements, as children fed more on cereals and less on mother’s milk, and as each child competed for his or her porridge with more and more siblings, child mortality soared. In most agricultural societies at least one out of every three children died before reaching twenty.5 Yet the increase in births still outpaced the increase in deaths; humans kept having larger numbers of children. With time, the ‘wheat bargain’ became more and more burdensome. Children died in droves, and adults ate bread by the sweat of their brows. The average person in Jericho of 8500 BC lived a harder life than the average person in Jericho of 9500 BC or 13,000 BC.

How has the family changed in recent times? We have a lot more bedrooms!

Most Westerners today believe in individualism. They believe that every human is an individual, whose worth does not depend on what other people think of him or her. Each of us has within ourselves a brilliant ray of light that gives value and meaning to our lives. In modern Western schools teachers and parents tell children that if their classmates make fun of them, they should ignore it. Only they themselves, not others, know their true worth. In modern architecture, this myth leaps out of the imagination to take shape in stone and mortar. The ideal modern house is divided into many small rooms so that each child can have a private space, hidden from view, providing for maximum autonomy. This private room almost invariably has a door, and in some households it may be accepted practice for the child to close, and perhaps lock, the door. Even parents may be forbidden to enter without knocking and asking permission. The room is usually decorated as the child sees fit, with rock-star posters on the wall and dirty socks on the floor. Somebody growing up in such a space cannot help but imagine himself ‘an individual’, his true worth emanating from within rather than from without.

Medieval noblemen did not believe in individualism. Someone’s worth was determined by their place in the social hierarchy, and by what other people said about them. Being laughed at was a horrible indignity. Noblemen taught their children to protect their good name whatever the cost. Like modern individualism, the medieval value system left the imagination and was manifested in the stone of medieval castles. The castle rarely contained private rooms for children (or anyone else, for that matter). The teenage son of a medieval baron did not have a private room on the castle’s second floor, with posters of Richard the Lionheart and King Arthur on the walls and a locked door that his parents were not allowed to open. He slept alongside many other youths in a large hall. He was always on display and always had to take into account what others saw and said. Someone growing up in such conditions naturally concluded that a man’s true worth was determined by his place in the social hierarchy and by what other people said of him.

Now that Queen Hillary’s coronation is imminent, what about filling those extra bedrooms in your McMansion with refugees from impoverished and/or war-torn Muslim countries? Why might you hesitate even when your betters in Washington, D.C. tell you it is the right thing to do?

Evolution has made Homo sapiens, like other social mammals, a xenophobic creature. Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘we’ and ‘they’. We are people like you and me, who share our language, religion and customs. We are all responsible for each other, but not responsible for them. We were always distinct from them, and owe them nothing. We don’t want to see any of them in our territory, and we don’t care an iota what happens in their territory. They are barely even human. In the language of the Dinka people of the Sudan, ‘Dinka’ simply means ‘people’. People who are not Dinka are not people. The Dinka’s bitter enemies are the Nuer. What does the word Nuer mean in Nuer language? It means ‘original people’. Thousands of miles from the Sudan deserts, in the frozen ice-lands of Alaska and north-eastern Siberia, live the Yupiks. What does Yupik mean in Yupik language? It means ‘real people’.

More: Read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog

Huma Abedin, Anthony Weiner, and New York family law

I’m not sure why Anthony Weiner’s electronic persona remains front-page news, but apparently the New York Times thinks that he merits it, e.g., “Anthony Weiner’s Latest Sexting Scandal: Here’s What We Know”. This sparked a Facebook discussion about a Boston Globe Story: “Huma Abedin separating from Anthony Weiner after scandal”. Here’s what one Facebooker said about this: “I’m guessing the reason she has not left him before now is that she could end up paying alimony and child support since he has been a stay at home dad, and he could end up with most of the custody. Now with the child in one of his creepy pictures she has more leverage.”

Under New York family law, a judge would try to pick a winner parent and park the cash-yielding child with the winner for approximately 83 percent of the time. The loser parent would babysit every other weekend and pay all of the bills for both the child and the winner parent. Thus Huma Abedin would be at risk of losing one third of her after-tax income in the event that Weiner won the “I was a stay-at-home dad and want to continue to be done” argument.

I’m not sure what to make of this. Even before the latest scandal broke it didn’t seem likely that Weiner could have prevailed in the winner-take-all battle that New York law sets up for separating parents. What’s more interesting to me is that these two are apparently about the best that American society can produce, one having been elected to Congress and the other being a top aide to the spouse of the former leader. Weiner can’t find discreet sexual partners in New York City. Huma Abedin apparently can’t be involved with Islam without also being involved with supporters of jihad against the West (source).

Readers: Reading the Facebook posting above from a friend of a friend, do you think that her argument has merit? Or is it just the “two strikes you’re out rule” being applied?

Philip Greenspun’s Weblog