A ‘Care Socialist’ Speaks Out

An economist debunks the “austerity story.”

Joel Bleifuss

Mary O’Mara

In her work, Nancy Folbre, a University of Massachusetts economics professor, explores the intersection of feminist theory and political economy, with a special emphasis on what she calls care work” – the labor, often outside the money economy, that goes into caring for children, the sick or the elderly. 

Folbre talked with In These Times about the negative effects of ignoring care work in public policy, and what the future of our democracy might look like if we want it to strengthen our families and communities.

She is well known for her ability to explain these ideas in simple, accessible language, both in her work with the Center for Popular Economics – the collective of economists who put out the Field Guide to the U.S. Economy (New Press) – and with her weekly post to the Economix–a New York Times blog dedicated to explaining the science of everyday life.” 

Folbre talked with In These Times about the negative effects of ignoring care work in public policy, and what the future of our democracy might look like if we want it to strengthen our families and communities.

What key perspectives are missing from our national debates about budget deficits and the national debt?

First, there is little or no reporting on progressive proposals to address the deficit, such as the People’s Budget, which has been mentioned only in a few opinion pieces in the mainstream print media, despite support from the Progressive Congressional Caucus and excellent reporting by In These Times. (Editor’s note: See What Americans Want,” by David Moberg, June 2011.)

Second, there is little or no challenge (outside of op-ed pieces) to what one can call the austerity story.” This story tells us that social spending in general is on an unsustainable path and needs to be cut. The debate is framed simply as one of levels and timing: The Republicans want us to cut more now, and the Democrats want us to cut less, later.

Only one big component of social spending is actually on an unsustainable path – healthcare spending. That’s one of the problems that President Obama’s healthcare reform was intended to address – and would certainly ameliorate, if not solve. Yet Republicans want to repeal it. 

My University of Massachusetts colleague Jim Crotty describes the austerity story as a rationale for increased redistribution to the rich.

That redistribution to the rich plays out on a global scale, doesn’t it?

The austerity story reflects a new phase of globalization, in which large corporations no longer have much incentive to invest in the health or education of a national labor force.

Global competition definitely plays a role: Social spending represents a social wage” that is linked to citizenship. Downward pressure on wages in the advanced capitalist countries is now accompanied by downward pressure on social wages. Both skilled and unskilled labor are plentiful on the global level, and can therefore be treated as a kind of natural resource like oil or coal, to be simply extracted and depleted. Of course, the social consequences, or as economists put it, negative externalities,” are huge. Global warming goes along with what one could call public-sector chilling,” that is, reduced public commitments to social welfare – both of which reduce sustainability and health in the long run.

What role does the media play in aiding and abetting those we might call public-sector chilling deniers”?

The mainstream media tends to limit its attention to mainstream opinions. But I don’t fault the media alone. Neither mainstream nor heterodox economists have developed a clear picture of the political economy of public finance. Heterodox economists – including most progressive economists – seem reluctant to acknowledge the complexity of the distributional struggle that takes place through the public sector, and the ways that it is shaped by race, gender, citizenship and age, as well as class. You can’t boil that struggle down to capitalists versus workers.

In my view, much of it also reflects bargaining over the distribution of the cost of caring for dependents – not just between men and women, but also between those who have dependents (or are dependent) and those who don’t (or are not dependent). For instance, people who aren’t raising children sometimes feel aggrieved about paying taxes to support schools. 

Should individuals pay for their own education, their own healthcare, their own retirement, along with the needs of their own children and elderly parents? No, they shouldn’t. There are many reasons why social insurance is more efficient and more equitable.

But many people don’t understand the benefits they derive from educating other people’s children.” And progressive social scientists and policy makers haven’t directly addressed the underlying issues: To what extent should these costs be socialized? How should they be distributed? Those are key questions.

How can progressives best address them?

First, we need to emphasize the intrinsic merit of investing in the development and maintenance of human capabilities. This is not just about kids! It’s also about capabilities to work productively as adults and age past retirement. 

Second, we need to show that such investments pay off with greater overall productivity – even though the increased productivity may not show up in conventional economic statistics.

Third, we need to emphasize fairness and sustainability. We need to address issues of intergenerational equity – spending on elderly versus spending on children – and make sure that people have a clear sense of what they are getting back from government over their life-cycle compared to what they put in. 

Where do the international issues fit in here?

The left has traditionally drawn the boundaries around national boundaries – citizenship. But as national boundaries become more permeable, other divisions also intensify. 

So we shouldn’t be surprised by growing conflict over the major institutions of the welfare state. People ask themselves: We don’t pay social insurance for citizens of other countries, so why should we pay it for recent immigrants? Why should we pay it for people who are not like us in other ways?”

The bottom line is that even if the austerity story is false, it resonates with people who feel they don’t have control over government programs. And it resonates with their fears – both rational and irrational – that others are benefiting more than they are from it.

This is a conflict between individual freedom (or the illusion of it) and social cooperation. In a society that worships the ideal of individual agency, does the ideal of working for the collective good stand a chance?

There’s less actual than perceived conflict here. Individuals benefit so greatly from social cooperation – especially from investments in human capabilities and the provision of social insurance to help support family care. And the ideal” of individual agency doesn’t apply to young children or the sick, disabled or the elderly. It also doesn’t apply to people who can’t find a job because the economy is not functioning at full employment.

The problem is that many conservatives don’t see these benefits, while many of the left believe these benefits are self-evident. I argue for a more sustained effort to demonstrate the economic benefits of social democracy.

Should the left put democratic socialism back on its agenda? 

The left is reaching for new definitions of democracy and of socialism.

We’ve learned that institutions that appear to be democratic can be undermined by economic power – whether through over-centralization, as in the so-called socialist economies of the former Soviet Union, or through campaign finance corruption, as exemplified by the Citizens United ruling. We’ve also learned that institutions that profess to rest on majority rule can implement rules (like the filibuster) that lead to political stalemate.

Many local activists are drawn to cooperatives and worker-owned businesses, but they haven’t figured out how to scale their grassroots initiatives up in a national campaign.

The left doesn’t agree on any one definition of socialism. We have advocates for increased democratic participation at every level of the economy, like Mike Albert and Robin Hahnel. And we have advocates for market socialism, like John Roemer. And global climate change reminds us that we cannot simply focus on changes within the nation-state.

I am an advocate for a form of what I call care socialism,” based on stronger collective commitments to the development of human capabilities and efforts to strengthen families and communities. We need to encourage more dialogue between left social scientists and activists. I hope that In These Times readers will weigh in.

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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