It's All In the Economic Family

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What is a "family," economically speaking, and who defines its boundaries of reciprocal entitlements and responsibilities?

Is the family human nature’s building block, scientifically defined by kinship and genetics?

Or does family derive from the word of God? If so, which god? There are certainly a lot of holy books and interpreters to choose from, none of which can be exclusively embraced or categorically rejected by a body politic that separates church and state.

Is the family dead? One might think so when observing the plight of the inner city poor replete with unwed mothers, absent fathers, abandoned children, over-burdened grandmothers, and harried social workers.

Is the family a series of easily entered but bitterly broken contracts? It is in any suburban neighborhood with its frequent divorces, serial marriages, adjudicated custody agreements, packed day care centers, and institutionalized grandparents.

Does gay marriage and adoption promise, or threaten, to separate the social functions of sex, family, and procreation? Birth control, abortion, maternal surrogacy, sperm banks, and in vitro fertilization certainly separated them biologically.

Can an extended spiritual community be a family? Suppose it’s based on patriarchal polygamy, coerced concubinage, and reclusive communal living punctuated by periodic police raids triggered by befuddled social service agencies?

Maybe the family has no materiality at all and is just a malleable social convention. For one example, consider science fiction writer Robert Heinlein’s multi-generation group marriages brilliantly explored in "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress." These resemble nothing so much as customized special purpose Limited Liability Corporations (LLCs).

As we enter the post-racial era of the civil rights movement, few contests will be as interesting to watch as democracy's effort to redefine the family, attempting to legally sanction social innovations untested by ancient usage whose broader impacts we but dimly see.

When Obama's honeymoon period ends will it be a red or a blue tribal chieftain who restarts the Culture Wars, staging the first scene in the next act of paid political theater, firing up the base and demonizing the opposition?

Watch in amazement as the judge, the legislator, the tort lawyer, the tax accountant, the minister, and the talk show host dive into this mélange seeking divergent ends. Beyond the entertainment value, the resolution of this donnybrook will profoundly transform the way we live, work, are born, and die.

Have you heard about the elder care contracts being written between aging parents and their adult children? These asset transfer agreements are designed to get around regulatory barriers erected to stop children from artificially impoverishing grandma in order to gain free access to taxpayer-supported nursing home care. Is this elder-care income taxable and do children serving as independent contractors caring for parents in their own homes have to pay both the employee and employer side of social security taxes? Will this trip up some future Treasury Department appointee?

How long will it be before the government starts paying a majority of the nation’s mothers to care for their own children? Some say it’s just a matter of time as the income tax code ramps up cash distributions even for citizens that don’t pay income taxes.

In Italy a forty-something sued his own father, successfully forcing dad to financially support junior’s chosen lifestyle as an unemployed student. Will European legal norms eagerly embraced by some of our fellow citizens include this one, and will America end up undergoing voluntary depopulation as parents begin to view children as liabilities instead of assets?

Civil unions were first accepted by a few employers, then recognized by a few courts, and next endorsed by the electorate of some states while forbidden by others. Can a company incorporated in a state with one set of laws that operates in a state with another be sued for failing to offer comparable healthcare packages to employees that live in a third state who obtained a same sex marriage in a fourth?

Can you find a single word in the U. S. Constitution that explicitly gives the federal government the power to sort this all out? Or do federal powers no longer emanate from the constitution as much as from the Voice of the People or the unfettered penumbras cast by a few men in robes?

Perhaps the Compromiser-in-Chief will forge a cafeteria-style plan that offers flexible family options structured like some corporate benefits packages. Let’s see, I'll take the ten year renewable, same sex marriage contract with the joint custody adoption option, no-fault pre-nuptial agreement, hold the revocable-trust estate plan.

However this works out, the one-size-fits-all nuclear family where each is left to figure out who takes care of whom is passing into history.

The economic impact of socializing family entitlements and responsibilities will reverberate for generations. What can you do but sigh and pile the unpaid bills on top of the largest intergenerational debt programs every created, namely Social Security and Medicare.

If the nation goes this route and we all live like one big family, will the title Mr. President be changed to Big Daddy?

Bill Frezza is a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and a Boston-based venture capitalist. You can find all of his columns, TV, and radio interviews here.  If you would like to have his weekly columns delivered to you by e-mail, click here or follow him on Twitter @BillFrezza.

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