Sunday, September 11, 2005

More Folbre

We don't have to believe that markets are intrinsically bad to acknowledge that "who owns what" matters. We don't have to believe in decision-making-by-committee to fight for better rules of democratic governance. And we don't have to embrace the current policies of the welfare state to defend the principle that each of us has some obligation to care for others. --p. 230

Folbre gives a few guidelines about how to do this, which I'll summarize.

1. Reject the idea that women are simply naturally more altruistic or caring than men. We shouldn't expect women to do all of the caring labor in society. Men are just as capable and we need to make it possible for them to do it.

2. Defend family values against individualism and self-interest. Even though we live in an advanced capitalist country where women are no longer as expected to do the caring labor, the caring labor still has to get done. We shouldn't get to a point in our society where it's every man-or-woman for her- or him- self without regard to the children, to the elderly, the poor, etc. We have to maintain our sense of obligation and responsibility.

3. Work on establishing democratic governance in our institutions, families, and governments. This will help ensure equitable distribution of resources.

4. "Aim for a kinder and wiser form of economic development." Development isn't just measured in corporate profits. We should be looking at education, health, families, etc.

5. Reward caring labor. We need to think about the best ways to make caring labor pay, but not to make it just another commodity.

Anyway, I know I've been quoting Folbre without talking about what she's really about. The book, The Invisible Heart: Economics and Family Values, argues that Adam Smith's "invisible hand" of the market is gradually undermining the "invisible heart," the caring labor that has been traditionally done by women.

See, back in the day, women did all the work in the "private sphere." They cleaned the house, prepared the food, raised the children... All of this (hard, hard) work was considered "unproductive." It was assumed that women did it out of love and altruism. But, when we view it as unproductive, we miss the crucial part that this work plays in reproducing labor for society, and reproducing culture in general.

In this traditional family structure, with the wife at home, there are a lot of costs that come along with this family labor. First, there's the obvious opportunity cost: the education and wages given up. But, also, women become economically dependent. These costs are hidden from society as long as women are willing to do this work.

But, when women gradually move out of that sphere because they're given more opportunities in the "public" sphere, strain begins to show. Folbre would say that you can see capitalism as a gender struggle: who bears the (opportunity) costs of raising the kids?

Folbre argues that we must begin to value the work of care. The first thing we have to do is not to push women back into the homes so that the work will get done, but to recognize the work when it is done, whether by men or by women. We need to make it so that people who choose to stay at home with their children or otherwise invest heavily in caring labor don't take such a big economic hit for it.

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