Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Monday, December 01, 2008

Blissful Ignorance.

Barbados and I share something very special. The country gained its independence from Britain on November 30, 1966; some 340 years after the first wave of English settlers arrived, but some 800-odd years after the first signs of human life appeared on the island in the form of Carib and Arawak Indians. My relationship with Barbados seems more prosaic: I celebrate a wedding anniversary on the same date. How fitting then, that I should fly back to Barbados on November 30, after a week during which I participated in a sister-in-law's wedding.

It's funny that the day before I had been chatting with one of my brothers-in-law and a friend of his, saying that the wedding day represents one of those points of bliss for many people--maybe the highest. My contention was that people carry their highest level of hope into that day. The cynics would say quickly, "And it's downhill full speed from then on!" We punted these ideas around for a few minutes under a poinciana tree, and my wife--armed with a not-much-used-recently tennis racket--added a few glosses. As truly independent men--not a contradiction in terms if one is married--we are very comfortable having vigorous discussions with our wives. We do beat our own drum and have our own programs.

"The Law", which could be a good name for any wife, added that there are other bliss points, that are as high but of a different kind. Now you have to understand that my wife and I are both economists. In that discipline there is a clear definition of bliss points as a bundle of consumption that marks the level when the consumer is fully satisfied, and welfare is at its maximum, we would say: on the chart it is the point Z, which marks where the consumer is indifferent between two goods. It's a bit complex as discussed in microeconomics, but I hope you get the idea.

Now, in layman's terms, we continued to discuss that the day that the first child is born is also seemingly without much dispute another bliss point--at least potentially so. Again, the cynic, never far away, might jump up and say, "And if you weren't in despair after being married, now that some brat has come along to share food and hog up your personal time, then this really is staring into the abyss." There was no wag in our midst who jumped up to say, "If you got married and the bride was pregnant, then during the honeymoon night she gave birth you would call that true bliss? I don't think so." But had he/she been there this could have been another of those economist's 'on the one hand, on the other hand' moments. On the one hand, it would be good to have gotten the childbirth thing over so fast; but on the other hand, it would have been nice to have time to get used to one headache before this new one started.

The economists amongst you may already have reached the point that I am now about to touch. The discipline of economics is often referred to as 'the dismal science', because it often contains depressing, distressing, or despondency-filled predictions. What could be more dismal than all of the predictions of financial Armageddon that economists are now putting in front of us? But the dismality is that the discipline has the notion of 'diminishing returns'. This was first coined by Thomas Malthus, one of the most pessimistic of the dismal scientists, who predicted that population growth would force incomes down to the subsistence level. In Malthusian terms, the argument was that if a fixed input is combined in production with a variable input, using a given technology, increases in the quantity of the variable input will eventually depress the productivity of the variable input. Malthus argued that decreasing productivity of labor would depress incomes. Pretty depressing as it's written, eh.

Now, where does the notion of diminishing returns take us? It implies that for a man it's better to have just one wife, or really one woman: too many of them added to the one poor bloke's household must make the feller's productivity fall, and as more women are added the fall will be faster. That's the best argument I can make against polygamy. But, it also means that the Chinese approach of having only one child may not be as draconian as some would like to argue. Sure, having more bairns around when you have a field into which you can fling them to plant corn, and wheat, and pull yoken cattle may raise output. But, even the most loving of parents knows that these offspring aren't capable of producing much for a long time; in the mean time they need feeding like starving locusts. Simply put, the man--because biologically and emotionally the woman is going to argue that she hang tight with the little mites--has to go and do all the work in the baking sun, or frozen tundra, at least for about five years after the first child is born. All he reaps, they will eat. Where is the field of dreams?

So, after several years of seeing income pushed to subsistence level, first-born bairn comes along and says, "Dad, can I help you in the field?" As the dust settles after Dad falls dead faint beside his mule, the bairn looks on doe-eyed. With the words, "Sure, Tiger," the man's world will change. He will have help, that if well trained will reduce the effort he needs to expend, though the training process can be hard and seemingly unrewarding for a long time--more sense of diminishing returns. So, assume that Dadda has first child when he is 20; add five years of feeding without added help; add two years of initial training; add another year to ensure that the new kid can work unsupervised.That makes Dadda about 28. Any of you who are sportsmen will know that this is close to what is viewed as the 'prime age' of a man (see Time article).

So, where were we? Oh, yes. Bliss. It does exist. It lasts for more than a day. It can be built upon. But, you have to steer through a lot of choppy water and rough rapids along the way. Maybe it's a good thing you don't realize this at the start. So, think hard or at least differently next time you hear the phrase, 'Where ignorance in bliss, 'tis folly to be wise.'

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