No Exit — What Parents Owe Their Children and What Society Owes Parents

by Harry on July 7, 2004

Anne Alstott, co-author of The Stakeholder Society, has just published another book called No Exit: What Parents Owe Their Children and What Society Owes Parents. The theme is one we’ve explored here before: what should the state do for people who decide to have and raise children? It’s a tremendously good book, written in a wonderfully accessible style, and very affordable for an academic hardback.

At the core of Alstott’s book is a proposal for a ‘caregiver’s allowance’ of $5000 a year, to be provided by the Federal government to the primary care-giving parent. The allowance would be a kind of voucher; the caregiver could use it for any of three purposes: paying for daycare while she goes out to work; supplementing her retirement savings, or investing in her own education. The grant would be paid to the parent annually until her last child turned 13, and would be save-able; if the parent wanted, for example, to save it during the toddler years and then spend it on full time education as soon as the last child started school, she’d be entitled to do that.

The book consists of an elaborate defence of this proposal (and another, supplementary, mechanism effectively insuring against the child having a chronic illness).

[What follows is basically a review of the book, timed to coincide with Laura at Apt 11D’s review so make sure you read her’s too. The Boston Review a while back carried an article based on the book which is still online.]

The defence consists of a moral case that the state should do something for parents; a conjectural case that the caregiver allowance, though imperfect, will have the kinds of effects the moral case calls for, and a case against 2 kinds of alternative measure: the standard mix of means tested benefits and regressive tax deductions the US currently uses; and mandatory workplace-based ‘family friendly’ policies.

What is the case for the State doing something for the primary caretaking parent? First, note that unlike standard child-friendly benefits like tax deductions and the Family Allowances in Europe (on which more later), the caregivers allowance is not aimed at the child. The standard family benefit targets the child but does so through the parent because the parent has de jure authority over, and shares her life with, the child. But Alstott’s proposal is grounded in the idea that parents, when they become parents, bear a certain kind of cost for which they should, themselves, be compensated.

The core moral idea is that parenthood is a lifelong commitment; a commitment from which, uniquely in our society, we are bound for life, regardless of any subsequent change of mind/circumstance. In this it is unlike our choice of job, friends, spouse, all of whom we are legally permitted to ditch, and ditching whom tends to incur little social disapproval. Whereas you can give up a baby for adoption at childbirth, continuity of care is (rightly, in Alstott’s view) regarded as so important that society has a variety of legal and social measures that enforce it.

Parents tend to distribute care between them, and the tendency is for the burden to fall primarily on one parent (genuinely equal-split parenting is rare), usually the mother. But along with the position of primary carer comes a range of disadvantages. The primary carer is, perforce, less available for paid work in the external labour market. She is also, by reducing her workforce participation (and unlike her husband), failing to enhance her future earning potential, and as well as diminishing her retirement income. This would matter less if she was not simultaneously facing a very high probability (something like 50%) of future divorce, in an environment in which the earning power accumulated during a marriage is not regarded as community property. The primary parental carer puts herself at a major disadvantage relative to both the non-parents and non-primary-caring parents by adopting a position from which she cannot extricate herself. Something should therefore be done to ameliorate the costs she incurs.

For those unfamiliar with the US tax code, it has three main measures designed to support child-rearers. First there is the small exemption for a dependent. This was $3050 for 2003, meaning that for earners in the top tax bracket it amounted to approximately $1300 per child (assuming a top rate of 43% Fed and State income taxes combined). A second measure is the deduction for daycare expenses of $5000 per child per year, which amounts to approximately $2100 per child for high rate taxpayers (some deductions phase out for very high earners, and I don’t know if this is one, but I do know that none of them phase out till gross household income is well over $100k.) Finally, there is the Earned Income Tax Credit (a negative income tax). The maximum credit is $2,547 for persons with one qualifying child, and $4,204 for persons with two or more qualifying children. But to qualify, a single parent has to earn no more than $33,692 ($34,692 for a married couple).

The problem with the deductions, obviously, is that they are highly regressive—the more you earn the more they are worth. And the problem with the childcare deduction and (in effect) the EIC is that they reward parents who choose to take paid work over those who would want to stay at home and provide care for their children themselves. But sometimes it is more efficient (in a number of senses) for parents to stay home and care for their young children, and those who do so more vulnerable, other things being equal, than those who don’t. Finally, even the EIC is ungenerous in the extreme—it would not, for example, pay for more than half-day day care even in the least expensive available options. (As a wage subsidy, furthermore, it’s not even clear how much of it actually benefits the recipient, and how much it accrues to the low-wage paying employer).

The allowance Alstott proposes is, by contrast, generous enough to pay for something close to full-time daycare (except in the most expensive areas in the US), is highly progressive (because it makes a much larger proportional contribution to the budget of a poor than to that of a rich family); does not skew the caregiver’s choice toward paid employment (because you get it whether you go out to work or stay home with the kids); and is targeted to reduce the long term risk to the primary caregiver of taking that role. If, like me, you think that there is something to be said for parents staying home with young children, this is a plus. Even if you don’t, but think that child-targetted subsidies should not be tied to paid employment, it is still a plus.

Against mandating family-friendly policies in the workplace she argues that they introduce all sorts of perverse incentives for employers, and, of course, require employment for the recipient, and risk economic efficiency. Her proposal has none of these drawbacks.

The first thing to say about the proposal itself is that it does not promise to do anything to undermine the gendered division of labour. Some feminists (like Susan Okin) argue of equal-split parenting, as an alternative to mother-centered parenting. Alstott dismisses this as unfeasible, rather than as undesirable. (See Dick Arneson’s objections to equal-split here). But her proposal also does not actually promote the gendered division of labour—it does not, in itself, stand in the way of cultural movement away from the so-called traditional division. It is a freedom-enhancing proposal, relative to the existing arrangements.

The second thing to note about the proposal is that it’s not clear how revolutionary it is, outside the United States. European welfare states tend to eschew means-tested benefits (and reverse means-tested benefits, which is what the tax deductions amount to), for universal cash payments. I did a quick back of the envelope calculation concerning the UK’s Child Benefit, and it compares pretty well with Alstott’s proposal. Someone who has 2 kids, 2 years apart, will get a total of about 26k sterling ($40k) over the next 18 years in the UK, rather than 75k over the next 15 years on Alstott’s US based scheme. For people with just one kid, or kids substantially further apart, it’s a bigger difference (and for people with more kids closer together Child Benefit is bigger). Now, Alstott’s scheme is technically more restrictive: it demands that you spend the money on doing something to enhance your future income prospects. And it is targeted (in intention) toward the carer herself not the child for whom she is caring. But in practice it is really hard to distinguish from the European style-schemes, especially if people can borrow against the future income, in which case they can effectively convert the voucher into current consumption.

