Potential pitfalls of progressive paternalism

By way of Austin Frakt we find this post from Matt Yglesias:

Yglesias begins thus:

Apparently we could do a lot of good if there was more breast-feeding happening:

The lives of nearly 900 babies would be saved each year, along with billions of dollars, if 90 percent of U.S. women fed their babies breast milk only for the first six months of life, a cost analysis says.

I confess to getting a little bit creeped out by the idea that progressive paternalist technocrats are suddenly taking a keen interest in what American women are doing with their breasts every morning.  (“Oh, uh, I’m just trying to bend the cost curve.  Could you pass me a Kleenex?”)  But it’s not like this sort of soft paternalism is likely to end up in a Federal Bureau of Breast Management with milk quotas for new moms enforced via telescreen (though see Wilkinson for a counterpoint).  Instead, it’s business owners who’re getting “nudged” by the big federal stick.  Yglesias quotes that study:

The study found that only about 12 percent of American women exclusively breast feed their children for the first six months of life, as recommended. College graduates are the most likely to breast feed; their rates are at 45 percent. The least likely are poor women and teenage mothers. There are reasons for this that go beyond education, of course. Non-college grads are more likely to have jobs where they’re unable to stay on maternity leave for a long time, and then more likely to go back to work in places where it is difficult to pump breast milk. So that makes this not just a public health issue, but a social justice one.

The health-care bill includes requirements for employers to start accommodating women who are breast feeding. The next step is to encourage doctors to encourage mothers to do it.

(Links and emphasis in the original.)

All things being equal, I’d rather live in a world where new mothers aren’t institutionally excluded from the workforce than one in which they are.  But have a look at those requirements:

Employers would be required to provide an unpaid “reasonable break time for nursing mothers” in the first year after giving birth. Women would be provided a private place, other than a bathroom, to use a breast pump. The provision exempts companies with fewer than 50 workers if the requirement would impose “an undue hardship,” a determination left to the employer to make.

This provision increases the cost to a company of hiring, in particular, young women.  I’d be willing to bet that the “non-college grad jobs” to which the study refers would see a higher marginal cost increase — if maternity leave is short and opportunities to pump breast milk are few, the job probably needs the presence of its employees more than their skills.  It’d be nice if those employers worked out a way to comply with ACA requirements by clever job scheduling, and those employers might gain a competitive advantage by earning the loyalty of their new-parent employees, but I suspect that most employers will respond to these requirements by not hiring young women.

Predicting the future is a fool’s game, but I’m going to do it anyway.  The net effect of provisions like this one will be the same as the net effect of minimum-wage laws (on which more anon): fewer jobs for young people.  A provision designed to make employed life better for young mothers will instead make it worse.

Of course, this isn’t a binary decision between shitty jobs and sick babies and no jobs and smug progressives.  The other side of the Pigovian coin (“if you want less of something, tax it”) is subsidy.  The ACA’s nursing-station provision imposes a net cost on employers.  If progressives are serious about wanting to make working life easier for new mothers, they should subsidize the costs that new mothers impose (maternal leave, nursing breaks, &c.) rather than force compliance.  I can think of at least one subsidy that I’d rather see go to this cause.


6 Responses to “Potential pitfalls of progressive paternalism”

  1. April 5, 2010 at 17:22

    A provision designed to make employed life better for young mothers will instead make it worse.

    I wish people who want to be in charge could think these things through. Ignorance of how the world really works is no excuse.

    • April 5, 2010 at 18:09

      You and me both.

      When I was in high school, I figured that “how the world really works” was a choice determined by each person’s values and priorities. (I didn’t realize how postmodern I was at the time.) I chose “socialism”, because it seemed like the place to be for a civil libertarian (mind you, I got “civil liberties” and “social justice” confused a lot back then). I imagined that people who chose “capitalism” (this was high school — not much thinking beyond left and right) did so because they were selfish, and valued personal gain.

      Later on I realized that the world doesn’t care about my motives or values. I don’t think the people who want to be in charge have made this leap yet. And, like a good Sartrian existentialist, I don’t think that excuses them. :-)

  2. 3 Not Sure
    April 5, 2010 at 20:49

    “A provision designed to make employed life better for young mothers will instead make it worse.”

    That’s not what the provision is designed for. It’s designed to help make prgressives feel more… well, progressive.

    • April 5, 2010 at 20:50

      Shhhh! You’re not supposed to notice that!

      • 5 Not Sure
        April 5, 2010 at 21:03

        Sorry about that- I didn’t mean to give away any secrets.

        On a related “feeling good about yorself” note, I recall an article I read a few years ago about a proposed increase in the minimum wage (in Arizona, I believe). Several small business owners were asked for their opinions. One of them said he was in favor of it because low income people needed the help. In the very next sentence, when asked how it would affect his business if the law was enacted, he said that he’d probably be less inclined to hire any additional help.


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