income inequality is bad for traditionalists, too

So I argued recently that traditional masculinity has to die. Although I’m friends with some traditionalists, and I think that there are strains of traditionalism that really exemplify a politics of caring that is quite rare, I am generally antagonistic to traditionalism writ large. Tradition inevitably puts constraints on the free expression of human behaviors that result in human flourishing. While individuals are free to personally judge the social, cultural, sexual, and other conduct of others, I don’t think society benefits from traditional behavior codes outside of the requirement to not harm others. And I certainly don’t think, for example, that government should be providing economic incentives to people to have children. The assumption that a life is well-lived if and only if it results in having kids is exactly the kind of tradition that I find contrary to freedom. It creates social and personal expectations that cut against the democratic (and small-c conservative, by the way) value of living life as you choose to live it.

The beauty of it, from my perspective, is that people remain free to live the lives they want to live absent that kind of cultural assumption. In my ideal society, the two-parent, two-kid, dog and cat, go-to-church-every-Sunday family lives next door to the flophouse where a dozen freaky-deakys of various genders and sexual identities daisy chain each other every night, with our society and our government accepting the perfectly equal legitimacy of both families. (In my experience, the former may have a more deviant set of sexual desires than the latter, whether those  desires are satisfied or not, but I digress.) The good thing for the traditionalist is that there appears to be no danger of the two-cars-and-soccer-mindset  form of American success dying out. When I complain that our culture (and our tax code) seems to push everyone to have kids, my breeder friends– both crunchy liberal farmer’s market types and traditionalist squares– often get defensive. But what risk is there, really, to the franchise of child-rearing? There’s that whole “weight of evolution and biological drive” thing going for it. We’ll keep propagating the species.

The question is whether people can afford to do it in a way we consider practical or responsible. So take, well, me. Despite my distaste for the cultural prominence of child rearing, I freely confess that, with my 33rd birthday on Monday, I definitely feel the drive to get together with someone and have kids. I feel, frankly, old to be starting. I have my own deviations from the traditionalist romantic/familial/sexual expectations, which I won’t bore you with, but like most of my friends, my general goal is to meet someone cool and start a family. To be honest with you, I think about having babies all the time. And it’s a surprisingly physical urge, to have kids. We talk a lot about women having biological drives to have kids, and I get that there is a sense in which they have a narrower window to conceive than men, but nothing in our culture has prepared me for the intensity of my own desire to have children. So, thanks again, sexist culture.

But as much as I feel like I’m getting old to start a family, there hasn’t been a time when I could have possibly in the last few years. I’ve been making, on average, about $18,000 a year, as a graduate student. Going to grad school was a choice, but that doesn’t mean that making more money was on the table. I applied for jobs for years before I started grad school and I make more now than I would have gotten from the small handful of  job offers I got. I simply couldn’t imagine paying for a wedding or for a baby right now. I have grad student friends who have started families, and I really don’t know how they do it; most of them, I guess, have spouses who work. I would just not feel comfortable having a kid on this kind of income.

Besides, a more serious relationship costs a lot of money too. (For women as well as men, by the way, no matter what some might expect.) In contrast, a pattern that’s common to a lot of my younger friends is cheaper, which is a kind of serial, laid back, uncommitted cycling between people that isn’t codified as “a relationship” but that entails some of the benefits of dating. I go out, often with women I really like, but the mutual expectation that it’s not going to turn into anything too serious means there’s no pressure to eat anywhere fancy or that one person will pick up the check for the other. There’s no vacations to plan or pay for, no expensive birthday gifts. It’s very nice, and I don’t regret any of it, but there’s a reason it’s common to people who work jobs that don’t offer good pay or security. It’s an extension of college-age dating into later adult life because traditional relationships, marriage, and kids are all too expensive, for many of us, for our current economy.

To be perfectly clear: I’m not complaining about my current life. In fact it’s a lovely day-to-day existence, and I’m a deeply privileged  person. Indeed, my ability to sustain such a fulfilling and psychically secure existence on a low income is indicative of my many privileges. But the future is coming up fast. I have several reasons to be more optimistic about my economic future than many other PhD students, but I am under no illusions, and there’s a decent chance that, in a couple years, I’ll be adjuncting for about the same amount of money I make now, but without the great health insurance I get, or the stability, or the free time… and how could I start a family then? And this feeling that starting a family seems like an economic hurdle I won’t be able to clear is common to many, many people I know. Some of them are employed in pretty good jobs, but feel that they lack security or the chance at promotion in that position. Many of them cycle between various short-term gigs or freelance work that allows them to pay for their own lives but doesn’t provide them the chance to start a family. Some get by on unemployment and food stamps because they have no other choice. People talk about the sexual and romantic norms of Millenials without referring to the student loan debt, joblessness, and general economic immisseration, and I think that’s a mistake.

None of this is good for the traditionalist worldview. It almost makes me laugh– after all these years of conservatives worrying about what media and culture are doing to traditional (Christian) social norms, it’s like capitalism has flexed its muscles and said, I’ll show you what really dictates human behavior. I came to think about all of this because of this brilliant piece by Elizabeth Stoker, considering ways in which income inequality contributes to the rage of men who go on shooting sprees. (If you feel like hating the world, or just want to get a sense of what it means to be a woman who writes things on the internet, check the comments.) I guess I would summarize it like this: our society has an incredible number of ways to tell people that they’re losers, but the economic ways are the cruelest, the most acute. And when you take that and you add in hatred for women and the grimy entitlement that is part of our cultural endowment to men, you get this horrific, spasmodic violence.

Part of the solution has to be gradually dissolving those cultural definitions of what gives a man value– the amount of money he makes, the number of women he can seduce, his capacity for violence. But if we’re stuck with those expectations for awhile, we’ve got to grapple with the fact that for many people, men and women alike, fulfilling these hoary old definitions of success simply isn’t economically, structurally possible. Which is part of why conservatism’s total inability to articulate a meaningful challenge to inequality– to even be able to acknowledge that it exists, and isn’t some socialist plot– is so frustrating. Stoker’s piece considers the knife’s edge of these cultural-economic failures, the way in which they manifest themselves as violence and destruction. But there is a more mundane, grinding kind of violence being committed, and it fills people with bleak hopelessness. It’s the way in which people who worked hard and played by the rules now find themselves squashed between their economic misery and the social embarrassment of not being able to satisfy the cultural expectations of success. It’s being shown the nuclear family as the American ideal your whole life and then confronting an economy where having kids seems as remote as buying a luxury car.

If we’re going to address any of this stuff, it has to begin with the admission, from all parties, that the society we say we want is not possible under our broken, unequal economic system.