Saturday, April 01, 2006

Maternity Leave

Another effort in a conversation that won't go away:

Homo sapiens is a species of mammal. Its only "purpose" is to perpetuate itself. Enough babies must be generated, borne, fed, sheltered and kept alive long enough to reproduce. All other human activities are gravy. Interesting gravy, gravy that we should all have an equal opportunity to slurp up, but still just gravy. Any institution premised on the notion that the humans involved will not or should not reproduce is short-sighted, wrong-headed and immoral. An economy in which an ordinary person cannot afford to have a baby is immoral.

If it were in any meaningful sense true that childbirth worldwide was a decision rather than an overdetermined, socially coerced condition, overpopulation would not be a problem.

Maternity leave at work is a difficult issue to conceptualize because of the oddly narrow and resolutely private and property-centered way we look at the economy. An employer who deprives society at large of the benefit of one of its members (the worker) for most of his or her waking hours imposes on society a cost of that worker's labor. It is pretty basic economics that an actor should bear all the costs of its activity so its cost/benefit analyses will come out right. If the employer pays only for the private benefit it reaps from the worker, not for the benefit it reaps from society for producing and supporting that worker, wages will be too low. The costs of monopolizing that worker's time will fall on others and the wages paid won't be enough to cover these costs. In part, costs are paid through taxes that could support education, health care, child care, but these services are woefully inadequate in the US and even worse in most of the world, and anyway corporations pay hardly any taxes. Instead, we expect families to provide all these services for employers and pretend they have no value. We ignore the domestic contribution to the worker's job and/or declare it to be an internal matter of no concern to the employer, but that does not make these costs go away.

Paid maternity leave is made necessary by the general undercompensation of all workers. It is hard to articulate as a "right" for women, because what it really is is a very partial and inadequate payment on the general economy's debt not only to domestic workers but to workers in general.

IMHO, of course.

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