Archive for January, 2013

The American family has been under attack by the federal government for nearly a century.  As has been well understood throughout history, strong families provide an essential role in caring for the old, the young, the injured, and the infirm.  Families are one of the first targets of governments which seek to amass greater power or breed a culture of dependency within a population.  In America, commentators have frequently derided Welfare as being an assault on the American family which encourages having children out of wedlock, discourages marriage and fatherhood, and locks people into a system of dependence on government for their survival.  However, the assault on the American family actually goes back much farther.  It begins at least by 1935, with the passage of the Social Security Act.

In order to understand how Social Security injures families, it’s important to first understand what Social Security does.  Enacted as part of FDR’s New Deal, the SSA was passed with the intent to provide support to the elderly who may have run into difficulty during the harsh economic climate of the Great Depression.  Like private pension programs, Social Security pays older people to not work, which has the effect of ejecting many of them from the workforce regardless of their physical or mental capabilities to continue working.  Social Security is financed by a tax on working individuals who are thus compelled to subsidize the retirement of the elderly.

Traditionally, care for the elderly after the end of their productive lives had been regarded as the responsibility of their children.  For the first time in history, the SSA injected the federal government directly into the business of elder care on a massive, nationwide scale.  By providing money directly to elderly individuals, the children became less important in their care.  What’s more, by distancing the elderly from their working children, the needs of the elderly have become less well understood among younger generations, forcing the elderly to advocate for themselves without the full and understanding support of their families.  The elderly are thus encouraged to look outside of their families for support and, in particular, to look for the government for assistance as they seek to live “independent” lives.

Social Security has also changed the role of the elderly in society in ways that impact the family unit.  The elderly are now encouraged to retire at or before the start of their Social Security eligibility, which is increasingly coming at a time before the end of their productive lives.  The result is an increasing number of “fixed income” earners who may need to look to their families for support if, for whatever reason, their income level isn’t sufficient to meet their financial needs.  This presents a different sort of strain on the family than traditional elder care because of tension in the belief that the elderly individuals could earn money from working if they wanted to; and the strain would be particularly acute if the financial distress came from unnecessary expenses such as trips or costly purchases.  What’s more, because Social Security has weakened the expectation that children are expected to care for their parents in old age, the children are more likely to balk at discovering that they need to be supportive.  Extended retirement can be a wedge between an elderly parent and an adult child which serves neither party very well.

Finally, concerns over the continued viability of Social Security have become an additional wedge between the elderly and the working age population.  For those at or near the retirement age, there is a strong incentive to ensure that no changes are made to their expected benefits.  For those at or near the start of their career, the payroll taxes used to fund Social Security are expected to be dead loss, as the program will likely be bankrupt by the time they reach retirement age unless major structural changes are made to the program.  The result is a tension between the young and the old in which, because the older generations are more established in political and social life, the elderly have the upper hand.

While it is true that there has always been a tension between the needs of the elderly compared to the willingness or ability of their children to provide for them, the fight in the Social Security context is one over rigid legal obligations versus fluid negotiations between individuals with a personal relationship.  As in everything, rules which must apply to an entire society cannot possibly take account of every personal situation.  Worse still, parents need not work as hard to cultivate positive relationships with their children for the sake of future care when they know that their children will be forced to support them in any case.  While it is a sad thing indeed to think that a family might be held together by a parent’s expected need for elder care from their children, it is still one thread in the great tapestry of family relations which, if severed, may sometimes cause things to unravel.

Like with Welfare, Social Security restructures society to increase reliance on the government at the expense of the family.  Although the harms to the family which result from Social Security are weak, and although the programs stops well short of encouraging the destruction of families, it nevertheless increases the distance between parents and their children.  Perhaps most importantly, Social Security was the first major government program to intrude so directly on the traditional role of the family; it has served and continues to serve as the basis for many more government programs which have significantly eroded the freedom and independence of Americans.

