The Abolition of Grandparents

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A good
man leaveth an inheritance to his children’s children: and the
wealth of the sinner is laid up for the just (Proverbs 13:22).

In this report,
I’m going to give you some history (yawn), some sociological analysis
(snore), and a suggestion on how to generate a stream of income
that will keep you from starving on Social Security and the devalued
dollar that it will lead to politically.

The plight
of America’s grandparents is on my mind today because Thursday,
I became one for the first time. I won’t tell you that my grandson
is cuter than yours was. That would be bragging. I will tell you
that he is larger: 10 lbs., 11 oz. If your first thought is, "I’m
glad I’m a man," you get the idea.

Thirty years
ago, my father-in-law, who was a remarkable scholar (30,000 books
in his library, one of which he read every day for 60 years),
mentioned a social factor in Communist countries that he believed
was a major factor that was hampering the advent of Communism’s
New Man: grandmothers. This was especially true, he said, in the
Soviet Union. Both parents worked outside the home. Because there
was so little housing space under Communism, it was common for
grandparents to live in the same small apartment. So, when the
children came home from school, grandma was there to tell them
stories and thereby transfer part of the pre-revolution culture
to them. The Soviet economy was so bad that the Communists could
not afford to separate grandchildren from grandparents. This undermined
the attempt of the Communist Party and the school system to indoctrinate
the children in pure Marxism-Leninism. There was a conservative
factor at the heart of Communist society that could not be eradicated.

My father-in-law
was alert to this factor because he was an Armenian. He was the
seventh in a line of sons in his family who served the community
as their minister. There was never any other occupation that his
father had wanted for him. Until the Turkish genocide of a million
Armenians in 1915—16, his family had stayed in the same town:
Van. He told me that it was possible to trace his family back
to the 13th century in the church graveyard. In the
church Bible that had been left behind in the exodus in 1915,
his father had told him that there was a notation in the margin:
"Today, the Mongols came through." That is what I would
call cultural continuity.

That family
continuity was shattered the day his family got off the boat in
New York City in 1916, where he was born. America does what the
Communists could not do: remove the grandparent factor. The nuclear
family, inside which grandparents do not live, is the norm here.
In Armenia, there were sometimes four generations living under
the same roof — a very large roof. That tradition does not
survive in America, although "My
Big Fat Greek Wedding
" shows that some Greek communities
come close.

In my father-in-law’s
family, all of the three children went through divorces. (A fourth
child had died in the family’s exodus across the border into Russia.)
America has this effect on families.


Paul Johnson
is my favorite contemporary historian. He writes better than the
rest of them, and he writes smarter. His book, The
Birth of the Modern
(1991), is 1,100 pages long, yet it
covers only 15 years: 1815 to 1830. My favorite chapter is Chapter
3, "The End of the Wilderness." All over the world,
cheap land was opening up: in Russia, in Argentina, in Brazil,
and above all, in the United States.

the most potent of all American virtues, in European eyes, had
nothing directly to do with good government. It was the price
of land. In the early decades of the 19th century,
good land — land that was accessible and secure, ready to be cleared
and worked by an industrious family with a small capital — was
cheaper than at any time in history, before or since. It was
a unique moment, which could never conceivably happen again
(p. 209).

So, Europeans
came here. By the millions, they came. The birth rate had been
very high in America, but the survival rate was the highest on
earth. Ben Franklin had noted this fact half a century earlier.
If anything, the survival rate accelerated.

In America,
from the beginning, community bonds had little power because of
cheap land. In his 1963 book, Puritan
, Sumner Chilton Powell describes the break-up
of Sudbury, Massachusetts, because the town fathers wanted to
control land sales and allocation. The sons walked out in protest
and started another town, Marlboro. This became the American way.
Never in man’s recorded history has there been geographical mobility
to match America’s.

This is still
true. Families in America move, on average, once every five years.

The Westward
movement in the 19th century was immense. The invention
of the steam-powered boat in the era covered in the early pages
of Johnson’s book was followed by the invention of the steam railroad
at the end. The railroad accelerated geographical mobility as
no invention ever had in history. It became possible to go 40
miles an hour or faster, sitting in a bump-free compartment, reading
a book. With a covered wagon, 30 miles a day was making good time.
In a train, 30 miles an hour was nothing special, and the train
traveled all night.

In America,
a man could take his wife and children and head west. From 1800
until the 1870s, this probably meant that the grandparents would
not see their grandchildren again. Saying goodbye was not a formality.
It was a permanent break in family continuity. Of course, most
people stayed close to home, but the westward movement was so
great a factor that Americans learned to shape their local institutions
in terms of it. We were the first society in history to do this.
Nomads had always moved, but they moved as communities. Not in
America. Families moved, and they kept on moving. It was cheap
to relocate. As economics tells us, when the price of anything
falls, more of it will be demanded.


