The Common Good
December 2013

Works of Economic Fiction

by Elizabeth Palmberg | December 2013

The Fatherless series (book one and two). FaithWords.

JAMES DOBSON and Kurt Bruner get three things right in their recent novels Fatherless and Childless: Euthanasia is wrong, married couples should make time to have hot sex, and stay-at-home moms should get some respect.

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Pretty much everything else in the novels, the first two-thirds of a trilogy (book three, Godless, is due out in May 2014), is way off and internally incoherent. The plot starts in 2042, when an aging population and economic malaise have motivated the government to legalize euthanasia. Businessman Kevin Tolbert, recently elected to Congress, lectures his peers about the need to stop euthanasia and encourage parenthood in order to revive the economy. His wife Angie’s high school friend Julia Davidson, an allegedly progressive and feminist reporter, is assigned to write a story about him (lecture alert). Meanwhile Kevin and Angie struggle (with mercifully few lectures) with their third child’s diagnosis of Down syndrome. Subplots deal with a disabled teen and an elderly dementia victim who turn (or are pushed) to euthanasia.

Actual euthanasia, as disability-rights groups such as Not Dead Yet have documented, often turns on society defining “dignity” according to physical ability and health instead of the innate value of a human being. These novels, however, ask us to believe the main impetus for euthanasia would come from the drive to reduce the federal deficit, to deal with “swelling entitlement spending.”

What spending? The novels’ elderly and disabled characters are drawn or pushed toward euthanasia because of family financial troubles: There is no mention of any Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid help going to any of them.

The one area where the novels appear to be coherent is in their anxiety about falling U.S. birth rates, but this too is fantasy. In reality, the Social Security worker-to-retiree ratio has been trending down for decades—from 1955 to 1985 it fell from 8.6 to 3.3. At the same time, per-person income more than doubled and the national debt fell compared to the size of the economy. So in the 2040s, when the worker-to-retiree ratio will level off around 2, the sky won’t fall. Why? Economic productivity per worker trends up—employers like to find more efficient ways to make money—and so the American pie generally gets bigger over time. (Right now that pie is getting more unequally distributed, is recovering from a Wall Street-induced meltdown, and is environmentally unsustainable, but the novels don’t address these problems.)

Feminism, predictably, is caricatured (find me a real feminist who dismisses moms as “frumpy” and I’ll eat the most recent issue of Bitch magazine). When, now married and somewhat ideologically converted, Julia asks Angie if women are “supposed to stand on the sidelines wearing cheerleader outfits so [their husbands] can win the big games,” Angie “jokes” that a wife should “wear something a bit racier” than a cheerleader uniform.

What is surprising is how patronizing the books are to men: In the future, women fill “most openings in the most lucrative professions,” and apparently, if all the best jobs are not simply handed to them by “boy’s club bias,” guys are “more than happy to hand over the reins,” becoming eternally juvenile slackers addicted to video games and one-night stands. (Responsible stay-at-home dads apparently don’t exist in Dobson and Bruner’s imagined future.)

The novel’s prose is adequate (way better than the Left Behind books), but the plot moves at glacial speeds and the characters come in two flavors: sometimes dumb as a brick, and always dumb as a brick. By far the most interesting character is the novels’ political allegory, which, while often mean-spirited, deserves some credit for taking on fiscal conservatives in the name of social conservatism—defending special education funding, for example. Though we’re not living in a world in which “Those who have an irrational fear of children ... advance tax policies that make it nearly impossible to afford the extra cost of raising kids,” we are living in a world where social policies help make kids hard to afford. That’s something we can all benefit from talking about—ideally, without the lectures. 

Elizabeth Palmberg is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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