The Agenda

A Mini-Symposium on Taxing the Childless

Earlier this week, I wrote a column for Slate in which I made the case for shifting the tax burden from working parents to childless workers in the top half of the income distribution. I was very pleased to see that the The New York Times devoted a “Room for Debate” to the subject, and that Yuval Levin did such an able job of defending the idea (see “Ease Parents’ Double Burden“). Of course, not everyone embraced the idea. Elaine Maag of the Tax Policy Center argued that rather than spend more on children in the tax code, we ought to spend more on childless workers. Maag might be surprised to learn that raising wage subsidies for childless workers is one of my highest domestic policy priorities, and that I’ve written about the subject on many occasions. There are two reasons I write about politics and policy. The first is that I read Rewarding Work, a book by the economist Edmund Phelps, as an undergraduate, and it led me to think that our country could do a much better job of integrating poor, marginalized people into the cultural and economic mainstream and that a pro-market conservatism that aimed to reform our core economic institutions was the best synthesis for achieving this goal, though Phelps himself is not a man of the right as such. The second is that I’ve always enjoyed reading periodical literature and I came from a family of thinkers and writers who never had the opportunity to make a living as thinkers and writers, and I figured I’d give it a shot. All of this is to say that Maag’s point is well taken. Yet I believe that we can walk and chew gum at the same time, provided we are willing to raise taxes on childless workers in the top half of the income distribution, and I’m entirely amenable to something other than a two-rate structure to make this burden somewhat more progressive, providing the resulting tax code is not too burdensome. Chye-Ching Huang of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities does not believe that Utah Sen. Mike Lee’s does enough to redistribute income. I assume that Huang and I disagree about what an ideal tax-and-transfer system would look like. Her most convincing point is that childless workers, and workers who are non-custodial parents, ought to receive more generous wage subsidies, which of course is a point I accept. And finally there is a short piece by the head of a group that engages in family-planning advocacy. I’ll just note that if our goal is to make birth control “widely available and affordable,” a good first step would be to embrace Virginia Postrel’s case for making birth control available over the counter. 

Finally, a political thought. You might have noticed that many on the left accuse conservatives of waging a “war on women,” and it really is true that conservative GOP candidates have been known to say inapposite and sometimes offensive things about women and women’s rights, and when these things said, they are amplified, highlighted, and sometimes egregiously mischaracterized by a national news media that finds the rather fascinating case of California State Sen. Leland Yee to be a bona fide snoozefest. The reply to my column suggests to me that there are at least some people of left-liberal inclination who are quick — remarkably quick, really — to express hostility to “breeders,” which is to say people who choose to have children. I’ve encountered much talk of the supposed recklessness and irresponsibility of parents, and the dangers they pose to environmental well-being. It occurs to me that we might be witnessing a “war on parents” that separates a certain kind of ideological true believer (affluent, childless, in the top half of the household income distribution, but eager to raise taxes only on those in the top one-hundredth) from other liberals and moderates, many of whom have children, earn moderate incomes, and can relate to the idea that their decision to have children is not so much an act of recklessness as an investment in the future that ought to be treated as such. It is also true, however, that ideological libertarians tend to be hostile to the idea, and so shifting the tax burden is a wedge issue that might cleave both major party coalitions. This is a risk that should be taken seriously. Our assessment of this risk will depend on how we think a pro-parent tax shift will cleave the coalitions, and which coalition it will leave in a more favorable position. Allahpundit of Hot Air has worthwhile thoughts on the political implications of a Lee-style tax reform. (Not Yee-style tax reform, in which shoulder-fired weapons are given a substantial tax break.)

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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