Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner and Why Care Counts

Kirkcaldy_High_Street_Adam_Smith_PlaqueQuito    The title of the book had a nice hook, Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner by the Swedish journalist Katrine Marcal, but the subtitle was equally engaging: The Story of Women and Economics, so I grabbed it. And, so should you!

The answer to the book’s leading question is Martha Douglas, the name of Adam Smith’s mother, who along with one of his cousins took care of the famous Scottish economist, promoter of the “invisible hand” and industrial capitalism, all of his life. That’s not a spoiler alert. Marcal’s point is that Smith and many economists who followed him created economics as a new priesthood, built a lot like the old priesthoods, around an idealized “economic man” presuming, pretending, and perhaps believing that economic self-interest ruled the world and most of its functioning. In so doing she argues, I found importantly and convincingly, that this ideal type is actually not only devastating for women in general but has contributed to warping our view of how the world works and should work.

Most simply this critical, routinely vital but unpaid work continues to fall inordinately on women, regardless of significant progress made over recent decades, and the default social, cultural and political assumptions that women would handle the “caring” tasks and men would handle the rational or business side, so to speak. None of this part of the equation is calculated in our GNP, and it should be. Because caring is too often uncompensated, even caring professions are lower waged unfairly, because they are still feminized. Looking up the Times review after I had read the book, they were not as big a fan of the book as I was, but they did justice to part of the core argument citing these statistics:

Because that care work often happens without any dollars and cents changing hands, it does not show up in G.D.P. reports or economic outlooks — and does not figure as prominently in our own minds as it arguably should. Canada’s statistical office took a stab at figuring out the value of uncompensated care, and came up with roughly one-third of the country’s annual G.D.P. Here in the United States, that would mean something like $6 trillion a year.

Although Marcal did not use this figure in her book, a recent report unpacks the differential in men’s and women’s wages and lays the weight squarely on the economic penalties for caring. It turns out that married mothers are paid 76 cents on the dollar compared to men. Unmarried, childless women make 96% of what men make. Marcal would argue that is because women fitting into the conception of economic man can escape with relatively less adverse impacts where their bodies are ignored, but where their bodies dominate, there are penalties.

Past the shouting arguments about economists or the calculations, the real plea that emerges from Marcal’s book is not about counting or her general rage, but an argument for what our economy and society would look like if we reordered our priorities more equally, including around gender. Marcal writes, “It’s one thing to organize the economy so that the quality of life will continue to rise. It’s another thing to subordinate all of society’s values to profit and competition.” That’s what we do now and it’s worth arguing about. She also in the same vein quotes economist Julie Nelson wondering what our society and economy would look like, “if we had…defined economics as the ‘science which studies how humans satisfy the requirements and enjoy the delights of life using the free gifts of nature.”

That’s worth serious thought.


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