In this NYT opinion piece, Josh Barro is trying to make a reasonable, if debatable, point in the argument about tax credits for child care: such a tax credit is not unfair to families who provide care for their own children by having one of the parents forgo paid employment, rather, it's correcting an economic situation that's stacked against families who pay for child care out of their taxable wages.
I haven't run the numbers or looked closely at the child care tax credit. Likely there are many families that would be helped by it. I suppose whether it's fair or not, targeted as it is to only families with children, and only families who make certain choices -- depends on whether you think that targeted tax relief is meant to nudge people's economic choices, or only to win support from needed demographics; and if it is the former, on what economic choices we are trying to make easier. (Is it raising children in general? Or is it a specific vision of how to raise children?)
But what I find remarkable about the article is the language, and the vision of "normal" economy vs. "distorted" economy that it belies:
The tax code is already hugely distorted in favor of stay-at-home parenting: Labor outside the home is taxed; household work, such as stay-at-home parenting, is not.
...[P]roductive activities within the home are not especially different from the taxable work we do outside the home. We labor, and instead of receiving a cash wage, we receive something else we value: a clean house or a mowed lawn or a well-behaved child.
Barro has given us a great gift here. Normally when opinion writers hold a view of the human person, or some subset of human persons, as existing to serve the economy rather than the economy existing to serve human persons, they go to some length to obscure it through euphemism. Normally people shy away from directly saying that a human being -- such as a "well-behaved child" -- is something that can be bought, in this case with the opportunity cost of lost wages, much like a clean house or a mowed lawn.
But Barro is comfortable coming right out and saying it. I appreciate his candor (no, really). Because now we can discuss it openly, like adults.
I don't have to appeal to any sort of authority other than common knowledge about the history of the human species to assert that the original human "economy" is a quite small one: either the nuclear family, or the extended family of relatives, or perhaps a larger one of dozens of individuals. All of the individuals in such a human economy have needs; some people can satisfy some of their own needs; some people provide for the needs of others; both the satisfying, and the providing, constitute "work." In larger groups there may be a somewhat complex mechanism for pooling the fruits of work and then distributing them for the common good. In the groups that are largest, but still small enough to be governed by shared values, the pooling might have to be enforced by social pressure grounded in those values. In smaller ones, small enough to be governed by trust, the distribution of the fruits of work can be enforced by a system of favors that are expected to be returned.
The very smallest -- family -- is governed by love and attachment alone (and the size of that circle, how many degress of relationships it encompasses, might even be defined as the size of the circle of attachment). I labor to feed my baby because he is my baby and I am his mother. My older sons labor to change the baby's diaper and tote him around because they belong to each other. Mark sits down at hte desk upstairs and crunches the numbers in the family budget every week or two, for the good of all of us, because we are his family and he is our family. That is all the incentive we need.
Today we live in a large and complex society. It is just that we pay into a pooling system to pay for the infrastructure that we all rely upon, the roads and so on; and also that we redistribute some quantity of excess wealth to support the needy. The pooling system is inevitably complex, and imperfect, and probably requires compulsion because of the impersonal distance between the producer and the receiver of the fruits, and where there is compulsion there is always griping. That is a tax economy. It is something that people can design well, or design poorly; but it's something we invented.
In other words, the family economy -- the labor and the distribution of fruits that takes place between household members because of their attachment and sense of familial duty to one another, and for no other reason -- exists before the tax economy. And so it is improper to speak of the family economy, no matter what form it may take, as a "distortion" of the tax economy -- which, like all of our labor, exists only to serve families, when you get right down to it.
Just Another Jenny, a married mother who is the family breadwinner, recently wrote:
Since I am in the workplace, I spend a fair bit of time thinking about the purpose of work. I think all people have the obligation to provide for their family in the best way that they are able given their nature and inclinations. I believe that only in a subset of people does this obligation include having a job. More and more I realize, I might hold a minority opinion on this matter. Non-income producing work is almost totally dismissed and having employment is held as the highest good.On the ole Catholic Working Mothers page, there has been some discussion about mothers discerning whether they should work full time now that all of their children are in school. Some think they should work to bring in more income, not because they have to and not because they want to, but because they feel obligated to be "productive." I am not a member of the "you go, girl" club so I actively discourage them. I do not think they should repress their natural inclination to be present for their children before and after school in order to be "productive" during school hours.
Why should the peace of their homes and the continuity of their schedules be disrupted in order to produce income? Obligation? No. I reject it. Why are the benefits of a homemaker dismissed? Because they do not come with a paystub? What a narrow definition of contribution and benefit we have. There is dignity in creating a warm and stable home, but we don't seem to see it.
The notion that the work of parents in the home is a problem and a distortion, in part because no tax is skimmed from it, is just another facet of this same disdain.
Two other disturbing things I noticed about Barro's piece.
First, rather unusually for the twenty-first century, he pays no lip service at all to fathers who might provide some of their children's care, volunteer in their children's schools, and labor around the house. No, in Barro's world only females are wily enough to shield their labor from Uncle Sam in that sneaky tax shelter, the family home.
Second, what's up with this?
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, married mothers with young children at home spend 50.7 hours a week on housework, shopping and caring for household members if they are not employed outside the home, compared with 29.4 hours spent on those activities if they are employed full-time outside the home. So, stay-at-home moms do an extra 21 hours a week of unpaid and untaxed labor...
I get what he's doing -- trying to calculate the tax penalty for working for wages, compared to working not for wages. My beef is just with the word "extra." If anyone is "doing extra hours a week," it's the working mothers. Holding a 30-to-40-hour job, those working mothers are the ones who do extra work, to the tune of 8.7 to 18.7 more hours per week.
But, I suspect, Barro wants to make it sound as if the mothers who don't draw a paycheck are getting away with something, somehow, so the word "extra" is tacked on to their hours. It would be more honest, and rather more supportive of Barro's point, to say that the mothers who earn paychecks pay extra taxes while having fewer hours of leisure.
But we can't say that... maybe because the notion that taxes and taxable hours can be "extra" is foreign to Barro and his ilk. No, the base economy, the one Barro views as normal, the one from which he measures deviations and distortions, is the one in which honest labor is taxable labor. Work in the tax-free family economy is "extra," something we sneakily get away with because we can.
And fathers? Traditionally male house management work (lawn care, repairs) has value too. But there's no guilt to be generated by accusing fathers -- those who get paychecks and those who don't -- of depriving the economy of the taxes from handymen's wages, so they all get a pass. My sneaky furniture-building, drywall-fixing, laundry-doing spouse is truly the one laughing all the way to the TurboTax download site.