Experts Talk: An Interview with Dr. Nancy Folbre
In the third interview in the Experts Talk series, UMass Amherst Professor Emeritus, New York Times Economix contributor and leading feminist economist Dr. Nancy Folbre discusses the importance of interdisciplinarity, the overconfidence economics has in the individual pursuit of self-interest and what she learned from reading the comments section on her New York Times pieces, among other topics.
- You earned a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and a Master’s in Latin American Studies prior to getting a PhD in Economics. What inspired the shift to economics for your doctoral studies?
It seemed to me that economics was the terrain on which the battles I was most interested in fighting were being fought. I think I was right about this, though I underestimated the scope of the conflict.
- Do you feel your diverse academic background allowed you more breadth in your work than if you had only studied economics?
Yes, though it may have proved a weakness as well as a strength. It’s hard to say without a clear point of comparison. But going broad has, I think, contributed to the sustainability of my intellectual enterprise. I have never been bored. Whenever I have hit a dead end in one direction, I have been able to redirect and reroute my path.
- Throughout your career, your work has focused primarily on the economics of care. What initially motivated you to examine this largely marginalized subsection of economics?
“Care” lies at the intersection of socialist and feminist critiques of the organization of human society. It grows out of concerns about the welfare of others—concerns that traditional economic theory treats as exogenously given.
“Care” highlights the central coordination problem of human society: Many selfish strategies that pay off in the short run are not sustainable in the long run. Caring preferences are costly, often putting caregivers at an economic disadvantage relative to those who are unencumbered by concern for others. Yet some level of support for caregiving is crucial to biological and economic sustainability.
- Much of your research is interdisciplinary, connecting historical analysis with contemporary issues. From your perspective, has the field of economics become more flexible in terms of such crossover research?
Yes, in my view, economics has evolved in many positive directions, including greater interdisciplinarity. But it is overconfident in the individual pursuit of self-interest and—relatedly—in the efficiency of market transactions.
Both nature and the family are an important source of unpriced resources that not bought and sold. They should not be dismissed as a realm of mere “externalities” because they are far larger in economic value than the goods and services priced in the market.
- You have also written extensively on education, including in your book Saving State U: Why We Must Fix Public Higher Education. What is your take on the recent Brookings Institution report stating that, “the impact of student loans may not be as dire as many commentators fear”?
I think that formulation is pretty vague. How dire is dire? Who, exactly, is too fearful? That study focuses on the average distributional impact, ignoring the uneven consequences for middle-income families in states where legislatures have drastically reduced public support for higher education.
- You have been an associate editor of the journal Feminist Economics since 1995. How has your (professional) relationship with feminism changed over the years?
When we launched that journal, few economists took it seriously. Now it has garnered respect and ranks very high for social science citations. I believe the journal has driven home the point that feminism is not just about women’s rights—it’s about a larger process of rethinking the gendered relationship between rights and obligations.
- As a leading economist in a field still largely dominated by men, is there particular advice you give to female students entering the discipline?
Yes. Recognize that gender is an important dimension of collective identity and action that helps shape perceptions of the way the economy works. But remember that gender is not the only dimension of collective identity and action that does that. I am fond of a quote from the Marxist historian E.P. Thompson that goes something like this: “The facts are there, not to disclose their own meaning, but to be interrogated by minds trained in the discipline of attentive disbelief.”
- For the past five years you were a weekly blogger for the New York Times Economix. How did writing in this format differ from other blogging or journalistic experience you’ve had?
First of all, it was more consistent or, one might say, more relentless in terms of scheduling. Almost of necessity, producing a short essay every week increased my fluency. Second, it engaged me with a very diverse and demanding audience. Often I learned a great deal from the comments posted by readers, but I also saw how easy it is for readers to misunderstand the intent and meaning of an argument. And I received a fair amount of vitriolic hate mail.
- Your career has included numerous posts as visiting fellow or researcher alongside being a professor. Did you ever think about shifting into policy or advocacy work full-time?
I don’t think I have the temperament for full-time policy or advocacy work. I like the freedom to think and write and take chances.
- If you could be President of the United States for one day and enact change via executive order, what is one of the first issues you would tackle?
No idea. That’s an example of why I like being an academic and public intellectual. I’m just not any good at coming up with practical slogans or catchy endings.
Photo credit: Nancy Folbre