Lately I’ve been ignoring the news, which has been way too full of reports about the “recovering” economy and Wall Street rebounding, while jobs continue to be lost. Here I was, hoping this economy might end up being murdered with an axe. But it appears an unrepentant U.S. capitalism remains here to stay, thanks to Bernanke, Geithner, and the same old privileged male players. So now I’m thinking, if you can’t beat’em, then maybe we’d best join them. America, we need to further commodify our children! This idea may be the secret to families at last gaining a little ground in a capitalist nation.

Our current economic system maintains an old 19th century myth. It continues to separate the private realm from the public realm, as if there should be a wall between them. What do I mean?  This economy faithfully separates our sacred families from the profanity of commerce, the better to avoid sullying the one thing remaining holy: our families and homes. (You know, the same American homes that were sold around the world in derivatives because our financial system was betting against them.)

Victorians of the 19th century held that men were a better fit for the profane and “public sphere” of politics and commerce. Only the fittest could survive there. Regardless of what Darwin had said about what the “fittest” actually meant, Victorian businessmen interpreted it as only “natural” to dominate by whatever ruthless measures were needed. Economic victories went to the strongest and the meanest.

Women, on the other hand, were the weaker sex and needed to be kept out of danger in the “domestic sphere.”  Too much thought in her pretty little head, and all her blood would go to her brain, instead of her womb, leading to hysteria. Doctors diagnosed any woman’s nervous condition the result of a starved uterus. Created by God to be mothers and home-makers, women might be oft-pregnant nurturers (birth control would land you in jail), yet she must remain morally impregnable. Far removed from the vile economy, women provided a safe haven for the harried worker whenever he came home. Here the children could receive proper moral guidance and social enrichment.

Thus the Victorian woman, though officially “dependent” and penniless, was persuaded, despite all appearances, that it was really her hand, not his, that rocked the world by rocking the cradle. And if you believe that, I have a big nuclear warhead I’d like to sell you—and by the way, honey, what’s for dinner?

Women’s liberation has meant so far that women have made some inroads into the male commercial sphere. Yet the domestic sphere of the USA remains stolidly separate from the commercial realm, operated by pure-hearted volunteerism. So today many middle-class homes sit largely unoccupied–except as a place to go after work or school to microwave and watch television.

Ever since the 1970s, Mom has been slaving away on the job market, same as hubby. Was it we feminists who accomplished this hideous undermining of American family life? Some claim so, but statistics clarify a larger reality. Most women went to work to keep the family nose above water. Katha Pollitt reports from A Woman’s Nation Changes Everything (the Shriver report from the Center for American Progress):

For the first time in our history, women are now 50% of the paid workforce…Four in ten moms are primary breadwinners… 80% of moms contribute a major chunk of family income.”

That’s because, since the 1970s, men and women workers as a whole have barely remained afloat in a leaky boat. Wages have not kept up with cost-of-living expenses and two workers and 80 hours of labor are now needed to cover a single mortgage payment. Elizabeth Warren reported this week in The Huffington Post what is now common knowledge. Yet what to do?  Since 1970, male wages have been static, and the working class has lost ground. About this, says Warren:

But core expenses kept going up. By the early 2000s, families were spending twice as much (adjusted for inflation) on mortgages than they did a generation ago — for a house that was, on average, only ten percent bigger and 25 years older. They also had to pay twice as much to hang on to their health insurance.

To cope, millions of families put a second parent into the workforce. But higher housing and medical costs combined with new expenses for child care, the costs of a second car to get to work and higher taxes combined to squeeze families even harder. Even with two incomes, they tightened their belts. Families today spend less than they did a generation ago on food, clothing, furniture, appliances, and other flexible purchases — but it hasn’t been enough to save them. Today’s families have spent all their income, have spent all their savings, and have gone into debt to pay for college, to cover serious medical problems, and just to stay afloat a little while longer.

Meanwhile, a sensible 32-hour work week standard, passed by the Senate in 1939 when unions had some say, died and was deeply buried, along with big unions. To many economists, including John Maynard Keynes, shorter work weeks had seemed a logical way to address technology’s elimination of man-hours needed to produce what we need. In fact, a glut of material goods on the market had helped deepen the Depression.

Instead, technology’s dividend went to the wealthy, not to the working class. Instead, workers traded in wages for consuming, sold on technology’s wonders at home (the before-mentioned television and microwave). With wages going lower and jobs going overseas, families had to find a third service job or get a college education or increase their work hours, and that still didn’t help with disappearing health insurance benefits. Sometimes people got sick, and in the USA, we like to pretend we never were children in need of care, and will never get old. The best-managed American health insurance celebrates its “low utilization rates.”

Health maintenance became increasingly unaffordable for the middle and working class, both in time and money. Exercise, physical labor and home-cooked meals get sacrificed to fast-food and big-box consuming. Long commutes to centralized shopping and work required maintaining not one car, but two.

The mythical wall between private and public has contributed to our families’ impoverishment in time, health and money. “Separate spheres,” maintaining that wall betwen public and private, was a sexist  idea that was never true and today seems only truly ridiculous. Radio and TV beam into our homes with commercial messages around the clock. Everyone is already twittering and blogging and being our friend on facebook, 24/7. If we ended the old prudish division between that old commercial sphere and the even older family sphere, women (and children) might at last become more visible players in the world economy.

