Ten Principles of Feminist Economics: A Modestly Proposed Antidote[1]

 

By Geoff Schneider and Jean Shackelford, Dept. of Economics, Bucknell University

 

 

In mainstream economics today there is a particularly egregious recent trend toward producing lists of "key economic ideas" which tend to promote a narrowing of economic thinking, and in turn produce a more "scientific" and less inclusive approach to course contents.  For example, in Gregory Mankiw’s much ballyhooed Principles of Economics text, Mankiw’s first chapter is devoted to a review of the following "Ten Principles of Economics":

 

How People Make Decisions:

Principle #1: People Face Tradeoffs.

Principle #2: The Cost of Something Is What You Give Up to Get It.

Principle #3: Rational People think at the Margin.

Principle #4: People Respond to Incentives.

How People Interact:

Principle #5: Trade Can Make Everyone Better Off.

Principle #6: Markets Are Usually a Good Way to Organize Economic Activity.

Principle #7: Governments Can Sometimes Improve Market Outcomes.

How the Economy as a Whole Works:

Principle #8: A Country's Standard of Living Depends on Its Ability to Produce Goods and Services.

Principle #9: Prices Rise when the Government Prints Too Much Money.

Principle #10: Society Faces a Short-Run Tradeoff between Inflation and Unemployment.

 

Since such lists represent what are widely proclaimed (by their authors) as universally accepted principles and therefore worthy of teaching to students, we might also wonder about the missing or other perspectives.  Despite the inherent dangers of constructing a list that purports to cover the key economic ideas of any perspective, in this paper we yield to temptation and offer a feminist alternative to these standard principles of economics.

 

Some Principles of Feminist Economics

 

1.       There can be no such thing as a definitive list of the principles of feminist economics.

As with other branches of economics and other social sciences, feminist economics is constantly evolving in response to new research as well as new economic developments in the world around us.  Economics is fluid, and any list of economic principles is unduly limiting and ignores the evolutionary character of both the economy and the study of economics. 

One of the main problems with the lists is they take on a timeless quality which implies that these principles are true under all circumstances.  For example, Gregory Mankiw argues in his principle #10 that "society faces a short-run tradeoff between inflation and unemployment."  Yet the U. S. economy has experienced low unemployment and low inflation for the last six years.  Indeed, the whole idea of the Natural Rate of Unemployment that accompanies this theory has come into question in certain circles of economists.  Even Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan has acknowledged that we may be facing a new situation with respect to the tradeoff between inflation and unemployment.  In a speech to the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress on June 10, 1998, Greenspan made the following statement:

[O]ur economy has remained strong this year . . . and, at the same time, inflation has remained low.  As I have indicated, this set of circumstances is not what historical relationships would have led us to expect at this point in the business expansion, and while it is possible that we have, in a sense, moved "beyond history," we also have to be alert to the possibility that less favorable historical relationships will eventually reassert themselves.  That is why we are remaining watchful for signs of potential inflationary imbalances, even as the economy continues to perform more impressively than it has in a very long time.

The fact that Greenspan himself acknowledges the possibility that the relationship between unemployment and inflation may have changed is evidence of the evolutionary, uncertain character of economic theory.  Hence it is a mistake to imply that a list of principles of economics is a list that will always be true.  Economic inquiry is a process that evolves over time and economic theories apply to a particular historical context.

That said, the remaining principles listed below represent our attempt to construct a list of feminist principles.  This list is not intended to be all-inclusive, and it is derived primarily from the work of U.S.-based feminist economists.

 

2.       Values enter into economic analysis at many different levels.

When economists study the economy, they make many choices which are influenced to various degrees by their values.  The issues that economists choose to study, the kinds of questions they ask, and the type of analysis undertaken all are a product of a belief system which is influenced by numerous factors, some of them ideological in character.  As Diana Strassmann (1997, viii) has commented,  "All economic statistics are based on an underlying story forming the basis of the definition.  In this way, narrative constructions necessarily underlie all definitions of variables and statistics.  Therefore, economic research cannot escape being inherently qualitative, regardless of how it is labeled."  Economics is not exclusively a positive science, and it is not always value free, as implied by Mankiw and other like-minded texts.

In his list of economic principles, Gregory Mankiw argues that "A country's standard of living depends on its ability to produce goods and services."  However, Mankiw's approach is based on a particular value system and a specific definition of the standard of living: GDP per capita.  Many feminist economists dispute both the consumerist value system upon which Mankiw bases this premise and the use of GDP per capita as a measure of welfare.  It is essential that economics be examined for the values inherent in the economic principles, and it is unacceptable for Mankiw (and others) to display his principles as positive, scientific principles when there are legitimate debates over these issues.

A feminist approach to the principles of economics is more inclusive, and the ideological character of economic analysis is explicitly recognized.  For example, the work of Barbara Bergmann is characterized by "A willingness to incorporate values inter her analysis openly" (Hartmann 1998, 170).  Understanding the role of values is especially important because the male-dominated field of economics tends to regularly overlook issues of importance to women, children and families—other than as variables in models.

 

3.       The Household is a locus of economic activity.

Mankiw’s list focuses overly on the individual and individual decisions, and "the household has traditionally been out of the purview of economics" (Schor 1992, 84).  Yet no economic actor makes decisions in a vacuum, as is often implied in neoclassical principles.  For example, Mankiw believes that "trade can make everyone better off."  Mankiw implies that the efficiency gains from specialization and trade enhance global efficiency and thereby make everyone better off.  But the world is filled with examples of free trade making many people worse off.  In Africa, specialization in the cultivation of a single cash crop for export in many countries made these countries extremely vulnerable to price fluctuations, weather patterns, and pests.  In countries such as Kenya, men generally controlled the earnings from cash crops while women were still expected to provide food and clothing for the household, their traditional role in the African family, along with labor to produce cash crops.  Thus women suffered significantly from the transition away from subsistence food production towards specialization and trade. 

