Version of Record online: 18 JAN 2011
© 2011 International Institute of Social Studies
Development and Change
Volume 42, Issue 1, pages 315–329, January 2011
How to Cite
Razavi, S. (2011), Nancy Folbre. Development and Change, 42: 315–329. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7660.2010.01675.x
- Issue online: 14 APR 2011
- Version of Record online: 18 JAN 2011
Nancy Folbre completed her BA (Philosophy) and MA (Latin American Studies) at the University of Texas, and her D Phil (Economics) at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Since 1991 she has been Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She has held numerous positions as Visiting Chair and Scholar in both North American and European universities, and was elected President of the International Association of Feminist Economics (2002). She is one of the founders and Associate Editors of the journal Feminist Economics. In 2004–2006 she served as a member of a National Academy of Science Panel studying the design of non-market accounts. Nancy Folbre has been at the forefront of both scholarly research and applied work on the economics of the family and care, and the social organization of time. She is the author of numerous books in this field, among them the classic, Who Pays for the Kids? Gender and the Structures of Constraint (1994), Valuing Children: Rethinking the Economics of the Family (2008) and Greed, Lust and Gender: A History of Economic Ideas (2009). In addition to her academic work, she is the author of several popular manuscripts on the US economy and the welfare system, and a prolific journalist contributing articles to newspapers, magazines and blogs (including New York Times Economix) both in the United States and abroad.
- SR: In your earlier articles (Folbre, 1984, 1986), which have become classics, you took on neoclassical economists like Gary Becker, Rosenzweig and Schultz for their misconstrued depiction of intra-household relations and welfare outcomes. Would you say that the household is now better understood and more accurately represented by economists as a result of such critiques?
- NF: True, I was among early critics of the unitary model of household decision making. I think my efforts helped encourage others to look at the potential for conflict and bargaining in the household, but it's hard for me to assess my specific impact. In general, I have been encouraged by the evolution of thinking about these issues. It's remarkably hard to provide empirical evidence of bargaining in households using existing data sets, and I greatly admire those who have made headway in this area — from the earliest Nash-bargaining models that Marjorie McElroy put forth to the ‘separate spheres’ model developed by Robert Pollak and Shelly Lundberg. I think the separate spheres model invites attention to the ways in which household outcomes might affect the relative ‘macroinstitutional’ power of women to collectively challenge conventional gender norms. We need to think more seriously about the complementarities between individual and collective bargaining.
- SR: Apart from your critical approach to neoclassical economists, your earlier work also engaged with Marxist analyses, for example your work with Heidi Hartman on ‘patriarchal capitalism’ (1989). In retrospect, what aspects of that analysis would you say are still relevant and useful in grappling with contemporary capitalisms? Isn't ‘patriarchy’— the rule of fathers — a bit outdated in the context of gender and generational changes that have happened across the world?
- NF: I seldom use patriarchy as a noun; as you point out, it is anachronistic. But it remains so relevant as an adjective! I think all forms of capitalism that we see in the world today could be better described as patriarchal capitalism — and some are more patriarchal than others. In traditional Marxist theory, modes of production supplanted one another, in neo-Marxist approaches there is more openness to the idea of complex hybrid forms; the transition to a ‘pure’ form of capitalism in which class differences trump differences based on nation, race, and gender, is a long way off.
- SR: You are one of the leading figures of ‘feminist economics’ as a field, and also one of the founders (and Associate Editor) of the journal, Feminist Economics. Does feminist economics now have a recognized space within the discipline of economics? Is heterodoxy marginalized/tolerated/recognized/encouraged, especially in economics departments in US universities?
- NF: Yes, we have a recognized space of our own, albeit a small one that is often ignored. We’ve created and maintained a high-quality journal with impressive citation counts in other social science journals. We’ve helped create a vibrant, innovative, and international research community. This does not imply that ‘heterodoxy’ is generally encouraged in all economics departments in the US; it's not. But we now have a steel toe in the door.
- SR: You describe yourself as an economist who studies the time and effort that people put into taking care of one another. Some would argue that US-style capitalism combined with liberal feminism (that encourages women to behave more like ‘rational economic men’) systematically discourages care-giving. Would you agree with this statement? Don't you think there is a tension between capital accumulation and social reproduction more broadly?
