This Issue’s A Bust

Once in a while the political news circuit gets stuck on a topic so amazingly trivial and foolish that the spectacle of such a large tempest raging in such a small teapot makes it hard to look away. This week, the leading ladies of the right and left have decided to fight it out over breastfeeding.

I picked this for obvious reasons, but the parent in me says “No diaper and white dress: Watch Out!”

How, you might ask, could something like breastfeeding become a hot political issue? It seems that as part of her Let’s Move program to reduce childhood obesity, Michelle Obama has decided to promote breastfeeding. A nurse-in at the White House? No, that might actually be interesting. Rather, the proposal is for the IRS to grant a tax deduction for breast pumps and other nursing supplies.

Seeing a chance to turn a phrase, Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin have weighed in, saying that getting the government involved in breastfeeding is the ultimate in “nanny state” politics. And this has given political commentators on the left the chance to weigh in with “Palin attacks breastfeeding” and “Bachmann says government has no business telling women what choices to make about their bodies” type headlines.

Frankly, this strikes me as one of the silliest topics to have a political fight over, ever. The proposal itself is laughably ineffective. A quick glance down Amazon shows current prices for popular breast pumps ranging from $50 for the basic battery operated model to around $300 for the “Medela Pump In Style Advanced Breast Pump with Metro Bag”.

Now, I’ll be the first to agree that $300 would be a significant outlay for many working class moms having to go back to work while their babies are still nursing. But let’s think for a moment about how a tax deduction works. You still have to shell out for the breast pump yourself. You save the receipt, and months later when you do your taxes you get to take that $300 off of your reported income. This doesn’t lower the amount of tax you pay (or as people usually think of it: increase the amount you get back) by $300, though. It decreases your taxable income. The maximum amount you would “get back” months after the fact would be your top marginal tax rate times $300. If you’re middle class or working class, that would be 15%. So you’d get $45 dollars back for the $300 you spent, but only months later.

Perhaps I’m overly skeptical, but I find it hard to imagine this would cause lots of working class mothers who would otherwise have given their kids formula instead of breastmilk once they returned to work to think, “Wow. I could really do this. And it comes with a ‘metro bag’ too. That will make it all work out!” (Not to discount the virtues of a metro bag. I mean, couldn’t we all use a little more metro in our lives?)

The thing is, the main costs of breatfeeding your child are not monetary, especially for a mother who is having to work away from her child for a standard set of works hours. The main costs relate to time and trouble. And there’s no way that a tax deduction can solve that problem.

So the proposal is, I think, pretty clearly so ineffective in achieving its purported aims as to be deeply silly. Which makes the attempt to grab headlines by opposing it also a quite silly. While I can agree with the desire to keep the tax code simpler, that’s a horse that left the stable a long time ago and this sort of empty posturing is going to cost the government virtually nothing, since a truly minimal number of people will ever use it.

Now if Mrs. Obama really wants to generate awareness for breastfeeding, I think that nurse-in idea at the White House has some merits. Just picture a thousand nursing mothers on the White House lawn. Nurse for America!

At the very least, it would make for better pictures than that characteristic “anger shots” which reporters can’t help illustrating their stories with when they write about the female public figures arguing. And after all:

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22 Responses to This Issue’s A Bust

  • MarylandBill says:

    Its stupid stuff like this, I think, that keeps many people in the center from embracing the Republican Party. I agree with you that the suggested tax deduction is almost a meaningless gesture… at least it was prior to Palin and Bachmann chiming in.

    They might have a point if the government was proposing a consumption tax on formula, but the government has long used tax deductions to provide an incentive towards particular behavior. Whether we should or not is a question we can debate, but I don’t see Palin complaining about how the government is interfering in where we choose to live by giving us a Mortgage Tax Break or Bachmann complaining that the government is trying to tell us who to give money to with the Charitable giving tax break.

    In any case, for many Americans, stuff like this makes them look petty. To a certain extent, I think the Republican party is starting to make the same mistakes Democrats made after the 2008 election. My take on the 2010 election like the 2008 election before it is that the side that won succeeded not because they had convinced most Americans that they were right, rather they convinced most Americans that they were simply less wrong than the side in power. The Republicans might not get hammered by this in 2012 since Democrats still control the Senate and the White House, but if Palin and Bachmann keep opening their mouths like this they might hurt the chances of the Republicans from gaining the White House.

  • RL says:

    There’s already a huge economic incentive for breastfeeding. You don’t have to spend $100 to $200 a month on formula.

    I picked this for obvious reasons, but the parent in me says “No diaper and white dress: Watch Out!”

    Obvious reason being boobs no doubt.

  • jonathanjones02 says:

    As a non-libertarian and non right-liberal, meaning the valuing of virtue and societal posterity as greater than abstracted “freedom” and “liberty”, I have no theoretical problem whatever with government promoting breast-feeding. I hope they do. (Just as I hope they get rid of the carb-heavy food pyramid.)

    Good for the First Lady.

