Saturday, October 08, 2005

A word about today's post

Today's post, "Where the Action is in Family Policy," is longer than usual. This is mostly because I was covering more terrain than usual.

The other reason is that I am going on the road for a week, taking my daughter on the big college exploration trip. I will post from the road as I am able, but I may miss a few days. So I wanted you to have something meaty to chew on.

Enjoy, and write back ...

Where the Action is in Family Policy

My wife and I used to work for the U.S. Department of Education. When I got the providential chance to move to Kentucky, she was able to get in on the ground floor of Kentucky’s nation-leading education reform program. Some of our Washington friends thought she was making a professional sacrifice in moving to the provinces. But as she wisely said at the time, “in education, the states are where the action is.” Washington is not the place to be to make a difference in elementary and secondary schooling in this country. She is in the right place to make a difference (proud husband plugs the Kentucky Association of School Councils).

So where do you go for the “action” to make a difference in family life?

Families are the most decentralized of institutions. Every institution affects, and is affected by, family life, but none has the decisive leverage on them. Families exist prior to all other institutions, and are, at root, independent of them.

But back to the “action.” The government can affect families. I think the government has a greater capacity to create social problems than to solve them, but it can help in the most difficult and expensive cases. In any case, it is inevitable that the government be involved in family life, if only in defining the terms of the hundred ways families interact with the property-regulating system. But in the normal life of normal families, the government is not very relevant.

Work affects families in a thousand ways. Most of us work, in part, to support our families. Work policies about childcare, health benefits, and retirement are key family policy battlegrounds. Our jobs are the biggest competitors with our families for our time. But business does not have a full “family policy,” nor should it. Business only has policy for those areas where it can’t avoid affecting families, but businesses generally, and rightly, try to avoid entanglement with families as much as possible.

Schools could have a big role in shaping families. They interact with families daily. They shape the schedules of children, and thus of parents. “Family life education” is something that family policy debaters from across the political spectrum want schools to do more of. My family life class feeds a real hunger, especially among students who are close to marriage. Yet schools, especially public schools, have shied away from all but the most clinical aspects of family life education, precisely because “family values” politics has made the moral aspects of family life too controversial for risk-averse schools.

Religious institutions have a deep stake in how well families are working, and are constitutionally suited to promoting the moral aspects of family life. Conservative religious institutions increasingly define themselves by their pro-family positions, to the point of risking cultural captivity and displacing their primary God-oriented message. This is the lesson that some of the founders of the Moral Majority drew from the absorption of their religious crusade into secular party machinery. And on the other side, mainline churches, ironically, take their cues on family life from secular social science and ideological egalitarianism as much as they do from Scripture and their religious traditions.

So what does that leave?

First and foremost, the action in family policy is in families. Most people learn most of what they know about how to make families – how to be married, raise kids, take care of parents, and relate as a family to the world – from other families. They learn from the families they were raised in, and from more-experienced peers. There are family-based family policy organizations – Marriage Savers comes to mind – which are willing to do the hard, retail work of connecting one family with another. Families will always be the most important arena for effective family policy.

But the second-most-important arena for family policy is the one you and I are in now. The soft institutions that shape the culture – the “media,” broadly construed – are important in shaping how people understand family life. I don’t think that cultural institutions make families, but they do affect how we know what we are making. An anthropological proverb that I have always found useful is, “ritual precedes doctrine.” That is, we learn to do social practices by doing them, before we learn or understand why we do them. We make families from instinct and desire and habit, and then from well-understood reasons. But the complementary proverb should be (I am making this up), “ritual without doctrine becomes taboo.” Things we do without knowing why are defenseless; they are vulnerable to cultural change, willy-nilly.

I believe that we are at a crucial moment in our society’s understanding of family life. The normal practices – marrying, raising kids, sticking together, caring for our elders – are still the accepted ritual for most Americans. But the reasons that we do these things are being criticized. Most institutions are far out of practice in explaining what is a good family, and what is a good-enough family. I don’t think we are in a culture war between just two opposing armies. But I do think we are in a cultural competition, in which right and left vie for the hearts and minds of the middle about why we have families.

