Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Economics needs feminism

Author: Yuan Yang

Economics is a feminist issue. The structure of the economy reproduces gender roles; what’s more, the concepts we use to talk and think about the economy reflect our patriarchal understandings. Yet there aren’t many feminist economists.

What does feminism have to bring to economics that is so difficult for the profession to swallow? The first form of feminist economics refocuses the topics of economic research. One can see gender differences as barriers to economic growth: the Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated that 100 million malnourished people could be sufficiently fed through overcoming the misallocation of resources in agriculture: within the same household, men tend to hoard and over-use fertiliser, whereas women don’t receive an efficient share to use on their plots. Educating women is a cost-effective way of improving health and education outcomes for children, who then become more productive.

So far, this is economics as usual, only with its gaze scrutinising a part of society that is often ignored: women’s lives. Grown presented the so-called “business case” for gender equality. Investing in women boosts growth, therefore we should invest in women. This flags the question: why are women not part of the “business” that we are trying to improve? Economics as a profession is shamefacedly noncommittal about its ultimate political values, and the “business case” for gender equality tries to fit into this shifty-eyed academic scene. But achieving equal access to capital, equal bargaining power in the labour market, and dismantling mechanisms of oppression are all good aims in themselves, and not only as tools to inch up our GDP measures.

This brings us to the second form of feminism in economics: it broadens our conception of what an economy is. When we think of economic production, we usually think of the production of material goods in the formal, remunerated market. Feminist economists also consider “social reproduction”, the process of (re)producing the households and workers that compose the economy. For example, care work is the production of labour by means of predominantly female labour in the unpaid household sector. And as much as we need to invest in fixed capital like machinery for economic production to continue, we also need to invest in social reproduction.

Humans need care. Professor Stephanie Seguino talks about the effect of austerity programs on eroding “social infrastructure”. This is the infrastructure created by care work that is either paid for by the government (child benefits, social care, education), or the result of the unpaid labour of parents – predominantly mothers who face a gender wage gap that makes it individually rational for them not to participate in the formal economy, plus a host of social expectations about housework and care.

Now we are really getting somewhere. The third and most exciting form of feminist economics is at the level of methodology and the structure of economic thinking. Neoclassical economics deals with closed transactions, comparisons and equivalents. Its fundamental axioms of rationality require commensurability of different goods into one utility measure; its methods of analysis presuppose that all decisions are choices between commensurable alternatives. Does, for example, the fact that childrearing labour is largely unpaid and a long-term commitment to one non-exchangeable institution of love instil a fundamental inequality in the social economy? Is our relationship with our children and partners not analysable in neoclassical economic terms? Latour writes of anthropologists who look at “primitive” economies, “[they] recoil in horror at the imbroglios which are described among these others. ‘Oh dear,’ they sigh, ‘these poor people will never get out of this mess, they are always tied up, attached, indebted, hooked, mixed up, entangled.’” The state of those who participate in social reproduction can be characterised by this entanglement.

The interdependence and interrelatedness of humans engaging in social reproduction contrasts with the individualism of economic methodology, which takes one agent (or more problematically, one unified household) as the unit of agency and analysis. Welfare economics can barely handle ‘other’-referring preferences – preferences which mean you care about other people’s consumption. What would a feminist economic methodology look like? I don’t know, but I think we need to begin the journey.

Feminism does not only reorient the economic enterprise to map a broader human landscape; it lets us see more deeply, and asks us if we are really looking in the right way at all.

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