Syriza’s cleaners show why economics needs a new broom
The theoretical, rational model of Economic Man has a major shortcoming – he’s not, and never could be, a woman
Among the most uplifting images from Syriza’s victory in Greece last week were the elated faces of a small group of fiercely determined women: the public sector cleaners who were laid off during the country’s brutal budget cuts and had been told they would be swiftly re-hired by the new government.
The fate of a few low-paid mop operatives is a world away from the cut and thrust of international negotiations on debt relief for Greece. Yet it has so often been the fate of working-class women – standing in the bread queues, scrabbling to feed their families, laid off in their droves in the public sector job cuts mandated by the country’s troika of creditors – that has best illustrated the despair to which many in the recession-ravaged country have been driven.
Syriza had promised that “hope is coming”, injecting the language of emotion into dry debates about deficits and debt repayments. It remains to be seen how successful they will be in the high-stakes negotiation they must now enter with their eurozone partners, under the minute-by-minute scrutiny of the financial markets.
But the party’s triumph – and the cleaning women’s plight – underlines the fact that economics is about not just the state of the public finances (improving, in Greece’s case) or GDP (on the up), but raw human experience in homes and families.
One lesson from the crises that have roiled the eurozone over the past five-plus years is that anyone who tells you the only response to a public debt crisis is to slash spending and embark on “structural reform” is either masochistic or downright mad.
But we could take a more profound lesson away too, which so far most economists have failed to learn from the Great Recession and its long-drawn-out aftermath: the individualistic, neoliberal perspective on the world that bleaches out humanity in favour of equations needs to be junked too.
Margaret Thatcher’s promise in 1979, “where there is despair, let us bring hope”, may have prefigured Syriza’s language, but her arrival in No 10 marked the start of an era in which we have increasingly come to see ourselves as “aspirational”, atomised individuals, scrabbling to make our way in a world without the support of the society Thatcher notoriously dismissed.
This approach was underpinned and apparently vindicated by the proliferation of economic models that conceived of people as cool, rational, drastically simplified robots who beetle around trying to maximise their utility. The market became seen as the ultimate expression of this calculating rationality, and its values – competition, self-interest, even greed – as the fundamental driving forces of life.
Behavioural economists have spiced up this dull world with concepts such as irrational exuberance, helping to explain why even financial markets – supposedly the embodiment of hardnosed rationality – can experience moments of madness. And others show why the qualifier ceteris paribus – “all things being equal” – that always applies to these elegant mathematical constructions is a nonsense, because all things are never, ever equal.
Still others, such as David Tuckett at UCL, have done good work weaving the role of emotion and ambition into the coke-fuelled activities of City traders, whose decisions can have such catastrophic effects on the rest of us.
But a polemical and entertaining new book by journalist Katrine Marçal suggests that Economic Man has another major shortcoming: he’s not, and never could be, a woman.
In the excellently titled Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? (spoiler: it was his good old loyal mum), Marçal argues that a swath of traditionally feminine activities – cooking, cleaning, caring, changing nappies – have been systematically excluded from economists’ view of the world, which has become the lens through which just about everything is scrutinised.
Models conceived of people as cool, rational, simplified robots who beetle around trying to maximise their utility
Smith and his fellow pioneers in economics asked themselves how a loaf of bread got to their table – through the unpleasant-but-useful self-interest of the farmer who grew the wheat, the miller who made the flour, the baker who kneaded the dough, and so on (most of them chaps in those days, naturally). But they simply took it for granted that someone would nip out to the shops to buy a loaf, slice it, toast it, butter it and pop it on a plate. And make the beds. And cook the kids’ tea. Care, which is still overwhelmingly carried out by women, was effectively a natural resource.
That helps to explain why roles such as nurse, cleaner, carer are still undervalued today; but it also leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of human motivations. Economic Man has nothing as troubling as emotions, family connections, class loyalties or friendships. He’s a lean, mean, utility-maximising machine.
He’s been repeatedly rubbished over the years: by Nobel prize winners Kahneman and Tversky, for example, who showed decades ago that we just don’t think in the shrewd, consistent way required to make the logic work. Maybe the bolshie cleaners were acting out of rational self-interest when they camped out in front of the finance ministry for months; more likely they were hurt, disillusioned and furious.
Marçal argues that the rationalist worldview has had extraordinary sticking power because it appeals to a desire in us to detach ourselves from the messy world of love and duty, and make decisions in a clean, rational way.
It’s also elegant and apparently powerful: it allows the number-crunchers to construct models apparently encompassing entire economies.
Anything that replaces it would be more piecemeal, messier, more uncertain, and certainly less appealing to purists. But more true. As Marçal puts it: “Economic science should be about how one turns a social vision into a modern economic system. It should be a tool to create opportunities for human and social development. Not just address our fears as they are expressed as demand in the market.”
Hope, and a whole slew of other messy emotions – fear, greed, loyalty, even love – need to be brought back not just onto the streets of Athens, but right into the heart of economics.
In 2015, as in 1942, the Germans tend to overplay a strong hand. They insist that the Greeks abide by austerity agreements that have just been rejected by Greek voters in the general election on 25 January. The reason there was an election at all was that the previous Greek government, drawn from the conservative New Democracy and nominally socialist Pasok parties, could not get enough support in parliament to select a new president because eurozone leaders and the IMF would not relax their terms. The clear message from Greece is that no Greek government can satisfy the demands of the troika (EU Commission, European Central Bank and IMF) and expect to survive: here.
Greek stocks led a European market rally after Mr Varoufakis said that the Syriza government was willing to accept an alternative of making his country’s debt load more bearable. Sighs of relief came from the European Union, where commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said that the bloc would “have to adapt a certain number of our policies” to accommodate Athens: here.