Gross Domestic Oversight

By Coyle, Diane | The World Today, April/May 2015 | Go to article overview

Gross Domestic Oversight


Coyle, Diane, The World Today


Gross domestic oversight Economics has ignored women but things are improving, says Diane Coyle Who Cooked Adam Smith's Dinner? Katrine Marçal, Portobello Books, £12.99

The answer to the question posed by the title of Katrine Marçal's short and lively book is his mother. Adam Smith famously wrote: 'It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.'

That statement ignores a vital stage of the dinnermaking process. 'Adam Smith never married. The father of economics lived with his mother for most of his life ... She took care of her son, and she is part of the answer to the question of how we get our dinner that Adam Smith omits.' This book is, to quote the subtitle, a story about women and economics.

This is a truly important point. Economics is an extraordinarily maledominated profession, at the bottom of the league table for female representation, along with computer science and engineering. The US economist Noah Smith recently catalogued the convincing evidence of institutional sexism in the discipline. Does this influence how economics perceives society? How could it not?

One conclusive demonstration of this distortion is that economists literally do not count the value women (mainly) add to the economy. Gross Domestic Product, the standard indicator of how well the economy is doing, includes activity that occurs in the market but not activity that occurs in the household or is voluntary - this is referred to as the 'informal economy'. As Marçal writes: 'The 11-year-old girl who walks 15 km every morning to gather wood for her family plays a big part in her country's ability to develop economically. But her work isn't acknowledged. The girl is invisible in economic statistics.'

Indeed, following revisions to the definition of GDP implemented late last year, the figures are now supposed to include prostitution - a market-based activity - but not caring for children or cooking meals. The standard reason given is that there have to be judgments about what to include in the aggregate measure of economic activity, and the dividing line is whether or not it has a market and a price. Besides, it would be difficult to survey all this household-based activity. However, a lot of other things are surveyed for the GDP statistics, and by leaving out 'informal' activities we literally undervalue them in policy decisions affecting the way people lead their lives.

As one of the minority of economists who are female, and believing that the way we measure the economy profoundly affects how we perceive its performance and judge our politicians, I warmly welcome this key message of Who Cooked Adam Smith's Dinner? …

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