Things People Don’t Want Their Kids to Do

An obviously bored boy in a balcony box in 1948
Bert Hardy / Picture Post / Getty Images

At The Atlantic, Helaine Olen interviews philosopher Martha Nussbaum and law professor Saul Levmore about their new book, Aging Thoughtfully: Conversations About Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles, & Regret. Their conversation takes on a number of taboo financial subjects, including some real head-scratchers about wealth like how “we need to remember that not all children have rich parents.”

The burden of managing wealth can apparently inspire some salty debates. You’d think, for example, that most parents would want their kids to volunteer, but if those children historically weren’t welcome in the workplace, Nussbaum says, “their time is really at a premium.” You might like to “imagine that you’re making the world a better place” while you’re alive, Levmore says, but “in a funny way, it’s easier to do that when you’re dead.”

You could give your kid some money before you die, but then you might have to “watch your kid not go to work every day, or watch your kid misuse the money,” or watch your kid audition for opera training:

Nussbaum: Why do I give to the Lyric Opera and not so much to other opera companies? It’s mostly gratitude for the involvement and the performances that I’ve enjoyed over the years.

Levmore: I do the same, but I don’t like it. I wish they’d just raise prices. I would much prefer that they just charge the price to keep it alive and if they couldn’t afford it, then things would close down or there’d be fewer of them. But I’m sure Martha and I disagree about this.

Nussbaum: Well, I disagree because I think the art form is really wonderful and very important and right now prices are already so high that young people are discouraged. So I want, really, to lower the prices.

Levmore: Nothing stops the opera from subsidizing young people if it’s a good investment. I don’t really see why taxpayers as a whole should be supporting the opera.

Nussbaum: They do have programs, not only to include new audiences but to train young singers. But that’s one of the things the philanthropy supports. And maybe that’s not ideal, but…

Levmore: No, I don’t think it’s ideal. You know a lot of these young singers are children of wealthy people.

Nussbaum: Many trained there are not the children of wealthy people. They win a nationwide audition in which five people win out of about 10,000 that initially complete.

Levmore: You should look at the numbers of where these people come from. Most poor people are immigrant families who wouldn’t want their kids training to become opera singers. It’s not a reliable source of income.

Nussbaum: Most people don’t want their kids to do lots of things. But they do it.

Levmore: They do? Not in my family!

Nussbaum: Ha! Well, I mean, look at my daughter: She’s working for animal rights, making a very, very low income.

Levmore: Yeah, she comes from a comfortable family.

Nussbaum: But what I’m saying is that artists and singers are drawn from all walks of life. Typically, they get their start when they’re in some undergraduate program and they learn that they have this wonderful talent. And then they might come from any kind of income class.

Levmore: Well, they’re wealthy enough to go to college.

Nussbaum: But I mean the state universities.

Olen: I want to jump in—you’re never going to agree on this, right? Let’s talk about why people often give more to charity as they get older.

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