Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

97: Marilyn Waring Part I:
Who is really productive?

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

In her book "If Women Counted, A New Feminist Economics" Marilyn Waring ask us to consider the question, “who is productive?” in the following four cases: 1) Tendai, a young African girl who spends 18 hours a day getting and carrying water and wood, preparing and cooking food, cleaning and babysitting. 2) Cathy, a middle class North American housewife who spends her time providing cleaning, food preparation, education and other services for her family. 3) Ben, a highly trained member of the US military who spends his days waiting for an order that has never come – to fire a nuclear missile. 4) Mario, a pimp and heroin addict. The answer in our world is 3 and 4; Ben and Mario are considered and counted as productive; Tendai and Cathy are not productive. Those are the rules; the rules set up by men to measure the national accounts. (Q1)

The author concludes that “…Cathy and Tendai work, that they are productive, and that their economic activity is of value….Ben and Mario work, that they are destructive, and that their economic activity is a major cost and threat to the planet….Overwhelmingly, those experiences that are economically visible can be summarized as what men do.”

Math and propaganda make this possible. Numbers at the service of theory and abstraction give an unwarranted legitimacy to the theory and its abstractions. Propaganda in which the notion that the male experience encompass the female experience has rendered females invisible and their needs ignored in the process of development. For example the development of washing machines, dishwashers, and microwaves has allowed women (who today still do most of the house work) to also be able to work outside the home. These tools have predominantly increased men’s leisure time not women’s. Another example: the failed Challenger mission was an economic success: it added billions of dollars to the US economy. (Q2)

The concept of Value is what is at stake. Value in economic theory is equivalent to price; but not in the real world. In the real world only a small portion of value can be circumscribed by price. Work and production are similarly “valued” by their connection to price. Price is a small component of the world that does not take into account the fact that most of our time is spent not “working” and not being “productive” in the sense of exchanging effort for money. The value of friendship, a clean environment, a family, life, safety, etc. are not properly measured in price terms. (Q3)

Biological determinism was a justification for the male control of women as long as traditional women’s work was considered an outgrowth of women’s physiology. By the current rules, the value of the natural environment counts for nothing but its destruction and its remediation is considered economically valuable.

The set of rules and method used today to measure production and growth is called the United Nations System of National Accounts (UNSNA). All that it counts are the monetary transactions it makes possible. Economic reports from governments, NGO, and world bodies like the UN, IMF, BIS, World Bank, and multinationals of all kinds use the UNSNA to plan, analyze, direct resources, and legitimate policy. What is excluded is any unpaid labour such as homemaking, child care, or social reproduction – what has traditionally overwhelmingly been considered women’s work. What is also excluded are any values for which we do not have a price such as beauty, cleanliness, and naturalness of the environment – any of the “free” gifts of nature are considered valueless. Yet, contradictorily, their remediation has value. (Q4)

Due to the overwhelming presence of men and their writing of their experience, nearly the whole field of economics has been a major contributor, perpetuator, and apologist of this dominant world view. “Women [students] who must listen to, read, discuss, use, and write about this sort of thinking daily for four or more years – knowing that their degree and job security are dependent on perpetuating this ideology – are likely to lose sight of themselves. The discipline offers no relief, holds up no mirrors to women’s experience.” (Q5) For example economist often laud the inventions of washing machines, dryers and dishwashers as great productive advancement that free up (women’s) time for other pursuits (male’s leisure) and women can now work outside the home too. Increases in productivity often come with the increase in work done by women such that more value is produced with less monetary compensation. (Q6)

Q1 normally we think that money is exchanged for value but the author tells us that is not true. It is better to say that money is exchanged for what men think is valuable and that people need a motivation to do. How does this strike you? A corollary is that money is needed to motivate people to do dumber and less important things and that people will do the most important things (from the perspective of life and the reproduction of life) any way. The author hints that the more important things are done because high order values are more important than money. The injustice in the world has to do with the lack of congruence between higher order values and values pursued for money. How does that idea strike you?

Q2 The author notes how even failure, destruction, war and ruination are economically beneficial. Does this strike anyone as perverse?

Q3 If we measure value (the values set overwhelmingly by men) in terms of price (or exchange value as Marx called it) then a trend is created that tries to put a price on everything that (the determiners of value) men do. In the past it has been assumed that markets create a trend to put a price on everything. The author claims that this is not true; rather only on the things men do. So if men start a factory that pollutes the environment – they make money from the product of the factory. Later men make money from “remediation” of the polluted land. Even the Challenger disaster added to the national economy by the effort of clean up and investigation. But what women do is not priced (unless men start to do it). The fear and threat of a market society is really the expansion of what men can do for remuneration into more and more domains. Does this sound believable? Why or why not?

Q4 Have you ever heard of the United Nations System of National Accounts (UNSNA)? And if so what have you heard?

Q5 Does she sound patronizing? Does the fact that she earned a D.Phil in Political Economy make her more credible?

Q6 Squeezing more productivity out of people for the same or less pay is the primary way of increasing profits for existing enterprises. New market expansions and “game changing” innovations are few and far between (but we hear about them all the time) compared to efficiency and productivity gains. For example when Disney entered the amusement park industry one of its innovations was to have smartly dressed and smiling attendants. Other amusement parks needed to start demanding the value this affective labour created. It is unlikely they got a raise to smile more – it was a new unpaid demand to get more value with no increase in remuneration. If this is the dominant model for economic growth, what does this mean for our children’s future?

© 2008 - 2017, James Jeff McLaren