Nancy Pelosi once had trouble finding a babysitter. So her aspiration these days is "doing for child care what we did for health care reform"—pushing a comprehensive solution. In fact, it's not just an aspiration—it's at the top of her agenda.
This sounds like an absolutely wonderful idea. But if "we" really are going to do for child care what we have done for health care, the U.S. will have to take some intermediate steps in order to replicate the experience faithfully.
(1) First, the U.S. should create a labor shortage by launching a major war and drafting men and women to fight.
(2) Then it should impose wage and price controls, as Washington did during WWII, to prevent employers from bidding up the price of labor. (That would further drive up the prices for war materiel, which would be costly and inconvenient to the government. The Emergency Price Control Act of 1942, for instance, stipulated that its aim was "to assure that defense appropriations are not dissipated by excessive prices.")
(3) The president—Barack Obama, presumably—should then establish a War Manpower Commission with the power to forbid people to change jobs, as just such a commission did during WWII. This will prevent individuals from skirting around the wage controls by quitting one job to take another that pays more.
(4) Practices such as these will encourage employers to compete for scarce labor by offering non-wage benefits. During WWII, employer-provided health coverage was one such benefit. It is reasonable to assume employer-provided child care would be another one today.
(5) To facilitate the spread of employer-provided child care, Washington should grant it preferential tax status, as it does with health care. The IRS should back this up by declaring that child-care benefits do not count as wages.
(6) To further ensconce the third-party-payer system, the National Labor Relations Board should declare, contra the IRS finding, that child-care benefits do count as wages for the purposes of collective bargaining (just as it did with health coverage). This, combined with the favored tax status, will encourage labor unions to push for extravagantly generous child-care policies for current workers and for pensioners.
(7) Washington then should enact two major new entitlement programs akin to Medicaid and Medicare, guaranteeing government-funded babysitting for the poor and elderly. Washington should produce wildly low-balled estimates of the future costs of such programs.
(8) While all this is going on, the states should impose complex bureaucratic oversight of the child-care system—especially a "Certificate of Need" program through which bureaucrats, rather than the free market, would decide whether new child-care facilities are needed and may be allowed to open. That way, existing child-care facilities will have government allies in their attempts to limit competition that might hold down costs.
(9) Likewise, professional child care associations should lobby Congress for market-entry barriers requiring providers to obtain highly restricted licenses for performing even the most mundane procedures.
(10) Meanwhile, politicians at both the state and federal level should propose a host of various mandates on employer-provided child care—requiring such programs to pay for trips to the zoo, cultural institutions and parks; to cover weekend child care for romantic parents' getaways; and to cover full-time au pair services for parents of children with special needs. This will help drive up the cost of insurance even faster.
(11) As the share of GNP devoted to child care begins to spiral out of control and the government assumes control of 50 cents out of every child-care dollar, liberals and progressives should argue that this proves the current free market in child care doesn't work, so the government should stop sitting on the sidelines and step in to fix everything.
(12) Ideally, the stepping in would consist of a complete government takeover of child care: a single-payer system in which the government does all the child care in the country, and nobody else is allowed to.
(13) Short of that, Washington should pass legislation forbidding providers to turn anyone away, and requiring all Americans to buy child-care coverage—whether they have children or not. This should be part of a massive child-care overhaul that will drive costs up even further and prove equally untenable. Then the country can go back and try Step 12—and we will all live happily ever after. Right?
A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this article originally appeared.