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Every child left behind

If you like a consequence-free environment, you’ll love Tribune Co.'s employee benefits package. Recently, while enrolling my third child in one of several very generous health insurance plans the L.A. Times makes available to its workers, I discovered that there’s still such a thing as free money.

That’s right, I said “third child.” That’s not negative population growth. It’s not responsible family planning. It’s not replacement-rate or minimum-impact growth. That’s resource-depleting, emergency-room-swamping, carbon-footprint-enlarging, overpopulating, anti-Malthusiating, climate-change-worsening, real-estate-hogging madness, a lifestyle choice so dimly regarded in good society that a while back no less a figure than Luke Ford described me as breeding like an Orthodox Jew. (I take that as a compliment.)

And it’s being subsidized by my co-workers.

Here’s how: Every month I’ve been committing $130.66 of my paycheck to Cigna, and in exchange I’ve been getting HMO coverage for myself, my wife and two older children. But when I added the third child, my regular payout adjusted to ... $130.66. Since the family coverage plan is a blanket policy, my youngest kid gets covered for free. Well, not quite for free. Other Cigna customers are paying just a little bit more so that I can avoid paying my family’s fair share. In particular, the many people around the L.A. Times who made the decision — considered a laudable decision in many circles — not to breed get to endure higher monthly premiums so that I can insure three kids, or a dozen kids, for the price of one.

As externalized costs go, this is a pretty minor one. And — to the (very small) extent that employer-provided insurance can be said to be a fully voluntary exchange in an undistorted market — it is more or less a consensual exchange. But this is just the zygote from which grows a vast organism of incentives and deferred responsibilities. I get tax deductions for each kid. I can (and do) make use of a public school system I barely pay into. If I take family leave my co-workers (suckers!) have to pick up the slack. If I take time off for some cockamamie school play, somebody else has to work a little harder. These are not naturally occurring fringe benefits. They’re matters of policy, all tending toward one great goal: the overpopulation of Los Angeles, of California, of the United States, of Planet Earth.

Do I feel guilty? I do not. But I do wonder where the “child-free” movement has been these past few years. When I caught up with Elinor Burkett, whose 2000 book The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless encapsulated the grievances of non-breeding advocates, she had little to say, noting that she has since moved on to other interests. Nor do the various chapters of the group No Kidding! appear to have grown much in the post-9/11 era. After repeated efforts to contact the group, I found a voicemail on my work phone indicating No Kidding! founder Jerry Steinberg had called back, collect.

Is the child-free movement demoralized, disorganized or uncertain about policy? A quick survey of prominent population hawks indicates some combination of the three.

“We would never criticize policies that aim to make it a little easier to raise kids,” says Brian Dixon, media director for the Washington-based overpopulation advocacy group Population Connection. “We don’t think there are many policies that actually encourage people to have kids. People in this country chose a long time ago to have small families. Government policy designed to encourage people to have children doesn’t have a big effect. ... People have done research on that and that doesn’t really have any effect on people’s children.”

But that’s a principle you wouldn’t claim in other areas. There’s little dispute, for example, that American tax policy encourages homeownership, and probably a concomitant inflation of housing prices. If you believe that overpopulation is a problem, shouldn’t you be arguing for policy that actively discourages reproduction, or at least avoids tacitly encouraging it? That depends, according to Diana Hull, president of Californians for Population Stabilization.

“I don’t feel like a person who can give a child a good education, a good home, who wants that child, who’s educated — I don’t think there should be a disincentive for that person to have a child,” Hull says. “We’ve always felt that way. We were very critical of the Chinese with their one-child policy, even though that’s worked very well for China.” The Golden State’s people problem, says Hull, is not coming from reproduction but from immigration, and she points to a study by her group indicating that, with the state’s reproductive rates hovering around replacement rates, “virtually all” of California’s population growth is attributable to immigration or breeding by immigrants. As for my personal situation, Hull is encouraging: “I think people from educated professional families should have children,” she says. “Where else are we going to get an educated workforce?”

That seems like a line of thinking I don’t want to follow too far, and in any event concentrating on California, or the United States, gets us back to another problem of externalized costs. Most of the complaints of the child-free you can make go away just by invoking the great government Ponzi schemes and noting that we have to keep growing our younger population in order to slave for the parasitic baby boomers and maintain the Social Security trust fund. (So don’t blame me: My children already bear the number of the beast that they will carry to their graves.) There’s nothing like zero-sum thinking to make cowards of us all.

But there’s supposed to be a much greater, and also zero-sum, principle at stake here: the idea that population growth is straining the so-called carrying capacity of the entire planet. In that way of thinking, Hull has it almost precisely wrong: Wealthy, well-educated Americans are the very people who should be breeding the least, because we’re the biggest, piggiest, consumeriest of them all. A few people, though not many, are willing to make this argument. Alan Weisman, whose recent book The World Without Us envisions a human-free planet, is one of them.

“The whole idea of growth-based economics is another type of Ponzi scheme,” Weisman says. “For example, the tremendous growth of our economic system in the last century has been fueled by fossils. Now we’re seeing the repercussions. We’re in the fear stage at this point. None of the models are encouraging, so people keep going to work, going to the Chicago Stock Exchange or to Wall Street or wherever they work, and pretending the economy is going on as usual. But the economy isn’t going on as usual. The resource base is being depleted or contaminated.”

Everybody I contacted for this story agreed that there is a real resource crunch and that population growth only makes it worse. Maybe they’re right. Or maybe their view of what a “resource” is has it exactly backward. The fossil fuels so universally bemoaned these days did not just bubble up into some internal combustion engine that arose from nature. They sat under the deserts and oceans for millions of years, and would be sitting there today, if not for clever people (Americans, mostly) who figured out how to do something with them. In time, some better resource will come along, or more precisely, will be developed out of existing materials, and it will make the explosive growth of the 20th century seem tame by comparison. And then the carrying capacity of human habitats will reach 20 billion or 30 billion. And somebody will be saying: “Well, it looks OK now, but what do we do when we reach 50 billion?” And it won’t matter, because human beings will still be what they are now: the most important resource ever discovered.

On that count, my co-workers should be honored to pay for my kids’ Dip/Tet shots. While Hillary Clinton seems poised to quash my dream of becoming the father of the first female president of the United States, I still might be able to take credit for siring the inventor of the dilithium engine.

Tim Cavanaugh is web editor of The Times’ editorial page.

Send us your thoughts at opinionla@latimes.com.


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