Saturday, June 29, 2013

From Waves of Plutocratic Feminism to Universal Day Care and other Transfer Payments

Stephen Marche, in The Atlantic magazine reacts to the current "plutocratic wave of feminism" illustrated by Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg's book "Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead."  Marche is one of those stay-at-home dads who gave up a tenure track professorship (Shakespeare studies) in New York so his wife could take a job as a high flying magazine editor in Toronto.  He tagged along and became a freelancing house husband.  He's not entirely okay with that.

Successful families, notes Marche, are families where both couples work and successful countries are where women work too.  He is backed up by a 2006 data base assembled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.  I believe it, and I'm all for career and hard work and not holding anybody back.  But his article, "Home Economics:  The Link Between Work-Life Balance and Income Equality" is misnamed.  Thinking about how both adult members of a family unit can have successful careers is not thinking about how to have work life balance, it's thinking about how to outsource child rearing.

Indeed, he suggests that the solution to his dilemma is universal, high quality state subsidized day care.  I think he's onto something, but not for the reason he states.

His personal choice to become a house husband, says Marche, had nothing to do with power relationships between men and women;  it's about opportunities and the fact that his wife's job happened to pay twice as much.   He was saved, says he, by subsidized day care available in Toronto.
The key fact of our story, the overwhelmingly most important factor in our personal gender  politics, is that in Canada, we have access to high-quality, modestly state-supported (though far from free) day care. Of all the privileges my wife and I gained, our boy being in a safe place we could afford between nine and five was by far the greatest. It’s why this story has a happy ending; it is the thing that enabled me to build a new career for myself. Day care is not theoretical liberation. It is the real deal, for women and men alike.
But that part of us that is still uncomfortable with the concept of house husbands would suggest that having both husband and wife "lean into" careers with gusto while we outsource the kids to day-care does not particularly advance life-work balance for a family.

For most this isn't about careerism.  Professors, doctors, lawyers, muckety-muck editors, and successful business persons who don't want to sacrifice their careers for family aside, there is the underlying reality that for the vast majority of the work force in 2013 a single income just doesn't cover a family's needs.  The median hourly wage for all occupations in the U.S. is $16.71/hour.  This means for those who are able to find full time work, more than half the working population earns less than $31,000 per year.  With health care costs for a family of four approaching $19,000/year  that leaves $12,000 for food and rent.  Marche speaks of how the 50's husband coming home after work to a drink and rounds of golf at the country club on weekends is gone.  Did that ever exist but as a stereotype?  The point is that for the vast majority of the population a single working household is a non-option.  It's not about fulfillment, it's about survival.

So Marche is right about day care.   If the economy cannot produce enough high paying jobs to allow traditional family units with one breadearner, whether it be man or woman, then we had better provide high quality and universally available day care for children.  This, of course, is a transfer payment from the rich to the majority of workers.  But if the economy cannot produce enough good paying jobs, then we must start looking for more ways to effect such transfer payments.

Marche has an interesting observation about how to sell this politically:

As long as family issues are miscast as women’s issues, they will be dismissed as the pleadings of one interest group among many. And truly, it’s hard to see, at least in terms of political theatrics, why the complaints of the richest and most successful women in the world should bother anybody too much. Fighting for the American family is another matter. When gay-rights activists shifted their focus from the struggle for their rights as an oppressed minority to the struggle to create and support families, their movement experienced nearly unprecedented political triumph. It is easy to have a career as an anti-feminist. Force the opponents of day-care support and family leave to come out instead against working families. Let them try to sell that.
Fighting for the American family, therefore, is the right place to focus; the American family needs transfer payments from the wealthy to have any realistic shot at work-life balance.  Universal quality day care, affordable medical insurance, inexpensive (i.e. subsidized) transportation, and universal free quality education that doesn't leave our kids with mountains of debt are things that the American family needs.  If after all that, the economy can cough up nothing but minimum wage jobs for most and super-compensated positions for the few at the top, so be it.  We can make it work.  But the rich will have to pay.

I am currently reading Peter Brown's Through the Eye of  a Needle  which studies the habits of giving by the wealthy in the Roman empire, and how these habits were instrumental in building up the Christian Church in 350-500 AD.   Rome had tremendous wealth, and most of it was concentrated at the top.  The empire made this work, in part, through a strong tradition of giving for the public good.  None cared about the manner in which wealth was acquired.  Surely then as now much of wealth accumulation was not pretty; but everyone cared about how wealth was used.  The citizens were sustained by that wealth with annual doles of grain, the construction of the vast aqueduct structures, public baths, and spectacular games.

The Roman citizens accepted this dole not as beggars but as proud citizens.  The wealthy did not give in order to transfer to the poor, but they gave because that was their role.  In this vision there was no place for the concept of "welfare queen."   In this world there was no place for the concept of "soak the rich."  Transfer payments is just what successful Romans did.  It's how they celebrated their wealth.  From patrician senators to waves of plutocratic feminism, to universal day care.  The world continues to turn in circles.

1 comment:

  1. Unfortunately, the trend in the US is away from transfer payments and towards aggregation of wealth towards the highly successful and reduction in resources towards everyone else.

    That is one reason the Affordable Care Act is such a disappointment. There was a window prior to the 2010 mid terms that a single payer health insurance could have been truly transformative.

    I wonder if the street protests that have been present in Europe, South America, and the Middle East will soon surface in the US.

    A test case will be the verdict in George Zimmerman trial. If he is acquitted, will frustration and anger turn into a long, hot summer.