I got a chance to hunker down with the new issue of National Affairs over the weekend. (I was on a commuter train full of drunk, sunburned Millennials, going from the Jersey Shore to New York City on a Sunday night. This is, I think, the optimal setting in which to consume National Affairs.)
The show-stopper piece is George Will's phenomenal essay on the limits of majority rule. Will is the premiere columnist of the last 40 years—there is no other writer, on either team, who comes close. But getting to read him in long-form is a rare delicacy, and his piece is everything you'd hope:
In Central Illinois, where men are men and I am from, people develop, or at least in the 1940s and 1950s they did develop, what I consider an admirable Midwestern reticence about themselves. Although I left Champaign-Urbana to go to college in 1958, four months after my 17th birthday, I have never stopped thinking of myself as a Midwesterner. I am, in words that are the title of Hamlin Garland's once-famous book published 99 years ago, a son of the middle border. As such, I still adhere to what I consider a Midwestern reserve in talking about myself. I retain a Midwestern inclination to not share my feelings with others, and to thank others for not sharing their feelings with me.
This is why there hangs on my office door in Washington's Georgetown section a framed New Yorker cartoon that is my personal proclamation against today's confessional culture. The cartoon depicts a man dressed in a suit and tie and reclining, rather stiffly, on a psychiatrist's couch, with the psychiatrist sitting behind him, pen and notebook in hand. In the caption, the man on the couch says, "Look, call it denial if you like, but I think that what goes on in my personal life is none of my own damn business."
And yet, sometimes what you learn about yourself can illuminate a larger subject. And sometimes it is only when looking back upon years of work and thought that you recognize a telling pattern, or an implicit preoccupation, with a lesson to offer. I have spent my adult life reflecting on the public life of my country, and one clear pattern that emerges from those reflections is a preoccupation with the proper bounds of majoritarianism, and with the grave costs of failing to observe those bounds.
That preoccupation has pointed me toward different questions at different times, and in recent years it has led me to revise, or at least sharpen, some prior views about the role of the judiciary and its relation to the elected branches of our government. But it is important to see, as just a bit of biographical reflection will help me to show, how the views I have come to on the question of the judiciary's proper role are related to the abiding question of majoritarianism — and therefore to a host of other vital questions about the character of our republic.
It gets even better from there. As the kids on my train might have said, it is "teh hotness." (Sic.)
Another stand-out from the issue is Alan Jacobs' essay on renewing the American university. His recommendations are humane and thoughtful, wise and sensible. Which is why I fear that no university, anywhere in America, will take them to heart.
But amidst these and other fine essays, the editors from National Affairs have buried a grenade. A very live grenade. It's piece by Carrie Lukas and Steven Rhoads which argues that daycare may not be all that great for children.
If you've ever glimpsed even a newsreel from the mommy wars, you'll understand how incendiary this topic is.
The nub of Lukas' and Rhoads' essay is that "the available research suggests that heavy use of commercial daycare leads to some poor outcomes for many children."
Now, before we throw-down, it's important to understand that Lukas and Rhoads carefully qualify just about everything in their piece: They acknowledge disparities in the study data; they note that negative effects of daycare are often counterbalanced by some positive effects; they highlight that the type (institutional versus small group) and intensity (full-time versus part-time) of daycare makes a difference; that it matters how early children are put into daycare; that some groups of children respond better to daycare than others. And a whole lot more.
As such, the authors are reticent to offer many absolute conclusions. But one take-away that becomes clear from their survey of the literature is that even the act of studying the effects of daycare is fraught with political pressures.
Daycare is one of those subjects—like the downstream effects of divorce, or same-sex marriage—around which there is an invisible force field that warns researchers that they investigate at their own peril. Society has made its choice on these subjects and anyone who discovers evidence that this choice might be sub-optimal—or even that it comes with unintended consequences—is playing with fire.
Another of their conclusions is that the effects of daycare really ought to be studied more rigorously and more openly, because they have serious public policy consequences.
But the biggest take-away is that when America finally does decide to do something to help working families (which we should, for all sorts of reasons) it will be important not to create a one-size-fits-all solution. Some groups of children might benefit from early daycare. Some might do better if a parent has the ability to stay home with them for an extra six months. As Lukas and Rhoads note, "A better policy would help parents in a broader way, providing financial help regardless of families' child-care choices."