The Eye of Newt is Upon Us

Accentuate the Positive, Remunerate the Negative

Former House Speaker and future Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich has a Plan. On behalf of the Center for Health Transformation, a non-profit health reform advocacy group he founded, Gingrich made a modest proposal Wednesday about how to reduce unhealthy social practices: official bribery.

As reported by John Byrne in Raw Story, Gingrich thinks the government should pay teenage girls not to get pregnant. He also said states should consider paying teenagers who are already pregnant to take prenatal vitamins to forestall subsequent medical costs. Among other proposals to promote social health “fundamentals,” Gingrich also suggested paying people not to smoke.

Gingrich is the kind of conservative who probably opposed federal subsidies to farmers not to grow certain crops, in order to maintain food price levels. So he now appears to be going against his own philosophy. But the Gingster may be on to something here. Paying people not to do stupid or venal things has its limits, of course. It’s too expensive to pay bankers not to be greedy. But perhaps the ultimate capitalist morality is to refrain from wicked or idiotic behavior not out of personal pride or a sense of justice – which have clearly failed as social safeguards – but for cash.

Motorists could be paid to give up their cars. Bicycle riders could get tax breaks, along with skaters and joggers. Instead of Academy Awards, we could have prizes for creative recycling, green living practices and growing the most productive garden. The Armed Forces could reward soldiers for not killing civilians. The government could subsidize the removal of dumb or hateful media commentary from the public airwaves. With all that dead air on radio and TV, people might go out for more fresh air, perhaps earning a modest federal reward in the process. The government could offer tax and mortgage rate reductions to renters and homeowners who take in homeless individuals or families. We could pay Mexicans not to emigrate.

But what is a fair wage for good behavior? A 22-year-old British woman recently auctioned off her virginity on the internet for millions of dollars. How much should a teenage girl receive to remain unpregnant? Should the amount be based on the number of propositions she has received? Is it enough for the government to provide free birth control information and equipment? Should you be able to buy birth control pills with food stamps? Or that first bottle of wine? The one that’s good for you?

How do we know who deserves to be paid for not smoking? Do you have to smoke first and then quit to collect? What standards could we apply to prevent non-heroin shooters and non-sky divers asking for government subsidies to avoid those behaviors? How would we tell the rank feigners from the true refrainers? Sarah Palin could collect a remittance for not shooting wolves from airplanes, but most of us never have to struggle with that sort of temptation.

We could pay the lobbyists to leave our legislators alone. And we could reward our elected officials any time they stop themselves from saying or doing anything shameful or foolish. But if the Gingrich system of pay-to-not-play turns out to work with the politicians, it’s going to make Tim Geithner’s bailouts look mighty stingy.

James is the author of Shooting the Truth: the Rise of American Documentaries (Praeger 2006), and Acting Like It Matters: John Malpede and the Los Angeles Poverty Department, (2015). He lives in Quito, Ecuador. Read other articles by James.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. King David said on March 15th, 2009 at 12:28pm #

    Beautiful comment on The Neutery Public. Jim, this is one of the quipiest you’ve written…or it seems…;-)

  2. Brian Koontz said on March 17th, 2009 at 7:28am #

    This kind of thing is classic Newt – one of the most cynical creatures I’ve ever had the displeasure to become aware of.

    We should pay Newt to no longer steal oxygen from humans by breathing.