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

100: Marilyn Waring Part IV:
The Census, the Tax Code, the Hidden Economy & the Environment

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

The notion of household is a primary problem because it is conceived in a western- and male- centric way. The author describes how some effort was expended to categorize and give value to women’s work in developing nations but which was to be phased out as these nations developed; that is as these nations became more westernized. In the western world the household is deemed a consumption category (as opposed to a firm which is considered a production category). Households in subsistence economies need to produce to survive but development is supposed to change that so that they become consumption machines only. Thus the neo-colonizing effect of economic theory is to disempower women in developing countries.

The notion of household is also male-centric because it assumes the patriarchal notion that a male is the head of the household and the primary bread winner in a “traditional” nuclear family. Yet this model is rare in developed countries (A married man and woman with kids is now the largest minority of family types) and almost non-existent in developing countries (where the family “unit” is much larger; often including three generations plus aunts, uncles, and cousins).

The effects of the notion of household have been a huge worldwide social program to create a privileged class and to distribute privileges (political, financial, social benefit and/or recognition) to those that fit themselves into the household category.

Shoehorning societies into western ideal categories is done through the census. In the census the questions are designed to make men the center and make women invisible to or at most put them at the periphery of household activity. The census in all countries was and continues to be designed mostly by men using tools developed my men for policy makers who are mostly men.

The first major problem with a census is that it focuses on households with men as the head. The author believes that a census focused on individuals would be an improvement. A second major problem with the census is that it focuses on paid work. A census must recognize unpaid work as legitimate productive and consumptive labour because quite often it is the work that makes paid work possible and viable. “Voluntary work needs to be recognized,… as being as important as paid work in reaching a realistic measure of economic and social activity in society.” This is especially true in small business and farms where the proprietors often put in huge amounts of free but necessary labour yet the profit is only counted toward the man’s (as head of the household) income.

The tax code in many countries also discriminates against women. “the overwhelmingly male financial donations to charity are claimed as tax deductions, the overwhelmingly female capital donations of time, skills, and labor are not tax-deductible.”

There are many conceptual problems with the UNSNA. The author identifies several problems that are not generally acknowledged by the profession but which any honest person should have issues with. Consider 1) when unpaid work becomes monetized (counted) then there appears to be growth – but no real change in peoples’ lives; 2) If GDP per capita falls this is generally considered a drop in welfare but not if population is rising – the quality of life (health and wellbeing) cannot enter into the picture; 3) when comparing countries the system uses the exchange rate to calculate relative purchasing power – but a sharp devaluation of a currency does not really mean that everyone in the country has just lost a comparable amount of wealth or standard of living; 4) the use of the US dollar as the measure of global income – do people who live on $2 a day really have a $2 a day budget that is somehow comparable to a middle class income and budget? – No, the imputations of costs are fundamentally incomparable across currencies, nations and people; 5) a corollary of #4 is that the human sentiment of needs and wants is incomparable between individuals and so imputation categories (such as rent, leisure, net worth, family size etc.) are all fundamentally incomparable and thus their use is imperialistic and inaccurate.

There are three areas of “difficulty” with the UNSNA generally accepted by the economic and statistical professions: 1) estimating the hidden economy, 2) costing pollution and 3) measuring leisure time.

The hidden economy is usually considered to be made up of two components: 1) the subsistence economy. That is anything that is produced without a market component. For example, in some countries very young children work in fields along with their parents doing all sorts of useful things to help the family subsist. 2) The black market (that is all uncounted market activity from babysitting to prostitution; from drug ops and smuggling to graft forms of tax evasion and gifts). Economists agree that the bigger the hidden economy relative to the measured economy the less accurate and useful would be the figures of the national accounts. So how large is the hidden economy such that it makes a difference in the value of the national accounts? The author points out that women’s unpaid work is part of the hidden economy and is being performed by half the population therefore one would expect that economists should be devoting a lot of energy to solving the measurement problem. However women’s work is not usually considered part of the hidden economy in any degree close to its actual importance – because women are invisible.

The problem of costing pollution has been solved incorrectly. Currently, costs from pollution are added to the national accounts. This includes the costs of remediation, treatment and reductions of pollution and a despoiled environment. Accounting logic would suggest that economic costs should be subtracted from the economic benefits to get an accurate bottom line but not in our world. The only thing that is allowed to be subtracted from the national accounts is depreciation on the stock of capital goods. But environmental cleanup after war or disaster is said to be a societal ‘preference’ and the market is merely responding to consumer ‘wants.’ “If our actual wants are for clean air, fresh water, and standing forests, we cannot possibly express such desires, for they cannot be expressed in the market.” While the market may have a place in society it is very ill suited to identify and value non-market values – which are usually all the higher order values. “National income provides for deficits in money but not deficits in natural resources – or deficits in the human character that perpetuates such destruction. Meanwhile growth releases its (literal) poisons.” Pollution affects us all and more and more of our resources will be devoted to clean up or protection goods and services because it is an expression of our preferences and wants – the possibility that most of us would prefer not to have to (not to be forced to) spend on these goods and services is unthinkable by most and if thinkable then what to do is unimaginable. The fact that we are forced to spend to protect our environment is an indication that we are not as free as we think; the fact that our slavery is expressed as our preference is an indication of the presence of widely accepted propaganda.

“the reason that the measurement of free time was a problem for men was because they had free time. In the average day of the average unpaid woman, there is seldom free time during which no productive activities take place.” The lived experience of most women is that they work for their man (family).

© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren