Do you still believe, or do you already know?

Winter speech on the Grossmünster Square in Zurich
by Esther-Mirjam de Boer on January 24th, 2020.

“It is very special to stand here, in the public space and speak to you. And it is somehow strange to make a speech from above, with the church of Zwingli in front of me. It actually feels a bit like a sermon from the pulpit. However, dear audience, fortunately no worldview, neither morals nor social control of neighbours or family forces you to be here and listen. You are here by free choice. I’m glad that you are here and I would be happy if you stayed. I hope that afterwards you will be inspired and maybe a little shaken up and continue the conversation over a glass of hot wine. Here in the public space. You know, I once studied architecture at the Technical University of Zurich and graduated in urban planning. This public space has a special meaning for me.

The city is like the commonplace of life. It is our common living space that we share and use together. If we all behave considerately enough, we contribute in solidarity to making our city worth living in.

Safety and cleanliness – mutual consideration with benevolent respect for diversity – is a valuable public good. Our Zurich is considered one of the most livable cities in the world. We contribute to this value through our behavior in solidarity. And this brings us to an important term in behavioural economics, which is called the «public good». I would like to use a few examples to explain what this is and how it works.

I bet you that we all believe that motorists in Central Europe essentially abide by the traffic rules and always drive on the right side of the road when it counts. Because if we didn’t believe that, we would NEVER drive the permitted 80km/h on the country road. That would be much too dangerous. We know that some people drive faster and sometimes overtake, but at the same time we trust that they won’t do so in oncoming traffic. We firmly believe that everyone will follow the rules at the right moment. Safe and efficient road traffic is therefore a «public good».

The public good is a collective good, to which individuals contribute in solidarity, and from which we as a whole ultimately all benefit. For example, compliance with traffic regulations. The individual does not profit from it in the first place. But as a community we are mutually dependent on each other. Only from a systems point of view does it make sense, because we can all move forward faster and more safely. Compliance with traffic rules is a very consolidated public good in our society and the willingness of individuals to cooperate is high.

«Public goods» are something precious, they are the energy source of our prosperity, our social security, our political and economic continuity. And they ensure our very survival. The automatic implicitness, the basic trust with which we can rely on the many public goods gives us individual capacity for other activities, innovations, relationships, creativity, progress and much more.

«There is no Planet B» said Emanuel Macron in his speech to the American Congress in 2018. The earth is quite existentially our common precondition of life. The climate is a global public good. If we all make our contribution in  solidarity, we can stop man-made global warming. But what good is it to individuals if they give up travelling and driving, eat less meat and only use electricity from renewable energy sources? Nothing so far, except restrictions and additional costs and maybe a good feeling. Some people will say to themselves: let the others do something first before I restrict myself. This is a typical reaction of a so-called «free rider». This is also an important term from behavioural economics. Free riders seek and use personal advantage first. It is those people who do not contribute to the public good in solidarity, unless they themselves profit from it first or are forced to do so. Through laws and fines, for example. Or through a climate tax. Free riders defend themselves against restrictions on their personal freedom. And free riders are dangerous when they come to power and make ignoring public goods a political or corporate culture. In doing so, they undermine the cohesion in our society and the solidarity and integrity in companies.

In Switzerland, we have a very well-established tradition of solidarity communities that serve the common good – this public good. Take the composition of our Federal Council, for example. The magic formula. Our system of concordance encourages the Federal Council parties to find solutions together. This cooperation, which is part of the political system, promotes inclusive decision-making behaviour between the various political camps. This in turn promotes continuity and stability, as we can observe particularly well in Switzerland. In countries with only two leading parties, a pronounced opposition policy or a dictatorship-like superiority, polarisation or even division is more likely to occur. This opposition then shapes the political culture : It is rather about demarcation and other forms of exclusion – the formation of borders. According to the motto: Here we are and there the others. We want to profit first. For the others we do not care and they should stay outside.

So here I am talking about inclusion and exclusion in the context of diversity. I’m sure you’ve already been wonderin: when is she finbally going to bring up her gender issue? Soon, soon. Because the gender issue is only a symptom of something more fundamental: the tension between the poles of unifying or divisive behavior. Solidarity or exclusion. Altruism or egocentricity. And by the way: this has absolutely nothing to do with political left or right. Dogmas and intolerance exist in all political colours. So also the sense of tolerance and humanity.

What we can currently observe is that polemicists are robbing us of our belief in the public good. Because what else holds communities together? The belief and trust that a solidarity system works and that the community cooperates. We believe in our open education system, in social security in safety in the public sphere, in unemployment insurance, in social assistance in case all else fails – or in disability insurance and our health system. We trust in the neutrality of our country and in the fairness and appropriateness of the actions of the police.

However, the polemicists’ strategy is to shake our faith and trust, for example by making allegations of rule violations, dividing communities into good and bad, sowing mistrust and thus weakening cooperation. Some may ask, why would anyone do this? Well, being human is still full of mystery.

What helps? Behavioral design starts by making the various belief clouds transparent, thereby generating knowledge about our assumptions. Because when we know what we and others believe, we begin to act more deliberately. If we then try out different options in our actions, we can choose the solution that works to the best of our knowledge and belief.

For when we know what we and others believe, then we begin to act with greater deliberation.

I would like to illustrate this with a public good that is far less consolidated than car traffic: equal opportunities for women and children.

Almost 50% of German-speaking Swiss men believe that it hurts children in early childhood when their mum goes to work. That is a fact. A fact with serious consequences. Incidentally, around 30% of women in Switzerland believe the same. On the other hand, 2/3 of households with children make use of childcare services to supplement family life and 20% of mothers work full-time. Added to this are 15% of young mothers who lose the job they would have liked to keep. This is a major area of tension.

Another area of tension is the question of whether children are a purely private matter for families. Well I think that the decision whether a couple wants to have children or not is a purely private matter. At the same time, we as a society are existentially interested in ensuring that children are born and can grow up under good conditions. Because otherwise we will be presented with the bill.

Our entire pension system and the labour market are built on young people and solidarity between generations. We must bear this in mind. But people do not always have a clear view of complex interdependencies and often do not act logically and on the basis of facts.

After all, how do the many people in Switzerland who believe that a working mother is to the detriment of the child behave? Well, clearly: they advocate systems in which mothers stay at home during the first few years. In other words, against crèche places, against lunchtime meals, against day schools, against discounts on day care structures, against parental leave, against individual taxation. Their assumptions about right and wrong shape their behaviour, for example in votes and in public discourse, and this in turn shapes our reality. This has far-reaching consequences for all women, for the labour market as a whole, for children from educationally disadvantaged families, for children of single parents and for families that depend on two incomes. The vast majority of the population, in other words.

As a result, 2/3 of women who are still childless assume that the birth of a child will have a negative impact on their career prospects. Only 1/3 of men fear this. Only half of the women believe that starting a family has a positive effect on their happiness in life. Among men, 2/3 are confident. So there is a considerable imbalance of perception. On the one hand, more than 30% of female academics remain childless and, on the other hand, mothers who leave the workforce do not return to the labour market until an average of nine years after starting a family, and all too often in mini part-time jobs under 50%. This has fatal consequences for their financial independence and pension entitlement, should the marriage not last. And you know that 50% of marriages end in divorce.

The widespread assumption that the best family model is the one in which the wife raises the children at home and runs the household gives us a tax system that exposes a second income to progression. The equally widespread assumption that children are purely a private matter imposes the full cost of third-party care on most parents, with the result that women either give up their entire income to cribs and taxes or stay at home. This is the reality for those who have the choice.

Many families, however, depend on both incomes for survival and other women are simply not made for a 100% mommy & household job and prefer to be employed in order to protect their family, their relationship and their own health. Like me. I can clearly love and care for my daughter better if I have other tasks in life.

An internationally widespread consequence of the basic assumptions described above in society is that women earn much less after the birth of their first child and men increase their workload when starting a family – here in Central Europe this is particularly pronounced and has long-term consequences, which are called «maternity penalties». Family policy in the Scandinavian countries show that the long-term consequences are less than half as great there, and in Norway even the initial effect is much smaller.

In our labour market, there will be a shortage of over half a million workers in the next 10 years. Young women in Switzerland already have a slightly higher level of education than young men. These women, who in the current system are not employed after starting a family, or are employed with a low workload, should help fill the gap. For this we need structures and incentive systems to ensure that they do so and that they are supported for this by the fathers of their children.

We know from research that this requires three pillars in society:

  1. Affordable and high-quality day care structures for children aged 0-15 – even during school holidays.
  2. Progressive individual taxation regardless of marital status.
  3. Equally long and non-transferable parental leave for both parents.

In addition, anything that follows the principle of the «policy of equality» and eliminates unequal treatment helps.

Research in early childhood development in various countries shows that children who are able to learn the national language in the first five years of life before entering kindergarten, who are allowed to learn the basics of peaceful coexistence in the country of residence, who can try out creative ways and who have grown up emotionally secure (and this includes sufficient income) – these children have betteropportunities later life than those for whom the signs were less favourable at the beginning. Children who enter kindergarten with a lack of experience usually do not get rid of this burden until adulthood and put a strain on our solidarity system.

Favourable conditions in early childhood later mean a more stable life in health, social and economic terms. This benefits the individual on the one hand and society as a whole on the other. And with that comes less crime, less unemployment, less violence and less substance abuse. The well-known Swiss economist Prof. Dr. Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich has calculated that every franc well invested in early childhood pays off twice to eight times later. For Switzerland, he calculated that we can count on an increase in gross domestic product of around CHF 1 billion per year if we provide optimum support for all children in the first years of their lives.

Unfortunately, the lobby is not as strong for the equal opportunities of children as it is for safe car traffic. Please let that sink in.

My invitation to conclude my speech is the following: please be interested in facts, in science, in the experiments, in testing theories and don’t just believe what you hear or read online. Knowledge does not require formal education. Anyone can have knowledge. Knowledge today is nourished by the hunger to believe in the right thing and to do the right thing. For the common good.

Thank you very much.”

Esther-Mirjam de Boer