Tuesday, January 19, 2010

On Ideology

I will come out and say this right away - I really don't enjoy debates and arguments. I know that lots of people enjoy them; I know that they can constitute a good way to open people's minds to other points of view; I know that they can be good exercises in the art of speaking clearly and making coherent and powerful arguments. However, I really don't find joy in debating for the sake of debating. You can blame it on my lack of practice, my English as a second language, my ignorance about certain topics, or my natural propensity to be shy in large groups. Most of all though, I am opposed to debates when they are rooted in pure ideology because I think that this can be very damaging to public opinion and, perhaps more distantly, to public policy and change (or lack of change).

I have a very good friend, whom I have known forever, who is a complete natural at debating, and I have had the privilege (or misfortune?) of being on the other end many times, especially recently. We had a debate regarding paid maternity leave the other day. She is completely opposed to this policy because she believes that women make a choice when they have a child, and should be able to support themselves and their families if they take time off after child birth. She doesn't think that employers are responsible for paying people to not work. So, if there's no paid maternity leave and you can't afford to take time off on your own and risk getting fired, make a choice - have a baby or keep working. The world is over-populated anyway. Life's full of choices and people need to make them. Tough.

Now, as someone who spent the last semester researching maternity leave, I of course started disagreeing. What about the fact that many families first cross the poverty line when a child is born because the mother loses her job when she takes time off? What about the fact that 160 other countries have paid maternity leave but the US does not on a national level, and these policies have been shown to have beneficial effects on the women (and, although less so, on the children)? And if you don't believe in employers paying people to not work, what about paid vacation?
She said she doesn't believe in paid vacation either. This, of course, is very consistent with the over-arching ideology of her argument. She also made the point that none of my objections is valid, as long as you stick with the ideology of her argument: women should just make the choice of whether to have a child or to keep working. And if they can't afford to have a child, they shouldn't have one.

Now, we later agreed on some things such as the fact that maybe there are more important or effective policies than paid maternity leave that the government should allocate its limited resources to, and this is a question for cost-benefit analysis. But, I had no way of convincing her of my point of view because she valued remaining consistent to the ideology of her thinking above all else. And while I have always admired her skill at debating and her intelligence, I couldn't help but be frustrated at this position.

For me personally, it's most important to look at existing problems and try to find solutions to them as a society. Poor working women become even poorer when they give birth because they lose their job or can't afford to take time off? Well, maybe paid maternity leave can help that (or maybe not - we should research it!). To me, it is not relevant that maybe these women should have made smarter choices about the timing of their pregnancies. Or that the world is over-populated (to be honest, I just don't think that a lack of paid maternity leave is a deterrent to people having children in the US). And while my friend's argument is very consistent, and I do see some valid points in her over-arching ideology, from a policy perspective, I don't think we can get anywhere by just saying that women should learn to make better choices because this is what we believe in.

And while I know that I also am at fault for having an ideology (for example, by being against pure ideological arguments), I think a good dose of real analysis of existing problems and their potential solutions will always strengthen an ideological argument.

***Note: Because of space constraints, I did not repeat my friend's entire argument here (this post doesn't do justice to her debating skills at all), but I think I got the main points across.


  1. While I can see your friend's point, to defend an ideology you also have to defend the assumptions underlying this. An assumption for her argument would seem to be that society is organized for the sake of enabling a pure free market economy. Society might choose to advance different goals, like population growth or equal outcomes (as opposed to opportunities) across genders.

    On a more practical level, I think the inflexibility of corporate culture is one of the primary barriers to true equality today, and does not help employers either. Many women will want to have children, including the most talented women. Those employers that offer flexibility will be able to retain the most talented women, and should be more successful in the marketplace for that. A corporation should probably not put a star employee in the position of choosing between working for them or raising a family, as few employees will make such a sacrifice.

