Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from Mr. Cass’s new book, The Once and Future Worker: A Vision for the Renewal of Work in America, released this month by Encounter Books.
America’s obsession with consumption, and with consumer welfare as the ultimate measuring stick for individual and family well-being, has eroded our commitment to pluralism—to a society in which people can build lives that align with their values and priorities. Measures like “Gross Domestic Product” create the convenient illusion of a homogenous population benefiting (or suffering) in lockstep. The most efficient economic arrangements, which produce the greatest output for consumption, are the presumptively superior ones.
Real life is not so simple. Having two parents work while the children attend daycare may be more efficient, understood in a narrowly economic sense, but a community consisting entirely of such households is one that many families would rather not live in. Growth may be fastest if we channel everyone to wherever his economic output is greatest, but pluralism will improve real prosperity if the options it leaves available more closely match people’s abilities and the range of life choices they wish to make. If two-parent families could support themselves with only one parent working outside the home in the past, then something is wrong with “growth” that imposes a de facto need for two incomes.
Unfortunately, policy programs marketed under the auspices of expanding choice often have designs that do just the opposite—channeling families toward the policymaker’s preferred outcome. Take the “childcare calculator” created by the progressive Center for American Progress (CAP) to show the purported opportunity cost of staying home to raise children.CAP pretends that its goal is merely to place “financial tradeoffs in the economic framework of opportunity costs,” helpfully explaining that “Jane,” an elementary school teacher who has her first child at age 26, will lose $707,000 of lifetime income if she leaves the labor force until her child starts kindergarten. But the bias is obvious if the value of staying home is not presented alongside the value of working. Why is there no opportunity-cost calculator for delegating your child’s upbringing? For that matter, why is there no opportunity-cost calculator for choosing to work at CAP instead of becoming a petroleum engineer?
Lest its motive remain unclear, CAP complements its calculator with a “policy solution”: a new government program to pay for childcare, worth up to $14,000 per child. This would be offered in the name of relieving financial “constraints,” but that would not be its effect. Even a minimum-wage job will typically cover the cost of childcare, albeit without leaving much income to take home. If someone prefers working to staying home, finances do not constrain that choice; recall, the point of CAP’s calculator is to show that staying home is expensive.
CAP’s policy proposal merely ensures that anyone who does face financial constraints will pursue its preferred—and now government-subsidized—decision. Going to work would generate both earned income and taxpayer funds to take care of the kids. Staying home would mean neither. This is a twofer for CAP: advancing the progressive goals of getting women out of the home and into the workforce, while also producing more income that can be taxed to fund yet more government programs. The benefit that CAP touts is not satisfied parents, healthier kids, or stronger families and communities; rather, it’s “an additional 5 million women in the labor force and $500 billion in increased GDP.”
A policymaker committed to pluralism, by contrast, would ask how to expand Jane’s options so that she can strike the balance between earned income and other productive pursuits that she finds fulfilling. One option might be to encourage sufficient new construction to make housing affordable for one-income families. Another could be allowing Jane to borrow against future earnings during the years that she stays home or works part time, smoothing her consumption despite family-induced income volatility. Yet another might be framing labor regulation in a way that gives employers an incentive to offer a range of different relationships to employees with different priorities—the opposite, it’s worth noting, of the current approach, which aims to bar via discrimination law any sign of differential treatment.
A view that always celebrates the triumph of new and more efficient economic configurations over the traditional or obsolete naturally chafes at the idea that preserving or creating choices should be an object of public policy. The answer to this must be “yes, but.” Yes, those efficient economic dynamics drive GDP higher, reward innovators, and improve material living standards broadly over time; but we must acknowledge the costs to genuine long-term prosperity as well, and we should not expect the benefits always to be larger.
In other contexts, we have no trouble acknowledging such realities. The premise of environmental regulation, for instance, is that pollution’s intangible costs to public health sometimes exceed the value of economic activity. Zoning offers a more direct analogy: even the most valid and widely supported zoning provisions are efforts to preempt forms of economic development that would interfere with people’s enjoyment of their communities. If market interventions to preserve those values at the expense of GDP can be prosperity enhancing, why not ones that keep families strong or career paths open? Such questions may stump our economic models, but to human beings, they make perfect sense.
Oren Cass is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. This article first appeared in the Institute for Family Studies blog and is republished here with permission.