Economics may still be a man’s world, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Despite Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in last week’s U.S. presidential election, an alternative way of looking at the economy — called feminist economics — claims to offer solutions far more appropriate to the problems the United States faces.
In the rush to boost growth our leaders have been asking the wrong questions, and not just in the U.S., says self-described feminist economist Marjorie Cohen.
More stuff needed?
“What are the things that people need?” asks Cohen, professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University. “Do we really need more and more stuff?”
That doesn’t mean feminist economists are all anti-materialist leftists. Cohen says stuff is important, too. And one of the earliest thinkers on the subject, Marilyn Waring, was a member of Parliament for the right-leaning New Zealand National Party.
Waring, who nearly 30 years ago wrote the groundbreaking book If Women Counted, will be in Edmonton this week to give the keynote address at the Parkland Institute’s fall conference, Shifting Gears: Transitioning to the Future Economy.
Cohen, who will speak at the same conference, says feminist economists come from the entire economic spectrum.
Waring’s radical observation in 1988, which seems obvious when you think about it, was that so many essential things that women have traditionally done to make the world a better place are simply not accounted for in economic statistics like gross national product.
Uncounted and dismissed
Twenty-eight years later, they still aren’t.
Unlike banking and gold mining, child-rearing and looking after grandpa are dismissed by conventional economics as completely different from money-making services.
“These are things that can power an economy too, but we always treat them in our economic analysis as expenditures, as if they are not part of the economy,” says Cohen. “Those industries are as much a part of the economy that can generate growth as are the other sectors that are more material.”
One of the basic arguments is that undervaluing the contribution of women is no accident. The founding arguments of economics were formulated by men, and a glance at lists of university economics departments show most continue to be dominated by men.
The Hillary Doctrine
Things women think are important, including nurturing, caring, communicating, negotiating, comforting, as well as community and education, make our lives better. If society undervalues those things, say feminist economists, then we may be spending our scarce resources in the wrong places.
That may be even more important in a post-industrial world, where machines make more of the physical stuff.
On Friday, when I spoke with Patricia Leidl, the Canadian co-author of the book The Hillary Doctrine: Sex and American Foreign Policy, she was still jet-lagged, having just arrived home from working on a project in Afghanistan.
Leidl says whether you are trying to improve the lives of underprivileged people in one of the world’s poorest countries or in the richest, the same lesson applies.
“If you want to promote prosperity and reduce poverty then you have to empower women,” she says. “When you invest in women you invest in the health of the economy as a whole.”
She says the reason is the difference between how men and women spend money.
“When you give a woman money, most of them will spend most of the resources on health care, their children, strengthening the community, education, whereas men are much more likely to spend the bulk of their income on status symbols, cars, TVs,” she says.
Leidl’s co-author, Valerie Hudson, wowed the U.S. military with research showing sex selection in societies that preferred boy children led to greater war and armed conflict.
In The Hillary Doctrine, the two wrote about Clinton’s plan to use the principles of feminist economics to reduce global conflict. Empowering women made countries less likely to go to war with the United States and its allies. It was a subject that got little attention in the recent election.
Leidl is frankly devastated by the election of Trump, fearing that it will reverse years of good work, effectively taking money out of war prevention to spend on arms. She says the world needed a woman in the White House.
“It’s a catastrophe,” she says.
Cohen also fears Trump will take the United States in exactly the wrong direction.
With a woman and a feminist at the helm, the U.S. might have spent its resources on the kind of human infrastructure that would improve people’s lives. Instead, she says, Trump is trying to rebuild a dirty-energy and metal-bashing economy that is just never coming back.
“The scary part of this is that it’s harking back to an economy in the United States that was vibrant in the ’50s and ’60s. It’s harking back to something old that does not meet the needs of the current world,” says Cohen. “That’s not where the world is now.”
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