A Call for Childcentric Philosophy and Politics

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I have long been a registered Republican, but now find both parties to be unacceptable sources of reliable policy for children and the future they represent.

Both parties, but particularly the Democrats, are amassing unprecedented future obligations for our children and their children, primarily for the care and comfort of my generation — the Boomers.  We are, in contrast to the Greatest Generation of our parents and grandparents – perhaps the most self-centered grouping of adults in American history.  The Social Security benefits we have not paid for, and the Medicare deficit – financing everything from joint replacements to Viagra – portend trillions in future obligation.  The amount in under-funding there, adding in the smaller federal deficit, rises to above $60 trillion within the life of those children now being born.  Merely the interest on that deficit at 5% will be almost half of family income – before other taxes.  But liberals will not talk about it, and even conservatives avoid mentioning the two most costly programs, preferring to blame food stamps or other investments in children that are trivial in amount and have some ethical basis.  Beyond that, liberal ideology favors “top down” bureaucracy, services performed by those with “caseloads” (relegating even foster children to too many institutional caregivers), and dependence on public employee unions.  Add to that the politically correct tolerance for infinite adult license – including abandonment of a child’s simple right to be intended by two people.

At the same time, we have a Republican Party that has forgotten its roots, and now serves as tribalistic defenders of privilege and excess.  They are self-indulgent takers who worship words like “freedom” and stand tall before the flag, but forget that those hitting the beaches at Iwo Jima were sacrificing for all of us.  Of course we best respect individuality (which makes their lemming-like group obeisance to each other rather ironic), but we also know we are a community.  A lot of people, strangers, and including those Marines through history, have contributed to where we are now.  And yet we don’t pay attention to the children the state seizes for their protection,we don’t invest in the children of all of us, and we even go so far as to defend a system of health care that means if a child is ill, an uncovered family risks likely bankruptcy if she spends more than a few days in a hospital.  My Party has become an ignorami tool of monied interests, and is at least equally irresponsible.

Conservatives do favor use of the market to allocate resources efficiently, recognizing it as a presumptive means of efficiency and of “bottom up” economic democracy.   On the other hand, current conservatives fail to heed their own economic theorists who identified market flaws needing correction, including natural monopolies, imperfect information, and external costs. As to the last, these costs occur where the market fails to assess damages imposed on others, such as a product that causes sickness or a manufacturer who pollutes to ruin fishing downstream.   The market is an important construct, but it is fashioned by humans and influenced by rules of liability and mankind created inequities.  It is not a deity. Indeed, the classic Renaissance satire of Candide by Voltaire skewers the “Optimist” philosophy that all that happens is perfect because God controls all and wills it.  Neo-conservatives largely replace “deity” with “the happenstance of the current market” in their equally vulnerable worldview.  The market is a useful human construct with rules about who is liable for what costs that the market may or may not assess by discretionary decision, e.g., rules of liability, public assessments, criminal prohibition or any number of influence-factors.   Such “external costs” can include health consequences that are caused by a product’s use, environmental harm to others or other costs to be borne by those in the future.  Environmental depredations, now at unprecedented levels, the consumption of limited resources and other policies that sacrifice those in the future for present comfort – these are costs that may be prevented through straight prohibition or other adjustments not requiring “licensure regulation” or other “prior restraint” intervention.

They may also be addressed through fees.  These amply supplement the market while retaining its efficiency features.  Such fees would be set to measure the costs of denial or harm to future generations.  They should start low to allow recovery of existing sunk cost investment, but should increase substantially in an advance-noticed format as time passes to allow for the efficient reallocation. This mechanism recognizes future costs and internalizes them through market forces efficiently amended (or corrected) by those assessments.  The revenues from those fees could then ameliorate the harm — while the external cost continues to accrue damage, and to stimulate approaches that are less costly to those who follow us.  Accordingly, global warming and the consumption of the earth’s limited supply of carbon could be ameliorated through an international carbon fee starting low, but accelerating in amount as years pass. The revenue would be used for solar power or other external benefit subsidy, or to ameliorate the damage from removal and damage during the interim period where damaging exploitation or production continues.

The lodestar for all of us is the supervening obligation owed to those who follow us in the millennia to come.   It is interesting that we all have such acuity in seeing the selfishness, irrationality and cruelty of our predecessors (whether the inquisition, slavery or unjustified wars).  Our point of view in making systemic decisions should be as follows:  What will be the future view of it and of us in five or more centuries.  Our founders risked much for us.  How will those who follow us in 250 years view our record?  We have been impressive in communications, transportation and computer technology.   But that may not be the crucible of future ethical judgment.

Exacerbating the child-friendly reform of American public policy is the influence of corporations and the decline of democracy.  In particular, Citizens United   egregiously equates these statutorily created “persons” with human persons in their political right entitlement.  But corporations consist of collections of capital devoted to some invested purpose, and with officers and lobbyists necessarily (and properly) serving the present financial interests of stockholders funding it.   Such a focus is not itself a criticism – that is what they are intended to do.  But that persona is very different than that of a human directed democracy.  The latter is properly controlled by individuals who are concerned about diffuse and future interests. The corporation necessarily seeks to “free ride” for maximum profit, and to take exhaustible resources or impose costs on others or on the future—particularly where it serves the protection of the capital investment that is its necessary lodestar.   That bias is intended and may manifest much advantage in productivity.  But elevating such entities to the enhanced political rights of humans pushes the needle radically in a direction against those who are unorganized and who depend upon future commitment.  Those interests were already at risk before the elevation of corporations for purposes of political contribution and influence.  Indeed, CAI has been lobbying for children for 23 years in Sacramento and in D.C., and we know that legislative bodies are increasingly passive.  Even the language of modern civics reflects the change: the “sponsors” of legislation are no longer the legislators introducing it, but the interest groups actually writing it.  And the negotiations are undertaken by “stakeholders.”   Children are often absent.  They provide no votes or campaign money.  They are diffuse and represent future interests, the place you kick the can down the road to. They have few advocates; in fact, the elderly lobby AARP alone spends 25 times as much on lobbying in D.C. as do all child advocates combined.

We have work to do and we face difficult odds when confronted by two parties who have largely abandoned children, except for photo ops and rhetoric.  We need to resurrect a strong sense of ethical imperative to measure all that we do under a primary lens:  What are we passing onto our legatees?

About the author:  Professor Robert C. Fellmeth is a tenured law professor at the University of San Diego (USD) School of Law and is Founder and Executive Director of USD’s Center for Public Interest Law and its Children’s Advocacy Institute. He is the holder of the Price Chair in Public Interest Law at the USD School of Law, one of two such chairs in the nation.

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