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28
Jan

The American Family: Autonomy and Dependence

   Posted by: Robert    in Philosophy

In reviewing America’s two most long held family traditions, one contrast appears which is impossible to escape.  The traditional roles of white and black families have been inescapably different since as far back as the early colonial days.  While white adventurers and their families were certainly not universally wealthy when they came to America, every one came with the hope of building a new and prosperous life in the New World, free of the limitations imposed on them in their native lands.  Blacks, in contrast, were not at all coming to a land of freedom; while many were no less free in America than they were in their native African lands, none came to America seeking freedom or prosperity.  White families in America have always been mostly autonomous social units, while black families were highly dependent on others for even their very existence.

A natural question to ask is whether that division remains true even today.  To be sure, slavery has ended, and there is no reasonable claim that any American family can be forcibly separated without their consent.1  There are, however, plenty of other social pressures which contribute to the autonomy of families which may be coercive, even if they aren’t enforced as mandatory.

It is well known (and quite intentional) that individuals and families living in poverty are more dependent on government programs and support from charities than individuals and families with wealth.  It is also well known that racial minorities tend to be more impoverished than whites and are, therefore, more likely to be using some sort of social support.  Because support programs tend to have rules for inclusion, maintaining eligibility requires taking care to stay within the criteria of whichever programs a person or family has joined.  Some of those rules relate to family structure, so families wanting to remain eligible are not free to structure their families as they wish.

One well known program which imposes conditions on family structure is welfare.  Before the sweeping changes made to the program during the Clinton presidency, welfare’s rules on the family sometimes required that a person be unmarried in order to be eligible.  With the conservative led efforts on welfare reform, married families are now able to get welfare benefits, although the rules for that remain fairly hostile toward providing benefits to married couples.  For people given a choice between welfare support and marital support, it is often economically rational to choose the former.

Indeed, there is some evidence that decisions of that sort have been internalized as a part of black culture.  In an article out of the University of Pennsylvania, Kathryn Edin notes in a review of low-income single mothers’ attitudes about marriage that, “Affordability, respectability, and control have greater salience for African American mothers, while trust and domestic violence have greater salience for whites.”  Affordability — the cost of having a husband — reflects the reality that outside pressures continue to play a significant role in black family structure.  Meanwhile, trust and domestic violence, which are identified as the most important issues to white single mothers, are internal issues which concern those two people without reference to external pressures.

It does, then, seem that there remains a notable difference between white and black families on the question of family autonomy.  Our social institutions which undercut autonomy are the same ones aimed at reducing the burdens of poverty, and thus disproportionately affect black families.  For their part, black women seem to have internalized such considerations as part of their decision criteria when determining how to structure a family.  Indeed, many may find that marriage is a burden; rather in contrast to the ideal of a marriage as an institution which enhances both people by forming a union which is greater than the sum of its parts.

  1. Forced separation of immigrant families is a separate and interesting issue which won’t be addressed here today. []

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24
Jan

The New Obama Honeymoon

   Posted by: Robert    in News

News reports out of Washington yesterday continue to be deeply disappointing for anyone who believes, even a little bit, in spending cuts and deficit reduction.  Apparently seeking some version of prudence in putting off the debt ceiling fight until they can better make the case for spending cuts, Republicans have given Obama a blank check with a sticky note asking to talk to him about it later.  This strikes me in every way as being yet another example of Republicans giving Obama and the Democrats almost everything they want, in exchange for… I have no idea what.  It’s really starting to look as if the Republicans in Congress have completely lost their minds.

If there is a single upside to what the Republicans have managed to accomplish, it’s to lay bare once and for all the farce formerly known as the debt limit.  As a trip point for political and media chaos, the debt ceiling was an unbelievably potent tool.  Every few months for the past few years, we’ve had this highly compressed political dance of talking about the government running out of money and how we need to get serious about reducing the deficit.  At the end of the day, though, the whole thing ended up being nothing but political theater after the first couple of rounds made it obvious that Republicans would always blink first in the game of financial chicken.  When you get right down to it, the debt ceiling has been effectively unlimited for years.

By always being the side that blinks, Republicans have done an exceptional job of losing all credibility in the recurring battles over deficit reduction.  Everyone knows that when the going gets tough, the GOP backs down.  And while they used to at least frustrate the Democrats a little bit in their compromises, the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling “compromises” have been nothing but capitulation in exchange for trivialities.