When one
factor of production is cheap, the complementary factors of production
become more valuable. In Western Europe, land has been costly
ever since the 15th century. It was relatively cheap
only after the bubonic plague of 1348—50, when a third of
the population died in three years. Families in Europe still keep
the rural homestead in the family for three or four centuries.

In a society
that has high land costs, labor is not paid well. Mobility is
too costly. People stay put. Opportunities are few. In a society
with cheap but productive land, labor is paid very well. Why?
Because labor is mobile. A man can move somewhere else, where
the cost of living space is lower. Local employers must bid against
the opportunities that beckon. The grass is always greener on
the other side of the river. Dreams lure productive men to distant
locations, where their talents face less competition.

have a 350-year tradition of pulling up stakes, as we put it,
and heading for greener pastures. This is considered normal. It
is even considered desirable. In Europe, in Great Britain, both
English and Scottish, young men moved to the colonies. In Asia,
only China has a tradition of moving away, and only in a few provinces.
I don’t know how long this tradition has operated. The offshore
Chinese have been a major phenomenon, which is one reason why
China is a formidable competitor today.

The willingness
to move for the sake of economic opportunity is fundamental in
most entrepreneurial societies. Think of the "movers and
shakers" economically: the British, the Dutch, the Jews,
the Armenians, and the Chinese. They are all noted for their willingness
to move. Only the Japanese seem to break the rule. Instead, they
have imported culture, though not immigrants.

No society
has ever been greener-pasture-motivated to the degree that America
has. Geographical mobility is a fundamental aspect of the American
way of life. "Your papers, please" is not a phrase that
Americans have been willing to tolerate. The government is slowly
infringing on this. If you fly on a commercial airliner, an industry
heavily regulated, you must present identification with a photo.
But you can always get on a bus, get on a train, or get in your
car. You can even thumb a ride. If you want to get from here to
there, you can do it cheaply in America.


This has
led to the isolation of American grandparents. Geographical mobility
of sons and sons-in-law has always loosened the ties of grandparents
to grandchildren in America. Now the rising divorce rate has made
these emotional ties high-risk between paternal generations. Fathers
lose custody of their children. If they get two weeks in summer,
the grandparents may get a few days of this. That is about all
they can expect. They become distant appendages in the lives of
these grandchildren.

The positive
aspect of social and geographical mobility is obvious to most
Americans: more freedom to choose and more choices. Our society
is the envy of the world. Almost every other society on earth
wants to imitate us. This is a worldwide social revolution in
a way that Communists dreamed of but could not attain through
force. But the acids of modernity do eat away at the foundations
of every social order, including ours. There are no free lunches
in life. There are trade-offs. There are winners and losers. The
great losers in America are grandparents. In second place are
grandchildren, especially those ages three to ten.

link to the past has always been maintained by grandparents. In
America, we have replaced this link with tax-funded schools. The
yellow school busses that pick up children are the visible sign
of this transfer of social authority. Now that the public schools
are disintegrating, and have been for four decades, Americans
who fear the effects of the school system are pulling their children
out. But home schooling is done by mothers, not grandmothers.

This had
left grandparents with more free time, but less meaningful work.
They have more money and more political clout than oldsters have
ever possessed, but the price has been a social segregation that
is not much discussed. A friend of mine 35 years ago once described
Sun City as "the elephant burial grounds for the white middle
class." This was accurate, except it is for the upper middle
class. Sun City and similar communities keep out children of school
age in order to keep property taxes low: no public schools. I
understand the logic, but I also recognize the price: a world
without family ties.

Parents say,
"I never want to move in with my kids. I don’t want to be
a burden." Then they vote for Social Security and Medicare,
i.e., stick it to everyone else’s kids. They substitute the State
for the family as the legal caregiver. This does to oldsters what
the same political process does to parents: it makes them socially
irrelevant. While there are no visible marks of this transfer
of power that match the yellow school bus, the transfer is equally
powerful. Americans have voted for a State run by bureaucrats
with their tax money. Americans have transferred to tax-funded
bureaucrats the social function of preserving society’s links
to the past.

Then the
television set breaks what few links survive this two-fold severing:
parents from children, grandparents from children and grandchildren.
Children today are being shaped mainly by the public school and
the television set. Parental influence is slipping away. Grandparental
influence no longer exists as a meaningful social factor.

The war for
our children, and therefore for the future of American society,
is being fought between the public school and the TV script writers
and their associates on Madison Avenue. Parents are becoming bystanders.
Grandparents are not even bystanders.


Schools teach
children to obey. Television teaches viewers to spend. Who teaches
youngsters to produce?

