Growing Pains
We respond to some critics of Room to Grow.



Ramesh Ponnuru

Room to Grow, the new collection of essays about conservative policies that would help the middle class, continues to attract comment. (Each of us contributed to it and helped edit it.) Its reception continues to be largely positive, but here we will concentrate on criticisms that seem to us misguided.

Ira Stoll, Newsmax
Ira Stoll says there is much to like in the book but criticizes its “obsession with the middle class,” which “divides America into economic factions rather than uniting us, and . . . fails to provide any useful response to left-wing demagogues who blame all of America’s problems on the rich (and who think raising taxes on the rich is the solution to those problems).”

Americans largely are united in thinking of themselves as “middle class”: As Pete Wehner points out in his introduction to the book, roughly 85 percent of Americans identify themselves that way. Political movements that aspire to success, including conservatism, should have no qualms about addressing people in terms to which they can relate. And the book does offer a response to blame-the-rich rhetoric: Dysfunctional institutions and bad government policies have caused many of the problems that concern the middle class, and a conservative approach to government could help solve them.

Stoll criticizes two of the book’s proposals. He sees an increase in the child credit as redistributive, wholly ignoring the book’s argument that it reduces redistribution by countering the tendency of entitlement programs to redistribute money from large families to small ones.

He does not think, either, that political leaders or government should try to spread the word that people maximize their chances of staying out of poverty if they “finish school, get a job, marry, and have children — in that order.” He writes that “a short list of those who got a job before they finished school — Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg — renders this advice questionable, at best.” He’s referring to W. Bradford Wilcox’s chapter, and in context Wilcox is referring to completing high school, as every person on Stoll’s list did. The idea that everyone has to finish college, too, runs directly against the argument of Andrew Kelly’s chapter on higher education.

Ben Domenech, The Federalist
Domenech offers some support, and some smart advice, to many elements of the project embodied by Room to Grow and is especially friendly to its overall populism. But he makes three arguments against expanding the child credit in particular: It’s an entitlement; it attempts to reverse the trend toward shrinking families that has been going on for a long time and throughout the developed world; and it therefore makes no political sense.

The child credit is an entitlement in the same sense that characterizes any other provision of the tax code, like the personal exemption. If you meet the qualifications, you have a legal right to keep more of your money from the taxman, with no review by the appropriations committees of Congress. On this basis, one might as well say that any tax relief is an entitlement. The question is whether this type of tax relief is justified.

The child credit does not attempt to restore the pre-industrial model of large families. Its premise is merely that public policy has accelerated the trend toward smaller families and should desist. It would certainly be unwise for politicians to promote the policy by telling people they need to have more kids. But in our country, actual family size runs a little below desired family size, as James Pethokoukis points out. Republicans have in the past been able to first put the credit into law (under Newt Gingrich) and then expand it (under George W. Bush) without suggesting that its purpose is to bribe people to have more children. It isn’t.

The idea polls very well: Most people consider it a way to help families, not to bring about some eugenic dystopia. A pro-family tax policy — or really a less anti-family one — is more controversial among conservative elites than among the American public.

Domenech’s alternative of getting rid of the payroll tax altogether may or may not be a good one — it would depend on what it was replaced with, and we suspect the politics would be extremely difficult because opponents would have a plausible-sounding case that it would endanger Social Security and Medicare — but it would do nothing to change the fact that our old-age entitlement programs contain a bias against larger families. It is hard to remedy that bias without enlarging the child credit (or doing something more complicated to the same effect).


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