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Some Non-Negotiables

September 2, 2012

In 1992, speaking at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, George H.W. Bush famously declared that “the American way of life is not-negotiable.” In other words, America wasn’t about to make economic sacrifices for the sake of the long-term well-being of the planet.

Increasingly, it seems that the precise opposite of Bush’s remark is true (not an uncommon occurrence). Which is to say that Americans are no longer in a position to negotiate on behalf of our way of life: it simply cannot be sustained. The environmental crisis is but one example of this. Others include: long-term budget deficits, the rising costs of health care and education, and extreme income inequality.

To this familiar list, I would like to add one more example–an example impressed upon me by a conversation I had last night with some friends who recently became parents. It turns out that many new parents find themselves in a double bind. On the one hand, rising costs of living virtually require that both parents work a full-time 9-5. On the other, much of that income gets eaten up by child care costs. For the lower-earning parent, soaring child care costs can even be a “pay neutral” proposition. (For more on that, see this article from the Guardian.)

This is obviously a complex problem. In searching for a culprit, liberals can point to growing income equality and the gutting of the social safety net, while conservatives can point to the erosion of family values. I’m inclined to think that both sides have something to offer and that what’s needed is creative problem solving that brings together the best of each. What won’t work is simply treating children as a luxury item or lifestyle choice, as do several readers in the comments section of this recent NYT article on “Straightening Out the Work-Life Balance.” Here is a sample:

As a childless woman, I have been taken advantage of by colleagues with children who felt entitled to my time because they had kids, and often because of their poorly organized personal lives. If your child is sick, then you are entitled. If your child has a softball game, I really don’t care. That is not more important to me than my time at the gym or making a nice, healthy dinner for myself at home vs. picking up something fast.

Environmentally speaking, the American way of life may not last for more than a few generations. But this kind of individualistic attitude is enough to wipe it out in just one. Or, at least, if everyone thought like this reader, successful parenting would quickly become the province of the fortunate few. The rest of us would be required to either contracept the problem away or make a series of harrowing trade-offs.

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