This connects with the objection that it will be impossible to restrict the schemes use to future-income-enhancement. Alstott is right to acknowledge that this will be difficult. But it is not clear to me why she is even so worried about restricting use of the funds this way. Yes, that’s the aim of the program. But why should the state expend lots of energy (and licensing activity) to ensure that it is actually spent that way? Its pretty clear you can’t – not only, as she herself points out, is it hard to distinguish between prospective-income enhancing programs and fun programs, but what is frivolous fun for one person is income enhancing for another. Are German classes for business, or for dating, or for seeing good movies without subtitles? Is cooking for employment or for eating well? Even keep-fit classes have more than one aim: being thin and good-looking helps you get a higher paying job; having the energy that comes from fitness makes you more productive)). It seems to me that variability of use is a reasonable cost of a program that has the desired level of flexibility.

I’m very well-disposed toward the proposal in the US; I share Alstott’s hostility to tax-deductions, and her skepticism about mandating workplace benefits; and I like the open character of the scheme, even though I don’t see it being quite as revolutionary as it might at first appear. I am much more skeptical, though, about her more fundamental argument for the state doing something-like-this for parents. This is because I don’t see the choice to become a parent—or even to become the primary caregiver for a child—as a restriction on one’s autonomy—or perhaps, to put it better, as a restriction on one’s autonomy that the state should compensate for.

Lifelong caring commitments, if voluntarily entered into, can be expressions of, rather than restrictions on, autonomy – any other view presupposes a kind of frivolous conception of autonomy. Abortion and contraception are widely available in the US, as is adequate information about where babies come from. So is information about the legal and socially-encouraged role o the parent. Maybe some very young adults haven’t got a clue what they are getting into, but the median age of first childbirth in the US is well into the twenties, and most people who have children know what they are doing. For a choice to count as autonomous, or as something we should be held responsible for, it does not have to be fully informed; the person making it just has to be the kind of person it is reasonable to hold responsible for their choices, and the choice in question must be made under certain favorable conditions. These conditions typically hold for adult child-bearers. Furthermore, parents get something that non-parents don’t get – a loving intimate relationship of a certain kind which makes a distinctive contribution to their flourishing for which nothing else could substitute. And the primary caregiver enjoys a particularly close relationship with the child in its youngest stages which is, in favourable conditions at least, potentially extremely rewarding. So I’m not persuaded that there really is a loss of autonomy involved, or if there is it is not one which grounds a claim on the rest of us, as it is just of a kind with other autonomy losses consequent on voluntary choices. So I think that what Alstott calls the ‘libertarian’ objection gets much more grip than she treats it as having. The libertarian objection simply takes the institutional status quo as authoritative, and says ‘Look, you know what the circumstances are, or you should know, and if you make this choice in these circumstances, you’re on your own; why should other people have to help you out?’ Understanding the situation of the primary caretaker as one of diminished freedom or autonomy simply concedes to the basic thrust of this argument; and once it is pointed out that the parent is not lacking in autonomy, there are no further resources to respond to it.

I am more moved by a quite different, and much more openly perfectionist, kind of argument for subsidizing primary caregivers, which I can only sketch here. It is grounded in the idea that the structure of social institutions unnecessarily and contingently penalizes the primary caretaker and makes it the case that she/he faces ongoing disadvantages relative to her spouse (and relative to other non-primary caregivers). There is simply no reason to take the institutional status quo as authoritative. The idea is that we want to set things up so that primary caretaking does not have a set of costs attached to it such that one who takes it up is massively disadvantaged within the marriage and if the marriage ends. Why? First, we think that primary care-giving for children is a good thing to do. It is not just one choice among others, but something which has distinctive and intrinsic value, and should be socially validated and encouraged. Second, it will be more rewarding, other things being equal, for both the caregiver and the child if it is done in ‘favourable conditions’; circumstances in which the caregiver is not putting his or her future security excessively at risk. So it is wrong for social institutions unnecessarily to attach great disadvantages to this choice. If some downside is an unavoidable aspect to choice (high risk of death attaches intrinsically to skydiving); or if removing that downside would have unacceptable opportunity costs; or if the choice is one that we don’t think it is a good one for people to make, then it seems fine to retain the drawbacks; but the risks attached to primary care-giving are not unavoidable, and the choice is not undesirable. Alstott’s proposal (or something like it) is justified because it diminishes the unnecessary risks attached to a (very) valuable choice about what to do with a large part of one’s life, and thereby enables people to live more fulfilling lives.

This is, as I say, a much more perfectionist argument than Alstott’s. But I think it is hard (or maybe impossible) to avoid some moderate perfectionism when thinking, as we are here, about how the state should structure family relationships, so there’s no reason to resist it on anti-perfectionist grounds. The alternative is to presuppose a conception of autonomy on which restrictions on one’s freedom are limitations on autonomy even when they have been freely embraced and are a morally necessary feature of a morally valuable role.

My remarks have been moderately critical of the foundation of the argument. So I should emphasize that the book has incredibly rich discussions both in political theory and institutional analysis. Read it yourself.



ucblockhead 07.07.04 at 2:07 am

Is it really highly progressive? It certainly doesn’t contribute much to the budget of the childless! How does the average income of the childless compare to the average income of parents?

When I was twenty-two, I was making $25k. Now at thirty-eight, with a kid, I make over six figures. This proposes transfering wealth from the twenty-two year old me sort of person to the thirty-eight year old me sort of person. That seems to me to be fundamentally unfair. At twenty-two, I wouldn’t have objected to some of my tax dollars going to help single mothers raise their kids, but watching my money go to some upper-middle class jerk, well…it would have pissed me off to no end.

I realize that “means testing” makes it harder to sell, but it seems to me that to truly be good, this needs a means test, even if it is a liberal one.

I also suspect that this would encourage people to have kids earlier (as those who postpone often do so for financial reasons.) Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I have no idea, but it needs to be thought about.

Also, for those in good financial shape, whether or not it is a voucher is meaningless. I’m already paying $5k/year on childcare (or will when my son enters daycare next month.) If I were to recieve these vouchers, it’d immediately free up $5k for me to buy myself a new computer. Much as I’d like that, I don’t think it’s particularly good for society as a whole.


Ampersand 07.07.04 at 3:52 am

I think you can make a reasonable argument that caretakers ought to be supported by taxpayers because it prevents the rest of us from being free riders on the caretakers’ work. We all desparately need a next generation to survive (especially when we hit old age); it benefits us all to provide caretakers with the security they need to make caretaking as attractive as possible.


not me 07.07.04 at 5:23 am

Can those of us choosing not to have kids for what we consider the right reasons have a cool cash bonus too? I mean, as long as we’re giving away fistfulls of taxpayer money, how about doling out some for me because I realize I’d be a terrible parent who’d rear a mal-adjusted child that would just end up draining society’s resources anyhow. Gimme some turkee!


derrida derider 07.07.04 at 10:45 am

Not Me misses the point – children are a resource for the whole society (for one thing, they’ll pay the social security levies that will fund retirement pensions), and the whole society ought therefore to help with the cost.

But I find it amazing that the US uses deductions rather than credits – we in Australia converted the deductions to credits 30 years ago, and I reckon most Europeans did it even earlier. Tax credits are no harder to administer or to understand, and because they don’t ‘waste’ a bigger benefit on high income taxpayers you can afford to make them more generous for the same tax expenditure.

