Andrew Leigh and Joshua Gans’ latest attack on the Howard Government is causing collateral damage. According to Helen Smart, the publicity surrounding their latest Baby Bonus paper "spawned a disgusting hatefest on news.com.au and similar forums, with all the usual suspects getting an airing: bogans, young single mums (Boo!), plasma tvs, dole bludgers, ‘natural selection’."
As a critic of politically targeted handouts, Andrew is opposed to the Baby Bonus. Recently he and Joshua Gans presented evidence that women (with help from their doctors) had delayed births in order to benefit from an increase in the payment. They claimed that "over 600 births were moved from June 2006 to July 2006, with unknown and potentially adverse health consequences" (pdf). The message they meant to send was that the implementation of the Government’s latest cash-for-votes scheme had unintended consequences — some of them potentially harmful. But the message many newspaper readers received was different.
The villain in Andrew and Joshua’s tale is the Howard Government. Rather than targeting welfare payments to those who need them most, the Government has targeted them to those whose votes they need the most. As Andrew put it in an earlier opinion piece, "Targeted welfare may be good economics, but middle-class welfare is good politics." He wonders whether concerned citizens should fund an advertising campaign to pressure policy makers into doing the right thing.
But the latest Baby Bonus story cranks things up a notch. Not only are economically irresponsible politicians willing to waste taxpayers’ money in an unprincipled grab for votes but now they are putting children’s lives at risk. And with a villain who is risking the lives of innocent babies, how could the media resist?
The problem is that the media changed the story’s focus. For most readers, the villains in the media’s story will not be unprincipled politicians, but irresponsible women holding out for a bigger Baby Bonus. Here’s Mark Schliebs’s lead from News.com:
A HUGE number of expecting mothers delayed births in order to qualify for the increased Baby Bonus payments in July last year, a new study has revealed.
Not surprisingly, readers were appalled. For many, the Baby Bonus was a moral test and the study was evidence that hundreds of women had failed. As one reader put it, "It seems money is more important to some than the wellbeing of thier [sic] unborn child !! It can be a sick world out there!" According to another reader, "the bogans in this country only ever do things if money is the motivation." Obviously they want the Bonus to "pay for all those cigarettes, alcohol, and j bags."
Andrew and Joshua didn’t set out to spin a morality tale about bad bogan mothers. If you read their paper in full, the message is far more measured:
The financial interventions by the Australian government both in introducing a baby bonus and increasing it have had the effect of disrupting normal maternity hospital operations. The consequences of this are unknown. However, it is precisely because of that that governments need to take care in not creating conditions that introduce disruptions.
It was the Mighty Morphin’ Power Media which translated “economists identify spike in delayed (scheduled) births which could possibly cause trouble because it’s swamping the medical resources” to “Greedy mums putting bubs at risk by literally sewing themselves shut and ..”,
This is a tale about unintended consequences. And if the story has a moral it’s that everyone needs to look out for them.