Hipsters vs. babies: Paul Ryan economics may thrive in a get-your-kid-out-of-my-face culture

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Now that Paul Ryan is on the GOP ticket, we're going to spend the rest of the summer talking about entitlements, learning if there's an appetite for the kind of social-spending cuts that Mr. Ryan and Mitt Romney would like to prescribe. And if there's any indication of the national mood -- a canary in the public-welfare coal mine -- it might just be something called unbaby.me.

Bear with me here, because unbaby.me doesn't have anything to do with politics or government. It has to do with Facebook, and it's actually kind of brilliant: a program, used with the Google Chrome browser, that removes photos of babies in your Facebook news feed and replaces them with pictures of cats. (It works by searching for keywords in captions, such as "months old," "so cute" and "is finally napping.") As the website explains, "Now you don't have to look at all of your friends' annoying kids."

Unbaby.me was created by three childless New Yorkers, and yes, it's a joke, pretty much. It's also a commentary about online behavior and social media etiquette and our trouble with finding acceptable boundaries of sharing. We used to see cute-kid snapshots once a year, in holiday cards, and roll our eyes at the prospect of viewing our friends' vacation albums. Now, everyone's happy boring life is right there in the news feed.

And, yes, some people cross the line from mild bragging to obnoxious self-absorption. A very funny blog called "STFU Parents" re-posts the most offensive Facebook behavior, from detailed documentation of kids' bathroom escapades to the act of "mommyjacking" -- inserting a non sequitor about your kid into a comment thread about something else.

Like many similar blogs, "STFU Parents" isn't really anti-child; it has plenty of parent readers, and its creator says she wants kids someday. But, as usual with the Internet, the rub is in the comments, which can quickly shift from detached amusement to unbridled hostility.

And the commentary about unbaby.me has come with plenty of explicit loathing -- not of bad-parent behavior, but of kids themselves. (Sample comment, from TechCrunch.com: "Friends don't let friends have as many babies as they want, if any. Here's the logic: why give birth to something that's going to die just like you and me?")

This disdain toward children is increasingly spilling into real life, as more people decline to decamp to the suburbs when they procreate. This month, The New York Times wrote about a battle in Park Slope, Brooklyn, over a beer garden that welcomed kids in the afternoons. Washington and Boston have contended with fights over strollers on public buses. Is it such a great leap from "don't clog up my bus and my computer screen" to "don't take my tax money and use it to educate your spawn?"

To some extent, this mentality is nothing new. In my state of Massachusetts, tax override votes often become generational battles over taxes and resources, pitting parents against retirees. Some people oppose paid maternity leave, on the grounds that children should only be born to those who can afford to stay home.

Now comes a seeping idea, amid the younger set, that there ought to be child-ful and child-less spheres, and that a child's presence, by definition, violates a non-parent's personal space. This is the same mentality that gets people wigged out about breast feeding in public, that makes women feel shamed for going to work with breast pumps or slipping away from the office to take their kids to doctors' appointments.

Am I exaggerating? A little. But culturally, we swing wildly from lionizing celebrities' kids to demonizing our neighbors'. The rap on today's parents is that they're entitled -- to attention, special parking spaces, time off of work, the right to make unwanted noises in restaurants. And there is a growing sense, even from the hipsters, that one person's entitlement is somebody else's personal burden.

Thus we come to the entitlements in the Ryan budget, which, by most analyses, would eschew any tax hikes and lean heavily on cuts to social programs -- Medicare, Medicaid, roads and bridges, education. When the mere fact of children becomes a point of contention, you get a sense of where our national priorities might lie. These days, it's "I've got mine, you get your kid out of my face" -- and out of my Facebook, of course.

The Ryan philosophy has a serious chance if the hipsters are on board.

opinion_commentary

Joanna Weiss is a columnist for the Boston Globe (weiss globe.com).


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