In the last week and a half, Newt Gingrich called one thing “dumb” and another thing “stupid.” The “dumb” thing, he said, was the very idea of having a super committee, and he may have had a point—although forcing the United States government into default would have been a good deal dumber.
And the “stupid” thing? That would be child-labor laws. Gingrich, in a speech at the Kennedy School, called such restrictions “tragic,” and rhapsodized about the beneficial effects of taking a paid job, with regular hours, beginning at the age of nine. He also had an idea of what sort of jobs might be suited for children:
"You say to somebody, you shouldn’t go to work before you’re what, fourteen, sixteen years of age, fine. You’re totally poor. You’re in a school that is failing with a teacher that is failing. I’ve tried for years to have a very simple model…. Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising."
In a way, these sentiments are not really surprising. In their estrangement from objective reality and subjective sympathy, they fit the patterns of this election season’s Republican rhetoric in general and Gingrich’s world view in particular. Indeed, looking at his own undisciplined habits, one wonders if he’s clear about where childhood begins and where it ends. He also calls things dumb at a rate that would cause the average kindergarten teacher to take action: after “socialist,” “stupid” may be his favorite term of contempt. (He also likes “smart,” to describe his own ideas, along with “frankly” and “fundamentally.”) It also fits with his faux-futurologist outlandishness, as when he suggested that “brain science” would solve the health-care crisis. So perhaps the proper response, rather than rushing to quote Jacob Riis or conjure up images of barefoot children in the Lowell mills, is amused exasperation. Does even Newt take Newt seriously?
Someone does. The punch line of this story is that the latest polls show Gingrich in front in the Republican field. That may explain the most jarring aspect of the bring-back-child-labor episode: Gingrich’s complacent pride in his words. The transcript alone doesn’t quite convey how pleased with himself Newt clearly is for having thought the thought. (“This is something that no liberal wants to deal with.”) Is it because he thinks he is wise—that he’s figured this poverty thing out—or that he thinks he is brave? More than that, does he think that a country that solves the problem of income inequality by using child labor to increase the number of wage earners per family would be both wise and brave?
If you follow Gingrich’s model, you might get the gross household income number up, but you will have created a more yawning divide: between people who have a childhood, and those who don’t. Gingrich likes to call himself a historian, because he likes dinosaurs and battlefields. Those are the obsessions of a child with time and space to be a child, not one who has to earn his keep. Just because the toilets you scrub are in a school doesn’t make the work educational.
That is the moral argument: children are children, and deserve to be treated that way. There are also practical and ethical arguments against child labor—it feels ludicrous to even have to write that—having to do with children’s health, their different vulnerability to danger in a workplace, their inability to meaningfully consent to a contract, their possible exploitation by adults, the opportunity costs to them and to society in terms of education and social development. There are, of course, certain kinds of work that can be managed, as with child actors. (Between takes, a tutor waits in the trailer.) But Gingrich was talking about nine-year-old janitors. (On Monday, he told the Washington Post that he didn’t mean they’d work full time.) This is not just about arcane regulations keeping a seventeen-year-old from helping out his mother, or helping the teacher erase the blackboard. Child labor, unregulated, is a bad thing, and laws that limit it are helpful. Haven’t we known that since Roosevelt—Theodore, the Republican, not Franklin, the Democrat—was President?
Maybe we’ve forgotten. When, in debates, the Republican candidates talk about how government should be kept as far away from the workplace as possible, they are drawing a circle that excludes burdensome laws of this kind. And the impulse is not abstract: as the Washington Post’s Rachel Weiner noted in a follow-up to the Gingrich piece, there actually has been an effort to roll back child-labor laws at a state level, even if “Gingrich’s suggestion that children start working as early as age nine goes far beyond what most other Republicans are proposing.” There are other areas, too, such as criminal justice, in which there has been a rejection of the idea that children deserve special protection. If the Republican electorate doesn’t recoil at Gingrich for suggesting that American children be put to work, what influence are we left with in persuading American companies, or our trading partners, not to use child labor in cotton fields or chocolate plantations?
Interestingly, Weiner notes that Ron Paul, who approves of almost nothing the federal government does, doesn’t like putting children to work, either. Paul counts it as one of the wonders of capitalism that we have done away with such things in this country; Gingrich looks at a landscape in which children aren’t earners, and sees socialism. That is a telling distinction and, again, why Gingrich’s comments speak to something truly troubling. When did the consensus we have on the progress our country has made, step by hard-earned step since its beginning, break down so thoroughly?
Gingrich’s comments made less news this weekend than the super committee’s predestined failure to come up with a budget plan. For all the talk of poor children not working, it turned out that the super-senators and super-congressmen had barely even met. We have come to the point, somehow, when grown men and women can’t do the jobs they were sent to Washington to do, yet our candidates dream of sending children—other people’s children, naturally—to school only to keep the halls clean.- Amy Davidson