- NF: I believe that capitalist economic development has been associated with an ideological shift giving men and, later, women more cultural permission to pursue individual self-interest. I examine this shift in some detail in Greed, Lust and Gender (Folbre, 2009a), comparing the evolution of gendered discourse in the UK, the US and France. I am fascinated by the contradictory impact of this shift. At least initially, it helped destabilize patriarchal and feudal strictures. However, as your question suggests, the substitution of wage employment for family-based production tends to weaken both economic incentives and cultural supports for family care. In general, men are more likely than women to default on obligations to kin (including their own biological children), leaving both dependants and those who care for them in a vulnerable position. This helps explain the emergence of the modern welfare state, which represents an effort to partially socialize care for dependants. In an era of intensified global competition, the welfare state itself becomes vulnerable. Like a family, it assumes costs for the care of dependants that put it at a competitive disadvantage compared to other economic units unencumbered by such costs.Yes, this represents, as you put it, a source of tension between capitalist accumulation and social reproduction. But I don't think that tensions between ‘production’ and ‘reproduction’ are unique to capitalism as a mode of production, and I question whether the term ‘capitalism’ is adequate to describe the features of the complex social formations which we inhabit.
- SR: How would you assess the record of ‘real socialisms’ then from the point of view of gender equality and care? Was the problem of low fertility that inflicted some of these countries indicative of a deeper tension between ‘production’ and ‘reproduction’?
- NF: By ‘real socialisms’ I assume you mean the state socialist regimes of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and the current Cuban regime? I would include China in this list up to some date, but it has moved toward an increasing role for private enterprises and the market — an example of what I meant when I suggested that our terminology is out of date.In general, I think that socialist regimes integrated women more strongly into wage employment, providing the child care services or work-place flexibility to help accommodate that. Much research has documented the child care provided in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. I don't know much about the Cuban case, but I suspect it's pretty good in this respect. At a recent session at the meetings of the Population Association of America on gender inequality in developing countries I heard a fascinating discussion of the decline in women's labour force participation in urban China that has accompanied the transition back toward capitalism there. Apparently extensive child care services were never provided there, but the old state-run enterprises and collectives allowed mothers to take considerable time off to care for family members, while still considering them employees.Another positive feature of state socialism has been high investment in the development of human capabilities — health and education. Cuba stands out from the rest of Latin America in this respect. The transition to capitalism in the Soviet Union has been accompanied by a shocking increase in economic insecurity, along with significant increases in mortality, not to mention fertility decline. But state socialism has never taken a genuinely democratic form, and I believe that has crippled any efforts to move toward greater gender equality. Women were (and continue to be) politically under-represented, and also, in a sense, culturally repressed. Plus, they still tend to suffer big ‘double-day’ and occupational segregation problems. In my view, the state socialist countries have not had more serious ‘problems’ with low fertility than many capitalist ones. Again, I think these categories are too aggregated.
- SR: Is your dissatisfaction with ‘capitalism’ as a label for the complex social formations in which we live being addressed by the Varieties of Capitalism (VoC) literature (Hall and Soskice, 2001) that distinguishes between ‘liberal market economies’ and ‘coordinated market economies’? Critics have pointed out the scant attention that this literature has paid to gender dynamics. How do you assess the VoC literature and its critics?
- NF: I think the VoC literature is fascinating and a definite step forward. But even as amended in more gender-conscious versions (such as the work of Margarita Estévez-Abe, 2006), it is not very attentive to gender inequalities. It underestimates significant differences among the coordinated market economies (specifically between Scandinavia and other northwest European countries) in women's labour market participation. It also overlooks crucial intersections between gender and class that have momentous implications for the comparative impact of liberal market economies and coordinated market economies on women.I would summarize my critique this way — it's not just varieties of capitalism we need to catalogue, but varieties of patriarchal capitalism. As I emphasized earlier, I don't think we live in a ‘pure’ capitalist system, but one that grafted capitalism onto a patriarchal trunk that continues to influence the shape of the tree (Folbre, 2009b).
