Monday, August 09, 2010

More on "America's parent trap" (and perhaps the loss of "the tender trap")

Robert J. Samuelson has an important op-ed in the Washington Post, Monday, Aug. 9, p A13, “America’s parent trap”, where he discusses frankly the issue of population replacement and a society’s future growth. The link is here. The writing is soft in tone, avoiding the stridence of the right wing’s “demographic winter” and concern about the potential racial, relgious or political implications of population especially in Europe but eventually in the US.

A look at Samuelson’s career as a journalist shows that he is persistently concerned about western societies living beyond their means. Wikipedia says that he does not vote, because he believes that would interfere with his impartiality as a journalist. That’s interesting: I would never take the “impartiality” in that direction, but I do wonder if journalists can have direct reports in the workplace (except when carefully structured), or can run for office.

The “meaning between the lines” of Samuelson’s essay is that western society has structured notions of consent and personal responsibility, while socializing care for the elderly, to the extent that many people, with some degree of cynicism, decide that they cannot take on the responsibility or particularly the “risk” (or, rather, uncertainty, not quite the same concept) of becoming parents. (There is some legitimate debate as to how much eldercare is “socialized” [with an “anti-parenting” effect] if one looks at social security has become (largely) an annuity where the “premiums” are the FICA tax and Medicare is likewise viewed as partially a Medicare savings account through the Medicare tax.)

The United States indeed maintaining a replacement rate of about 2.1 children per woman (compared to many countries in Europe (and Japan [China is its own special case]) where, despite parent-friendly policies, birth rates are still low). But 40% of the births occur outside of marriage, and more of them occur in economically challenged groups with less “individualistic” cultures.

From a practical perspective, the situation in the West can become unsustainable. Adults who never “chose” to be parents find themselves pulled “personally” into eldercare (which will overwhelm the system) and, perhaps with some increasing frequency, being confronted with “opportunities” to raise other people’s children (the “Raising Helen” and “Summerland” situations). It is certainly interesting to analyze how this intersects with the debate on gay marriage and, moreover, gay adoption or even surrogate parenting (a point that makes “natural family” or “full cradle” advocates like Allan Carlson, Paul Mero or Philip Longman wince).

Samuelson writes that public policy (or tax policy) always promotes some activity and discourages others. He plays on my “area of mutual agreement” and suggests that instead of subsidizing people’s having mortgages that they cannot afford, we provide a new child tax credit, referring (with some preparation) to Robert Stein (“Taxes and the Family” from National Affairs” (here) ), who says that policy should have a pro-family bias because parenting is “one of the most important services any American can perform.” Stein proposes a new $4000 per child tax credit that offsets both social security and regular income taxes.

Qucik Update:

I noticed one paragaph in Stein's essay that is so blunt and unmincing in words that I have to quote it in full:

"Instead, those seeking to restore the incentives for producing new generations of Americans should push to reduce taxes on families with children. Such a reform would offset the negative bias imposed by the public retirement system. It would also communicate to Americans that people living in societies with public retirement systems must meet two obligations in order to sustain those systems: first, work and pay taxes to support the previous generation; second, raise children to support today's workers when they retire. Those who do not raise children are, in effect, enjoying a partial free ride at the expense of those who do. (Emphasis added.) The next great tax reform should thus begin by cutting taxes for parents."

Again, though, social security is an annuity for one's own retirement; it's not a subsidy to parents!

I did place this comment on the article at the Washington Post site:

Right, our "ground rules" on personal responsibility and having children -- and eldercare -- are shifting. I wrote a post this morning on yours and Stein's piece here (this url) Stein doesn't mince words, effectively calling the childless freeloaders. Elinor Burkett had written a book about this "The Baby Boon" back in 2000; also check Philip Longman's "The Empty Cradle" and Allan Carlson's "The Natural Family: A Manifesto" on Amazon. How does this debate intersect with the gay marriage issue?

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