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By Carolyn Kay

Republicans are now “the party of Sam’s Club, not just the country club,” according to Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, as quoted in a recent article in the conservative Weekly Standard.  Republicans only recently, it seems, discovered that working people form a substantial portion of their base.  But let’s not fault them for being late to the party, when the recommendations in this article are so interesting.  And so Democratic.

It’s difficult to raise a family in America, according to the authors, an associate editor at the Atlantic Monthly, Ross Douthat, and a freelance writer, Reihan Salam.  Economic insecurity is the culprit, they say, caused by lack of affordable health care, the prevalence of low wages and job insecurity, and regressive taxes.  The “you’re on your own” philosophy doesn’t seem to be working well for America’s families, except for those who can afford luxuries like expensive automobiles—and children.

Having discovered these deficiencies, the authors recommend several areas where Republicans can promote policies to help America’s families.  Many of their proposals would fit well in the platform of most any Democrat.

Some of the solutions offered are listed below.  To see the details, read the whole article.  It has some very interesting proposals.

Health care insurance—make it universal (by making it mandatory), less expensive (partly by making it catastrophic coverage only, partly by negotiating with insurers), portable, and severed from employment (so it’s not clear who would do the negotiating to reduce costs—it wouldn’t be anybody in the Bush administration, that’s for sure).

Wages—rather than bashing business, the way Democrats do (according to the authors), promote “a program of wage subsidies, like that proposed by Columbia University economist Edmund Phelps… Far from being a new entitlement, wage subsidies would be an anti-entitlement, with government helping only those who are already helping themselves.”

Taxes—“keep taxes lowest for those entering the workforce and preparing to have children, and for young families making investments in their offspring. As workers gain experience and enter their peak earning years, it makes sense for the tax burden to increase…  But another, still bolder choice would be to remove all families earning less than $100,000 from the tax rolls.”  Make up the lost revenue by imposing a consumption tax, which would provide an incentive to save for a down payment on a house and for the costs of raising children.

Does this mean that the progressive fight for economic justice now over?  Can we sit back and relax?

Not exactly.

The problem is with the reasons Douthat and Salam give for making families’ lives easier.  Maybe it’s idealistic, but some of us have thought the reason to encourage strong, economically secure, and loving families is because that is what is most likely to enable people to reach their human potential, and to live full and rewarding lives.  Any government participation in that effort is geared toward fulfilling its obligation, stated in the preamble to the Constitution, to promote the general welfare.

Those are not the reasons these authors give.  They are concerned that reduced baby production, especially the lack of “bonus babies” (presumably, more babies than the two per family most common in America today) will cause economic problems in the future.  “Without a youthful population, the costs of supporting retirees are unsustainable, and the innovation and entrepreneurial zeal that make America the world's economic leader will slowly wither.”  An extra added attraction for helping families is that it will solidify Republican political dominance, these authors say.

It’s always tricky to attribute motives to others, since we cannot completely put ourselves in their place.  But how much clearer does it have to be that these reasons are economic, and not moral?  And if the reasons for seeing that families have a chance at a decent life are not based on morality, what is to stop those in power from taking the ability away when they see fit?  When we reach the point that couples are having too many “bonus babies”, would these authors then advise the party in power to cut back, to make people a bit more miserable, so they’ll have fewer babies?

The article makes it a bit easier to understand some of the battles in today’s culture wars, though.  Sex out of marriage is unacceptable because it can lead to producing babies outside the economic security of the family, or to abortion.  Abortion (and to some people, even birth control), can’t be tolerated because it reduces baby production.  Single parent families are unacceptable because the parent is most likely to be a mother who can’t earn enough money to support the family comfortably.  Gay sex is bad because it doesn’t produce any babies.  Gay marriage is anathema because the couple can’t produce babies together.  The term “family values” begins to take on a whole new meaning.

Homo economicus, meet homo religious.  And suddenly we start to see how the crazy quilt coalition that makes up today’s Republican Party was built.

Should we quibble with motivations, when we agree with the policies?  Yes.  Because looking at people solely as cogs in the economic machine can lead to dehumanizing policies when the humanizing ones are no longer needed.  And just look at the hypocrisy here.  For years, Republicans have criticized Democrats for “pandering” to working people by trying to look out for their economic interests.  Maybe it isn’t pandering when Republicans do it.

The authors take swipes at Democrats for criticizing Wal-Mart, which they laud for employing a great number of people.  But many Wal-Mart employees are so poorly paid that tax money is required to help them survive.  The wage subsidies recommended in this article would only encourage such big and conscienceless employers to externalize their costs even further.

Please don’t doubt that we Americans pay for each others’ wages—in one way or another.  If we force companies to pay a living wage, that cost is built into the prices of the products and services they sell.  Otherwise, we pay higher taxes so that the most poorly paid employees can eat and have a roof over their heads.  It’s either higher prices or higher taxes.  The only other possibility is to let the working poor die in the streets, which surely no one wants.

There is a strong case to be made for insisting on building the cost of a living wage into the prices of the products we buy, and it’s actually a market-oriented case.  Any conservative should understand it.  The argument is that if people don’t want to buy a product that is priced based on the full cost of its production and sale, is that a product that we need?  Doesn’t that test embody what the free market is all about?

When Americans begin to trust that they will consistently be treated fairly in the workplace, and not because it’s expedient, but because it’s the right thing to do, we may not have to worry about the level of baby production.

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Last changed: December 13, 2009