Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Elinor Burkett: The Baby Boon

Elinor Burkett. The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless. New York: The Free Press, 2000. ISBN 0-684-86303-0; Amazon link.

The author, Elinor Burkett, could have titled the book, “The Baby Boondoggle”!

The Free Press enjoys a reputation as the major publishing imprint (it belongs to Simon & Schuster) that promotes discussion of individual liberty and generally rather libertarian precepts. So, congratulations, the big New York houses are finally getting it right: we have to look at the undercoating of our political life to see how issues play out in the personal lives of real people. And here we have it: is government, and are well-meaning employers, forcing childless adults to make personal sacrifices to support parents, “families with children”? If so, should childless adults make that sacrifice? Is having children a behavioral choice or an obligation? Incredible questions??

There is indeed a smoldering “competitive” tension between parents and “independent” childless adults. It hasn’t been talked about a lot. At the time that I wrote Do Ask, Do Tell it had, to my observation, been developed at length only once, in a 1997 ABC “Good Morning America” segment that presented the Child Free Network. Recently, on March 24, 2000, ABC “20-20” presented to topic again, reported by John Stossel. Dr. Burkett (a history professor and journalist) was presented during the segment. A lot of “family” people seem to think—no, believe—that if you don’t have a family to support you’re not a grownup; you’re part of the undead. In practical terms, this amounts to saying (with some exceptions) that if you don’t practice heterosexual intimacy you’ll be someone else’s servant. This isn’t something real people have to think about. The automaticity of (marital performance) drives it. Or, turning this around, adults who don’t have heterosexual (performance) aren’t real people. Of course, “family oriented” society is barely conscious of all of this; it doesn’t want to hear such whining—indeed, don’t ask, don’t tell. Many people who do receive “family” privileges do not realize that someone else may have to subsidize them, or they may mistakenly believe that everyone eventually will use them for children later on (not noticing that some people do not want to have children); this way of seeing things does make more sense with the eldercare issue, though.

People familiar with this site and with me know that this issue has always been a bone for me. It certainly has an effect on gays and lesbians, and on many other singles, in ways that are more complicated, both practically and morally, than even Burkett presents in her book.

Dr. Burkett’s book is somewhat repetitive, somewhat hysterical, at times, as she drives her point home. Her book is in three parts: an exposition of the interaction between the workplace and public family policy, a development of the notion that political rhetoric (often from “liberals” and “feminists”) and opportunism is driving the “family friendly” phenomenon (she points out that the childless are often too “individualistic” to organize well), and a recapitulation of her own recommendations, which she calls a “balancing act.” Her topic sentence:

“It’s affirmative action—the preferential treatment of one group designed to correct real or perceived discrimination or inequity—based on reproductive choice” (p. 21).

“Equal pay for equal work” is supposed to be the mantra of workplace non-discrimination, but “family friendliness” demands that people with “family responsibilities” intentionally be paid more (indeed, the “family wage”). The childless face discrimination both in government tax and housing policy (for example, you can’t live in an “adults only” development until 55!) and in being cut out of workplace perks.

So much of “family friendly” public policy is couched in potentially deceptive language, to protect parents and expectant mothers and fathers from “discrimination.” But there is a mathematical, tautological fact. We cannot “help” one group without demanding sacrifices or subsidies from others. Sometimes the price may not be noticeable, if there is enough “wealth” to go around. But, money allocated to paid parents’ benefits (paid day care, paid parental leave, etc.) is money no longer available for pay raises for everyone else.

Now, there is a difference between government-mandated family favoritism and private family preference based upon legitimate business interests, a point which Burkett does skirt. If I need a topnotch web administrator, a person with four children may demand paid family leave, paid parental benefits, paid hardware for working from home—so that a $70,000 salary costs $100,000 a year. A single person with no dependents, no marriage plans and the same qualifications and, frankly, lower living costs and more disposable income, may feel he can fill the same position for $65,000 and only $10,000 in benefits, so that he works at a “discount” for $75,000 and lives very well. The employer has to make a “business decision” on whom to hire. But whatever the employer does, it is the marketplace that is driving his decision, not legislation, public policy, or even “morality.” At least, this example constitutes the other side of this issue. The fact is, people with dependents “need” more income and benefits and will tend to expect them from the marketplace. Of course, the role of tax policy and the use of pre-tax benefits complicates the issue. Progressive companies may offer the childless other pre-tax benefits in a cafeteria plan, but then “families” are not longer so favored. Bad employers might intentionally favor “families” but not tell employees upfront that this is their policy (and even try to discourage discussion of the issue, claiming that mere discussion is distracting and possibly hostile). The libertarian will maintain that the market fixes this. Unattached people don’t have to work for deceptive “family friendly” companies if they have the skills to appeal to employers who really can’t afford to pay for anything but talent and performance.