Behavior like this is exactly why conservatives have no faith in Republican candidates and it is precisely why Republicans have so much trouble turning out their base.  Low conservative turnout for elections is a vote of no confidence in the Republican party.

As I’ve said before and will say again, when Republicans do the things that they say, they are unbeatable on the economy.  Republicans won huge in 2010 on a platform of economic issues.  Romney beat Obama handily among economy-oriented voters.  Americans want deficit reduction, debt reduction, and spending cuts.  The GOP doesn’t need to take their time to prepare that message; they have done that successfully.

What Republicans need to do is start acting like they believe in any of it.

And so as I understand it, May will come and with it will come the expiration of the unlimited debt ceiling.  The media, which will have ignored five more months of Republicans attempting to talk about spending cuts, will once again get all amped up over the financial crisis du jour and put Republicans back on their heels with cries that the GOP wants to cut off America’s financial legs.  Republicans, having never tried to spread their message by any means other than the mainstream media, will have no choice but to extend the unlimited debt ceiling again, while promising future talks about spending reduction, “for real this time, you guys!”  And so it goes, and so it goes…

Until the country plunges to its doom.

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21
Jan

The American Family: Another Tradition

   Posted by: Robert    in Philosophy

In my previous post, I took a look at the evolution through history of the traditional American family.  An astute reader, familiar with an ongoing theme of my writing, may have noticed an interesting point about the description that I gave.  My description of the traditional American family — a description that mirrors the one that shows up in history textbooks and classrooms — is roughly the history of white families in America.  Although black families also have a tradition that stretches back to before the dawn of the republic, I pointedly side-stepped any mention of that in my previous writing.  It is the black story that is the subject of my writing today.

Thanks to their importation from Africa, blacks have been part of the American heritage as the European settlers who built the first colonies in the new world.  Having been sold from their villages in Africa, blacks were loaded en masse onto slave ships and carried to America where most would find work on plantations.  As seen clearly on the classic diagram of a slave ship layout, men and women were both brought to America with the obvious implication that the slave traders intended for there to be a breeding population of slaves.  Or, to say it in a way that doesn’t sound like a discussion of cattle, black families were always part of the landscape of American history.

Although families were a consideration of the slave trade, the resulting social unit had very different parameters than would be seen among white families.  The primary differences are, of course, the obvious ones:  sales of slaves, both parents and children, fractured families in ways unknown to the world of white America.  Although there is some evidence that slaves families received some respect from slave owners, the reality is that about half of slave families didn’t have two parents and their young children all living together and that a family member could be sold at any time.  What’s more, the sale of children was far more routine, particularly as the children approached and entered adulthood.

The ways in which slave families did get separated were also about as we would expect.  If a parent was to be sold, it tended to be the father, leaving the mother alone to raise her children.  Remarriage was relatively uncommon, although childbirth would not necessarily end with the death or sale of a father.  As a result, single mother families were the second most common family structure seen among slave families.

Information on black families from the start of Reconstruction through modern times is relatively difficult to find, although we do know some of the events that took place.  During reconstruction, blacks were allowed to have legally recognized marriages, and many did get married under the newly written laws.  Interracial marriages would remain generally forbidden for decades.  During this time period, blacks moved from sharecropping into the cities, where their presence tended to displace white populations especially during the post World War II boom and suburban expansion.

In modern times, the black family is notable for having to deal with a number of racial and social pressures.  Poverty, particularly in the inner cities, is a well known problem which disproportionately affects blacks.  Support programs, particularly those with a governmental pedigree, seek to provide money to impoverished blacks in part on the basis of their family structure.  Commentators have been observing for years that black fathers appear to be missing from and uninvolved in their childrens’ lives.  Even so, black families appear to remain cohesive and strong.

~~*~~

Across the nation, today we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., one of our nation’s most important civil rights leaders.  In so doing, we must also remember that he was a family man, who dreamt of a world where his children would “be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  It is therefore fitting that we look to the past in hope of finding the understanding necessary to reach such a wonderful future.

