Who's Counting?

By Troutt, Elizabeth | Canadian Dimension, February-March 1996 | Go to article overview

Who's Counting?


Troutt, Elizabeth, Canadian Dimension


So opens the film Who's Counting?: Marilyn Waring on ex, Lies & Global Economics,' a new release from the National Film Board of Canada. If ever there was a film which all economists (not to mention all academics, policy makers, researchers, and everyone else!) should see, this is it. This 94-minute, extremely entertaining, and rivetting film presents Marilyn Waring's criticism of the United Nations System of National Accounts (UNSNA). The UNSNA is the accounting system used in the computation of gross domestic product (GDP - technically defined as the money value of the goods and services available to a nation from economic activity).

If you're not sure who Marilyn Waring is, don't worry. The film provides ample background on her entry to and tenure in New Zealand politics. Waring's career as a Member of New Zealand's Parliament, starting when she was just 22 years old and lasting a total of four terms (the first two of which she was the only female MP) was largely responsible for shaping her views on the UNSNA. Waring was particularly concerned by the lack of inclusion of productive activities (such as raising children) which don't happen to be traded through formal markets, but she also questioned the inclusion of marketed (and therefore `productive' in the eyes of the UNSNA) activities whose contributions to social well-being are highly questionable (such as the selling of movie rights to the Exxon Valdez oil spill). If you're worried that a film about economics will be completely incomprehensible to anyone without a Ph.D. in economics, rest assured that one of Waring's missions is to combat "economics anxiety," which leads her to communicate economic concepts in a manner without the use of opaque economic jargon.

The film is divided into 15 short chapters, all of which are narrated almost entirely by Waring herself or through the use of excerpts of Waring's public addresses. Most of the narrative is heard against a backdrop of illustrative visual footage. The film recalls Waring's initial frustration with what she supposed was New Zealand's uniquely preposterous accounting system, followed by her discovery that New Zealand merely followed an international system that is required of any notion desiring membership in the United Nations and eligibility to borrow from the World Bank. Upon this discovery, Waring embarked on a comprehensive review of the UNSNA during which she observed a huge disparity "between what's in the [accounting] rules and what's seen in the world." Included in the UNSNA is anything that goes through the marketplace and thus has cash-generating capacity. There is no value accorded to peace, environmental preservation for future generations, or unpaid work.

It was the unpaid work issue which initially caught Waring's attention. During her tenure as a Member of Parliament, she worked to advance the cause of government-subsidized day care. She encountered resistance to her efforts due to the facts that, according to the accounting system, the traditionally women's work related to child care was not a source of economic growth and that women were extremely under represented in the ranks of New Zealand's policy makers. …

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