So let’s face it like capitalists:  Without our economically impoverished private family sphere, none of the public economic sphere could happen. The hand that rocks the cradle does rock the world—it just doesn’t follow that such a high mission should never sully itself with financial reward. By that reasoning, doctors, nuclear physicists and CEOs should also eschew high salaries.

Therefore, I propose that when anyone comes of age to get a job—or signs up in the armed services to put their lives on the line for our economic freedom and more global consuming—the parents who invested their time and their money into that individual’s healthy and socialized upbringing should get a dividend. The worker should get wages for his or her time, yes, but the worker’s family ALSO should get a dividend as a return on their long-term investment in the economy.

I didn’t come up with this idea all on my own. Marilyn Waring first noticed the skewed accounting of nations as a minister of Parliament in New Zealand and wrote about time and money in If Women Counted.

An economics professor at Florida A&M University, Shirley Burggraf, proposed a social security dividend for parents. You can still get her book.

Other countries have a much more public discussion about public/private home issues. The Brits have openly exposed this false division between “spheres,? though I haven’t seen them connect it to 19th century dualism.  James Robertson says we need a “SHE” economy (A Sane & Healthy Economy) and All Work and No Pay; Women, Housework, and the Wages Due, edited by Wendy Edmond and Suzie Fleming, makes a similar case. Check out Nora Castaneda and the Women’s Development Bank of Venezuela, too.

Who would pay for this Family Investment dividend? All of us Americans should. We all benefit from every healthy worker’s contributions of time and attention to the economy. Family time invested in future workers could be figured as a percentage of the GDP. Likewise, that time’s returned dividend could be calculated as a 20-year bond investment in the future GDP. It goes like this: Whenever a family member raises kids to adulthood, they loan the country their time, money and hope in the future economy.

Whenever they loan time and comfort to retired or ill workers past their prime and on their way out, they’re also investing in the economy. In a capitalist country, hospitals and funerals contribute significant economic activity—and none of it would be possible without old, sick and dying workers.

Now, if your kid winds up in a crack house, naturally, the cost of curing him or sending him to prison would have to offset your parental dividend, but as soon as he was up and working on the job again, your dividend could come back, along with his wages. Your dividend could also be used to set aside against your future aging and eventual demise. Traditionally this has always been the arrangement between generations: you invest in me, your kid, and I’ll take care of you when you’re old. This was an economic activity long before there were dollars..

If your kid arrives on the job market with an MBA or a law degree, so much the better.  A bigger dividend should reflect your larger investment in the American economy’s future well-being. Women and/or men who decide to invest time in families and America’s little future workers might also get tax breaks, same as they do now—only more on the level that companies do who come into town and provide a community with jobs. Yes, that kind of tax-break: property tax relief, assistance with operative set-up, abeyance of municipal charges.

What are jobs anyway? Only places where a worker’s time is invested in making products—consumed and used by whom? More of us workers! The economy is one huge sphere of workers and worker production, not two separate walled-off ones—not two at all!

If our government “of the people” had a mind to do it, Americans collectively might even match the expected parental time and financial investment, while the kid is growing up. We do this to some extent now with property tax investments in our public schools. The U.S. is the only major industrialized country not to provide some public funds for maternity leave. Other countries even invest in public health care, public childcare or flexible hours for working parents.

Misnamed, “socialism,” these capitalist investment policies recognize the financial importance of healthy youngsters, who grow up into healthy workers and managers and entrepreneurs tomorrow. Taxes on corporations and the owners of production could help pay for our collective investments in family, since they’re the ones who will benefit most financially from utilizing tomorrow’s responsible and healthy employees.

But if this doesn’t appeal to you, then consider the Tobin Tax, an idea put forward by Nobel-prize winning Yale economist, James Tobin, in the 1970s. His idea was buried and discredited by “free-market” bullies. But as nation after nation went bust, the dangers of currency game-playing kept resurfacing. If global speculators, gaming national currency systems and markets like a  casino, endangered national livelihoods—why not discourage recklessness by taxing international transactions? Paul Krugman just reiterated the idea again in The New York Times (Nov. 27, 09).

According to South African economist, Margaret Legum, in her book, It Doesn’t have to be Like This, the Tobin tax would be impossible to evade and at a modest 0.25% would generate $250 billion on the now current $2 trillion in transactions. That’s $250 billion every year. That might fund our investing in our families—at least so long as we don’t allow yet another open-ended war to be declared. (War, it turns out, is profitable for everyone but the people involved.)

Yes, okay, the result of all this parental and shared community investment in our families would mean literally selling our kids’ into eventual wage-slavery. But we capitalists live with that reality already. Parents just don’t get a return on their investment. The Tobin tax could mean more public investment in this parental dividend; it could mean working class kids could get an education without putting their life on the line. Wars could not be waged without boys and girls desperate for money and meaning for their lives. Monetized caring could gain enough respect that more could decide to afford it more often.

Only because we’ve mentally kept the family sphere separate from the commercial sphere, do parents, especially moms,  get little but blame and expenses for their parental time, or for caring for their own parents when they’re past their prime. So tear down the last fragments of that old 19th century wall dividing private and public spheres! Freedom! More capitalism for all!

Not separate at all, two spheres separated by a man-made wall has always been a convenient lie. For the families who continue to make this economy work, it’s been an expensive lie. We live as wage-slaves on the job and come home to a second shift of unpaid slavery. And for what? Capitalism! Our families need more of it!