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17
Jan

The American Family: A Changing Institution

   Posted by: Robert    in Philosophy

The American family is one of the most widely recognized institutions in the nation.  In modern usage, the traditional family is most frequently recognized to mean the Nuclear Family, in which two adults are responsible for one or more children who are their offspring by birth.  Other family structures have existed in the past and in the present, though none is nearly so iconic.  In any of its various forms, the family is one of the most important and enduring social structures in history.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the predominant family structure looked slightly different than it does today.  During a more agrarian era, families often served as both social and economic units.  Socially, it was much more common for multiple generations of family to live on a single family plot, with elderly relatives, working age parents, and their children all living together under the same roof.  The number of children had by each family was larger than we’ve grown accustomed to today, both because of higher child mortality and because children were an important part of the workforce on a family farm.  Children, both male and female, tended to leave home as a result of marriage at ages we would currently consider to be relatively young.  Families in this era generally needed to be self-sufficient as they depended on themselves for economic gain.

When the Industrial Revolution hit, the family structure began to shift in ways that would lead to the modern traditional family.  The most important result of the Industrial Revolution was the development of economic prosperity outside of the family unit.  Factories hired large numbers of men, women, and children who found that they could earn more money working for a company than they could working on their family’s land.  During this time, the multi-generational homestead began to decline as small urban quarters forced more people into apartments and tenements which couldn’t support several generations of a single family.  During this era, families became increasingly dependent on outsiders for support as employers became necessary to provide wages, and unions and governments took more active roles in policing the relationship between employers and employees.

The ultimate result of the Industrial Revolution was realized after the conclusion of World War II.  The manufacturing might of the United States following the war created a period of unprecedented wealth which allowed unmarried people and married couples to invest in single family homes meant exclusively for themselves and the relatively small number of children they would produce.  New found wealth, advances in medical science, and an increasingly mature social security system allowed the elderly to live independent lives for longer.  As service industries grew to support the non-manufacturing needs of the population, professional nursing and convalescent care for the infirm and elderly became more prevalent and widespread.  At the other end of the age scale, mandatory education had long since replaced employment either in business or on the family farm as the primary occupation of America’s children.  This extended period of non-productive activity was supported by the wealth of their working parents, particularly their fathers as ‘working moms’ were only just beginning to become a meaningful demographic.

With America now facing an economic disaster brought about by unsustainable fiscal policies developed for an era of seemingly unbounded wealth, changes to the family are beginning once again.  Today’s seniors, many of whom were disgusted as younger adults at the conditions in the nursing home where their parents or grandparents ended their lives, are once again looking to their children for support in their old age.  Thanks to the worsening economic climate and ever increasing demands for education, many of today’s children are unable to become independent of their Baby Boomer parents until well into their twenties.  In response, some families have begun to build modern versions of the multi-generational homes that dominated the American landscape before being derelicted by our industrial might.

America’s family structure reflects the progress of America as a nation.  As the demands on our people have changed, so has the way that we organize ourselves.  At every step, the structure of the family tells a story about our culture and history.  These stories will be important as my series on the family continues.

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14
Jan

The American Family: An Introduction

   Posted by: Robert    in Philosophy

The family is one of nature’s most fundamental constructs.  Throughout human history, archaeologists and anthropologists have found no shortage of evidence that humans organized around family structures.  The structure of the family predates — probably by tens of thousands of years — any form of government, civic organization, or other type of formal organization known in the world today.  Families are widely recognized in culture and in law throughout the world as an institution worthy of recognition and respect.

Families have traditionally served a number of purposes, often simultaneously.  Biologically, families are the physical and social construct humans use for the creation and raising of offspring.  Families have served as apprenticeship programs, in which mothers and fathers pass along vital life and job skills to their children.  Families provide care to the young and the old, in times of sickness and times of health.  Families teach and propagate values, norms, and mores.  Families provide a support network of people who will come to each others’ aid in times of hardship, often with little or no consideration of receiving anything in return.

At least, that’s how we’re told it’s supposed to work.  As with most things in the world, the picture of the family in today’s America is often quite different from the version we find in our story books.  The “nuclear family” of the 1950s has grown increasingly hard to find over the years, as the divorce rate has climbed and more children have been born out of wedlock.  Even in families that appear outwardly to be “nuclear”, many of them are undergoing deep fission.  Children and parents may not get along, and the parents themselves may be working toward divorce.  The meaning and importance of extended family is incredibly hard to track down.

