“All within the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State,” declared Benito Mussolini.
This directive is further expounded on by Josh Barro at the New York Times, as he instructs us to view stay-at-home parents as tax cheats, because the work they do for themselves doesn’t involve the sort of financial transaction the all-consuming State can take a piece of:
President Obama’s proposal to expand a tax break for working parents with children under 5 has some conservatives criticizing it for discriminating against stay-at-home parents.
Those parents wouldn’t be able to take the proposed tax credit equal to 50 percent of child care expenses, up to a maximum of $3,000 per child. What the critics fail to see is that the playing field wasn’t level to begin with. The tax code is already hugely distorted in favor of stay-at-home parenting: Labor outside the home is taxed; household work, such as stay-at-home parenting, is not.
I realize that sounds like a bizarre thing to say. Why would there be a tax on parenting, and why would the lack of such a tax constitute a tax preference? But productive activities within the home are not especially different from the taxable work we do outside the home. We labor, and instead of receiving a cash wage, we receive something else we value: a clean house or a mowed lawn or a well-behaved child. In 1973, the economist John Kendrick estimated that unmeasured and untaxed household activities like child rearing amounted to about a quarter of the size of the whole economy as measured by gross national product.
When we hire people to come into our homes to do these things, the labor is counted as part of the economy and subject to tax. If I pay you to watch my child and you pay me to watch your child, we both owe income tax. If you and I each watch our own children, the I.R.S. collects nothing — even though we have done substantially the same work for the same benefit. This tax preference for housework over paid work creates a significant distortion: Some people (mostly women) choose to stay home when, absent tax considerations, they might work outside the home instead.
Stay-at-home parents will be relieved to know that Barro doesn’t want to figure up the value of everything they do for themselves and sock them with a fat new tax in the name of fairness and equality, because “efforts by the government to measure how productive we are at home would be intrusive and inaccurate, not to mention politically toxic.”
On second thought, homemakers might not take much comfort from that assurance, because the mega-State sets an increasingly high bar for what it considers unacceptably intrusive or inaccurate, not to mention politically toxic. Luckily, at least for the time being, you just need to shut up and let your rulers decide how much of a tax credit working parents should receive to offset your unfair advantages. The rest of Barro’s column involves him trying to figure out how many hours of unpaid, untaxed labor stay-at-home moms are hiding from his beloved State, while praising Obama for working to “replace the current system in which the strong tax incentive is in favor of stay-at-home parenting,” so it sounds like maybe he’s not so worried about inaccurate unfairness after all.
Class warfare is surely one of the forces in play here, as anyone who remembers the Obama campaign flipping out over stay-at-home moms after Ann Romney took the national stage should know. There is a strong belief on the Left, which is now heavily dependent on the support of single women, that stay-at-home motherhood is either a ridiculous extravagance available only to the rich, or a form of indentured servitude inflicted upon captive rural women by their hillbilly husbands. At the very least, they don’t see much net political loss from taking potshots at full-time parents.
There’s an ideological factor here, too, because the Left believes deeply in government over family. The State should be your family. Traditional families are a source of independence and resistance against the State. Full-time parents ask a lot of uncomfortable questions about what public schools are teaching their kids. The Left’s hostility toward inherited wealth is an aspect of its disdain for traditional families. Liberal policies have destroyed the family structure in many communities, replacing it with toxic government dependency. That’s why people who think marriage is an irrelevant, outmoded religious obsession spend so much time talking about taxpayer-funded benefits for parents and children. The single greatest weapon against poverty and social dysfunction, marriage, has been disabled, so we’ll have to settle for billion-dollar social programs that don’t work, but make the people in charge of them feel very good about themselves.
Barro’s line of thinking is one of countless examples of how the concept of taxation has been turned completely on its head. A cash-starved government is trying to stick its feeding tubes into every remaining vein of free-market blood. The State is supposed to get a big piece of every dollar that changes hands, frequently taking more than one bite of the same dollar. The idea that some form of productive activity might be taking place without Big Uncle Sam getting his cut drives liberals to distraction. We should be looking for the most fair and even way to disperse the modest cost of a restrained government across the entire population, allowing the burden of government to rest lightly upon the shoulders of the productive. That would involve some very dramatic reforms, and result in quite a few empty bureaucratic palaces along the Potomac. So instead we’ll be told to gratefully accept the sort of “tax relief” that requires us to jump through ever more hoops to claim. In that way, even when the State makes do with bit less revenue, its power is not diminished, and that’s what really matters.