The action in family policy is in how the center responds to the competing ideas lobbed at us from the wings. This, it seems to me, is a good reason for the center to blog back.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Marital Longevity Awards

I am working on family policy ideas that are Outside the Box. This week’s bright idea: graduated tax rebates as rewards for marital longevity.

Marriage is one of the most pro-social institutions. As an institution, it is good for women, very good for men, and the best thing for children. (If you think Jesse Bernard demonstrated that marriage is good for men but bad for women, see Waite and Gallagher’s refutation in The Case for Marriage. If you have never heard of Jesse Bernard, Go Gen X!)

The great benefit of marriage is not primarily economic, nor is it primarily a benefit to the state. However, the state does have strong reasons to support marriage. Among those benefits are economic ones – married people pay more in to the state than they cost, and their kids are much more likely to build up society than to burden it.

So here is my proposal: a state income tax rebate of ten dollars for each year that you have been in your current marriage. Widows and widowers would continue to receive the rebate at the level they achieved when their spouse died. Thus, if you and your spouse have been married ten years, you would get $100 back; at your silver anniversary the state hands back $250; golden anniversaries are awarded $500 back.
And I would make a big deal of it, too. Call them Marital Longevity Awards. Brag about how big a grateful payback the state made to these helpful citizens. Have bureaucrats whose job it is to increase the payout each year. Put the milestone awards in the paper (with the couple’s permission, of course). That is the carrot.

The stick is that only current marriages count. If you get divorced, you go back to zero; if you remarry, you start over again. Cohabiters, even with children, get zip.

At ten bucks per year, this rebate is not a budget breaker. And states reduce their other costs when more people marry and marriages last longer. Even if this investment in marriage cost ten percent of a state’s income tax revenue at first, it could pay that back by increasing the total ‘marriedness” of the state, which produces benefits that ripple through society.

Bright Ideas need a good critical response, so have at it.

[Where did I get the ten percent figure? For example, the average Kentuckian pays about $655 in state income tax, so a couple would pay about $1,300. I don’t know how much married couples pay, but married people generally have higher incomes. Conservatively, let’s say an average married couple in Kentucky, a pretty average state in this regard, pays $1,500 in state income taxes. Being only a little optimistic, we can expect about 3/4ths of them to make it to their tenth anniversary, and 2/3rds to their 20th. At any given moment, most of the marriages that will eventually go the distance are still in their early years, so the state would not be giving a big rebate to each couple. Making an educated guess, let’s say the average payout would be $150 per couple. That is about ten percent of the state’s income tax revenue (though only about 2% of the total state and local revenue from all taxes).]

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Kentucky’s Mysterious Definition of Marriage

In order to Make a Difference in the commonwealth in which I happily reside, I have been reading through the Kentucky Revised Statutes on family law. (My sister wrote, “I don’t know what you’re doing penance for, but it must have been pret-ty bad.") No, really, statutes are fascinating. As witnessed by the first item on my quest, the definition of marriage:

402.005 Definition of marriage.
As used and recognized in the law of the Commonwealth, "marriage" refers only to the civil status, condition, or relation of one (1) man and one (1) woman united in law for life, for the discharge to each other and the community of the duties legally incumbent upon those whose association is founded on the distinction of sex.

I understand most of this. As far as the government is concerned, marriage is a civil status. Other institutions, such as churches, can make of marriage something more if they want to. Marriage unites one (1) and one (1) to distinguish our monogamy from the polygamy that one might find elsewhere. Kentucky marriage unites a man and a woman, re-affirming, as the 2004 constitution amendment vote made clear, this state’s commitment to traditional heterosexual marriage. Marriage is for life, as least in hope. Marriage is both for the couple and for the whole community -- and a great boon it is to both, too.

Then we get to the mysterious part. What on earth does “duties legally incumbent upon those whose association is founded on the distinction of sex” mean?

