Thursday, August 31, 2006

Who's Counting? Marilyn Waring on Sex, Lies, & Global Economics

I recently watched a great documentary narrated by Marilyn Waring. In 1975, at the age of 22, she was elected to the New Zealand parliament from a beautiful, rural district where the main occupation seems to be raising sheep. By virtue of her place in government and her seat on an accounting committee, she learned first hand about the absurdities in the way nations count economic activity. For example, she realized that a catastrophic event like the Exxon Valdez oil spill adds to growth, whereas childcare does not. And as a result, the accounting system inherently backs policies that favor destructive industries. Moreover, it makes the caring work done in families invisible and renders public support for childcare a "burden" to the taxpayer.

As Waring explains national accounting, the documentary shows pictures of the devastation from the oil spill followed by mothers caring for children. I can write all about national accounting, but the visual images provide jolting evidence for her critique. I don't think MaGreen could watch it at all because an otter is shown trying to lick and scratch oil of its skin. But Waring really wants viewers to understand that there is no "debit side" to national accounting and what that means in the material world.

After three terms in parliament, Waring withdrew from politics, earned a Ph.D., and became an academic. Through her experience and her studies, she came to understand that the accounting scheme in New Zealand is by no means exceptional. She traced the scheme to the United Nations in New York and read through several shelves of bound procedures herself. The UN, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund all require that member nations use the same accounting method where unpaid caring labor, subsistence farming, and ecological resources are "of little importance."

By expanding her focus to international agreements, Waring is able to make connections between the predicaments of desperately poor mothers in economically underdeveloped countries and mothers in wealthy countries like New Zealand. The documentary was copyrighted in 1995 and released in 1996 for the US. Despite its age – ten years is such a long time in this digital era – the information and analysis that Waring presents is just as relevant now, if not more, than at the time of release. What really sets it apart from many videos about globalization is that Waring shows how democracy, when it is functioning well, can counter act the destructive aspects of capital. The documentary does not end on the familiar dour note of whiny liberalism, but shows several paths out of our predicament.

Green Parenting, as MaGreen and I are trying to develop it, tries to link the intimacy of parenting – the brush of our baby's cheek against our arms – with the global institutions that shape and are shaped by our familial relationships. Parenting guides always focus to the exclusion of all else on the relationship of the mother and child. Maybe a partner is included, but only in the margins. We need to place parenting in the full context in which happens.

Here are some related links:
Wikipedia on Marilyn Waring
Distributor of Who's Counting

1 comment:

Lou said...

I dabbled in economics as part of my undergrad and plan to delve deeply into it for my grad work. What I found was that economists are typically very hard people, relying on numbers to the end. I wish I knew more, because it is so difficult to argue with numbers. I can only wonder in ignorance how clean, unadulterated numbers would prove true for the people subject to them. One of the most common examples is minimum wage. Those that benefit from it are those with the jobs, but minumum wage ends up excluding many from having a job at all. I'm going to have to see if I can get my hands on this documentary.