  • Art Deco says:

    Its stupid stuff like this, I think, that keeps many people in the center from embracing the Republican Party. I agree with you that the suggested tax deduction is almost a meaningless gesture…

    You mean it is trivial for Gov. Palin to comment on the issues but not trivial for people to make the issue decisive in determining their party affiliations?

  • As a non-libertarian and non right-liberal, meaning the valuing of virtue and societal posterity as greater than abstracted “freedom” and “liberty”, I have no theoretical problem whatever with government promoting breast-feeding. I hope they do.

    I don’t have a principled problem with promotion of breast feeding — and I suppose arguably it is the job of first ladies to immerse themselves in earnest and harmless concerns with great fanfare — I just think that the likely benefit of a tax deduction for this is going to be trivial at best. (The working class women who could most use a hand in this regard probably won’t benefit at all, since if you make under 40k and have one or more kids you generally don’t end up paying any taxes anyway.)

    I suppose one could say that Palin and Bachmann are marginally more at fault in that they’re supposed to concern themselves with substantive issues while the first lady is supposed to focus on fluff and the IRS is supposed to focus on minutae — but the fact that this is being blown into a “is the GOP against motherhood?” circus strikes me as deeply silly all around.

  • jonathanjones02 says:

    Oh, no doubt Bachmann and Palin are going to be unfairly beaten about for this, although the fact they never turn down a tv appearance has somthing to do with that.

    As for the trivial benefits of a tax deduction – probably. Economic incentives don’t matter nearly as much as economist types think they do for our tribal and social status seeking species – the whole reason we finally have behavioral economics.

  • T. Shaw says:

    Here, Michelle Antoinette is on to something.

    First, this is typical Obama-worshipping media bias.

    Check out the Misery Index as it rises going forward. Obama-regime-generated inflation added to perennial high unemployment will force mothers to breast feed because (assuming their husbands are not unionized, government millionaires) they will be unable to afford formula or milk. The first lady is correct about breast feeding but gives the wrong reason.

  • T. Shaw says:

    Initial unemployment claims unexpectedly rose 25,000 from last week to 411,000.

    That is just the 11,000th reason the Obama-worshipping media need to constantly talk about Palin.

  • Art Deco says:

    I suppose arguably it is the job of first ladies to immerse themselves in earnest and harmless concerns with great fanfare

    Mrs. Truman spent much of her time in Missouri.

    Among Mrs. Obama’s problems are that she quit practicing law in 1993 and there are only so many jobs for professional diversicrats at greater Washington’s hospitals.

  • Randy says:

    You don’t actually need a breast pump to breast feed. Most babies can feed directly. You only need the pump if mommy is going to leave baby regularly. Typically it means mommy is going to work. So it is not about encouraging breast feeding but encouraging breast-feeding mothers to work. If the government want to help it should enable moms to stay home longer. Most women will breast feed if they have the chance to focus on baby in those first few months.

  • Darwin says:

    You only need the pump if mommy is going to leave baby regularly. Typically it means mommy is going to work. So it is not about encouraging breast feeding but encouraging breast-feeding mothers to work.

    Agreed. My wife has breastfed all five of our kids, and we’ve never owned a pump. My bias is very much towards mothers staying home — at least while their kids are young enough to nurse.

    Though to be fair, I think it’s more that these folks are assuming that all moms will work and hoping that they won’t forgo breastfeeding even though they’re working. Thus the equipment.

  • Elaine Krewer says:

    Ok, I feel I sort of have standing to address this issue. I tried to breastfeed my one and only child, and could not manage more than a few drops here and there, despite repeated attempts at pumping and other measures. I’m not sure why exactly. My mom told me she tried and failed at breastfeeding also so perhaps it’s inherited. So, as natural as it is, there are women who just can’t do it — whether it’s a psychological thing or a hormonal thing or what.

    I have no objection with promoting breastfeeding in general and I agree it is healthier — that’s why I tried so hard to do it myself. But all the tax deductions in the world probably wouldn’t have helped me and it probably won’t make a whole lot of difference to other women either.

  • Centinel says:

    If the federal government will be granting tax deductions for breast-feeding, they may as well pay people to have children. I don’t think that’s what the Founding Fathers meant to do when they signed the Constitution.

  • Elaine Krewer says:

    “The parent in me says, ‘No diaper and white dress: watch out!”

    That’s for sure. She might as well be tempting fate as much as she would be if, for instance, she washed her car before planning a picnic or outdoor wedding (thereby insuring that it will rain).

  • Lisa says:

    I miss Laura Bush. She kept a simple, low profile encouraging children to read. Every time I turn around M.O. is telling me what to eat and to move it! Its an ironic choice for a first lady agenda given M.O.’s physical stature and eating habits as reported by the MSM.

    Our family has had a vegetable garden for years, eats very healthily and is involved in a plethora of activities to keep us fit. We’re Republicans, we figured these things out on our own, but I guess some people need to be told what to do.

    As a mother I wold say as far as breast feeding is concerned – do what is right for you. The decision to breast feed MUST be made at the individual level. Bachmann and Palin are right, it’s not the government’s business. But again, I guess some people need to be told what to do.

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