- SR: Other models of capitalism — say the Swedish or French welfare regimes — seem to provide a more enabling environment for care-giving, both by families and collectively through public services, and do much better on a range of indicators (child welfare, poverty rates among single mothers) compared to the liberal capitalist economies such as the US. Surely it would be in the interests of low-income women in capitalist democracies such as the US to push for greater public provision of relatively inexpensive child care and elder care facilities (along the lines that Gornick and Meyers, 2003, have argued). Do you see such claims-making taking place in the US? And does it get registered through the political process of policy making, especially now that you have the Democratic Party in power? If not, why not? How does the issue of race enter this equation?
- NF: Your last question provides a key to my answer to the larger issues you raise here. In general, I believe that both racial/ethnic inequality and income inequality inhibit both preferences and strategies for provision of public goods such as care and education of dependants. Unfortunately, they have circular and cumulative effects: that is, inequality reproduces itself both economically and culturally through a variety of powerful mechanisms. I believe that most men and women in the US — not just low-income women — would benefit from greater public provision of care and education services, from improvement of wages and working conditions of paid care workers, and also from more flexible work arrangements — including elimination of economic penalties for part-time work. I try to argue this case whenever and wherever I can.However, I believe that many voters in the US — including many who would benefit the most from these policies — simply lack sufficient trust in government to support them. Given the expression of government priorities in the recent financial bailout, this is not surprising. While I am often critical of Democratic Party policies, I think the larger problem lies in a corrupt two-party system that is unduly influenced by campaign contributions and intensifies political polarization. This leads me to the conclusion that feminist theorists need to situate their analysis of gender and care within a larger picture of the causes and consequences of social inequality. Likewise, feminist activists need to form coalitions with other groups in order to gain political traction.
- SR: In addition to lack of trust in government, isn't there also an unwillingness to pay/contribute into a common pool from which ‘others’ would benefit, i.e. non-whites, immigrants, single mothers, etc.?
- NF: Absolutely. My work emphasizes distributional struggle over the costs of caring for dependants — or what we could call the costs of social reproduction. We need to focus more clearly on the ways collective identities and interests play out in such distributional struggles, and how to negotiate better outcomes for all vulnerable groups.
- SR: Some would argue that the vocabulary of ‘social reproduction’ was more useful than that of ‘care’ for highlighting the interconnections between the visible economy (production) and the invisible economy (reproduction), despite its functionalist overtones. Disability right activists have also raised concerns about the concept of care, which they regard as part of the problem against which they are mobilizing. How do you relate to these conceptual debates and do you have particular preferences?
- NF: It's hard to find any words that remain innocent. I agree that the term ‘care’ is laden with some complex and unpleasant connotations. It's also used to connote a bewildering variety of meanings. On the other hand, it's a term that ordinary people understand and — literally —‘care’ about. The phrase ‘social reproduction’ on the other hand, sounds abstract, academic and very general.What's more, I don't interpret ‘care’ and ‘social reproduction’ as different ways of denoting the same thing. I typically use the word ‘care’ to describe a particular type of work, a distinctive labour process that involves emotional connection. I don't apply it to all unpaid work (as do many UNRISD publications) because I think that many paid workers provide care services. Women do most of this whether it is unpaid or paid. Nor do I apply the word ‘care’ to describe transfers of income among family members or between family members and the state. In Valuing Children (Folbre, 2008), I call attention to these income flows as a fundamental aspect of social reproduction. I also emphasize that conventional economic accounting systems ignore intra-family income flows just as they ignore unpaid work.To my mind social reproduction represents a much larger category than ‘care’, or even ‘production’— it encompasses processes that include virtually all human activities. A wage earner who goes to work every day in a factory in order to earn money to pay for services provided by a child care worker or elder care worker is engaging in social reproduction. An individual who has no family responsibilities but goes to work every day in an office to pay the bills is also engaging in social reproduction.
- SR: But aren't you blurring the line between face-to-face care, which in your words involves emotional connection, and domestic work — say cooking for a family member — which can also involve love and emotions? Both can be done out of love, and both can be done in a care-less way.