No wonder that most experts consider the US tax system to be the developed world’s most regressive.


Andrew Boucher 07.07.04 at 12:26 pm

I think there is a subtext in dd’s comments which should be discussed.
His argument is that children benefit everyone; thus people who raise children should receive help from society.

I think all this concern about children is partly because people want to rationalize away the amount of money that they want to take from today’s children once they grow up. As we all know tomorrow’s workers will either have to ante up a lot more (percentage-wise) than today’s to support the future elderly class, or the benefits of that elderly class will have to be cut. No one wants their benefits cut, so today’s workers would prefer that tomorrow’s workers just pay more. To justify that, they are willing to pay a little towards child-rearing today. So when the time comes to make the decision (benefit cuts vs. tomorrow’s workers paying more), tomorrow’s elderly can plea how unfair it is – after all, they helped pay for the child-rearing, so those children had damn well be prepared to pay for them.

Well it’s not fair. By all means give money for child-rearing. But don’t do it because of the advantages that society will be getting in the future from those children, because this pretends there is a contract. Well there is none, because the children have no say in the matter. Our children have their own lives to live, and they aren’t just there to provide for our comfortable retirements.


q 07.07.04 at 12:31 pm

Harry, thanks for your excellent post.

There are three issues that spring to mind on social policy: efficiency, fairness and deprivation. Deprivation is the key.

1. Efficiency – decision-making decentralised as we all know is generally more efficient than centrally coordinated decision-making, don’t get involved.

2. Fairness – most people will have something to do with bringing up children, so most people will bear the cost and inconvenience of bringing them up, so overall transfer payments to child-managers won’t make things any more fair, No, don’t get involved.

3. Deprivation – children with deprivation problems are likely to need more friends, less crime, more holidays, fewer feuding parents, better diets, less hate, better education, good role models, 5000 dollars a year could be very useful – there are many ways to distribute it:
– 1000 dollars could pay for a couple of weeks of summer camp for each child
– 2000 dollars could pay for a parent to take 2 weeks off work to spend time with the children

Quality of life issues:- time, and more time.


dsquared 07.07.04 at 1:42 pm

Andrew: I would have thought that contract theory would be a very shaky basis indeed for intergenerational obligations, if that were the basis. But it seems to me that the obligation to provde for elders is one of the oldest principles of morality that there is; it very definitely predates Mosaic law by centuries and you can argue that it stretches back into the higher primates. One has to reach a very advanced stage of decadence before one can find people prepared to seriously argue that retirement savings are an individual responsibility.


harry 07.07.04 at 2:08 pm

And, as dsquared has pointed out before, somewhere that I would find if I didn’t have a 7 year old to attend to, what do you think would happen to the value of your individualised retirement account/stocks/money under the mattress/whatever if, when you retire, there is nobody left in the age group 20 years younger than you and below. Saving for retirement makes sense only if you think that there is going to be a functioning economy when you retire. Forget taxing them — you need them around participating in an economy. The childless who don’t intend to top themselves when they stop working for pay presume that other people are going to have plenty of kids, and the rationality of their self-interested plans depends on that presumption.

Note: Alstott doesn’t say much about this, focussing instead on the non-autonomy of the primary caregiving parent, and the interests of the child itself. So in fact Andrew will find the tenor of her argument is more congenial than the children-as-public-goods argument being made in these comments.


jam 07.07.04 at 2:19 pm

Is this proposal not just the British Family Allowances scheme but with larger sums?

If so, the principle is long established. We’re just talking about an appropriate level.


mc 07.07.04 at 2:24 pm

And I thought from the title you were going to tackle the Great Smacking Debate…

Isn’t it simpler to subsidise good services supporting child rearing and state education and so on? That seems to work in several European countries, esp. Scandinavian, for instance, without the need for extra allowances that might be taken advantage of and with conditions that are impossible to check. I think it’s fairer to have a proper use of taxes to create efficient welfare services and promote a business mentality that doesn’t create disadvantages for working parents, especially women. There’s places where that’s done rather successfully so I don’t quite see the need for new complicated and untested systems.


Richard Bellamy 07.07.04 at 3:10 pm

But it seems to me that the obligation to provde for elders is one of the oldest principles of morality that there is; it very definitely predates Mosaic law by centuries and you can argue that it stretches back into the higher primates. One has to reach a very advanced stage of decadence before one can find people prepared to seriously argue that retirement savings are an individual responsibility.

I do not understand this. Perhaps my morality is very different, but as an avowed American, I thought that we were the very definition of “advanced stage of decadence.”

My father found himself responsible for the care of his in-laws late in their life, due to my grandparents’s lack of thrift. He is currently in his 60s, working a few extra years when he could have retired already, just to be sure that he is not the burden on his children (me and my sister) that his in-laws were to him. He always told me growing up, “You can repay me by not being a burden on your children.” So, now, I am living my life with the goal of being self-sufficient enough to not be a burden on my children.

It is merely a historical accident that Social Security is funded by the next generation, rather than a savings-account model that Republican want to shift us to. I do not agree with the Republican plan, but if it had been the original idea suggested by FDR, I would see no reason to change it back now.

So, while I agree there is an obligation to care for our elders, I believe that this obligation — at least in countries like America where 90% of the population could afford to live on 10% less than they are currently making — is only a fall-back if the parents fail in their equal and primary obligation to not be a burden on their children.

Our tax laws should support self-sufficiency, not a mutual “I’ll give you some now so you can give it back later.”

Put another way, why is it better to give $5000 to a parent to promote his having children who can pay $5000 back to me in Social Security? Why is it not better to put the first $5000 in the bank, and tell the parent to put off having kids until they can afford them without my money?

Now, we’re all self-sufficient, and the population will drop, to the happiness of environmentalists and demographers everywhere.


Laura, 11d 07.07.04 at 3:25 pm

1. Why should the state care for parents? Many commenters have made the intergenerational crisis point — we need a new generation to keep the economy moving. Alstott says that this argument is unsatisfactory, because not everybody thinks it necessary to keep society going. She makes a different argument. That everybody deserves the same life opportunities. And right now, parents life choices are so severely curtailed that society has to offer them some help, especially since society itself puts so many requirements on parents. means testing. Alstott is absolutely against means testing her program. Partially because she is against “welfarist” proposals and partly because it has a better chance politically if everyone benefits. Being a welfarist, I do think the most needy should get a handout first. Why should Madonna get $10,000 for Rocco and Lourdes? But, as Brayden King, points out today, there is enormous prejudice against poor mothers. Everybody is worried that we’ll be paying them to pump out ghetto rug rats. Maybe if they had more help with an education and hope for a career, this would be incentive to use birth control. But the underlying racism in this belief would be enough to kill any means testing for parental support.


jam 07.07.04 at 3:51 pm

Oops. The British abolished family allowances. So the principle is not long established.

The issue of principle here, I take it (despite some of the comments on the thread), is not whether governments should adopt fiscal policies which favour child bearing/rearing. All do, to varying extents.

The question is whether governments should channel the money directly to the caregiver, rather then abate the taxes of the income-earner(s). As far as I know, none now do. Britain did between 1945 and 1977.

There’s a secondary question: how much money should be so channelled? But the question of principle needs to be settled first.


Not Me 07.07.04 at 3:59 pm

No, I didn’t miss the point, it’s just the point is ludicrous. You can sit and say that children are necessary to fund my (and everyone else’s) retirement, but that (to me) says the retirement system is badly designed not that people who are having children — whether they can afford them or not — are doing society a huge favor.

(Bringing more children into this overpopulated world is not doing anyone any favors. And besides, if the kid turns out to be a total waste and spends their whole life in jail sucking taxpayer monies instead of working and contributing, does that parent have to give the money back?)

This “contract” smacks of the same mindset that would lead a politician to say that women who have no children deserve no pension as they have been selfish and enjoyed their lives instead of thinking of the greater good (which happened not so long ago in Japan).

Children are a choice, and not one a person needs to be financially rewarded for making. They involve sacrifice and, yes, part of that is the money required to raise them. If a person is genuinely concerned that rearing children costs too much, then they simply shouldn’t have them. Having kids is never a requirement.

If it’s a concern that the current generation may be too much of a burden on future generations in our dotage, then the system needs to be changed. It is unconscionable to pretend that taking care of us is somehow the next generation’s burden.


harry 07.07.04 at 4:25 pm

Jam — I think that’s right about what’s at issue. But the Family Allowance was replaced with child benefit in the UK, which is pretty similar, and my question was partly — is this really so different from Alstott’s proposal in practice? I don’t know. As derrida derider implies, it’s hard to know how revolutionary proposals in the US context *really* are, given that they are being made against an astoundingly regressive background.

mc,I think there’s a good reason to like direct payments like this, though it may not be decisive. First, however good public provision of daycare, etc, is, there is still a tremendous amount of residual caring that someone has to do. When your kid is sick she can’t go to daycare – someone has to stay home with her. When the daycare closes because carers are sick (and good daycares will be small, and this will happen in them), someone has to stay home with the kid. Work hours are (in the US) long — being in daycare 6-7 hours a day may be fine — being in daycare 12 hours a day is very unsatisfactory for most kids and most parents. Second, good daycare provision helps out people who go to work. This has been the welfare state soluition, because the welfare state is greedy for growth and taxes, and stay-at-home parents generate neither. But its good (I think) for people to spend lots of time (as q says) with their kids, and for kids to spend a lot of time with their parents. Work dominates peoples lives, to the detriment of family. I want to enhance people’s freedom to spend time with their kids, and for them not to have to sacrifice basic security for that.

Not me — I think you are missing the point I attributed to dsquared though. No?

More on means-testing later — I’m very anti-means testing, and think Alstott is on the money about it, but will explain why later…


Greg Hunter 07.07.04 at 4:39 pm

I am with Not Me. I know I would be different if I had children, or so all of the people that have children tell me. But we chose not to have them, because the world is becoming more decadent and desparate as the population grows.

If you would like to save more than 5k per family, abandon Medicare and Medicaid and have your elderly parents die in your own home instead of placed in an old folks purgatory. The cry I hear is “hurry get grannies house out of her name so she is poor enough to go to the folks home”, while the kids spend the money.

Providing a tax credit for houses has certainly improved home ownership, but that does not mean that hiqh quality houses have been built.

Providing 5000.00 does not mean that high quality, tax revenue, generating children will be produced.

It is a Faustian bargain, especially in a world that cannot sustain its current population.


Giules 07.07.04 at 5:14 pm

Isnt the problem with this proposal that it assumes that there is just one caregiver – what happens if care is shared? To claim the benefit does on person have to give up work,


harry 07.07.04 at 5:35 pm

bq. Isnt the problem with this proposal that it assumes that there is just one caregiver – what happens if care is shared? To claim the benefit does on person have to give up work,

No — you don’t have to give up work, that’s part of the attraction (it is neutral, unlike numerous other measures, between stay-at-home and working parents). It does just go to one person. Alstott would prefer this to be the mother (which I would disagree with) but that’s not her proposal — her proposal is that it goes to the parent who earnerd less in the labour market in the previous year (when the parents are co-habiting). The point of it is to diminish the hit in terms of long term financial security that the primary caregiver experiences.

Of course, what if people practice equal-split parenting (say they both decide to work a 30 hour week)? Then, on her proposal, the parent who has worse long term propects as a single person is getting the benefit. That seems fair enough to me.


Not Me 07.07.04 at 6:01 pm

what do you think would happen to the value of your individualised retirement account/stocks/money under the mattress/whatever if, when you retire, there is nobody left in the age group 20 years younger than you and below.

Is that the one? The human race has continued for a long time before the present without guaranteeing a cash prize to those who procreate. It’s not remotely rational to make tax/retirement/savings decisions based on the idea that there might not be a next generation. What are the odds of that actually happening?

Don’t get me wrong — I have next to no faith in humanity, but I do believe we’ll keep procreating. I just don’t count on that procreation padding my own future as you assume I do.

The childless who don’t intend to top themselves when they stop working for pay presume that other people are going to have plenty of kids, and the rationality of their self-interested plans depends on that presumption.

And, once again, those who don’t have children are called selfish (excuse me, ‘self-interested’). To many of us (the childless) having children is the selfish choice, but that’s a whole ‘nother argument.

My presumption is that I’m a rational adult and so I know one day I want to stop working and I’m saving for that day. I don’t conclude that my having children (or even other people having children) is somehow a guarantee that I’ll be taken care of in the future. That sounds pretty primitive to me, and something society should set its sights on working beyond, not building upon.


not me 07.07.04 at 6:11 pm

(One short follow up — of course there are presumptions everyone makes. I assume that each morning the sun will rise and that the world will continue to revolve about the sun — yes, I take the yearly cycle for granted too. One can hardly live life without a few presumptions. Assuming that what has always been will always be is hardly a fault, and I can’t help but make my ‘self-interested plans’ with the notion in mind that the human race will, for better or for worse, continue.)


Ophelia Benson 07.07.04 at 6:31 pm

“The childless who don’t intend to top themselves when they stop working for pay presume that other people are going to have plenty of kids, and the rationality of their self-interested plans depends on that presumption.”

I’m always just really, really curious about this view – which seems to keep coming up here. So is that why people have children? So that there will be a next generation and an economy? It’s not because they want to? See, I always thought it was because they wanted to. Oddly, I thought that people who have children do it largely because they want to (though I also think some of that wanting to is shaped by social norms, what all their friends are doing, etc) and people who don’t have children don’t have them because they don’t want to. And that seems like a pretty good arrangment on the whole, since people who want children are likely to be better parents than people who don’t.

But apparently this view is all wrong. People who have children are good responsible forward-planning people who dutifully have children they don’t want so that there will be an economy in 20 years. People who don’t have children are lazy irresponsible selfish “free riders” who lie back and expect the dutiful good people to have children for them.