What I would expect at this point in the sentence is, “sexual fidelity and the raising of the children they produce,” or something to that effect. I believe that is what “those whose association is founded on the distinction of sex” means. My best guess is that the General Assembly intended something like sexual fidelity and childrearing. They didn’t want to say that, though, so as not to exclude the childless, adoptive parents, and, perhaps, the maritally celibate. So it went through the legislative sausage grinder and came out with this choice legal euphemism, “duties legally incumbent upon those whose association is founded on the distinction of sex.”

If anyone knows the history of this phrase, I would welcome illumination.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Centrist Policy Means Distinguishing the Good, the Bad, and the Tolerated

As I argued in “What I Think Principled Centrism Means,” a centrist wants to promote what is best for society, tolerate what is good enough, and prevent what is harmful. This means that to define a centrist policy about anything, we need a category of social practice between the preferred and the prohibited. The natural thing to call this category is “tolerated.”

For example, historically and cross-culturally, marriage is the preferred institution in which to raise children, and incestuous unions are a prohibited way. What centrists need to be able to say is that marriage is preferred for raising children, and some other ways – my nominees would be single parenthood and same-sex unions -- are tolerated, acceptable, good enough. This is true of any social policy. The best way is still better, and social policy should provide incentives to promote the best way. But those who fall in the middle category, the good enough way, should not be penalized beyond the natural inefficiencies of doing something in a less than optimal way.

For liberal egalitarians having any kind of second class status is unacceptable.
For conservative perfectionists permitting any but the preferred way is to connive at social breakdown.

The primary political and philosophical problem of centrism is legitimizing the distinctions among the good, the bad, and the good enough.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Male Headship Isn’t as Bad as It’s Cracked Up to Be – Or as Good (Part Two)

Yesterday I talked about Maggie Gallagher’s subtle argument in Does Christianity Teach Male Headship? a position I agree with almost completely. There is one part of Gallagher’s argument, though, that I think is contestable. She imagines a “male headship” husband saying, “I make all the big decisions and she makes the little ones. Funny how in forty-five years, no big decisions have come up yet.”

Someday I want to do the big study of how husbands and wives really make decisions. I have, though, some evidence and some little studies already. What they suggest to me is that in most marriages, regardless of ideology, the couple has a good working agreement on nearly all decisions, but in the normal course of things, he really does make the big decisions and she makes all the little ones. As my mother reminded me, my father used to say, “I am not involved in any decision that costs less than $10,000.”

A study by my students Lolita Short and Buffy Huffman (Dennis) compared two conservative Protestant congregations, one black and one white. In both Bible-believing churches, men and women thought male headship was commanded by Scripture and matched their personal experience. When we got down to the details of how decisions were made in their marriages, though, both husbands and wives agreed that she decided nearly all aspects of daily life. “Headship” only came up in the big decisions.

Other evidence, though, suggests that even on big matters, such when to have children, where to live, or whether to change jobs, if the wife disagreed with the husband’s inclination, she was usually effective in delaying and modifying the decision to something more to her liking. Christel Manning’s fascinating study, God Gave us the Right: Conservative Catholic, Evangelical Protestant, and Orthodox Jewish Women Grapple with Feminism, described the kind of negotiations that even very conservative Protestant women made with their husband’s theoretical headship. She cites one evangelical wife as saying that she always followed her husband’s decisions, but when they disagreed, that meant that they had not prayed enough to discern God’s will.

Male headship is a more subtle matter than it first appears to be -- both less scary to egalitarians and less authoritative for hierarchical views of marriage.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Male Headship Isn’t as Bad as It’s Cracked Up to Be – Or as Good (Part One)

In Does Christianity Teach Male Headship? editors David Blankenhorn, Don Browning, and Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen assemble a fine intra-Christian debate. They are sounding out a middle position on how Christian marriage can do justice to the biblical standards without oppressing women.

On the one side are the editors and their allies. They say “no” to the title question, and instead make a case for “equal-regard” marriage. They read such tough passages as Ephesians 5:22, “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord,” as applying both ways. Wives should submit to husbands, they argue, and husbands should submit to wives. They do not see marriage as simply a contract of two individuals, but instead as requiring mutual transformation on both sides.

