ASK AND YE SHALL RECEIVE

After years of resisting the inevitable, Ben Eidelson has finally succumbed to our demands for him to start a blog of his own. Better late than never.

In his inaugural post, Ben considers Obama’s conversation with Joe The Soon To Be Country Music Star in light of Rawls’ veil of ignorance:

Lots of philosophical liberals push the idea that we should endorse whatever social arrangements we would support if we didn’t know who in our society we were going to be. But one concern about these “veil of ignorance” appeals is that they demand an awful lot of empathy. For them to work, those of us who are upper- or middle-class need to be able and willing to abstract from our actual lives and reckon with the possibility that we could have been poor. What’s interesting about Obama’s argument is that it appeals to a similar principle of prospectivity or impartiality, but in a way that’s less demanding. For Obama’s version only calls on us to entertain possibilities we’ve directly experienced: Make policy as if you didn’t know what stage of your life – your own life – you were in. One important limitation of this appeal, though, is that it only works in the context of a society with substantial upward mobility.

As they say on the internets, “Read the whole thing.” Including the comments, which include three Eidelsons and a cast of other characters.

I’ll just add that there’s an interesting study out there arguing that rich people who have moved far up the income scale in their own lives may tend to be more conservative about class issues than their equally rich peers because their own experiences may justify a belief that people as poor as they were could “lift themselves up by their own bootstraps” the same way they did.  It can be easier for these Horatio Algers to disregard claims from the poor or their advocates about barriers to moving up the income ladder – even if those barriers were in fact different, or non-existent, in their own rise to success (like me, Ben may have stories from Jewish day school about discussions along the lines of “Jews came here with nothing and we made it, so why don’t Blacks do that too?”).  Ange-Marie Hancock, in her book The Politics of Disgust, calls this “false empathy” and discusses how public perceptions and public policy about women on welfare got made based on people’s attempts to put themselves in those women’s shoes without noticing they had no soles.  She calls out Senators (particularly women) who supported making moms on welfare track down the fathers of their children for child support as a condition of continued benefits, and didn’t consider the potentially deadly consequences.

WHITHER AMERICAN NATALISM? (OR "DAVID BROOKS’ WHITE FERTILITY")

Kate Sheppard notes the passage of Russia’s “Day of Conception:”

Today falls exactly nine months before Russia Day, and as one of Putin’s policies to encourage more breeding in his country, he’s offered SUVs, refrigerators, and monetary rewards to anyone who gives birth on June 12. So the mayor of Ulyanovsk, a region in central Russia, has given workers there the afternoon off to make with the baby making. Everyone who gives birth is a winner in the “Give Birth to a Patriot on Russia’s Independence Day” contest, but the grand prize winner — judged on qualities like “respectability” and “commendable parenting” — gets to take home a UAZ-Patriot, a Russian-made SUV.

This seems like as good an opportunity as I’m likely to get (at least until June 12, which incidentally is the anniversary of two commendable parents I know) to ask why the kinds of natalist appeals and policy justifications that are so widespread in Europe are all but non-existent in the United States. Sure, American politicians seem to be expected to have gobs of kids to demonstrate their family values. But why is it much more common for politicians in Europe to push policies explicitly designed to make people have more kids?

Discouraging though it may be, I think the best answer is race. Politicians in Sweden or in Russia or in France get further with calls for the nation to have more babies for the sake of national greatness or national survival because that nation and those babies are imagined to look more the same.

Marty Gillens caused a stir with his research suggesting that Americans have negative attitudes towards welfare and its beneficiaries because of their negative views towards the racial groups imagined to benefit (Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser, Bruce Sacerdote, Simo Virtanen, and Leonie Huddy further explore this). Americans are less inclined to support government spending on social programs, these scholars argue, because they’re less likely to imagine those programs benefiting people who look like them. Conversely, Swedes are more content with a robust welfare state because their immigration restrictions keep those benefits away from people of other races.

(In 1990, the top country sending immigrants to Sweden was Norway. In 2000, it was Iraq. And the increase in Sweden’s foreign-born populations in the 90’s roughly equaled the increase from the 70’s and 80’s combined. There’s cause for concern that as immigration to Sweden increases, benefits will decrease or access for immigrants will decrease – a process Swedish conservatives already began in the 1990s.)

I don’t think you can really explain the lack of natalist rhetoric in the US without similar logic, and particularly confronting animus towards a group Americans can’t deny welfare benefits simply by cutting off immigrants: African-Americans. What Ange-Marie Hancock calls “the politics of disgust” heaps shame on imagined “welfare queens” for working too little and birthing too much. In the controversy over the ’96 welfare bill, fertility came up plenty, but the imagined problem was too many babies, not too few. Churches and others made what you might consider natalist arguments against the bill, but they didn’t get much traction – unlike the GOP Congressman who held up a “Don’t feed the alligators” sign.

So when David Brooks wrote a paean to natalism in America, he left those hated Black women out. Instead, in a column a month after the ’04 election, he cited Steve Sailer (who even John Podhoretz recognizes as a racist) celebrating that “George Bush carried the 19 states with the highest white fertility rates.” Brooks’ column celebrates these fertile white parents for demonstrating good red-state values:

Very often they have sacrificed pleasures like sophisticated movies, restaurant dining and foreign travel, let alone competitive careers and disposable income, for the sake of their parental calling…The people who are having big families are explicitly rejecting materialistic incentives and hyperindividualism.

Can you imagine a prominent right-wing pundit or politician saying such things about a low-income Black family that chose to have more kids?

Now some will say that American conservatives are less natalist than their European counterparts because they’re more anti-government. Which is a fair point, but I think it’s difficult to explain the presence of “Christian Democrat” parties in Europe without considering race. Or you could argue that the natalist push in Europe is based in part in fear of immigration. Which circles back on the same argument: racial fears and prejudices map more easily along lines of citizenship in countries that have historically had fewer non-white citizens. Just as the comparative historical ethnic diversity of the United States plays a role in explaining why our political system has held down benefits for everyone rather than only restricting them to citizens (though we’ve done that too), it seems like the strongest explanation for why we don’t hear lots of appeals for America to have more babies.

Is there a better explanation? (This is where those of you who’ve been kvetching about the paucity of posting should leave comments)