Show blog for Too Fat for Our Pants on Radio One, 91 FM, Dunedin, New Zealand. Airs Mondays 10 am - 12 pm.

If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.
~ George Bernard Shaw

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Women and the Economy

Read the playlist for this show at the Radio One website. 
Listen to the interview with Dr. Prue Hyman of the IAFFE here!

In case you've never entertained the idea that there is such a thing as feminist economics, or the implication that mainstream economics is by definition sexist, this post is for you. To start, here's the working definition used in a collection of essays called Women and the Economy: “feminist economics is reopening questions … about value wall-being, and power. In the process of asking these larger questions, feminist economics challenges several basic disciplinary assumptions: the value of efficiency, the existence of scarcity, the omnipresence of selfishness, the independence of utility functions, and the impossibility of interpersonal utility comparisons. Indeed, feminism’s basic assumption, that the oppression of women exists and ought to be eliminated, is a fundamental challenge to the supposed impossibility of interpersonal utility comparisons.”
Of course each branch of feminist economics will answer these questions differently; there are lots of ways to re-examine economics through a feminist lens: Marxist, mainstream, separatist, and lots of others I haven’t heard of.  Because of the inherent bias towards privilege in participation in the first and second waves of the feminist movement, a lot of feminist economists are as concerned with race and class imbalances as they are with gender.  Much of that privilege bias is wrapped up in the rhetoric of personal empowerment and individualism, which implies a degree of freedom, particularly financial freedom, to choose to work or not work, and what kind of work is done.  That insistence on personal choice ignores the socio-economic context that narrows or widens the proliferation of options available to a particular woman.  A wealthy woman has the option to stay home with her children or go to work; a poor woman does not.  Dita von Teese might say she feels empowered by stripping, and i’m glad of that, but many women strip because their body is the only commodity they have to trade, and one woman’s empowerment does not address the larger context of the sexual commodification of women.  Feminism is not, then, simply about the ability of women to choose, but about addressing the systemic causes and supports of gender discrimination, and feminist economics is about addressing the theoretical roots of economic gender inequality at a structural level.

“Neoclassical economics defines its mission as the study of choices made under conditions of scarcity or constraint”.  As I mentioned last week in regards to industrial agriculture and the availability vs. the amount of food, mainstream economics believes the human condition is defined by selfishness, scarcity, and  competition, and therefore the conclusions it draws are based on a very specific hypothesis: that in times of scarce resources, people will compete selfishly with one another for the remaining resources until they all have been consumed.  What is unacknowledged by this view of human existence are the other halves of those traits: cooperation, abundance, and altruism.  Obviously these factors, as much as their opposites and including every emotional state between the two extremes, influence people’s actions and therefore effect their market decisions in ways that are not accounted for by mainstream economics.  For example, mainstream economics does not entertain the possibility that the actors engaged in it will panic, and that panic will adversely affect the growth of the market, but of course it does. Is, in fact, right now. If economics is, as it purports to be, a discipline concerned with well-being, then these represent some fairly serious barriers to its ability to gauge that well-being.

These kind of universals applied objectively to all of humanity are part of the structure of discrimination that feminism rejects: the objectivity itself, as much as the particulars.  Often this insistence on clinical objectivity is used to silence or undermine feminist or environmental critiques, consciously or unconsciously invoking the trope of rational men and emotional, and therefore irrational, women.  This call to remain objective is in fact nothing more than an insistence that feminists examine only the accepted figures; that they only analyze the data that mainstream economists have collected, limiting the scope of analysis to the male, public, cash economy. To look outside mainstream econometric data is to enter the realm of the irrational, regardless of how gender-biased and limited in scope the collection of that data is.  How we know what we know matters – there are not figures to analyze for things like power relations in the home, how a glass ceiling manifests in a workplace, the level of management skill required to simultaneously raise children and keep a home.  Much of this has to do with the nature of the data and the difficulty in measuring it, but also because the right questions are not asked.  

Altering the parameters of the market, as far as data collection and analysis goes, to acknowledge and include the whole range of human labour would improve not just the lives of unaccounted-for women and children, but the discipline of economics as a measure of well-being.  A broad restructuring would be beneficial to the operation of the market as a whole, not just to those excluded from the market; not acknowledging the factors external to the market does not eliminate them, it does not remove their ability to influence the market, merely the ability of economists and econometrists to study their effects and predict market action. Mainstream economics is often forced to construct elaborate mathematical equations and ideological justifications to dismiss the market effects of phenomena the market does not acknowledge. For example, economist Robert Solow won a nobel prize for his ‘discovery’ in the 50s that the economy is constructed of labour and capital, despite the fact that when he used this model to predict the growth of GDP into the future, he ended up underestimating by almost a third.  Rather than try to figure out what caused the gap, what factor was lacking in his theory to be off by so much, he gave that gap a name – the Solow Residual – and a series of complex math was invented to predict the size of the residual.  Not until years later was it established that the gap was caused by the exclusion of energy from his model of the economy.  

In terms of work and income, the neglect is sizable - over 50% of all the labour done in the world is unpaid labour.  Dr. Prue Hyman argues that the distinction between work that is paid and work that is not is largely arbitrary, that many jobs which are paid have a counterpart in the unpaid sector: things like agriculture, childcare, teaching, nursing, elderly care, management.  More than that, quite often the paid and unpaid performances happen simultaneously, next to each other, in the same place.  How absurd, then, that paid work has become the basis for our estimations of prestige and status, when half of all work is unpaid.  Furthermore, an emphasis on paid employment puts a great deal of pressure on single parents to be seeking only paid work – the unpaid work of raising children carries with it fewer and fewer social benefits, and those few that are available are always couched in the rhetoric of a handout, a free ride, rather than as a communal investment in a future of well-raised adults contributing productively to society.

One thing feminist economics is not is essentialist – it does not believe that there are inherent, essential differences between men and women, and that the problems of the mainstream dialogue are masculine, so in order to remedy that we must formulate a feminine dialogue instead.  This is not to say that some feminists are not essentialists, merely that the goal of alternative economics is not to posit a female system to oppose a male one.  The point is that the system is sexist, not that it is masculine.
Classical economics is defined by essentialism – it believes that the boundaries of human nature are so immutable, so fixed, that the economy must be organized around it, in a reflectively essentialist model. The language we use to define our parameters is important – when we speak about the economy as though it is a person, as opposed to an idea supported by people, it is inevitable that an  economist would assign to it the traits  he believes define humanity.  The equally inevitable effect is that the prevalence of economic language would reinforce those traits of selfishness and competition until they define our culture. 

So, culturally, an economic  narrative of scarcity, selfishness, and competition leads people who have money to hoard it, believing that their self-interest is the way to get ahead and in fact, that they are behaving in the best possible way.  A prevailing narrative like that is not going to lead us to a culture of equality, no matter how often we say and maybe even believe that equality is the ultimate goal.  There are huge swaths of the population which are let down by hyper-individualist culture besides women: poor people, children, elderly people, people with disabilities, people who do or rely on volunteer work, the list represents most of society. Feminist economics seeks to encourage the broadening of economic inclusion as a means to improve women’s position, as women are disproportionately represented in the poorer demographics, but these same questions could be used on behalf of any number of disenfranchised groups.  Again, more inclusive economic system would benefit everyone.

As a possible means towards the actual expansion of the scope of economics, the writing team known as  J.K. Gibson-Graham has tentatively identified four ethical coordinates for alternative economics that place value in community relations and ensuring that everyone is cared for, instead of the relentless individualism of mainstream economics. Rather than selfishness, scarcity, competition, and efficiency, the suggest we examine necessity, surplus, consumption, and commons, each accompanied by a guiding question:
what are my needs and how can they be met?
What is surplus to our needs and how should it be generated, pooled, distributed, and deployed?
What resources are to be consumed and how should this consumption be distributed?
What is our commons and how should it be renewed, sustained, enlarged, and extended to others?
The process of trying to answer these questions, through which inevitably others will manifest, we can start to form the basis of alternate economies that improve everyone’s lot in life.  In this way also we can avoid the pitfalls of attempting to simply assign market value to unpaid labour – often the work that is unpaid and done voluntarily fetches a very low wage in the formal economy.  Think about what the market might assign as an hourly wage for a housewife – chances are it would focus on the cleaning and cooking aspect, overlooking the more abstract, and more important, management skills that are involved in the running of a household.  As such, housework, on the market earns minimum wage.  The market valuing of women’s unpaid work could reflect the undervaluing of women’s paid work.  For this reason we must reassess the fundamental structure of the modern market, rather than simply attempt to fit all unpaid and informal labour into the existing market parameters.


1 comment:

  1. I just wanted to let you know--after a brief search I hope that you're the right person in the universe--that I heard your piece on a college station here in Massachusetts yesterday, and was utterly inspired by the simplicity of your words, expressing things I've been trying to say for years. I found the link to the podcast:

    And transcribed some of it for my own blog, crediting you and linking here, of course. Thanks so much for speaking out for those of us engaged in unpaid work. Just hearing the cultural paradigm challenged confirms my belief that my work does have value and meaning and purpose. As I always knew it did.

    Melissa Jenks