Sunday, January 24, 2010

Waring says it all

Marilyn Waring twitched aside the economists’ curtain
years ago: her 1988 book Counting for Nothing was
probably the first book anywhere, ever, to bring together
in one place all the tricks of the economics trade and
expose them as inadequate at best, false at worst. It was
particularly strong on how women’s work is invisibilized
by the bean-counters—how, in the big statistical picture,
they count for nothing. At the time, Waring says now,
she believed that the ‘way ahead was to use economics to
fight economics, through various estimating, inputting
and trading mechanisms.’ In other words, she thought
that it was just a matter of counting differently.

The above quote comes from a letter to the Listener of
16 January 2010 in which Waring goes on to write (and
I'll quote the next bit verbatim, because she nails the
whole issue precisely, and in any case I don’t think
Listener
letters are available online):

By the time of the book’s second edition in 1999,
I saw that this was an equally destructive path.
How would we value the Chatham Islands robin,
tuatara, wahi tapu, aiga (extended family)?
Would only the items that had marketable
characteristics, or replaced industrial processes,
be those that found their way into the equation?
All the estimating of values did not make it
easier to exercise judgment across a range of
variables: it just abstracted the new phenomena
to a market figure, rendering it meaningless for
an informed debate about the integral
characteristics of each piece of a complex
environment.


In short, she concludes, ‘economics is not the answer
to the evil that economics has wrought.’ In this letter,
Waring does not say what she thinks the answer is,
but one is readily to hand: in an illuminating chapter of
Small Is Beautiful, published in 1973, E F Schumacher
writes about how matters of economic performance
and growth have become the ‘abiding interest, if not the
obsession, of all modern societies’ and observes, like
Waring, that ‘if economic thinking pervades the whole
of society, even simple non-economic values like beauty,
health, or cleanliness can survive only if they prove to be
“economic”.’ The answer? Meta-economics, which,
Schumacher writes, recognizes the existence of ‘goods’
that never appear on the market—eg, air, water soil,
‘in fact the whole framework of living nature’—and
also of people as they really live their lives, not just
as producers and consumers of manufactured
commodities. Not for nothing is Schumacher’s book
subtitled A Study of Economics As If People Mattered.

4 comments:

BLiP said...

I haven't really gone past the ideas in "Small is Beautiful" as being a significant solution to the woes of the world. Good to see others still keep it dusted and ready-to-hand.

sandi said...

What is heart-breaking about Marilyn Waring's work and Denis Welch's insights is that too few people with any power share them, and even fewer with any power do anything about it. Hard not to be pessimistic -- but hey, NZ did say hang the expense, and saved the black robin. There's is hope!

sandi said...

What is heart-breaking about Marilyn Waring's work and Denis Welch's insights is that too few people with any power share them, and even fewer with any power do anything about it. Hard not to be pessimistic -- but hey, NZ did say hang the expense, and saved the black robin. There's is hope!

Anonymous said...

"invisibilized"?
A tasty creation, with a hint of the new world about it.