Actually, single people without dependents may, in some situations, take home more money while costing their employers less, because “family” health insurance costs several times as much, including contributory portions. This anomaly goes away when a union wins a contract for full company payment of family health benefits! Or, the childless may get the short end of the stick. They may be forced to take the worst shifts, work holidays and weekends, and in salaried-exempt environments, work overtime for parent colleagues without extra pay, comp time, or even reimbursement for expenses. This tends to happen more in sales organizations or in law firms. Parents are often unaware that others may be making sacrifices for them, or they may assume that younger workers will get their “investment” back when they have kids of their own (I’ve been asked more than once when I’ll join the crowd by becoming a dad myself, by people who don’t even conceive of what it must be like to be a gay male.) In information technology, where parents can work from home on computers (which may be provided at their own expense) there tends to be much less of a problem. (As a single gay male, I’ve worked a significant amount of overtime for a parent-colleague without pay just once in the past eight years.) But even in I.T., in the new twenty-four hour world of open systems architecture, e-commerce and dedicated customer service, this may well grow quickly into an issue, as some parents with young children feel beleaguered by the demands of staying on call or taking graveyard shifts.

It’s easy, if we look around at all, to become convinced that “we” must do something to help “families with children.” No doubt, raising kids—dealing with all the medical risks, the behaviors, the evil influences out there in a world of an open Internet, violent video games and moviesm drugs, guns, the family intimacies—and needing two incomes (perhaps two jobs for one breadwinner) is very tough. Some kids turn out well and some don’t. And, as I wrote in my own book, in the mood of the early 1990’s the corporate economics—plant closings, mergers, downsizings, the “entrepreneurial” workplace—could be very hard on families compared to singles, who may be able to work “cheaper” and lowball their competing coworkers out of layoffs. The economy is supposedly much better now, and we ought to be able to help parents, perhaps? As a Bill Moyer’s PBS documentary that followed several families through the 1990’s shows, it’s not that easy, especially for blue-collar types who had kids before they had anchored their careers.

But, as Burkitt asks, which families need special care from public policy? Maybe poor families should get help, but should high-salaried parents in the workplace force their childless colleagues to subsidize them? When people choose to have children, do they have the “moral right” to demand that others help subsidize them?

This all depends on how you look at it, doesn’t it! After all, family values are community values. We’re not just talking about “fairness,” we’re talking about social cohesion and “ordered liberty.” Hilary Clinton, after all, wrote It Takes a Village. Or does it take two committed parents to follow up on their choices?

There is a psychological spin beneath this that is really hard to get at. In Chapter 3, of Do Ask, Do Tell, I wrote, “There is friction between those who see themselves as capable of controlling their lives, and those who believe that self-concept comes from the direct reassurance of being needed by others.” I had expressed a similar pontification in an essay in GLIL’s 1994 issue of Quill. This, I still believe, is getting at it. The past fifty years have seen a technological revolution, spurned perhaps by war and national defense, that has apparently justified the notion that you should become your own person and express yourself, before making commitments to others. It’s more important to have yourself than to have a marriage. Some may dispute this, and say that the tide is changing, as evidenced by all the new “family friendliness.” Even so, today there is a tendency among many of us to care about others only when it suits our purposes. We lose sight of the ability to love people “as people” but rather as object that can turn us on, please us, or impress us with their merit. I certainly see this in myself.

Family used to be the way “unconditional love” was supposed to get done. The mechanism of heterosexual courtship, consummation, the taming of men by women into sexual commitment, all made “family” look like a prime number 13, something everyone participated in, beyond the calculation of economic self-interest. No more, perhaps, when the “Playboy” mentality and then the debate over “gay rights” can make heterosexual men question everything. Now, “family” is a forum of personal choice. So, we are led Burkett’s astonishing discussion of Ben Wattenberg and Jonathan Rauch, passing through dire warnings about the bipartisan political appeal (even reaching to saving Social Security) of “a pro-family program that redistributes money from the childless to the child-rearing” (“the redistribution of wealth from the childless to the childed”) for potentially eugenic purposes, ending with:

“And what of those childless, who will be forced to pay to motivate the ‘right’ people to reproduce? Neither Rauch nor Wattenberg seemed any more worried about them than were the politicians and feminist activists advancing that same redistribution. They are ‘free riders,’ Wattenberg says. “People who have no children … are in a sense, cheating the system.’” P. 146.

So, then, isn’t the “problem,” not just childlessness but having no dependents? Isn’t the real battle the one between those who have to care for others and support others and those with no one to support but themselves? I have to admit, I am one of the latter. It used to be that people like me stayed home to take care of aging parents, and never moved away. No more. Now we expect to become psychological astronauts (or maybe physical ones, as we’re just independent enough psychologically for the Mission to Mars, or perhaps to Europa and Titan .) Bill Gates made his contribution to society (and made my book possible) before marrying and having children. Free-dom!

Along these lines, the debate of same-sex marriage and gay parenting drops in (a topic Burkett barely mentions). We could, as Jonathan Rauch suggests in (Free Press, again) Beyond Queer, “expect” marriage and probably adoptive parenting or other caretaking from gays, and society might be much better off. There are plenty of kids needing adoption and plenty of very competent potential parents among gays, even the men, to the surprise of “conservatives.”

But, recognizing this, we can go down a scary path, as Burkett hints (but limiting her argument to childlessness). We could, for example, imagine a world in which no adult over thirty gets a good job (or a mortgage) until he or she has demonstrated the ability to provide for somebody besides the self. (Burkett, on p. 203, reacting to a 1977 Carnegie Council proposal of “full employment for parents” warns that such a public policy slippery slope—maybe couched deceptively as “non discrimination against parents”—can lead to legal second-class status for non-parents [or those without dependents, following my “Singapore” model] way beyond what we know today: employers could be required to offer jobs to parents first (and spare them from layoffs), be required to provide paid parental benefits at the expense of non-parents, and be required to give parents first choice of shift assignments, and even exclusion from all “nightcall” responsibilities.) A ukase to make oneself a family provider might conceivably be accomplished not so much by law as by allowing the culture to experiment further through the marketplace (and, in fact, it would require repealing quite a few laws) Maybe it works this way on some other Urantian planet or Clive Barker dominion. In a way, this does sound “fair” (and, after all, the moral underpinning of individualism must be fairness and deservedness) even if it involves psychological strip-mining. Perhaps a more “modest proposal” would be this: companies are free to, and perhaps “expected to” offer modest preferences to those with live-in dependents, as long as they announce their policies openly at the time of hire. Allowing gay marriage (and facilitating gay parenting) would make this much more acceptable. It would also possible to regard elderly parents or relatives as dependents in this sense; Burkett mentions the argument that a f

I don’t know whether such a draconian “moral” development would alter the “Map of the Human Heart.” Indeed, the Oscar Wilde legacy has expressed itself in our culture as a love of aesthetics, of the perfect and beautiful and exciting, at the expense of loving plain people. Outside of a religious paradigm, who can say if this is right or wrong? Ethics and epistemology, after all, demand postulates. We certainly are coming to appreciate diversity of talent and psychological direction and to resist prejudice against people who are emotionally different, and yet we seem secretly troubled that such people might get a “free ride” or that their “sense and sensibility” change the rules for the rest of us. There is a danger that our psychological individualism can lead less able people (and I mean adults) out in the cold, without an unquestionable family context to give their lives meaning. Perhaps we do need some cultural “rules” expecting everyone to support others or otherwise to take periodical sabbaticals where they throw their entire lives into helping the underprivileged. But I do know that when we respect the psychological diversity of people, and are open to understanding what makes people very different from us tick, and work with them to allow them to find their best productive opportunities regardless of otherwise authoritarian moral judgments, we wind up with a more human world for everyone, with more to go around

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