- NF: Of course the line is blurred. But many people engage in wage employment out of a commitment to those they love and care for. Why is washing dishes in order to earn money to feed your child somehow less ‘caring’ than washing the family dishes? Also, many caring services are now part of the market economy — we pay child care workers and elder care workers as well as nurses and teachers. Many of them provide heartfelt assistance, far beyond what their wages ‘pay’ for. We need to explore the similarities between unpaid and paid care work rather than continuing to reinforce the notion that the unpaid/paid division is somehow more fundamental than the difference between personal/impersonal.
- SR: There has been much interest by feminist analysts of care (and many others) in the role of immigrant female labour from the developing world in effectively substituting for welfare state services (and husbands). One could argue, however, that while this literature has been useful in showing the unequalizing tendencies of policies and processes associated with globalization, its empirical focus has been largely on care arrangements in the migrant-receiving countries of the North. In short, feminist research on care has been very Northern-biased and we still lack good research on care arrangements in the South. How would you see the relevance of your own research and interests for the South?
- NF: I agree that there is a pressing need for more research on care arrangements in the global South. One unfortunate legacy of the geographic concentration of research in the North is a preoccupation with married couples and/or single parents, without much attention to the role of other kin and community members. Changes in household structure, along with increased mobility (including, of course, international migration) have important and largely unexplored implications for the organization of care. I can't provide a full answer here, but I’ll describe some of the questions that seize me.First, there are considerable differences among countries of the South in patriarchal property rights and legal institutions (see Braunstein and Folbre, 2001). The OECD has been developing an institutional database on these issues that seems like a great potential resource. We need a better picture of how these institutional factors are transformed — or not — by processes of economic development that are underway. In particular, how does public provision of old age pensions affect the need for family-based security in old age? Second, and more specifically, how do such economic factors interact with the cultural legacy of son preference in patriarchal societies? In some developing areas, like South Korea, we have seen recent declines in some manifestations of son preference. In others, like Northern India and China, son preference remains very strong. Third, as you know, I think the proliferation of time-use diary surveys in developing countries provides a fabulous opportunity to better understand the care economy. Unfortunately, most of these surveys rely on a measure of care that is based only on explicit activities (such as feeding or bathing), ignoring the supervisory and ‘on-call’ time that is central to care provision. Most of them rely on very standardized instruments, and inevitably fail to capture the intensity and meaning of the actual labour process. I see great opportunities to combine quantitative and qualitative methods by designing efforts to calibrate ethnographic observation with time/diary data and use them to inform each other. We really need qualitative researchers to move into the field of time use and collaborate with the number-crunchers.
- SR: Are sex workers to be included among paid care workers? How would you describe the relationship between sex (and the pleasure and power structures associated with it) and care?
- NF: I would describe it as…complicated. Sex workers are paid care workers and I strongly support efforts to better understand and analyse what they do. But in most countries sex workers are ‘under the table’. They are not enumerated in labour force or time-use surveys. This is such a demanding and specialized area of research — I have always felt that it lies beyond my capabilities as a researcher.
- SR: Turning briefly to the politics of policy change, you suggested in your 2006 article in Politics and Society on ‘demanding quality’ that a coalition between consumers of care services and care workers is needed to create a shift from a ‘low road’ strategy to a ‘high road’ strategy, where both the quality of care and the pay of care workers is enhanced. Given that the average consumer of care services cannot afford to pay a decent wage to a care worker out of her/his own pocket, the construction of such a ‘high road’ strategy is surely not possible without a state that is willing to step in as employer, and/or subsidize the cost of care services?
- NF: I favour greater public support for care provision. Whether the average consumer of care services can afford to pay a decent wage to a care worker out of her/his own pocket depends on both wage inequality and the organization of care services. In the US, inequality based on income, race/ethnicity and immigration status has created a dual labour market in which high-wage women hire low-wage women to mitigate their care responsibilities. This undermines the potential for gender-based collective action for more public provision. I believe that efforts to improve the wages and working conditions of low-paid care workers in the US by making a case for high-road strategies could yield important benefits: in the short run, they could redistribute some income from high-wage to low-wage families; in the long run, they could help build more support for public provision.
