Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness. — George Santayana
There are not many tenets of orthodox Christianity in which I still believe. But one of the few such – it may well be the only one – to which,at least in some cognate form, I still subscribe is the doctrine of Original Sin. Yea and verily! I even believe that Original Sin is inherited in being passed down from parent to child, very much in the tradition of St. Augustine. (I do demur from Augustine’s conclusion that the heritability of sin renders sexual intercourse intrinsically immoral.) In fact, so fervent is my agreement that I even meet and embrace Philip Larkin, who wrote, in a poem called “This Be the Verse”, “Man hands on misery to man; / It deepens like an ocean shelf”. In fact, in some cases the second half of that stanza is also sound advice: “Get out as early as you can, / And don’t have any kids yourself”. I will leave to others of more orthodox beliefs the task of unpacking the moral, metaphysical, and theological consequences. In the more pragmatic spirit of substituting the proverbial ounce of prevention for a pound of cure, I will only suggest some measures that I believe would preveniently mitigate the consequences of sin. My suggestions are quite the reverse of radical. In fact, I appeal to the stodgily traditional practice of using the US tax code to encourage and to incentivize certain forms of behavior.
Well … OK … probably not that easy – a corollary of Murphy’s Law says “Everything is harder than you think” — but comparable! Especially when you consider the alternative.
As matters stand right now, the US tax code supports Original Sin by subsidizing parenthood indiscriminately. In 2013, for example, you can claim a $3,900 exemption for each dependent child. Period. No qualifications. End of discussion. Elvis has left the building. All the child has to do for you to qualify for the exemption is to meet the criteria in the tax code for being a “dependent”. (What are those criteria? Don’t ask me. I’m not a tax specialist. As a tax accountant, I’m a great short-order cook!) But the point is that, as long as your child meets the dependency qualifications in the US tax code, then you may take the exemption, even if your skills as a parent make Gilles de Rais look like the Walton kids’ folks. At least partially because of one’s incompetent parenting, one’s child can turn out to be as warped as Dracula’s assistant, Renfield, and, especially when grown, can wreak as much havoc on the community as Dracula himself. No matter. You still can take the $3,900 tax break, which in such a case will then amount to a subsidy for sociopathy: “Hand[ing] on misery to man” with a vengeance. Or, as St. Augustine might say, subsidizing Original Sin. Then, if, as we fervently hope, one’s child is apprehended by the police instead of pursuing her / his career as a real-life character out of a Criminal Minds episode, society – meaning you, me, and everyone else – will pay the price, which we hope will only be monetary, for whatever contribution was made to the situation by virtue of incompetent parenting. In extreme cases, a court might even declare the parents to be unfit, and the child might then become a token in the pinball machine known as “Foster Homes”.
May I make a suggestion? Let’s do things differently!
In the interest of fairness, let’s acknowledge up front that, yes, of course, quality of parenting, while important, is only one factor among many others in the kind of person a kid turns out to be. Yes, of course: children make their own choices, and even good parents can have children that go tragically wrong. Yes, of course: children are human beings, not programmable automatons. Yes, of course: if you want an iron-clad guarantee, go buy a lawn mower from Sears. That said, however, why not structure the tax code to encourage, not parenting as such, not parenting per se — but good parenting? How could we do this? Well, we know many of the factors that make for competent parenting. We don’t know literally everything, of course. We also don’t know literally everything that makes a good professional football player, either. But the NFL draft proceeds apace nonetheless. Instead of encouraging parenthood promiscuously via the “shotgun” approach of giving $3,900 to everyone whose reproductive plumbing worked as advertised, as the current practice is, we should be as persnickety about encouraging parenting as NBA teams are in selecting athletic talent. We should subsidize incompetence in neither one.
First of all, please be assured that I do not — I say again: I do not — propose to limit the number of kids as a matter of law. So also be assured that you can have as many kids as you want. However, there will be two salient changes to the tax laws pertaining thereto:
Step 1: On as nuts-and-bolts-practical a level as possible, develop a curriculum on competent parenting in consultation with the best child psychologists, developmental psychologists, parents themselves, etc., etc. in the relevant fields.
Step 2: Once this curriculum has been developed and appropriately vetted and implemented, change the tax code so that:
Step 2a: You may only claim the dependent-child exemption if you can authenticate having successfully completed — just once, not once per child — the curriculum.
Step 2b: If you do not complete the curriculum, not only may you not claim the dependent-child exemption, but your tax liability will be increased by, say, 1 percent for each dependent child, probably subject to some sliding-scale algorithm that takes into account adjusted gross income.
Admittedly, this is only abstract training, and as Dostoyevsky’s “Underground Man” said, to know what is right is not to do what is right. So it would probably be desirable to incorporate some type of parental counseling component into the curriculum. In any case, this scheme has two purposes: (1) to shift more of the cost of inept parenting from society as a whole to the parents themselves, and (2) to do so preveniently, before the need arises. Statistically and particular counter-examples notwithstanding, quality of parenting does make a significant difference. The difference is that, at present, the social costs of incompetent parenting are incurred after the fact and by the community as a whole. I only propose to use the tax code in such a way as to (a) encourage people to be good or better parents by providing some type of training, and (b) to shift to the parents themselves the future costs of poor parenting by making the parents who do not elect such training pay in advance of need instead of the community as a whole after the damage has already been done.
Yes, of course, there are holes in the plan. Yes, of course, there are details to be worked out. This is a brief blog post, not a comprehensive policy white paper for the Brookings Institution or the Institute for Policy Studies or the Guttmacher Institute. I take it as axiomatic that, if parenting by the seat of one’s pants had immediate or short-term and significant pocketbook consequences to people who undertake the responsibility of raising kids, then greater care and thought would go into the decision of whether to have kids, and, if the decision was “Yes”, how to proceed. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, “The sight of a 1040 form focuses the mind wonderfully”. And to quote George F. Will verbatim, “You always get more of what you subsidize”. Simple justice — never mind theology — demands that we use the tax code, not to subsidize Original Sin and the dialectic described in the Larkin poem, but to mitigate it. Of course, we’ll never do it. But we should.
James R. Cowles
1280px-Schoolgirls_in_Bamozai — Public domain (Capt. John Severns, U.S. Air Force – Own work)
435px-Form_1040,_2005 — Public domain (US government tax form)
Original_Sin_Michel_Coxcie — Public domain (artist: Michiel Coxie [1499–1592], picture courtesy of: www.fineart-china.com, present location: Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)