Marilyn Waring: Economics as if people mattered

Marilyn Waring is one of the world’s most remarkable economists, a former New Zealand legislator — the youngest-ever national lawmaker when elected in 1975 — who brought a government down over her opposition to nuclear weapons, then went on to earn her doctorate in political economy.

She won her degree with a revolutionary thesis on the  a thesis on the United Nations System of National Accounts, the system of valuing a national economy solely on the financial value of tangible goods produced.

That system was devised by British economist John Maynard Keynes to engineer the British Empire’s participation in World War II, and ignored, among other things, all of the household labors of women, labors which, literally “kept the home fires burning.”

Waring’s critique forced the U.N. to revise its accounting system, and as Bloomberg reported three years ago:

Waring gained international prominence with “If Women Counted,” also published as “Counting for Nothing.” Praised by the feminist Gloria Steinem and the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, the book lambasted national accounting systems as sexist for excluding unpaid women’s work. Canada’s National Film Board in 1995 made it into a documentary called “Who’s Counting? Marilyn Waring on Sex, Lies and Global Economics.”

While Waring wasn’t the first to criticize the exclusion, her book drew attention for its thorough and persuasive analysis, said Joann Vanek, a former director of social statistics at the UN.

“She demystified the national accounts,” Vanek said. “Many feminists had taken pot shots at national accounts, but Marilyn went into the body of it and disaggregated the specific assumptions that were made and how that really shaped what ended up being a bias against women.”

Waring’s knowledge and outspokenness made the critique credible, Vanek said. “She was unafraid. These guys, these national accountants, are somewhat oracle-type figures, and she would confront them.”

In 1993, the UN revised the system of national accounts to recommend that all production of goods in households for their own consumption be included in the measurement of economic output, a definition excluding childcare, elder-care, cooking and cleaning.

But Waring’s critique is much broader, and is superbly outlined in a just-re-released 1995 documentary from the National Film Board of Canada:

Who’s Counting? Marilyn Waring on Sex, Lies and Global Economics

Program notes:

In this feature-length documentary, Marilyn Waring demystifies the language of economics by defining it as a value system in which all goods and activities are related only to their monetary value. As a result, unpaid work (usually performed by women) is unrecognized while activities that may be environmentally and socially detrimental are deemed productive. Waring maps out an alternative vision based on the idea of time as the new currency.

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