It’s an interesting way of looking at the matter, but not an entirely convincing one.


harry 07.07.04 at 6:53 pm

bq. People who have children are good responsible forward-planning people who dutifully have children they don’t want so that there will be an economy in 20 years. People who don’t have children are lazy irresponsible selfish “free riders” who lie back and expect the dutiful good people to have children for them.

Come on, Ophelia, you don’t think I think that, and you don’t think that’s implied in my text do you? (I’d do one of those smiley face things here if I knew how). Of course people don’t have children for altruistic reasons, they have them for their own (various) reasons, mostly self-interested (not me — self-interested is not equivalent to selfish). And of course, people who choose not to have children have every right not to, though if altruistic fears of overpopulation are holding them back that’s a shame.

The issue dsquared raises is this: if your plans can be executed effectively only if other people bear significant costs, and you know this, is it ok for you to make no contribution to those costs? I think that whether it is ok depends on lots of contingencies, and I do not think that single people have an oblgiation, absent some social coordination (like taxation) to help parents out. But I do think it is absolutely fine for a legitimate authority to redistribute the costs of childrearing in a way that gets a better calibration between the benefits people get from it and the costs they bear.

Now, your important point, Ophelia, and one that I agree with, is that parents get a whole lot of benefit (non-financial benefit) out of having kids. The question is: how should that benefit be weighed when we are doing a full audit of the distribution of costs and benefits? I don’t have an answer to that, and I think it complicates things quite a bit, as I’ve said before (and dsquared, being an economist, has tended to shrink from discussing it in these discussions).


Ophelia Benson 07.07.04 at 7:18 pm

Well I did think that was implied in your text, Harry, yes. I did frown and puzzle over it a bit, thinking I must be wrong, but I kept getting the same reading. But if that’s the wrong reading, I beg pardon.

One thing that seems to me wrong with the ‘plans dependent on other people bearing significant costs’ view is that surely it cuts both ways, or perhaps thousands of ways all at once, in such a manner that it’s, er, difficult to pin down. People not having children is also a financial benefit to people who do, for instance. Fewer children in the public schools and otherwise using up resources. It’s just not blindingly obvious to me that the two might not simply cancel each other out. But then I’m not an economist, and maybe dear economists have counted and measured and itemized all this down to a farthing and in fact do know for certain that all non-parents owe all parents exactly $5,478.95. But of course my Pyrrhonist bet is that there is an equal number of economists who say No, parents owe non-parents $3,927.82.

Quod nihil scitur!

(Sorry, I’ve just been reading Popkin’s History of Skepticism and it’s made me all whimsical.)


John Kelsey 07.07.04 at 7:49 pm

I’ll make two comments:

a. If everyone decided to stop eating or commit suicide, it would also make my retirement harder, but there’s no reason to think they’re going to do any of those things, and so no reason for me to pay them not to.

b. This idea would create an incentive for more people to have children, and to have them younger. Some people might decide to have children as a way to support themselves. (What would prevent this?) Is there a reason to think that the people who were incentivized to become new parents would be particularly good at it? It seems at least plausible that they’d be worse than the current crop, because they’d probably be (on average) younger and less educated.



harry 07.07.04 at 7:57 pm

I don’t think I implied it, and whether or not I did I don’t believe it, Ophelia, honest. Nor is it implied in Alstott’s book. But I promise I’ll re-read it all and think about how to avoid seeming to imply it in future…

bq. is that surely it cuts both ways, or perhaps thousands of ways all at once, in such a manner that it’s, er, difficult to pin down.

Yes that’s right, and it makes things difficult, and it’s why I said that what to do depends on lots of contingencies. But remember two things. First, neither my sketchy case for doing ‘something-like-this’ for parents nor Alstott’s different, and much more careful argument depends on the children-as-public-goods argument.

Second, the proposal is only one transfer. There are loads of other transfers simultaneously going on, including lots of other government programs and lots of rent-producing features of the labour market. So its not as if this money is going to parents and there are no flows the other ways. My worry about the ‘well, there’s loads of discrete free-riding going on and who knows who the net free-riders are’ point is that that is always true: but it is not always true that we therefore shouldn’t implement a new program or chaneg existing ones. But, I do see your point, and think it matters, even if I’m not sure what to do with it (as it were).

You need to read Anthony Buckeridge, btw (gentle reminder).


jam 07.07.04 at 8:37 pm

There are a number of commentators who take the view that they can save for their own retirement and therefore they don’t care whether other people have children or not. This attitude seems to me to misfounded.

Let’s try to imagine a scenario consequent to an extended population downturn. Fairly quickly after the population peaks, job creation turns negative, as does the rate of household formation. As a consequence, few or no new office buildings, factories or residential buildings are demanded. Construction companies go bankrupt, as do logging companies and any other companies whose business depends on construction demand. I hope “not me”‘s retirement funds weren’t invested in Weyerhauser shares.

Any company with fixed geographic infrastructure (with consequent fixed costs) faced with declining aggregate demand (from a declining population) will suffer pressure on its operating margins. If they were thin to begin with, the company will go broke. Airlines will fail. Large retail operations, broadcasters (fewer thousand eyeballs at the same cost per thousand means lower ad revenues), magazine and newspaper publishing, railroads, will all become significantly less profitable, if they survive. Their investors will lose money.

In general, capital investment will nosedive. There is little incentive to build new production facilities in the face of declining aggregate demand. Interest rates will plummet. We will be in a demographic-driven deflation. If you decided to leave your savings in the bank rather than risk them in stocks, you’ll find they won’t earn you any income.

The banks holding your money will have their own problems. They have fixed infrastructures and declining customer base, too. Plus they’ll have businesses defaulting on loans and they’ll be trying to make money on a flat yield curve. A recipe for widespread bank failure. FDIC will get you back your money, as long as you don’t have too much in one bank, but the banks’ shareholders will eat their losses.

And so on, and so on. We have an economy built for an expanding population. We have an investment climate which assumes an expanding population. If the population stops expanding and starts shrinking, there will be considerable difficulties adjusting. In the process, you can lose your shirt.

This is worst case thinking, of course. But before you blithely dismiss the risks of a declining poppulation, you need to look at the worst case.

As it happens, the United States is further from the risk of a demographic collapse than Europe, partly because we’re much more immigrant friendly. So we can get away with not thinking much about it and being less pro-natalist. If we had the fertility rates of some European countries, proposals like Alstott’s would be mainstream.


note me 07.07.04 at 8:42 pm

Self-interest isn’t always the same as selfishness, but it was difficult not to read it that way in context. Like Ophelia, I read replies as saying that the truly forward-thinking and altruistic in society have children, while those of us who don’t are simply relying on the sacrifice of others, at no cost to ourselves.

Studies (those tricky things) already show that those who do not have children already do give considerably to those who do — through being selected to work holidays and overtime when those who have children can beg off ‘to be with the family’; through paying for public schools as someone else mentioned above; &c.

So in the end Ophelia hits it on the nose, really. There is no way to quantify or qualify the actual costs and benefits of child rearing in hard terms.

