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The revolt of the magic pudding: sharing care in Australia

By Nancy Folbre - posted Monday, 15 April 2002


One of the most important things I’ve learned in Australia is the story of The Magic Pudding. According to Norman Lindsay’s classic children’s tale, a lovable but rather clueless group of males come into possession of a Magic Pudding that provides a limitless supply of food. No matter how much they eat, ample supply always remains. The pudding in question is rather cranky, and occasionally tries to run away. In the end, however, it is fenced in to its own little paddock in a tree house, firmly in the possession of the Society of Puddin’ Owners.

Times have changed since this story was published in 1918. We know now that the pudding is not really named Albert. It’s real name is Mother. It metaphorically represents the source of feminine altruism that has provided the major supply of care for children, the sick, and the elderly, and also many working age adults. This supply remains magical in its ability to meet the needs of its loved ones. But it is not (and never has been) inexhaustible. Indeed, there are many signs that it is wearing thin.

It’s not hard to imagine why. Consider who you would like to be when you grow up: Bunyip Bluegum, free to venture out into the world with nothing but a walking stick, or Magic Pudding, a captive in a cookpot available to meet everyone else’s needs.

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Over the years of venturing into the world, feminists have learned not only that women have a long way to go to achieve equal rights, but also that equal rights are not enough. Men and women have equal obligations to care for dependents, as well as equal rights to pursue their own priorities. We need to rethink our ‘social family contract’.

The ‘invisible heart’

Conventional economic theory has misled us. Our economic accounting systems value market transactions but ignore the value of natural assets and non-market work. Thus, any shift of resources from non-market to market is a shift from ‘uncounted’ to ‘counted’:

  • A company saves money by dumping unprocessed wastes into the environment, because it averts a cost that would otherwise be counted against its revenues. The cost to current and future generations goes uncounted.
  • Adults increase their hours of paid work, increasing both family income and Gross Domestic Product. But the reduction of time they might otherwise have devoted to raising children or caring for their elderly or disabled members goes uncounted.
  • Individuals who conform to the ‘ideal worker’ image – unencumbered by family responsibilities enjoy high wages and rapid promotion. Individuals who fulfill commitments to their families and communities get the message that they are less ‘competitive’ and less valuable to society. Yet, without the unpaid care these individuals provide, society would fall apart.

Markets can do a good job of coordinating the choices of autonomous, self-interested individuals. They cannot do a good job of coordinating the care and nurturance of dependents who are not free to choose. For this, we need families and States that offer mutual support for one another within a larger social democratic polity.

Families alone cannot do the job, because competitive markets penalise those who devote themselves to the production of unpriced goods. The very expansion of opportunities and choices in the market increases the ‘opportunity cost’ of time devoted to activities of public rather than purely private benefit.

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It is sometimes popular to argue that the decision to raise a child is nothing more than a discretionary form of consumption, like raising a kelpie. Why then, should taxpayers be asked to support it? ‘You propagate, you pay’! Perfect market-based reasoning. But most pets do not grow up to become taxpayers, workers or citizens. And market goods are subsidised by mothers and fathers who do the non-market work of raising children. Every time you hire a wage earner, or buy a product that was produced by a wage earner, you are benefiting from the altruistic contributions of the parents, other family members, and poorly paid care workers who developed that worker’s capabilities.

The analogy in a robot-based economy, would be consumers paying for the batteries and spare parts needed to keep robots going, but not for the actual cost of producing them. This is because intrinsically motivated robot-makers were willing to charge only a token amount for their services. One might expect such robot-makers to tire of providing free services to robot-users, as the opportunity cost of their intrinsically motivated activities goes up.

No wonder fertility in Australia, as in many other countries, is now far below replacement level.

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This is an edited extract from a speech to the Australia Institute, "Sharing the Care: Feminism and Family Policy in the U.S. and Australia", given on March 12, 2002. The full text can be downloaded from here.



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About the Author

Professor Nancy Folbre is a visiting scholar to the Australian National University, a feminist economist and acclaimed author of The Invisible Heart.

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