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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


A Solution to Paul Ryan's Problem

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan says we need more babies. I have the answer to the problem.

July 8, 2018

Last December, now retiring Speaker of the House Paul Ryan invoked a kind of sequel to 60’s cult classic B-movie, Mars Needs Women: The U.S. needs babies.

In public remarks, Ryan suggested that the key to sustainable economic prosperity in the United States is for women to have more babies.

“We have something like a 90 percent increase in the retirement population of America but only a 19 percent increase in the working population in America. So what do we have to do? Be smarter, more efficient, more technology . . . still going to need more people.”

There is a time-tested, economics-validated alternative to more babies, immigration, but Ryan and his party have acceded to a president who does not seem to care much about empirical evidence when it comes to policy making. (Also see trade, international relations, environment, health care, deficits, tax policy…you get the idea.) They also seem to think that the babies of migrant asylum seekers are the wrong kind of babies.

I wonder why.

Moving on, let’s discuss the issue on Speaker Ryan’s terms. If we’re going to turn our backs on people eager to come to America and contribute to our national bottom line, we’ll definitely need more babies.

We have some fresh data as to why people may be having fewer children than they planned or desired thanks to a New York Times poll of over 1800 men and women ages 20 to 45.

Economic concerns dominate.

  • 64% say childcare is too expensive
  • 49% say they’re worried about the economy
  • 44% say they can’t afford more children
  • 43% say they waited because of financial instability

Even those factors not obviously about economic concerns betray money problems just beneath the surface, 54% say they “want more time for the children I have,” suggesting a tension between working to support one’s family and having the time to enjoy one’s family.

It’s not surprising then that 39% cite the lack of paid family leave as a factor.

I worry about how we are making our country increasingly inhospitable to individual economic mobility, that we’ve made it far too hard to get ahead. Here’s the evidence showing that these difficulties are directly linked to declining birth rates.

Lest anyone think my worries are entirely selfless, please know that while I’m steadfastly against the suffering and immiseration of others, I spend lots of my time worried for myself.

I worry because if the generations behind me can’t get ahead, when it’s time for me to ease off into the sunset, two of the vehicles which I thought were designed to sustain me in my golden years, Social Security and the equity in my home that will be realized once it is sold, will be not available.

While some adjustments to Social Security will almost certainly be necessary regardless, but if there aren’t enough workers paying in while I’m taking out, that math isn’t going to work.

If there is not a younger person financially positioned to move into my home which presently holds a good portion of my net worth, that equity which looks so robust on paper now doesn’t actually ever come into tangible existence.

Fortunately, we have a very straightforward policy lever to address Speaker Ryan’s problem.

Cancel all government held student debt. Total student debt is about $1.4 trillion, of which 90% is government held. It could be wiped out with a literal wave of the hand, at almost no cost to implement. 

A team of researches at the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College have found significant macroeconomic benefits to canceling government held student debt with very few downsides, almost all of them limited to a minority of cases where the “undeserving” will see a benefit. 

The deficit would rise some, though it would be a fraction of the increase attributable to last year’s tax cut of $1.5 trillion, and unlike the tax cut, which has mostly accrued to the wealthy this transfer of money would be put to work immediately, likely including the making of more babies. The Levy Institute report calculates an increase to GDP of somewhere around $100 billion per year over the next ten years. Unlike the supply side fantasy of that Trump tax cut, canceling student debt actually has the potential to pay for itself.

We have allowed the American Dream of work hard, do well in school, buy a house, have a family, rinse and repeat, to slip away from into something reserved for the already wealthy or the lucky few.[1] A recent essay by M.H. Miller in The Baffler, “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Debt to Me” is anecdotal, but illustrative.

On the surface, Miller is a tremendous success, having secured a job as an arts editor for The New York Times Style Magazine.

But Miller’s success is eroded by being shackled to debt accrued in the pursuit of the education which would allow him to achieve such a position, a situation made even worse as his parents were suddenly thrown into dire economic straits after losing their solidly middle class jobs in the 2008 recession.

The math for Miller’s life with debt simply doesn’t make sense. A $25,000 loan on which he has paid over $12,000 to date still has a balance of more than the original loan amount. Consolidating his debt with SoFi has put him on track to retire his debt by 2032, when he will be forty-four years old.

Entire professions which require education and even advanced degrees have become untenable: teaching, nursing, journalism, college teaching off the tenure track.

Yes, there will be some cases where individuals who don’t need the boost get a bonus, but as Eric Levitz argues at New York magazine, cancelling outstanding student loan debt would be significantly more egalitarian than just about any other redistributive policy, including those recent tax cuts. 

Of course, after the debt is cancelled we’ll have to get on task to make sure the cycle doesn’t repeat itself, something we’re already heading towards with the numerous state-level experiments in making public college tuition-free.

Come on, think of the children.

And if you don’t want to think of the children, at least think of yourself.



[1] I don’t intend to minimize the reality that there has always been an imbalance in those who have access to the dream in the first place, and even those whose parents achieve the dream are no guarantee of the dream being passed down. The New York Times has a great data visualization showing the increased likelihood of black boys dropping in social class versus white boys. 


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