On the other side are a variety of critics, Protestant and Catholic, some quite conservative, some in the center. Their consensus, as I read it, is that the Bible does teach, and assume, some kind of male headship. Several of the critics see male headship as a way to address the “male problematic” of incorporating men into the mother-child families they help create. None of the critics, not even the most conservative, thinks headship means that husbands should make all the decisions and have all the power. All of the authors in the book firmly reject the idea that male headship in any way allows husbands to abuse wives. The critics convince me, though, that some kind of “soft patriarchy” is the net result of Biblical teaching.

The richest criticism comes from Maggie Gallagher. She first points out a difference in the Protestant and Catholic approaches to the whole idea of marriage and headship. Conservative Protestants affirm male headship and liberal Protestants contest it. Catholics, on the other hand, are more drawn to the indissolubility of marriage. If husband and wife are really “one flesh,” headship doesn’t really mean “domination” as it might in a hierarchical organization of separated individuals. It makes no more sense to think of the head oppressing the heart than the reverse. Moreover, Gallagher notes, the head of the household doesn’t have quite the life-and-death power over the family’s economic survival today as in biblical times. Headship ain’t what it used to be.

Gallagher’s best argument, I think, is that male headship is a “largely honorific title.”“Male headship offers men an excuse to submit to the demands of family life – and to the reality that wives retain considerable power, control, and authority in the home over the daily life of the husband.” The offer of male headship, coupled with the reality of both parents sacrificing for their families, is part of the cunning of civilization to turn us all into decent members of the human community.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

If You Are Not Outraged, Perhaps You Are Paying Attention to the Bigger Picture.

I am gruntled from faith, hope, and life.

I have the best life in the world. Best wife, best kids, good health, great job, friendly neighbors, smart colleagues, nice town, and a chance to make things better for other people. A great life helps one have a cheery outlook on life. Indeed, I think it would be ungrateful to feel otherwise. One of the requirements for sainthood in Catholic law is cheerfulness. Not optimism, and certainly not a naïve belief that everything is already perfect. But I have experienced that a cheerful approach to life is a help to me and to others.

But a great life is no guarantee of contentment, or even of being pleasant. I know people who are in what seem to me to be a great situation who nonetheless are disgruntled, and fuss about it often. In fact, they are prone to put a sticker on their car which says, “If You Are Not Outraged, You Are Not Paying Attention.” This seems to me to be a dangerous disposition. There is always a market for ideologies that justify breaking things, and the idea that outrage is the expression of righteous indignation is powerful fuel for destruction. The Bolsheviks thought that the best way to make things better was to make them worse – and hope that they emerged victorious from the rubble. Anger is a deadly sin. The Seven Deadly Sins were not so named because they are in themselves the worst sins, but because when they become habits, they produce so many other sins.

I have an informed hope that many things in life are getting better. The world, the country, my town, my family, are all richer, freer, healthier, and with a more open future than ever. Of course there are still bad things in the world. But more people have more capacity to make them better than ever before. One of the reasons that so many people have the option (indeed, the luxury) of being outraged is that many more problems can be ameliorated or even solved than ever before. Conditions in the world that can’t be changed are not “social problems,” they are facts of life. Sun spots are not a social problem; skin cancer is. Two hundred years ago polio was a bad thing that just happened, like a tree branch falling on your head; now it is a worldwide social problem that is nearly solved. Yes, there are very scary possibilities for the future. I myself am worried about the potential clash of civilizations. Yet this very danger also brings hope of an outcome – because civilization itself is a huge and hopeful achievement.

I have faith that Providence ultimately guides all creation. Of course, people use their God-given freedom to create problems all the time. I don’t know why bad things happen to good people. I also don’t know why good things happen to so-so people, like me. As my wife and I say to one another often, “it’s not fair.” We are grateful for our great kids, whom we did not create. Undeserved good fortune is as mysterious as undeserved bad fortune, and both are an argument for Providence – or nihilism and despair.

As for me and my house, we will have faith in Providence.