- SR: Can you give examples of these efforts in the US? Are consumers and providers of care really linking up to make demands for quality care? Do they link their struggle to the broader issues you raise (i.e. inequality, redistribution, public provision)?
- NF: The Worthy Wages Campaign, an effort to raise wages of child care workers, is one example. Organizers had to persuade workers that it was OK for them to ask for higher wages because children themselves would benefit. Another example, with particularly tangible results, emerged from the alliance between trade unions and disability rights activists in California to reorganize Medicaid-financed home care in that state. A political initiative to make the state ‘employer of record’ while giving consumers the rights to hire and fire their own home care workers contributed to a successful unionization campaign, higher wages, and lower turnover. Economist Candace Howes has written extensively about this initiative.Many ‘living wage’ campaigns, on the local level, emphasize that the benefits to workers will also be felt by local consumers. Advocates of paid family leave and paid sick leave often invoke their public benefits — increased productivity, reduced exposure to infectious disease, better outcomes for children. Efforts to mobilize greater public support for early childhood education — a movement growing on the state level — consistently emphasize both its importance to equality of opportunity and its economic pay-off in terms of more productive human capital.
- SR: On coalitions, many feminists fear that by entering alliances with other actors (including political parties and other social movements, as well as parts of the state) their own objectives will be sidelined, and there is no scarcity of historical experiences to support this fear. Further, while issue-specific alliances are often possible in the area of social policy, care or economic justice, ‘allies’ in these struggles are often reluctant to side with feminists when it comes to women's rights to bodily integrity and sexual and reproductive choice.
- NF: Good point. Coalitions should always be conditional on shared priorities. Alliances will always be risky. But those risks can pay off. Further, we can't limit the applicability of concepts like economic justice to our ‘favorite’ causes. We need a clear and coherent moral framework for assessment of social policy, and that can't be based on gender interests alone.
- SR: In The Invisible Heart (Folbre, 2001) you argue that the growth of social welfare programmes did not threaten the family (as the economic conservatives would like to argue) but the growth of competitive capitalism did. Is the care system in crisis in the US/elsewhere? The recent economic crisis has made a lot of noise and newspaper headlines — why is the crisis of the unpaid care economy or of the family so silent?
- NF: I don't like the term ‘crisis’ because it implies a sudden and abrupt event; the problems I study are long-run, complicated processes that play out differently for individuals at different places in the global economy. Crises become routine, part of a restless media cycle of alternating attention to different themes. We should step back with sympathy and humility and realize that we humans are living through a period of very confusing social and economic change and few of us agree on exactly how we should cope with it. I often emphasize the parallel between climate warming and social ‘chilling’— they are both hard to see, hard to measure, and require some kind of coordinated response.I don't think that concerns about the unpaid care economy are silent. Indeed, I think that anxieties about the decline of family and community life are reflected in the rise of right-wing and religious fundamentalist movements. Conversely, ongoing efforts to expand and develop welfare state institutions such as health insurance and universal education are central to political discourse around the globe. Public intellectuals need to work with community activists to publicize these issues and in some ways the recent financial crisis creates new opportunities to demonstrate the weaknesses of neoliberalism.
- SR: Feminist activists face formidable obstacles when trying to garner public support for care which is rarely a policy priority for their governments. This problem is likely to be exacerbated by the global recession and its impact on public finance. What's your advice for feminist activists who want to convince their Ministries of Finance to spend more public money (or at least not cut back) on care?
- NF: I’m not sure I have generic advice. But I think that economics offers some useful tools: emphasize the need for sustainability, the magnitude of social benefits, the future rate of return. Emphasize that changes in women's roles now have tremendous social momentum and that social institutions must adapt.
- SR: You make persuasive arguments about seeing children as public goods. As you put it in your blog in the New York Times, Economix, last March: ‘Parents aren't just raising adorable kids. They are also producing little human capital units that are likely to grow up, get jobs, pay taxes and raise little human capital units of their own’. This type of argument works very well for some forms of unpaid care, namely that of children, but is not so easy to use for other forms of care, say elderly care, which needs to be seen and valued as an end in itself rather than as a means for producing a more productive economy.
