Someone’s in the Kitchen With Dinah
The left wants to tax housework.
By James Taranto in the Wall Street Journal
“Moms who stay at home with their children are less valuable than moms who work for pay” is how the Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney summed up the thinking behind some of President Obama’s futile State of the Union tax proposals last week:
Obama . . . proposed tax cuts that go only to dual-income families. Obama called for a new “second-earner tax credit” and expanding a tax credit for commercial child care. . . .
“When both spouses work,” the White House explained in a document laying out these proposals, “the family incurs additional costs in the form of commuting costs, professional expenses, child care, and, increasingly, elder care. When layered on top of other costs, including federal and state taxes, these work-related costs can contribute to a sense that work isn’t worth it, especially for parents of young children.”
Yes, it is costly for a mother to enter the workforce. But it is also costly for a mother to exit or stay out of the workforce. Switching jobs has costs, just as staying in your job has costs. Every life decision includes risks and costs and benefits. Obama has decided that the cost of a mother returning to work and placing her children in daycare is something he wants to subsidize.
No doubt there is something to this: The contemporary left strongly disapproves of traditional sex roles, although the Obama plan would equally disfavor couples who choose the decidedly nontraditional arrangement of breadwinner wife and house-husband.
But defenders of the president’s plan also make an economic argument. Here’s Josh Barro of the New York Times : “The tax code is already hugely distorted in favor of stay-at-home parenting: Labor outside the home is taxed; household work, such as stay-at-home parenting, is not.”
Twitchy.com in turn rebuts Barro: “We were always under the impression that it was income that was taxed, not labor. But the moonbats are actually arguing that by performing labor without income, you are technically stealing—or at least receiving benefits—from the government. Your labor is not your own.”
We’ll leave it to others to determine whether the “moonbat” label fits, but Twitchy is quite correct about the basis for taxation. To illustrate the point, consider another Obama proposal: for a federal law requiring employers to provide paid sick leave and state laws mandating paid maternity leave. Workers who took advantage of these benefits would pay taxes on their income just as if they had worked for it. The basis for taxation is income, not labor.
On the other hand, say you’re the taxman and your goal is to capture every possible dollar for the government’s coffers. From that point of view, unpaid domestic labor looks like a lucrative, if entirely legal, tax shelter. The housewife (or husband, in the nontraditional scenario) could be at an office somewhere having taxes withheld from her paycheck. And that’s not all: By stashing the kids in day-care centers and relying on restaurants for the family meals, the couple is helping employ an array of other workers whose wages the government can withhold for taxes. It’s a win-win!
There’s probably no practicable way of taxing housework—is an IRS agent going to stand in the kitchen with Dinah and tot up the time she spends cooking? So the only alternative is to create incentives for commercializing as much of the work as possible. The Obama “tax breaks” are better understood as loss leaders—discounts offered with the idea of ultimately separating the purported beneficiaries from even more of their money.
It all makes perfect sense if the goal is to increase the size and power of government. At the same time, it points to a contradiction of contemporary liberals: While professing to find markets unfair and inhuman, they endorse an ideology whose logic leads to the commercialization of absolutely everything, no matter how intimate.
Or maybe not everything. After all, you don’t have to be married to do chores around the house. Your humble columnist lives alone, but we cook most of our own meals. It’s a sweet deal: Most of the ingredients we use are exempt from state and local sales tax, and as Barro notes, our labor doesn’t generate a nickel for the IRS.
Yet the Obama plan has us feeling left out. Could we please have a tax break to encourage us to eat at restaurants more often?