First, ‘Death Tax’; Now, ‘Birth Tax’?

As the right continues to flail for new ways to justify its assault on progressive taxation, Robert Samuelson has come up with a doozy: If we raise taxes to reduce the deficit, “more Americans may choose not to have children or to have fewer children.”

Imagine the TV ad you could do with this one.

A woman is slicing tomatoes in the kitchen. Gentle music plays in the background. Her husband walks in and gently wraps his arms around her. “An everyday moment could become romantic at a moment’s notice,” a voiceover intones.

Then the woman hesitates. The music stops. She looks into her husband’s eyes and asks, “But what about our tax rates?”

Even Samuelson’s column concedes that the above scene is silly; there’s more to the decision to having a child than the impact on the 1040 form.

While having a child is a deeply personal decision, it’s also shaped by culture, religion, economics and government policy. “No one has a good answer” as to why fertility varies among countries, says sociologist Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University. Eroding religious belief in Europe may partly explain lowered birth rates. In Japan, young women may be rebelling against their mothers’ isolated lives of child-rearing. General optimism and pessimism count. Hopefulness fueled America’s baby boom. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, says Cherlin, “anxiety for the future” depressed birth rates in Russia and Eastern Europe.

Note how Samuelson rushes past America’s post-war experience of high fertility and high taxes, and, for that matter, the parallel between the economic insecurity that came with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the heightened anxiety for the future that Americans feel in the wake of the Wall Street crash.

In both cases, taxes aren’t the issue. The issue is economic opportunity.

Derek Thompson argues over at The Atlantic that the real problem is not a “parent trap” but “a middle class trap, as middle-income wages aren’t catching up to middle-income spending on health care, education, and essentials.”

If corporations invested more of their profits in jobs in America, if worker wages rose in accordance to the productivity gains they contribute to the economy, and if labor mobility wasn’t paralyzed by underwater mortgages that financial institutions refuse to rewrite, we could begin to have a more prosperous and more confident middle class. It also helps if prospective parents know that they would bring children into a world of safe streets, clean parks, adequately funded schools and other support services that We The People contribute to and share.

Economist Dean Baker, meanwhile, takes on Samuelson’s argument that a lower American fertility rate is an inherently bad thing.

Samuelson bizarrely thinks that slower or negative population growth will hurt the economy. He thinks that it will slow demand growth. There are two simple problems with this story. First, we are in an international economy, so if demand in the U.S. economy is growing less rapidly [then] we can sell our output elsewhere. The other problem is the big “so what?”

If we can produce everything we want in the United States and still not fully employ our workforce then we can all get longer vacations and have shorter workweeks. In a functioning economic system, having too much is not a problem — you just work less. In the Netherlands they figured this out — they use work sharing rather than layoffs to deal with inadequate demand. As a result its unemployment rate is close to 4.0 percent. In Germany, work sharing has been so effective that its unemployment rate is lower today than it was at the start of the downturn.

Still, what makes the Samuelson column so nefarious is that it feeds a conservative narrative that we’re taxed too much and get too little benefit, when the real problem is that the right has strait-jacketed our politics in ways that prevent us from taxing and spending smartly on ourselves and our future. It ignores the real policy choices that are currently on the table (eliminating the Bush tax cuts for the richest Americans vs. keeping those cuts in place and cutting programs and services that benefit middle-class and low-income Americans instead). And the article says nothing about the number one economic need of middle-class families that want to raise children: a stable job at a living wage, and the conservative stonewalling of the policies that would allow those jobs to be created more rapidly.

As Baker so aptly put it, “Too bad Samuelson won’t discuss this failure of economic policy.”


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