Time for tea – and a new appraisal of feminist economics. Photograph: Bert Hardy/Getty Images
When God created man, runs the old car sticker, she was only joking. When God created economics, however, he was very definitely a him. Yvette Cooper invited, and duly received, rightwing disdain last week, after the Labour leadership hopeful dared to suggest that possession of a pair of X chromosomes might have a bearing on how a leader would set about running UK plc. Her intervention shone a rare light on the obscure but important corner of academia that is feminist economics.
Tasked with introducing this unpromising breakfast-time topic on BBC radio, Jim Naughtie initially spluttered out these two words as if they sat together as oddly as, say, Yorkshire physics, or socialist chemistry. But a pithy turn from Oxford University’s Professor Jane Humphries soon enlightened him and all but the most reactionary listeners that economics was, after all, a field in which there really is a case for a distinctive feminist slant. Nearly 300 years on from Adam Smith’s birth, male hegemony in the field was – until comparatively recently – challenged only by brilliant exceptions, such as Joan Robinson. And this dominance has made itself felt at every level of the discipline, from the intellectual foundation stones up.
Homo economicus, also tellingly known as rational economic man, is a single-minded and rather tunnel-visioned chap. His passions and pleasures might be diverse, but he regards them all as the same sort of thing, in the sense that – if the terms of trade are right – they can always be bartered with one another in pursuit of his single overriding goal of maximising personal “utility” or wellbeing. Men as well as women may see wisdom in Nietzsche’s observation that it is not humanity, but only the Englishman who strives for happiness as such. But it will, perhaps, strike women especially that the vastly varied things that people want out of life – which might include, say, both time with children, and superior olives – are incommensurate, not readily translatable into any single psychic or financial unit of account. And since a woman’s place in society has traditionally been especially rigidly defined by her marriage and other relationships, the presumption for an individualistic method might have been challenged long ago if there had been a few founding mothers alongside the Marshalls and Ricardos. As it is, some models explode when altruism and envy are chucked into the equation, and the interdependence of individual preferences and decisions is only latterly coming to be analysed, through the insurgent school.
All this might be dismissed as the stuff of seminars, of scant relevance when in the great financial crisis of the day – in the eurozone – a continent’s destiny is being largely shaped by one woman in Berlin. And yet the male way of looking at the world – what we might call the economic discipline’s male gaze – really does bite upon many practical questions, particularly in the field of family life, which Ms Cooper emphasises. For a start, GDP, the three-letter number that defines national economic progress, measures only monetary transactions, excluding all that essential unpaid household work and family care, which has always fallen disproportionately on female shoulders. Likewise, the cost-benefit appraisals that bureaucracies and businesses use to determine which projects can go ahead will typically factor in any consequences for unpaid labour, if at all, only as an afterthought to the basic assessment of things that can be more readily evaluated in hard currency.
True, these are more questions of measurement than anything else. But, as the consultants always say, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. And the consultant’s wife – who comes home early from her own work in order to stack innumerable children’s plates into the dishwasher, while he stays late at the office to hit his bonus targets – is hardly going to disagree.