- NF: I think that security and health in old age are also public goods. I think people work harder and better and more cooperatively when they know that they can look forward to reasonable security upon retirement. But I take your point. There are limits to the ‘human capital’ metaphor, and it can be used as a bludgeon against other forms of social investment. For instance, some advocates of early childhood education in the US argue that it is much more cost effective than university education or job training for adults.In my book Valuing Children: Rethinking the Economics of the Family (Folbre, 2008) I argue that we should emphasize the development of human capabilities as an end in itself, and think of spending on dependants as a form of ‘commitment’ rather than literal ‘investment’.
- SR: As the cliché goes, crises create opportunities. Is the health care reform legislation likely to be a precursor for a more pro-active welfare state in the US? What are we to make of the backlash from the right (the ‘tea parties’)?
- NF: In my view, the right-wing backlash reflects the legacy of racial/ethnic and class inequality that I described above. In one of my recent blog posts (‘The Resentment Zone’) I argue that it has been exacerbated by the proliferation of means-tested benefits for low-income families that phase out in the lower middle of the income distribution, creating effective marginal tax rates that are greater there than at the very top. Universal benefits could build greater solidarity and support. But it's hard to garner support for such benefits. The new health reform legislation will have limited benefits. Nonetheless, it represents an improvement — one that I hope the Obama administration will be able to build upon.
- SR: The ‘family wage’ along with the pension system that covered dependent wives, where it existed, provided a patriarchal form of protection for many women and for many families. How would you explain the relation between the demise of the ‘family wage’ and the increasing presence of women in the workforce? Are there aspects of the ‘family wage’ that you would like to retrieve and modernize to help legitimize the notion that workers (both female and male) have ‘dependants’ who are not wage-earners?
- NF: I regard debates over the ‘family wage’ as one of the most interesting examples of the tension between individual wage employment and family care. In the US many cities have passed ‘living wage’ legislation that sets a higher minimum wage for municipal workers based on the cost of raising a family. But as early feminist economists like Eleanor Rathbone observed, the higher wages benefit those who are not caring for family members as well as those who are. For this reason, I prefer public supports based on actual care responsibilities — such as transfers, tax exemptions or services targeted to dependants. However, in practice such supports cannot be precisely calibrated, in the sense that family care givers could demand a specific ‘care wage’. Therefore, I think they work best within an egalitarian economic environment.
- SR: There are ongoing debates about the pros and cons of a Basic Income Grant (BIG), and feminists too seem to be divided on this question, as the special issue of Basic Income Studies indicated (Robeyns, 2008). What is your take on this question? Can a universal basic income grant make care giving a real choice without the penalties (in terms of foregone income, etc.) that women have historically had to pay?
- NF: Yes, I think a universal basic income grant could provide effective support for care giving. However, it could also reinforce the gender division of labour, leaving women at home caring for children and the elderly while men go … surfing (or hiking, or partying). We unpack the concept of ‘real choice’ as one based not just on lack of economic constraint, but on development of gender-neutral values of obligation for others.To me, the rhetoric of basic income grants often seems more rooted in rights than responsibilities. I believe in reciprocity, but I don't think it comes ‘naturally’ to humans. Human history reveals a long history of men free-riding on women's reproductive labour, long before the development of capitalist institutions. As a result, I have a less cheerful view of human nature than many basic income advocates seem to express. That said, I think it is possible to define basic income grants in ways that discourage free-riding. So, I try to suspend my scepticism and stay open to the debate.
- SR: I think those who follow your work see you not just as a university professor and prolific academic, but as a public intellectual. In the mid-1990s you were involved in efforts to influence the welfare reform debate in the US. You wrote a short book with Randy Albelda and the Center for Popular Economics, The War on the Poor: A Defense Manual (Folbre et al., 1996). Can you elaborate on that period of your public activism and reflect on how welfare reform has played itself out in the US since the Clinton years?
