Newt Gingrich is a master of controversy. From throwing a tantrum over his seat at Air force one, to lobbying for Fannie and Freddie, to doing an ad with Pelosi. He's done it again: Newt Gingrich has suggested the US should again legalise child labor, and allow children to work in schools as janitors for example.
Many conservatives think this is a bold move, and clearly that's why Gingrich suggested it. He's trying to be brave and innovative, and show of his intellectuality. Or maybe he's just suffering from foot-in-mouth disease.
Either way, this raises an interesting question: Is Gingrich right? Is there a case to be made for legalising child labor?
Just not here.
Let me explain. In developing countries, wages are very low. This is because production is low, and wages are a function of (among other things) production. In such countries, parents may find they can't provide for their kids and so they have to send their kids to work. The alternative, simply, would be starvation. You may ask yourself why parents get kids during these conditions, and the answer is typically that kids provide for you when you can no longer work yourself (ie they pay your pension), and also that with the lack of contraceptives, it's not really a choice at all. If you're a married couple, doing what married couples do, you'll end up with kids sooner or later.
When child labor is banned in these countries, what happens is not that the kids go to school. Parents' salaries won't be higher just because children are no longer allowed to work (not significantly anyway), so they still won't be able to afford to send their kids to school. Instead, families will either starve, or children will be forced to work in the underground economy, for instance by selling their young bodies for sex. Compared to that, having children work in a Nike factory seems pretty good.
Parents in general don't want to send their kids to work, so once incomes are high enough for parents to afford education, child labor will mostly cease to exist and child labor can then be banned.
There is therefore a strong case to be made for accepting the temporary necessity of child labor in regions like Africa, if only because it's the "least of two evils".
Yet, the same can't be said about America. Here, no-one will starve to death because their kids aren't working. Your kids can go to school even if you're unemployed, even to university if they get high grades (typically necessary to get scholarships). Tragically, even in America there are kids who are forced into prostitution, but that's hardly because they're not allowed to work as janitors.
In America, if child labor is allowed, what is likely to happen is that deadbeat parents will send their kids to work, and responsible parents won't, creating an even bigger gap between kids with normal parents and kids without normal parents. This is completely incompatible with the American dream, where anyone can grow up to become president. Your possibilities in life are so much more limited if your alcoholic dad sent you to work as a janitor all day to pay for his vodka.
Gingrich tries to make this sound like he's trying to help the poor disadvantaged kids. What he is in fact doing is revealing his position in the Nature vs Nurture debate. This debate is about whether our genetics or our environment affects us the most. Some claim that some kids are born stupid and will never learn, and so it's useless to for instance serve breakfast in schools (which some support because not all kids get breakfast at home). The reason why some kids do badly, they say, is not that they don't get breakfast - it's that they're born stupid.
Gingrich is clearly in Nature's corner in this debate. Instead of helping the disadvantaged kids with their home environment, he suggests we should give up on them and just use them for sweeping the floors and cleaning chewing gums from the desks of their better-off peers. These kids are stupid anyway, so let's just put them to use, he seems to reason.
This has implications in other areas as well. If you're in "Nurture's" corner, you most certainly support all kinds of programs and activities to help disadvantaged kids as well as adults. People become smarter if they get to live in a good environment, so let's focus on fixing the environment people grew up and live in.
On the other hand, if you believe that Nature is what turns us into who we are, then you may still support welfare to the poor - but since you believe they are poor because they are born stupid, you're not going to support anything else than just pure handouts. No scholarships for kids from economically disadvantaged families (their families are poor because they are stupid, so the kids probably have the same "stupid gene" as well). You will not support anything that will help eliminate poverty altogether, because you believe poverty will always exist as long as the "stupid gene" is around, ie forever. All we can do to help the poor ones with this gene is to give them handouts to help them survive, but investing in education is clearly wasted money.
Personally, I believe that environment is much more important than our genes - that does not that you can blame your actions on the environment, but it does mean that it makes more sense to give out scholarships than it does to give out food stamps. Gingrich, while he doesn't say explicitly that he sides with Nature, certainly shows signs of doing so. Instead of providing a safe environment were kids can do their homework, they should be sent off to sweep floors. That can only be justified if you believe that these kids are hopeless never-do-wells who will never succeed no matter what support we offer them. Remember, if you spend your afternoons working as a janitor, that means less time for homework and extracurricular activities were you can make friends and develop as a person. But, that doesn't matter I guess - you're born stupid, so you might just as well get used to menial work. Or so Gingrich thinks.
If the Republican party nominated Newt Gingrich, we deserve to lose. We need a candidate who's political manifesto doesn't sound like it was written by "Weird Al" Yankovic. As a matter of fact, I'm not sure if I could support Gingrich, even against Obama. It could be better in the long run for the party to run Gingrich, lose badly, and learn its lesson. We have an exciting crop of potential candidates for 2016, none of whom will have a chance to win the presidency if Gingrich destroys the party for a generation. It's not just this idea, it's everything. I find it hard to find as much as a single good thing to say about him. With Barack Obama, at least you can concede that he is a good father and husband. With Gingrich, you can't even say that.
If on the night of the Iowa caucus is has come down to (as it looks like right now) Gingrich or Romney, then I'll be happy to support Romney. He is a much better man and a better leader than Gingrich will ever be.
I don't think people are born stupid. But I'm starting to suspect Newt Gingrich was.