Parents used
to. They knew that they would become dependent on their children
in their old age. Their children were their capital. This is still
true in rural India and rural China, but it is fading fast even

have always provided positive sanctions. They have rarely provided
negative sanctions. Parents concentrate on pulling up weeds. Grandparents
are allowed to water flowers. Parents discipline children. Grandparents
spoil grandchildren.

In the old
days, this spoiling process had a side-effect: linking
the child to the past. They went to visit grandmother, and grandfather
was allowed to impart general wisdom to the grandson, while grandmother
taught the granddaughter to make cookies. (I am not speaking of
Hillary Clinton’s grandmother, I suppose.)

We learn
by seeing, then by doing. This is not bureaucratic education.
Bureaucratic education for the average student is learning by
reading and — when young — by reciting. The education of the rich
and powerful in prep schools concentrates on writing and public
speaking: rhetoric. But public school teachers are hard-pressed
just to maintain order. They don’t like to grade papers. They
prefer to give objective tests: true/false, multiple choice. In
junior college, a machine grades these tests.

Who will
teach our children the skills that are necessary to become economically
productive? Bureaucrats reproduce themselves in the classroom:
obedience counts far more than creativity. Teachers are paid to
maintain order. If there is actual teaching going on, no one cares
too much, one way or the other, unless the teaching is superb.
Then envy takes over on the faculty. Pressures are applied. The
creative teachers eventually leave. If you want evidence, go to
Google and search for "John
Taylor Gatto

for thousands of years watered the flowers. Their unofficial job
was to discover what a child did well and encourage the child
to do it even better. It was the parents’ task to maintain order.
Uprooting weeds was the parents’ task. The grandparent could concentrate
on more productive matters.

look what I made!" was followed by, "That’s wonderful!"
Then, "Would you like me to show you how I made those when
I was a little girl?" In every society I have ever read about,
there is some version of this crucial verbal exchange. We can
mark the decline of a society by the departure of this verbal


In our day,
grandma is distant. Mom works outside the home. The children are
farmed out — an ancient phrase that has little economic relevance
today — to day care centers. Then, when the yellow buses roll, they
are farmed out to the public schools. The latch-key child is the

Mom works
because the State extracts 40% of most families’ incomes. This
is the result of voting patterns of grandma’s generation and her
parents’ generation. It’s going to get a lot worse before it gets
. . . worse. Social Security/Medicare is going to take an ever-larger
percentage of working parents’ income.

The day care
is therefore as sure a business venture as the home for invalids.

I am a grandparent.
I am not planning to become dependent on Social Security/Medicare.
I also do not plan to move in with my children. I am mostly hoping
none of them moves back in with me. So, I plan to open a day care.
I have looked at the economics of day care. I know of no more
obvious way to make a lot of money. I have written about this
in the past.

Most people
my age won’t do this. There is too much hassle. This is not true
of home-based day cares. If they started a home-based day care,
they could easily pull in an extra $30,000 a year. In Alabama,
which allows 12 children in a home, it’s closer to $60,000 a year.

The economics
are astounding: $100/week/child, 50 weeks a year. That’s $5,000.
Multiply this by 5 or 6 children — 12 in Alabama.

Then do what
grandparents have done for millennia: teach.

Teach them
phonics. Read to them. Let then do show and tell. (They love show
and tell.) Let them run around in your fenced back yard. Teach
them songs. Teach them manners.

Pay attention
to them. "Watch me!" may be the second most popular
phrase for pre-schoolers. "Why?" is the most popular
phrase. Put both phrases to good use.

If your grandchildren
are far away, let local parents pay you $30,000 a year to rent
your professional grandparent services.

If you don’t
think you are capable of doing this, start a free day care for
two or three children for three months. You’re just entertaining
a few children for the day, with their parents’ written permission.
Since it’s not a business, you don’t need to get the business
zoned. You don’t need licensing. You may not need insurance beyond
what you’ve already got. Try it. See if you like it. Then, if
you like it, go through whatever zoning hoops are in place to
open a home-based day care. There are few licensing rules.

Have mothers
pack the lunches and snacks. Don’t get into the meal-preparation
business. But you can bake cookies with a little help from your
friends. Think of it as a treat. Think of it as educational. Think
of it as enraging Hillary.

If you want
a free manual on the basics of running a full day care program,
which is a lot harder than running a home-based day care, click

I have encouraged
the author to write a shorter version for home day cares. He says
he will. But don’t wait. Skip the chapters on licensing and similar
barriers to entry that do not apply to home based day cares. Just
read the chapters on teaching, curriculum, and discipline. Also
read the chapter on Social Security. That ought to motivate you!

3, 2004

North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
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