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.