- NF: I would describe it as a humbling, sobering experience. It reinforced my sense of the enormous significance of racial/ethnic and class inequalities in the US as well as my awareness of the difficulties of bucking a powerful trend. Relatively strong economic growth and employment expansion between 1996 and 1999, and again between 2001 and 2008, helped buffer the effects. But now in the US we are dealing with historically unprecedented long-term unemployment rates, without much of a safety net. A lot of low-wage earners aren't protected by unemployment insurance, and what's left of the cash welfare system has hardly expanded at all. The only thing standing between many unemployed and literal starvation in the US has been the Food Stamp system, now the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program or SNAP.
- SR: You have had other collaborations with the Center for Popular Economics, for example in 2000 when you and James Heintz produced another popular book, The Ultimate Field Guide to the US Economy (Heintz et al., 2000). What was the impact of that book?
- NF: I have worked on several editions of the Field Guide, and all of them found an enthusiastic readership among students, activists and organizers. I think they helped promote other efforts to improve economic literacy. But we still have a long way to go in that department! Much of the current debate over tax policy in the US, for instance, seems totally misinformed. Something like 20 per cent of the US electorate thinks that Obama raised taxes — when in fact he cut them. Reporting on economic issues in the mainstream media here is shockingly ideological.
- SR: A current campaign for which you are a driving force is the movement to save public higher education (state universities), about which you have written a book, Saving State Universities (Folbre, 2010). Can you tell us a bit more about the goals and ideas driving this campaign?
- NF: I wouldn't describe myself as a driving force; I’m more of a hitchhiker trying to help pay for the fuel. In my book, I explain why business support for higher education has declined over time, and why most states are cutting funding for it. I emphasize the potential to build a political alliance in support of public higher education. But while I firmly believe this potential exists in the long run, right now it's hard to move forward because of the fiscal crisis and debates over tax cuts.
- SR: What about your earlier passions in life: philosophy, for example, which you studied as an undergraduate, and your activism on environmental issues (you were even arrested for camping out in a tree on the University of Texas campus)? How do they relate to your current research and activism?
- NF: I’d like to think that some fruits of my early education show up in Greed, Lust, and Gender (2009a). Much of my curiosity about the concept of self-interest and its evolution over time grew out of my background in philosophy. And I remain very proud of my protest against the destruction of a strand of ancient and beautiful cypress trees along the banks of Waller Creek in Austin, Texas, rendered ‘necessary’ by a desire to expand the football stadium there. The BP oil spill and degradation of the entire Gulf of Mexico seems to me a giant and horrendous echo of those misplaced priorities. I’m keeping my eyes open for opportunities for civil disobedience that could help draw attention to the global environmental crisis. Although environmental economics is not my field of expertise, I have colleagues like Jim Boyce who are doing great research in this area, and I have collaborated with him on efforts to explore the similarities between the natural commons and the social commons.
- SR: It has been a real pleasure to read your regular blogs on the New York Times Economix. You must be a fervent believer in the power of ideas.
- NF: It may be the pleasure of ideas, rather than their power, that motivates much of my efforts to write for a broad audience. It is fun to write outside the confines of academic discourse. Intellectuals tend to create our own little virtual realities, to create specialized fan clubs for our favourite arguments. I feel like I learn important things from public dialogue, and I benefit from the pressure to express my views in a clear and concise way. Sometimes I come up with ideas that prove quite useful in my academic research.
- SR: Organizations that fund research (especially on development) increasingly ask for evidence of ‘impact’. Given the nature of social science research, the non-linear relation between research/publications and policy change, the fact that there is very often a time lag (of at least three to five years) between publications and policy change, and also the fact that ideas often get picked up without due reference etc., it is very difficult to show ‘impact’. How do you see the relationship between ideas and policy? Do you have any interesting illustrations of how/when ideas you have put forward have been picked up and translated into policy?
- NF: I like the way you have described the problem. The trajectory of intellectual impact is very hard to predict. And once policy change has occurred, it's very hard to unpack cause and effect. I think my work has successfully promoted efforts to expand women's rights and provide more public support for care, but there is no way that I could demonstrate ‘impact’. I think that some foundations and funding agencies have simply lost confidence in the power of ideas and endorsed a kind of ‘show me the money’ business model. Superficial results often garner more credit than profound ideas. Researchers must remain true to their own vision. If they get too preoccupied with selling their potential projects they will undermine their own sources of inspiration.
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