I think some of us just get tired of the for the children arguments at every turn, from censorship to additional tax burdens. ;-)


harry 07.07.04 at 8:50 pm

bq. Studies (those tricky things) already show that those who do not have children already do give considerably to those who do — through being selected to work holidays and overtime when those who have children can beg off ‘to be with the family’; through paying for public schools as someone else mentioned above

Two things. First, although I glossed over it, Alstott makes a powerful case against mandating family friendly workplaces, and offers this as an alternative. Its also not at all clear that the workplace policies net toward parents, thoguh obviously in some places they do.

Second, paying for public schools is not a transfer to parents. At worst its to children. Did you go to a school? Someone paid, and it wasn’t you. The parents don’t enter the equation. Doubly so (if you’ll forgive the silly math implied by that) given that those who actually pay directly for private schooling cannot expect any return at all on their payment.


Jake McGuire 07.07.04 at 9:05 pm

Wouldn’t allowing more immigration solve the “next generation” problem just as easily as paying people to have children? That seems to be what the US is doing, and we aren’t facing the same demographic issues that Western Europe and Japan are.


Ophelia Benson 07.07.04 at 10:13 pm

“My worry about the ‘well, there’s loads of discrete free-riding going on and who knows who the net free-riders are’ point is that that is always true: but it is not always true that we therefore shouldn’t implement a new program or chaneg existing ones.”

Definitely agree with that, Harry. But then for one thing I think the most urgent new program to add (in the US) is a national health. It would seem pretty perverse to me to give rich and fairly-rich and not-bad-thanks people 5 grand a year per child, when childless people just above the poverty line can’t afford health insurance and don’t get it at work.

(Mind you – I don’t actually make that ‘loads of free-riding’ point [except when someone else has brought up ‘free riding’ first] because I kind of detest that whole notion of ‘free riding’ – so it’s not a phrase I ever use, myself.)

(I will read Buckeridge, I have it in mind to do just that.)


zuzu 07.07.04 at 11:26 pm

The issue dsquared raises is this: if your plans can be executed effectively only if other people bear significant costs, and you know this, is it ok for you to make no contribution to those costs?

I’m not understanding how someone with no children is not already bearing societal costs for caring for the next generation. Public schools, for example — and yes, they do provide a benefit to parents who have lower daycare costs as a result of the child being in school much of the day. Social Security. Medicare and Medicaid. Welfare programs.

Moreover, someone with no child is likely to have a work career without interruptions to raise children, which means an uninterrupted stretch of taxpaying, which benefits all. No income means no income tax, which means the parent who takes off to be a primary caregiver is not contributing to society during the period of time he or she is out of work.

I don’t see the point of rewarding parents for reproducing, but I do see the benefits of creating and contributing to strong civic institutions, such as education and health care, which benefit society as a whole.


laura 07.07.04 at 11:45 pm

There is no way to quantify or qualify the actual costs and benefits of child rearing in hard terms.

The costs are easy. Child rearing is an incredibly expensive proposition. It’s not at all off set by the childless putting in a couple of extra hours around the holidays. Not even close.

Our expenses from last year from having two kids:

$40,000 – lost income (full time position) for me
$5,000 – pre-school
$2,500 – babysitter
$700 – diapers, clothes, food,
$0 – in retirement or social security credits for me

other costs: had to move to avoid paying private school tuition for elementary school; when I return to full time employment, I will take a sizable pay cut for taking years off; …

There is a lot more on this topic in the Price of Motherhood. I must run and put the kids to sleep.


Ophelia Benson 07.08.04 at 12:01 am

“The costs are easy. Child rearing is an incredibly expensive proposition. It’s not at all off set by the childless putting in a couple of extra hours around the holidays. Not even close.”

And? Do childless people owe you the difference? Are childless people expected to pay you for what you (presumably) did because you wanted to?

This is exactly the kind of thing that always surprises me in these discussions – this note of resentment, of truculence, of ‘not even close’.

Right, having children is expensive, therefore make people who don’t want to do it pay for it. That makes a lot of sense.


Laura 07.08.04 at 12:35 am

Should the childless be rewarded for not having children? Since when is being childless the default? I think it’s the childless who choose to not have kids, not the other way around. And yes, the childless should pay. (Well, at least for the needier breeders.)

Yes, the child bearers do get some benefit from the little tots, but the childless also get a lot of benefits from not having kids — sleep filled nights, a full bank account, and apparently the belief that they are single handedly making the world a better place.

Actually, I am surprised that Ophelia you would take this position. From what I’ve seen from your other comments, you seem to a socially progressive feminist. Who do you think bears costs for having children? Shouldn’t all women work to support this issue? And poor mothers are on the bottom of society’s heap.


Ophelia Benson 07.08.04 at 1:01 am

Poor women, sure, Laura. Absolutely. Also, for that matter, poor childless women – poor people, period. But the 5K per child per year is meant to be a universal benefit, apparently, and that’s different. In short, I think the problem is poverty, and I think poverty (and inequality) should be dealt with. Poor people with children will be worse off than poor people without children, and that should be part of the equation, I agree. But I don’t think the expensiveness of having children should be an argument all by itself, particularly, and nor do I think childless people should have to pay a fine for not having sleepless nights.


Laura 07.08.04 at 1:33 am

okay, so we’re not so far off. The problem is that economic and social inequality is tied very closely to having children. The poor are overwhelmingly single mothers. And even middle class mothers face enormous discrimination and obstacles in the workplace.

yes, Alstott does think that these benefits should be across the board. But I don’t. Harry was going to defend her on this part. Harry? The kids in bed yet?


q 07.08.04 at 1:38 am

Childless couples have no-one to look after them when they get old. :)

What is socially progressive?
– fight hunger,
– fight cold damp living conditions,
– fight crime and fear,
– fight depression and loneliness,
– fight women’s dependence on men,
– fight children’s dependence on adults?

How about a one-off 100,000 dollar payment for anyone (man or woman) who can’t have a child in recognition of the emotional dislocation they feel in comparison to people who can: I wonder how long it will be before we see this argument presented seriously!


Laura 07.08.04 at 2:06 am

Ack, q. Don’t call me on my sloppy definition of socially progressive. You know I just threw that term out to mean any one who I basically agree with.

re: the infertile payment plan. Just a side note, there’s a whole blog sub-community, like the ones that Holbo recently described, just devoted to those trying to get pregnant. I’ve heard that Chez Miscarriage is very good.


Ophelia Benson 07.08.04 at 2:32 am

Nope, not so far off.

“Don’t call me on my sloppy definition of socially progressive. You know I just threw that term out to mean any one who I basically agree with.”

Chuckling away.

(Just to quibble a little more though – I’m not so sure that poor people are overwhelmingly single mothers. I think it’s pretty easy to be poor even without children. Just the discrepancy between housing costs and the minimum wage would tell us that before we stirred from our armchairs. And Nickle and Dimed would confirm it.) (Which is not to say that it’s not worse for single mothers, because of course it is.)


q 07.08.04 at 5:53 am

thanks for the “Chez Miscarriage” tip – it is very good and quite topical for some members in my family. JellyBelly and PermanentlyPregnant are good as well. I am so pleased some people had the good idea to blog about this.

BTW: Three cheers for the friendly progressives!!! ;)


mc 07.08.04 at 7:50 am

I shared some of Ophelia’s reaction too, I don’t see where people with no children contribute less. If you live in a country which has a strong welfare system, and hence higher taxes than the US, you’re contributing to it no matter if you got kids or not.

Also, I don’t see why the emphasis on public schools and other services instead of allowances is not beneficial to parents as well as children. Not just for the way schools act as daycare, as if kids were burders to unload somewhere, but for the whole purpose of education.

Reasonable allowance schemes can be useful but only as temporary limited extras, and only for people under a certain income – but you can’t do without a good welfare system and good state services, from health to schooling to anything else that benefits an entire society. It’s the fairest to everyone. Just because there’s a stubborn, obtuse hostility to the concept from people who are allergic to the mere mention of taxes, doesn’t mean it should be devalued in favour of something less sensible.


harry 07.08.04 at 2:12 pm

Sorry to be late with promised defence of anti-means testing. Here it is, some of it Alstott’s, some of it just standard fare.
First note that we are really talking about income-testing, since most of the intended recipients will not have much wealth to speak of.

1) Means-testing is expensive, because the monitoring and implementation infrastructure is complex. A Universal benefit is cheap.

2) Means-testing introduces very high effective marginal tax rates for low income workers (frequently 100% or more), yielding a strong disincentive to work more. This is bad both because, especially at the low end of the income spectrum, future prospects are significantly enhanced by some degree of participation in the labour market, as well as because it is inefficient. A similar problem arises for means-testing state retirement benefits (as the UK effectively started to do in the early 00’s): it creates a big disincentive for low earners to save.

3) Alstott says, rightly, that the poit of money available for such programs is not fixefd. It varies politically, depending on the level of support for the program. Universal benefits enjoy higher levels of political support, even when they are effectviely more redistributive, than means-tested benefits. They are less vulnerable to the creation of hostile political coalitions, and levels of funding are less likely to erode suddenly.

4. Because of 3) they can be, effectively, more progressive, contrary to what ucblockhead conjectured at the beginning of all this. (I went to your site, ucblockhead and am eternally grateful for the Epson printer tips. Thanks!) Basically, in a system that is designed around universal benefits it is easier to maintain high marginal tax rates on high earners (and low marginal tax rates on low earners). SO, my conjecture is that in an overall system of universal-style benefits, we’d get more net redistribution from ucblockhead to poor parents, even though ucblockhead is gettign the universal benefit. Read Esping-Anderson on this, who is excellent and persuasive.

This last point, I acknowledge, applies when we are thinking about owhole systems, not individual benefits.

Note also that my point 2 can be eviscerated somewhat by having very opaque rules. For example, in the US financial aid decisions are means tested, but when you have a kid (18 years before it goes to college) you have very little information about what the aid rules will be when they go to college. Me, I’m saving. But I know families who earn more than we do who are spending and not saving, on the bet that this behaviour will be rewarded by generous financial aid packages –they won’t have much money, so their kids will get aid. There’s a good chance they are right, but I’m not betting on it. If we KNEW FOR SURE what the rules were/would be then we’d know for sure how to act strategically.


q says
bq. Childless couples have no-one to look after them when they get old. :)

Yes, but parents also have no-one to look after them. Esp, apparently, if they are cursed with boy-children (girls, I believe, in Western cultures, do more for their parents, and deploy the resources of the males they marry to that end. But males are pathetic). But, of course, the rich truth in your comment is the point that, despite being a net economic drain on parents, children are an all-things-considered benefit to parents (because they’re fun, its rewarding raising them, etc, except for those devil-children you sometimes meet, yuck). I just don’t think any of these analyses, socilogical, political, or philosophical, knows how to deal with that fact, as I said. I hope, in my philosophical work with Adam Swift, to get a much better handle on it. But I’ve learned in this discussion from you, q, Ophelia, mc, etc how difficult a fact it is to handle in the policy-guidance context. Thanks.

mc, I think my case against means-testing handles your last para. Your first para seems to me to press the ‘how interesting is this outside the US point’ and, again, I’m puzzling about that too.
But on public schooling. Yes, it saves parents a bit of money on daycare/foregone earnings. But only for a coule of years — most kids could be safely left in very inexpesnive supervision after they reach 8 or so. Parents have no financial incentive to invest in their children’s human capital, though a lot would do so anyway out of love, affection. But lots wouldn’t. I think there’s a strong public goods case for some sort of state funded public school system — and it’s just true that other people than parents yeild the economic benefit of an individual child’s education. So, even if there weren’t issues of justice to children supporting state-funded education (and there are, as I insist in my book on this — not that I’m plugging it or anything) there are powerful public goods justifications. So in a proper accounting you shouldn’t think of publci education, or for that matter, public health, etc, as benefits to parents (thought they do, also, benefit parents) but as benefits to children and others.

Sorry, I have to stop or I’ll go on forever…


Not Me 07.08.04 at 5:26 pm

I have to say first that I’ve enjoyed conversation immensely. :-) Thanks everyone.

Next, I want to clarify that I’m not tax averse, but I am a person who has lived a good part of her adult life as a single, childless, and quite poor woman. Doing much better these days, and I whole-heartedly believe in taxes and social welfare (can’t tell you the disgust I feel when I hear wingnuts like Grover Norquist speak on the evils of taxation).

I just still can’t wrap my head around the idea that having children being an unqualified benefit to society, though. It’s just a personal choice to do or not do, no more than that.

Yes, women do bear a disproportionate amount of the cost of child rearing in our society. There are better ways to address this than yearly cash payments direct to primary care givers, in my unqualified opinion.

As mentioned above, in the US, step one would be nationalized health care. And before we even got to considering these hypothetical $5K payments, we’d need to address wage equality in the work place for women and living wages for everyone. Having worked in a clinic in Appalachia I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen that are at the clinics because, even though they work full time, they have no health care and still live below the poverty level. They were so poor that having kids actually bettered their situation because at least then the government would supply milk, bread, and cheese through healthy-start programs.

(Working full time for around $12K a year is no fun. And if you have no kids, you’re even more screwed because no one cares.)

So, basically — yeah, I have a gut reaction to this proposal in that it just doesn’t smell right. There are much bigger fish to fry in North America (though I can’t speak for other nations).


rvman 07.08.04 at 7:04 pm

If “parents also have no-one to look after them” those parents are doing a lousy job of raising their kids. Maybe in blue states kids just abandon their parents to the wolves when they retire, but not where I’m from. Where I’m from, the care of children and elders is the responsibility of the parents and and the individual and the family, not of society, and not of the state. An elder’s responsibility was to either raise kids with the moral responsibility to take care of their parents, or accumulate assets such that he can take care of himself by purchasing from other’s kids in his old age. I’m choosing the latter route.

