Evolving Beyond Homo Economicus
Isn't it time for deeper conversations about whether growth and consumption necessarily lead to the things we really want?
The satirical puppet show Spitting Image used to have a rather cruel, but quite funny sketch where a pinstripe-suited, cigar-chewing Margaret Thatcher would stand shoulder to shoulder with to her male cabinet members in the House of Commons urinals. Awkward pleasantries exchanged, she would zip up, leaving them able, once she had departed, to get on with the job in hand.
The suggestion was clear. As a powerful woman, she was portrayed as more of an alpha male than any of the men in her cabinet. Cruel, not the whole truth of course, but a striking image that caught something of her qualities at the time. And a strong image of the paradoxes, pitfalls and projections faced by women finding success in the male dominated worlds of business and politics. Psychologists have called this the queen bee syndrome - the way that many successful women feel compelled and conflicted, often at great personal cost, to act in traditionally masculine ways in order to get on in a largely male world. "Play our game or get out," is often the strong but totally implicit message in the typical boardroom.
In last week's Observer, the business editor Ruth Sunderland explored the current economic crisis from a gendered perspective. The mess, she suggests, was created by men and yet, she points out, it is these very same men who were gathered in Davos trying to clear it up. Ms Sunderland argues that women must be more widely included in the economic debate and recognised for their roles in stimulating economic growth. This is welcome stuff, but like the current economic debate itself, does not go far enough.
The issue is not just about women, or any under-represented group, entering into the economic discussions on their current terms, but about pointing out how bonkers some of the current terms are in the first place. Don't we need a new type of conversation that names the many absurdities inherent in our global economic rules and questions them from the off?
For example, under the current rules for measuring growth in GDP, only activities that involve some transfer of money are economically relevant. This means that the work of the world's subsistence poor and the work of those raising children and building communities are on the whole considered irrelevant and unproductive by economists. Similarly, the services provided to us free of charge by the planet are also economically invisible, because no money changes hands when we get say fresh air, or clean water. If economically invisible, why should we expect politicians and business leaders in the game of chasing growth to really care about such things?
At the same time wars, oil spills and crime waves can be good news for growth figures since they can all increase spending and production. Under this bizarre logic the New Zealand MP and radical economist Marilyn Waring famously pointed out: "If you want a really productive oil tanker voyage, it's a very good idea to ram your oil tanker into an iceberg. The Exxon Valdez was the most productive oil tanker voyage in history."
If the sanity of these sorts of basic economic assumptions are not up for debate, then does it even matter who is involved in the discussions? Nor should we just celebrate women's roles as consumers or creators of economic growth. We need to recognise that men and women alike are more than simply consumers or contributors to growth. When I check in on my elderly neighbour in the snow, when I make time to chat (during working hours!) with a friend having a hard time, when I just sit quietly with my partner after a long week, none of these things increases my consumption or contribution to growth. But so what? They are all valuable, meaningful human activities - the real stuff of our lives. Isn't it time for deeper conversations about whether increased consumption and economic growth necessarily leads to the things we really want?
Economists such as Richard Layard point out the many discrepancies between the things that make people happy and provide meaning in life and the things that contribute to economic growth as measured under current rules. Studies consistently show that beyond a certain level of material wellbeing (roughly where the UK was in the 1960s), there is no increase in subjective happiness with increased GDP.
Environmental economist Paul Hawken goes even further in poking the rules of the economic game and its fixation on growth alone, on quantity rather than quality. He points out that continual growth in any living system (be it a human body, a forest or an elephant) is unhealthy beyond an adolescent stage, and is associated in adult humans with tumours and cancers. He suggests that as a culture we are still at an immature stage of development - and need to grow up pretty quickly.
Rather than discussing the roles of men and women in the economic crisis, we need to explore the unbalanced world views that all of us, men and women alike, have come to accept as normal in modern, industrial society. In business and politics it is considered normal to focus exclusively on numbers, quantities, on whatever can easily be analysed into parts, measured and reported. It is considered odd, and even "unprofessional" to place equal value on emotional experience, subjective well-being, relationships and seeing the world as a complex whole.
The quest for growth at any cost means many politicians and business leaders have come to focus only on a subset of human activity. And much of what they focus on to stimulate growth creates no real happiness or wealth. To paraphrase Einstein: "You can't solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that created it."
© 2009 Guardian News and Media Limited 2009