  2. You need to identify what your first principles are to have a productive debate. In this debate, you need to define what you consider to be a good government intervention. The fundamental idea implicit in your post is that you think a government intervention is good if a bunch of academic studies show that it leads to some partial equilibrium benefits. Personally, I think this is an awful way to base policy decisions, because it can be used to justify any government intervention. Meanwhile, your friend seems to think there are no good good government interventions, which I also think is awful. It's simply not true that your friend is an idealogue and you're a thoughtful, enlightened person -- your attitude that your friend can't be reasoned with is poison to thoughtful discussion.

    So the first question you should consider is, "what is a good government intervention?" I don't think either you or your friend have thought enough about it yet. See if you can at least come to some kind of consensus. Then you can proceed to debate the merits of this particular policy.

    General questions I think you should consider when evaluating a government intervention: Inevitably it creates winners and losers. How big are the gains from the winners and how big are the losses to the losers? It's not enough to look at partial equilibrium effects to the target of the policy, how does it change the incentives of all the actors involved (mothers, employers, etc) and are there potential unintended consequences, both static and dynamic? When moongose talks about society, who is this society, and who decides what the will of society is (or in other words, how do you weight the winners against the losers)? Is coercion from the state necessary to solve the problem, or will institutions arise endogenously to address the problem? If so, why so, if not, why not? You never see a policy debate that begins to touch on more than a sliver of these questions.

  3. Would you agree to paid paternity leave for men, if they should choose to stay at home and raise the child while the woman continues working directly after birth? I've known women who kept working as close as two weeks before their due date, and I have many male friends who would LOVE to get paid while staying home with a child. If you agree with maternity leave for women, shouldn't men also be afforded that option, since the decision to have a child is dually agreed upon by the father and mother?

  4. To respond to DRDR: First of all, I never claimed to be a "thoughtful, enlightened person", nor did I say that my friend can't be reasoned with. Maybe you should read my post more carefully before attacking. Further, I never said that any government intervention is good, and said nothing about only looking at partial equilibrium effects. As someone who is in an economics Ph.D. program, I am very well aware that it is important to consider general equilibrium effects as well, and nothing in my post implies that we should not. I agree with you that we should always ask what constitutes a good government intervention - that is what my whole point is. And if you claim that there is never a policy debate that "begins to touch on more than a sliver of these questions" - well, it seems like you haven't done much research.

    To apostolos: I would completely support paid paternity leave, if we also had paid maternity leave. The only thing is that women earn less than men, on average, so if a family decides that only one parent should stay home, they might elect the mother to do so. Further, unlike a man, a woman physically needs some time to recover after childbirth, so that is why paid maternity leave might be slightly more important.

  5. In response to the OP:

    I really didn't intend for this discussion to take such a hostile tone, so I'll try to tone down the rhetoric a bit, though I take my fair share of the blame for that. I hope we can have a more polite discussion going forward.

    Re: you never claimed to be thoughtful and enlightened, and that your friend could not be reasoned with
    -- Re-reading your post, you claimed that your friend was being purely ideological, that debates rooted in pure ideology are damaging, and that you lack ideology other than being against ideology, so I don't feel I terribly misrepresented your position.

    Re: important partial equilibrium effects
    -- I'm sure you do know better, but your argument suggested that evidence of maternity leave being beneficial to women is sufficient to justify maternity leave policies. I admit I'm being a bit unfair, because it's not practical to spell out a complete case for a policy in a blog post, especially when your particular argument for maternity leave wasn't the main point of the post. That said, the fallacy I accused you of is prevelant in many arguments advocating particular forms of government intervention.

    Re: there is never a policy debate that touches more than a sliver of these questions
    -- In retrospect, "rarely" was probably a better word choice than "never." I do feel it's rare to find a policy discussion that takes on a balanced and comprehensive view. Most blogs and op-eds, you can tell what the conclusion is going to be just by looking at the author or publication. As for academic economic research, the limits of rigor generally force researchers to focus on only a narrow set of the kinds of questions I described. And even if you have a fairly comprehensive study, the external validity comes into question when using the study to inform future policy decisions.

  6. Hey DRDR, Thanks for taking it to a friendlier place. I'm telling commenters and bloggers alike to try to keep it above the belt (with each other, media figures and politicians are still fair game). We really appreciate your contributions!


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