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How Much Should We Fear the Debt When Interest Rates Are Low?: Tuesday Focus

Do Parents and Children Constitute a Rent-Seeking Special-Interest Group?

Matthew Yglesias appears surprised by Greg Mankiw this lunchtime: Mankiw on babies: They're not Porsches.:

Greg Mankiw brings a variety of considerations to bear against the Affordable Care Act in a new post, including the idea that it's unfair to transfer financial resources from non-parents to parents:

But having children is more a choice than a random act of nature. People who drive a new Porsche pay more for car insurance than those who drive an old Chevy. We consider that fair because which car you drive is a choice. Why isn't having children viewed in the same way?

Obviously Mankiw [has some] perfectly sound grounds on which to oppose the ACA.... [But instead] you get this kind of kitchen sink argumentation. But note: Subsidization of child rearing is hardly a unique feature of the Affordable Care Act. Most notably, we spend all this money on public schools! Conservative proposals to replace public schools with vouchers would revolutionize almost everything about the education system in America while specifically retaining the aspect of the system that transfers resources from non-parents to parents.

It is probably possible to justify subsidization of child rearing through some kind of economist-friendly rhetoric about externalities and long-term fiscal sustainability. But in the real world, I don't think that's even the best way to think about it.... One of the main goals of any kind of political community is the enduring of the political community. That requires the rule of law and blah blah blah but it also... requires... human beings.... Which is to say that children, though expensive, differ from luxury cars in that they are human beings.... Cars aren't people. Babies aren't luxury consumer goods. That's just how it is.

And Erik Brynnjolffson notes a rather different tune from 2004:

Greg Mankiw: Ask the White House:

Rhonda, from Lexington writes: We haven't received a Child Tax Credit check this year. Will we? Is the $1,000 permanent?

**Greg Mankiw: Increasing the child tax credit to $1,000 has been an important part of the President’s tax relief for working families. The child credit will not, however, come as a separate check in the mail, but will be included as part of your normal tax return. You will pay lower income taxes, or receive a bigger income tax refund, every April 15. Earlier this week, the President signed a new law that makes sure that the $1,000 credit will remain in place in the next five years. Of course, the President’s goal is to make it permanent.

From the narrow-minded economist's point of view, it is worth pointing out that the interdependence of parents' and children's well-being indeed gets you a double effect, or more than a double effect, from health spending on parents and children. And if you asked even the childless what share of their wealth they would be willing to have taxed away if it were necessary in order to prevent human extinction a century hence, the fraction would be rather high.

But I think Matt is correct. In my view, at least, the right way to approach why we include ob-gyn care in ACA essential benefits--why do not think it wise or moral to load the costs of medical care for the creation of the generation to come exclusively on the women whose wombs bear them--is not through the economics of rent-seeking and special-interests but rather through moral philosophy. And we recall Edmund Burke:

Edmund Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France:

One of the first and most leading principles on which the commonwealth and the laws are consecrated, is lest the temporary possessors and life-renters in it, unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors, or of what is due to their posterity, should act as if they were the entire masters; that they should not think it among their rights to cut off the entail, or commit waste on the inheritance, by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society; hazarding to leave to those who come after them a ruin instead of an habitation--and teaching these successors as little to respect their contrivances, as they had themselves respected the institutions of their forefathers. By this unprincipled facility... the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. No one generation could link with the other. Men would become little better than the flies of a summer....

Society is indeed a contract. Subordinate contracts for objects of mere occasional interest may be dissolved at pleasure--but the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties. It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born...

896 words...