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Friday, April 2, 2010


Several days ago, as I was checking the usual blogs, I came across a story on Andrew Sullivan's blog [The Daily Dish] about the disparity between the earnings of men and women in comparable jobs. He referenced a 2006 article by Warren Farrell, described as a member of the Board of Directors of NOW in the 70's, based on his book, Why Men Earn More. Farrel's thesis, to put it briefly, is that men and women in the work world make a series of decisions [he identifies twenty-five] that shape the trajectories of their careers -- such things as whether to have children, whether to work eighty hours a week, whether to accept new job assignments regardless of where they are, and so forth. As he puts it in the article, "Men make decisions that result in their making more money. On the other hand, women make decisions that earn them better lives (e.g., more family and friend time.)" Indeed, Farrell, reports, when women make the same decisions men make, they actually end up earning more. Perhaps it will not surprise you to learn that the article appeared in FORBES Magazine.

The Sullivan post triggered in me yesterday an interior dialogue, which I engaged in as I was doing my 7 a.m. four mile power walk. In my mind, I was talking to an upscale thirty-something couple who have opted out of the baby thing, and resent the notion that they ought, through tax policy and government subvention, to subsidize the family expenses of couples who, in their view, have simply made a different series of personal choices. They begin the dialogue.

Them: This is all just a matter of individual preference. Some couples choose to spend a good deal of their income on children, and they even sacrifice income opportunities to raise and educate the children. That is fine for them. They enjoy it, they find it rewarding, and I am sure their children will be a comfort to them in the old age. We prefer to work hard, and spend our income on European travel, fine wines, expensive restaurants, and -- if we are ever able to manage it -- a Caribbean condo. Our tastes and preferences are no better or worse than theirs, and we certainly do not think society ought to underwrite our taste for luxury, but we cannot for the life of us see why anyone should expect us to underwrite their taste for parenting.

Me: I assume that as prudent, far-sighted, educated folks, you are making adequate provisions for your eventual retirement.

Them: Of course. We have established an extensive savings plan.

Me: So you are carefully freeze-drying food, stockpiling clothing, setting aside medications in climate-controlled storage bins, and the like?

Them: What on earth are you talking about? We have 401k's and a stock portfolio. Freeze dried food! Are you mad?

Me: You are both in your early thirties. So you can anticipate retiring roughly thirty-five years from now. As I understand it, your plan is to take money out of your savings accounts after you retire, and use that money to buy food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and the like. Tell me. Where will you get the food?

Them: At Whole Foods, if it still exists, or else at whatever environmentally friendly supermarket has taken its place.

Me: And where will Whole Foods, or its replacement, get the fresh produce it will sell you?

Them: From farms, of course, though by then they may be flying even more of their produce in from around the world.

Me: Now, I want you to think very carefully about what you have just said. Thirty-five years from now, you are going to buy produce grown on farms and rushed to the store to preserve its freshness. Who is going to raise and process that food? Not the folks doing it now, by and large, because they will all be thirty-five years older than they are now, and any of them who are much older than you will themselves certainly be retired. Let us suppose that the people raising your food thirty-five years from now will at that time be somewhere between forty and fifty years old. Now, in this complex and uncertain world, there is one thing of which we can be absolutely sure. Anyone who is between forty and fifty years old thirty five years from now is between five and fifteen years old right now. In short, they are children. These children, whom you see all around you today, are going to be the farmers, builders, doctors, writers, airline pilots, and clothing designers when you retire. Each of them is someone's son or daughter, and if those parents do not feed and clothe them, educate them and care for them now, they will not be there thirty-five years from now to feed and clothe you and care for you when you are aging. Your personal choices will, if they are widely enough emulated, leave you starving and unclothed and medically abandoned, regardless of how much money you have in your savings accounts. The truth is that you are parasites, relying on others to prepare for your old age [and, needless to say, for your middle age as well.]

Them: But that is totally unfair. By saving our money now, we are providing the investment capital that society will use for its productive purposes in decades to come. Without our savings, their children won't have jobs.

Me: Well, something like that is partially true, given that we live in a capitalist society. But there are many alternative ways of amassing the investment capital needed for productive enterprises. A new generation of young people, educated, fed, clothed, and looked after while they are children, will manage to find ways to put their energies and abilities to productive use. [Little mental footnote to David Schweickart's wonderful old book, Capitalism or Worker Control, in which he demolishes that argument.] Absent the next generation of workers, however, society will grind to a halt, and we will all starve to death. The men and women who "choose", as you put it, to have children are in fact saving us all from ruin. Society ought to treat their parenting as the most important component of collective social health, not as their purely personal alternative to European vacations and fine wines. By protesting the taxes that are levied on you to help support child-rearing, you are perpetuating the myth that there is no connection between the public sphere of the market and the private sphere of the family. [Mental nod to Ann Davis, for whom this is an especially important point]


At this point, I had reached the top of the long hill on Highway 54, and was ready to turn around and walk home.


NotHobbes said...

It`s a shame that you reached highway 54 before a response from them as that would have been fascinating

Looking forward to next interior

Ann said...

This is an especially important vignette, given the prospect of Social Security "reform" and vociferous debates regarding federal debt enslaving future generations.

To me your dialogue rests on the fallacy that money saved now automatically creates products produced in the future. But those products produced in the future won't exist without workers in the future, which you explain very nicely. Money may "talk" today but it doesn't actually make things tomorrow.

This typical flaw in reasoning (even among smart people) could be called "fetishism of money," in my view.....a very common affliction in advanced capitalist societies.