I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Saturday, December 03, 2011

Through the Looking Glass

This week produced one of those moments in politics where I felt, once more, that I lived in a Looking Glass universe. The heart of the weirdness started when Newt Gingrich said something right on the borderline of common sense, always a dangerous place for any politician to wander. Gingrich said, if I may paraphrase, that our child labor laws hurt poor children who would enjoy long term benefits in life if they were allowed to work at an earlier age. He went on to say that the poorest of poor children grow up in households and neighborhoods where no adult works, so they never witness good work habits. Finally, his proposed remedy was to hire the children as janitors in their public schools.

There are three basic arguments here. First, poor children would benefit if child labor laws were changed. My libertarian sensibilities lead me to believe this statement is true for all children, not just poor ones. I'm not saying children should be put to work in sweat shops, nor that they should be allowed to work schedules that would take away time from their education. But, in my personal experience, people who started working early in life (often outside the legal employment grid, working as baby sitters and mowing lawns) tend to be more mature by the time they reach college age than the kids who've managed to avoid any real labor. Of course, the real issue today may be, if we did remove the working age barrier, and let individuals employ whoever they wished no matter what their age, would there be any jobs available for young workers? Still, on this point, I think Gingrich was taking a common sense position, but many commentators acted as if he was advocating child abuse. The Nation ran an article titled "The Nastiness of Newt Gingrich" and the New York Times had an editorial titled "Newt Gingrich's War on Poor Children."

The latter essay, by Charles Blow, directly attacked the second premise of Gingrich's argument, that poor children don't see adults working. I'll concede that Gingrich didn't throw out any percentages, so his claim is a bit overly broad. By the census statistics Charles Blow sites, fifty percent of all households in poverty have at least one parent working full time, and another twenty-five percent have a parent working part time. That still leaves one in four children fitting Gingrich's assertion. But, Charles Blow goes on to look at the "poorest of the poor," since that is who Gingrich singled out, and seems to feel like he's delivering a devestating rebuttal when he declares that 1/3 of these households have at least one working parent. Meaning two out of three of these households don't have an employed adult providing a role model for their kids. Either Charles Blow is really bad at math, or he thinks his readers are, to trot out a statistic supporting Gingrich's argument and wave it around as evidence that Gingrich is wrong.

But it wasn't this editorial that most pushed me into Looking Glass land. It's was Gingrich's solution to the problem of childhood unemployment. By arguing that they should work at their schools, Gingrich is suggesting that the government hire them. Isn't this... I dunno... a stimulus plan? Instead of removing barriers to kids finding work in the private sector (for instance, by having a lower minimum wage for teenagers), he's proposing that government do the hiring directly. Isn't this something that, if President Obama proposed it, Newt Gingrich would denounce as socialist manipulation of the free market?

For all the Tea Party types who are starting to support Gingrich (who is, I admit, a towering intellectual genius when placed against Perry, Bachmann, and Cain, and a portrait of political courage when stood up next to spineless Romney), pay close attention to what Gingrich is revealing about his political instincts in this off the cuff remark. He may talk up small goverment and free enterprise, but Gingrich is a political creature to his deepest core. He's a font of ideas, but many of these ideas are about how government can improve people's lives. If he winds up as president, there is no way he'll govern as a hand's off, libertarian type. The problems of the world are nails sticking up that he doesn't want people to trip on, and government is his hammer. That people who claim to want small government can choose a man like him over someone like Ron Paul is mystifying to me. At least, it's mystifying until I remember, oh, right, I'm through the Looking Glass.


Mr. Cavin said...

I don't know. He seems very much in line with classic "smaller government" conservatives to me, providing a plan to lessen the Federal regulation on day-to-day society buy passing the buck to state governments instead. Isn't that what they always used to mean by touting smaller government in conjunction with states rights?

And for the record, I think this off the cuff position is insane. Like the dreams of full-on liberals, this pie-in-the-sky assertion that the world is blameless enough to raise working children responsibly is a lovable joke. Peeling back child labor legislation would require fifty new laws and regulations to police the welfare in a jobs climate where adults are looking for work and corporations are looking for second class citizens to exploit within US borders. It's like a Dickensian disaster.

James Maxey said...

I'm not sure I'd describe my vision of allowing kids to work as "pie in the sky." A lot of poor kids are already put to work in an underground economy as drug runners and prostitutes. The Dickensian vision of master pickpockets rounding up gangs of urchins to teach them the trade is almost quaint compared to today's reality for some kids. (Not that Gingrich was in any way addressing this problem.)

Most of us wouldn't mind paying a 14 year old girl to baby sit or a 13 year old boy to mow our lawn. Why would it be such a disaster to let them bag groceries or bus tables? Or wander through the cubicle mazes of office buildings after school every day to collect the recycling?

As for adults needing jobs, if you're looking for a job that could plausibly be done well by a 12 year old, perhaps it's time to aim a bit higher.

Mr. Cavin said...

You're being a little glib at the end there, don't you think? There are plenty of people out there that will tell you that perfectly legal immigrant workers are stealing food right out of the mouths of unemployed American adults. They will deny the existence of any employment market that should not be reserved for the masses of currently unemployed folks (I assume these are the parents of the children in Gingrich's point). Of course, they're thinking about the same jobs you are talking about: lawn work, babysitting, picking through the trash, first-rung corporate flunky. If these jobs exist, why is unemployment so high? Is it because we can only afford these positions as under-the-counter work and so the market dries-up the minute it's offered as ligitimate employment? Are we proposing that we make these jobs only viable to children though payroll or age restrictions? Don't you think we better figure out how to employ these parents first, anyway?

Newt: "Well if the parents can't work, let's employ the kids for half-price." Rich. (And as an aside: in reality the immigrant laborers are still totally safe since no US adults or children are quite prepared to man the migrant workforce again.)

I don't think that allowing kids to work is all that bad an idea--as you point out, they're working already--but what I think is a bad idea is assuming that we can get to the plus side of your scenario by leaving it to the free market to know when to stop exploiting the new resource. I look around and I see corporations willing to enslave workers abroad, to tease weakening product from less and less skilled employees, to fly the flag of whatever nation gives the bigger tax break. Why would I leave the welfare of welfare kids up to corporate America? They are all pirates and profiteers already.

If you repeal a blanket prohibition on child labor, you are going to have to regulate the heck out of the situation to force these jerks to create anything that resembles the positive and instructive situations that you are imagining. At least that's the way it seems to me.