Republicans have been latched on to the concept (if not the reality) of the family for as long as I can remember, although I’ve never been told exactly why.  Presumably, it’s largely because families are seen as institutions of tradition, and the preservation of tradition is the essence of classical conservatism.  Championing families also allows for some political cover in certain areas of otherwise seemingly liberal legislation, such as censoring airwaves to protect “family values.”  The major religions also place importance on the family, which would tend to increase the level of Republican concern.

In recent years, families have seemingly tended to weaken in ways which I feel may threaten freedom in America.  In an upcoming series of posts, I will lay out a more detailed view of the family and the forces which work against it, the importance of the family to American liberty, and some suggestions for how conservatives can preserve and promote strong families for the benefit of the nation.

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10
Jan

Pushing the Middle Class Over the Cliff

   Posted by: Robert    in Politics

There’s no shortage of things to dislike about the way the Fiscal Cliff was “avoided” by the politicians in Washington.  Deferring talks about cutting spending, again, is one of the most prominent failures I can imagine.  The impotence of Republicans in winning even a single meaningful battle is an embarrassment to the party and to conservatism.  The fact that America’s real fiscal disaster looms as large as ever, even as we pat ourselves on the back for fixing a so-called disaster that we specifically engineered for our political theatre, is inescapable.  But perhaps the greatest thorn in my side as I consider everything that went wrong with the Fiscal Cliff “solution” is the restoration of Social Security taxes to their level three years ago.

In the media and in political discussions, the battle over the Fiscal Cliff was played out in a world foreign to most Americans.  The debate on the table was largely about taxes on the “rich,” meaning people who have incomes significantly higher than most of us are likely to achieve.  The political battle over the definition of “rich” (is it $250k?  $400k?  $1 million?) happened way over the heads of most Americans, since most of us don’t live in households with six figure incomes.  Of course, this focus on “the richest of the rich”, “the 1%”, or whatever you want to call them was entirely the point.  As the rhetoric went, “they have more money than they need, they aren’t you, so screw them.”  And so we did.

But even as Republicans celebrate passing a permanent tax cut for the middle class — a “tax cut” which merely makes “permanent” the “temporary” tax rates that had lasted more than a decade — most Americans won’t see a tax cut when they open their next pay stub.  In fact, everyone who gets a pay stub will see a tax increase, thanks to the two year old Social Security tax “holiday” being allowed to expire.  When a tax cut causes taxes to go up, you know something is broken.

Welcome to America.

That Republicans would fail to protect the lowered Social Security tax rate is hardly a surprise.  Republicans, despite being the party of lower taxes, have opposed the lowered rate from the very beginning.  Republicans cited the already weak condition of Social Security which would be weakened further by the tax cut.  In practical terms, the tax holiday likely did very little to inspire job creation, because employers had to spend the same amount of money anyway; it was just allocated differently between employees and the government.  Nevertheless, outside the topsy-turvey world of Washington, the tax “holiday” was a tax cut, and its expiration is now a tax increase.

Of course, raising Social Security taxes does precious little good for anybody.  Social Security was going broke before the tax holiday and will continue going broke after.  With discussions of actually fixing Social Security in a state of perpetual deferral, Republican “problem solvers” have failed to solve any problem that needs solving.  And while Republicans seem institutionally incapable of understanding why people vote for them, things like this will do nothing but help drive away those very voters.

Republicans could make great strides if they stopped looking at taxes through the lens of Washington and started looking at them the way the people do.  If I look at my pay stub and the number for me is higher while the number for the government is lower, that’s a tax cut.  If my number is lower and the government’s is higher, that’s a tax increase.  A tax cut that goes away — it doesn’t matter how or why — makes my number go down and theirs go up, which means it’s a tax increase.  Making a “temporary” tax cut “permanent” is utterly meaningless, because the numbers don’t change.  And of course, there’s no such thing as a permanent tax cut anyway, because the government can always just raise taxes again.

