Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Economics for Humans by Julie A. Nelson

I was surpised a few years ago when I found out that economics comes from the same root as ecology. The common root is oikos, which is Greek for home or household. Back in the seventeenth centure, if you read a book of oeconomics, you would find dinner recipes, home remedies, and advice on managing expenses. Green Parenting is a 21st century blog of oeconomics in a way. The archives of this blog are largely dominated by our documentation of how we cook, what we throw away, what utility companies we use, and our struggle to share responsibilities. Then all of a sudden, we post about the World Bank or Global Warming. You see, we're harking way back to the oeco- in economics and ecology, like we're ancient Greeks. Call me Aristotle, baby. We're erasing the modern boundary between the public and private, the domestic and the civic, the personal and the political. Agoramania in the blogosphere!

A book called Economics for Humans helped me think through what it means to question the separation of what goes on inside a home and what happens in the global economy. Published in 2006 by the University of Chicago Press, the book moves from economic history to the challenges people in the United States face now. I think what's most interesting about the book is that Nelson takes aim at right-wingers who think the marketplace solves all problems and "her friends," who believe that corporations are intrinsicly evil. Here's an example of what I'm talking about:
Probusiness, neoliberal zealots firmly believe that the economy is a machine. They assert that any direct concern with ethics or care is unnecessary because a market economy automatically serves the common good. Antimarket critics also believe the economy is a machine. They assert that ethics and care are impossible within capitalism since the system automatically runs on the energy of self-interest and greed. Either way, the metaphor forces us to divorce the "body" concerns of economic provisioning for our lives from the "soul" concerns of social responsibility and caring relationships. The economy-as-machine metaphor has blinded us to the real-world qualities that make humans work and care and organizations run.
Non-profits, she argues, are not necessarily the instruments of good. Nelson gives examples of corporate hospitals that provide better benefits to their workers than non-profit hospitals. She's extremely critical of lefties who think of non-profits, churches, and volunteers as mop-up operations for the inevitable destruction of mega-multinational corporations. She's also critical of those who insist that government has no place in making sure everyone has access to childcare, eldercare, quality healthcare, and paid leave. She argues that the first step to addressing the caring crisis - a crisis I believe most parents are acutely aware - is to jettison the economy-as-machine metaphor. Then we'll be able imagine pragmatic solutions that involve corporations, non-profits, government, and individual responsibility.

I talked to an economist who specializes in the study of big corporations about Nelson's arguments. This person said, "We know the economy isn't a machine, that's Introduction to Economics stuff." Maybe that's true, but it's that Intro to Econ rhetoric that actually drives the public debate. Most of our politicians and journalists didn't get past that intro class. So I would recommend this book, along with The Invisible Heart by Nancy Folbre, for anyone who wants to learn a humanist and feminist economics.


radical mama said...

That book sounds wonderful. Thanks for the review. I also love your 5 baby steps. That's about where we are at in our 'green' house.

GreenDaddy said...

Thanks radical mama.

Another book I would recommend, but haven't had a chance to review is Gender, Development, and Globalization by Lourdes Beneria. It's a little more technical than Economics for Humans, but it's still written in a style that most people could follow. The Beneria book has an international orientation.

Dean said...

Your readers might like to know that the University of Chicago Press has an excerpt from Julie Nelson's book on their website.