I submit that those parents who’s kids do fail to care for them, made their bed, or rather raised their kids. If the kids are irresponsible, they are what their parents created. Parents sometimes don’t get the kids they “deserve”. That is rare, though. Just because you see a parent you think doesn’t “deserve” their kid doesn’t mean you have full knowledge of that kid’s situation growing up, what he was taught, either explicitly or by example, by those parents.

Children impose costs on parents, yes. These costs are internalized to the family unit. They also impose costs on society. Education costs – education benefits internalize as higher pay for the child when he is an adult, but the costs are imposed on the society through government. Medical costs – parents who need this subsidy also disproportionately need medicaid, free clinics, free emergency rooms, etc. Leave for new parents costs them income, it also costs the coworkers they left behind in increased workloads, employers in search costs for new employees, esp. with FMLA where the parent has to get a substantively equal job on return. Social costs, environmental costs (larger populations impose larger agricultural and urban footprints and pollute more), personal costs(the screeching tike at the next table, the brat down the street who tosses his coke can in the yeard, the teen with his talentless garage band next door). These balance the externalized benefits those kids will provide society as they grow up. Frankly, I see no efficiency argument for these subsidies.

Is the idea that larger populations have greater social welfare per capita? I see no obvious evidence that, ceteris paribus, a US population of 300 million would be any happier, or unhappier, or more or less productive, than one of 200 million with the same per capita GDP.

The argument “what if no one had kids” is fallacious. There is no shortage of people having kids in the US. If there are, people are clamoring to join us from other nations, on the current taxation terms. Let them in.

I see no rights argument either – having kids is a free choice of the parents, not something that is imposed on them. The right to state finance of children does not number among the moral, enumerated, or unenumerated rights. Neither is the right to be free of responsibility for one’s family in their dotage.

Selfish and uncaring is the best description of thinking of future generations as tax-generation units for one’s own cohort’s retirement.


joe 07.08.04 at 11:25 pm

_”Furthermore, parents get something that non-parents don’t get – a loving intimate relationship of a certain kind which makes a distinctive contribution to their flourishing for which nothing else could substitute.”_ Good parents get this. Bad parents don’t. Moral elements of the arguments that have been floated depend upon the assumption that good parents are normative. This cannot be assumed.

One of the presuppositions of the original discussion is that there is a difference between “productive” and “non-productive” members of society, and then the classification of parents, who do not directly make money, is problematic, and indeed forms the basis of the argument. But this takes for granted that participation in the money economy is the definition of contributory citizenship. Such a definition is useless.

Good parents make a much greater contribution than, say, highly successful real-estate agents. Bad parents on the other hand are the most destructive element in society. Not only do they produce petty criminals, but they also produce highly successful real-estate agents.


joe 07.08.04 at 11:27 pm

_”Maybe in blue states kids just abandon their parents to the wolves when they retire, but not where I’m from.”_

Gloss for those outside the U.S.: “Blue states” went to Mr. Gore in the last presidential election and are dominated by godless urbanites; “Red states” are those whose electoral votes went to Mr. Bush because the people there know all about responsibility. Strangely, “Blue states” all (or almost all) pay more taxes to the federal budget than they receive in benefits/entitlements; “Red states” conversely all (or almost all) receive more benefits/entitlements than their citizens are paying for.


Lance Boyle 07.09.04 at 12:07 am

Another moral question.
Moral systems are goal-driven.
The goals in this and most other publicly-debated moral-system arguments are assumed but unstated. The consumer-bias is prominent though; consumer satisfaction, fairness, approval, being paramount. Even in the fix-hunger proposals. This is why we’re stagnating.
The idea of everyone suffering miserably for twenty years so that the human race generally could enjoy uncounted millennia of prosperity and stable comfort is laughably absurd, and yet its obverse is the status quo in all our lives.
There’s a very common attitude toward children now, that makes them artifacts whose value comes somewhere between a brand-new car and a brand-new house.
Children are not objects, they’re what we’re doing, they’re why we have all these amazing talents and abilities. “Children” in a most abstract sense, but it gets dumbed down, and filtered through the greed of current economic reality, and becomes something cloying and dull.
The point I’m throwing all this at is that the system within which the discussion is considering the award of financial parental assistance is itself anti-child.
Giving parents money and leaving the essential system in place is neurotic displacement. It won’t work, no matter how good the intentions behind it. Not if the goal is the elevation of the race.
And that’s the crux of it – status quo versus ad astra per aspera.


liberal 07.09.04 at 12:40 pm

laura wrote, Our expenses from last year from having two kids:

$40,000 – lost income (full time position) for me

Cry me a river.

First, is that pre-tax income? If so, it’s not the relevant number.

Second, I assume you’re writing from the US. The US income tax code is heavily biased in favor of married couples whose incomes are not roughly equal. That is, the so-called “marriage penalty” is (a) on average, a marriage benefit; (b) a penalty for working couples whose incomes are roughly equal; (c ) a benefit for working couples whose incomes are extremely unequal.

Quit your whining…


mc 07.09.04 at 3:13 pm

Harry – “So in a proper accounting you shouldn’t think of publci education, or for that matter, public health, etc, as benefits to parents (thought they do, also, benefit parents) but as benefits to children and others.”

Of course, that’s what I meant too. I’m sorry if I didn’t sound too clear… I’m also bit confused here because this whole discussion assumes a different context to the one I’m used to.

What I meant is simply that those public services are what I consider the primary way of supporting anyone, parents and children alike. That doesn’t mean I see the necessity of _another_ separate system for rewarding parents. Like Lance Boyle, I also don’t particularly like that children take second place in this calculation, or that the child-rearing effort itself can be precisely quantified in financial terms.

I wasn’t really defending means-testing either, I’m not even familiar with the concept. I’m only used to the most basic verification of income requirements for getting subsidies and even family allowances (also for caring for elderly members of the family, not just for kids). I’m ok with reasonable allowances limited in time and where you got to be below a certain income to qualify. But they’re not a substitute for services to which all taxpayers already contribute.

In other words, the way I see it, it’s no good to have an allowance if you don’t have easy access to good state-supported daycare and schools and medical care. So I really don’t see the fairness or practical advantage of high and prolonged allowances as opposed to improving public services, especially in the long run.


derrida derider 07.10.04 at 3:35 pm

There’s far too much moralizing in this discussion. Using loaded terms such as ‘free riders’, ‘selfish’, etc is obscuring the issues. To quote Clint Eastwood just before he blew Gene Hackman away, ‘deserves got nuthin to do with it’.

I want society to share some of the costs of child rearing on economic efficiency, not moral, grounds. The total benefits provided by children (economic and otherwise) are not all captured by the parents, so absent some transfers the number of children being born will be less than optimal. The mechanism by which the sharing is done is then a second order issue.

And, yes, absent sufficiently large cohorts of workers the economy will tend to a deflationary spiral with chronically negative returns on investment (this BTW is a feature of any economic system, not just capitalism). Either massive immigration, massive foreign investment or old-fashioned colonial exploitation (all ways of making claims on other country’s children) can defer but not destroy this effect (because the foreign countries will themselves have little incentive to maintain high birth rates). So at a global level having everyone save for their retirement is not a substitute for ensuring sufficient breeding.

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