But no, Republicans think like Democrats and live in a world where words don’t mean what they mean.  And all of us whose paychecks got smaller now have to suffer for it.

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7
Jan

Income Taxes as Class Protections

   Posted by: Robert    in Philosophy, Politics

In the buildup to the “resolution” of the Fiscal Cliff, there was a great deal of discussion about the effects of tax rates on the American economy.  For Democrats, the magic word was “revenue”, meaning how much more money the government could take from the hands of the private sector.  For Republicans, the magic word was “jobs”, meaning what that money meant to the entrepreneurs who need help to maintain and grow their businesses.  There was a great deal of talk about the “rich” needing to “pay their fair share,” and the plight of the middle class who are perpetually caught between government welfare programs and self-sufficient wealth.  But amidst the flurry of frequently repeated words, one comment caught my ear which I only heard once, but which struck me as so powerful as to be the most important thought in the entire debate.  Those taxes tied to high incomes are classist and serve as a means to insulate the “rich” from upwardly mobile Americans.

The key to understanding the classism of taxes is to understand what it means to be rich in America.  Our political discourse treats “the rich” as a single group of people with access to far more money than any “ordinary” person could ever hope to gain.  In reality, there are at least two different groups of “rich” in America with different profiles and different concerns.

Classic examples of “rich” people in America include Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, and the Kennedy family.  Those people, and others like them, are rich in the sense that they have accumulated a great deal of wealth which they hold independently of any other productive activity in which they may be engaged.  In other words, their bank accounts are overflowing and would continue to do so even if they never worked another day in their lives.  So too with the other wealthy people who have come out in favor of high taxes on the “rich”.  While these people have piles of cash, it isn’t their income today that makes them wealthy.

The other group of “rich” people in America are a lot of people that we might not normally consider.  While everyone knows that doctors and lawyers make tons of money, they mostly aren’t the people we think of as being among “the rich”.  Neither is the small business owner who can certainly earn a good living.  Indeed, as any Jane Austen novel can attest, the professional class of doctors, lawyers, and business owners is distinct and different from the gentry or aristocracy.  In America, where money and class are intimately related, professionals (especially business owners) have the ability to jump into the higher classes if only they are able to accumulate enough wealth.  Ultimately, though, these are people who still need to be able to generate income in order to better their lives.

Seen in that way, consider the effect of raising income taxes on people with incomes over some arbitrary amount.  For people already in the higher class, this won’t affect them very much because their incomes are rather beside the point — Bill Gates will still be a billionaire even if the government doesn’t let him earn another cent.  However, for people striving to earn their first billion dollars, a tax powered income cap of $400,000 would force them to wait over two thousand years before having that first celebration — assuming they never spend any money on anything.  Even at more modest tax rates, higher taxes still impose barriers to entry which will reduce the number of people willing or able to move into the higher class.

A tax based on income is a real barrier to upward mobility particularly for people (such as minorities) who don’t come from a background of privilege.  Earning wealth in America already requires a commitment to saving (and an ability to save) plus a knowledge of investing (and an ability to invest) which tends not to exist (and may not be possible) among the lower classes.  As taxes become more confiscatory, and as the tax code makes shielding wealth from taxation more difficult, the level of knowledge required to succeed becomes ever greater.  A person escaping from poverty will need to rely more on strangers for help and support, and so will be more susceptible to bad advice whether given honestly or by people trying to take advantage.

Historically, the upper classes have gone to great lengths to maintain their status above the people in the classes below.  Rules of society, the privilege of money, and even armed conflict have all been employed to protect “old money” from new.  But I am aware of no other time in history when the rich, by appearing to harm themselves, have so successfully won popular support for their own class protection.  While everyone focuses on the people who have already become rich, it is the people who are most successfully trying to get there who will experience the greatest harm.

Far be it from me to say that the rich in America — a class which includes most politicians — is trying intentionally to structure the tax code to prevent other Americans from intruding into their class.  But like any other identityism, classism need not be intentional to be real.  The fact remains that raising taxes on higher income earners imposes barriers to upward mobility which will tend to further separate the rich from the people who are trying to get there.

High taxes on the rich are classist; not against the “rich”, but the “poor”.

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