A more balanced approach to the issue of trade would examine how real people—men, women and children—have been affected by trade patterns around the globe.  The simplistic principle that "trade can make everyone better off" must be transformed into a debate about the merits of trade from a number of different perspectives.  In this discussion, the analyst must consider those who do not make decisions and how they are affected by the decisions of others.  As Randy Albelda (1997, 161) notes, current economic analysis primarily focuses on those goods sold in the marketplace for profit, but "All other economic activities that also take place and are necessary in capitalism—the production and allocation of goods and services in households, communities, the nonprofit sector, and governments—are theoretical afterthoughts."  The neglect of the household in economic analysis is a serious shortcoming which is corrected within feminist economics, where the household is treated as an important economic institution.  As Juliet Schor (1992, 85) observes, "Food preparation, child rearing, laundry services, house cleaning, the transportation of people, care of the sick and elderly, the acquisition of goods and services (shopping), gardening and lawn care, home and car maintenance and repair, and financial accounting are all services typically produced in American homes."  Households engage in market and non-market activities that are economic in nature.

 

4.       Non-market activities are important to the economy.

Once it is acknowledged that the household is a locus of economic activity, it also becomes apparent that unpaid work, such as the raising of children and all household work, is an essential aspect of any economy which must be recognized.  This has become a particularly important issue as more and more women have entered the workforce while still bearing primary responsibility for household duties.  For example, Barbara Bergmann (1986, 266) notes how this trend inhibits true gender equality in terms of hours worked:

One way to achieve equity between the sexes—very possibly the only way—would be for  women and men to take similar economic roles.  By social custom husbands and wives would do the same amount of family-care work and devote the same time and energy to paid employment.  The data we have on labor-force participation and time use shows that wives are moving in that direction; they are spending more time in employment and doing less housework.  However, husbands are not meeting them halfway.

In fact, as Juliet Schor (1992, 103) observes, "Women are still doing about twice as much housework as men."  This ongoing problem has important economic consequences.  Since women still must bear more than their share of household work, even if both husband and wife work, women are less able to take jobs that require long hours, which in part helps to explain the existence of the glass ceiling.

 

5.       Power relationships are important in an economy.

Mankiw and other standard principles of economics texts ignore the power relationships that exist within the economy, but understanding the effects of power on economics is crucial to comprehending the actual functioning of markets, especially labor markets.  In neoclassical texts, the sale of labor is viewed as a mutually beneficial exchange that benefits both parties.  No mention is made of the power inequities in the exchange which tend to give the employer power over the employee.  Nor is any mention made of the particular difficulties that confront women in the workplace.  Understanding power and patriarchy helps us to analyze how male-dominated economic institutions actually function and why women are often at a disadvantage in the workplace.

Power also is crucial in understanding the economic issues surrounding the sexual division of labor in the family.  Barbara Bergmann has established "that any person who specializes in nonmarket work not only becomes vulnerable to the abuse of a more powerful partner, but also faces a high economic risk in the event of marital dissolution"  (Folbre 1998, 163).  Power and patriarchy contain an economic dimension that is explored in feminist economic analysis, but is ignored in Mankiw.

 

6.       A gendered perspective is central to the study of economics.

Gender and racial-ethnic oppression are often independent of class status, hence an understanding of the influence of gender and race-ethnicity on economic outcomes is essential in our understanding of capitalism.  As Julie Matthaei (1996, 28) notes, "Feminists and anti-racists have criticized Marx and Marxists for privileging class and virtually ignoring gender and race, and for emphasizing the centrality of economic (read market-mediated) relationships over familial ones."  Matthaei (1996, 33) goes on to describe the importance of gender and racial-ethnic factors to the field of economics in the following passage:  "Not only did gender and racial-ethnic differences and inequality precede capitalism, they have been built into it in key ways.  In other words, every aspect of our capitalist economy is gendered and racialized; a theory and practice that ignores this is inherently flawed."  While gender and racial-ethnic differences are barely mentioned in Mankiw, these differences are a key object of inquiry in feminist economics.

The sexual division of labor in the household is an area explored in detail by feminist economists that gives us important insights into the behavior of economic actors.  In parts of Africa, the traditional role of the woman as the provider of food allows the men to participate in other economic activities such as wage labor and cash-crop farming.  In the U. S., the fact that most of the responsibility for household chores still falls to women allows men greater freedom to pursue careers that require long hours.  A gendered perspective exposes this fact as well as the ongoing nature of occupational segregation in the workplace.  Feminist research in these areas directly contradicts the neoclassical description of labor markets in which occupations are chosen freely by individuals acting alone.  Thus economic relationships and actions are directly affected by gender roles, and a gendered perspective illuminates this aspect of the economy that would otherwise be ignored.

 

7.       Human beings are complex, and they are influenced by more than just material factors.

In Mankiw and most other economics principles texts, people are viewed as rational, and rational people engage in marginal analysis.  Feminist economists have demonstrated that people are more than just rational entities who act individually through marginal analysis.  Instead, feminist economists attempt to construct a more holistic vision of an economic actor, which includes group interactions and actions motivated by factors other than greed.

The focus within neoclassical economics on monetary rewards to the exclusion of all other incentives is particularly problematic for feminists.  As Nancy Folbre (1998, 161) notes, "legal rules and cultural norms can affect market outcomes in ways distinctly disadvantageous to women."  Feminist economics includes the study of norms because of their importance to economic issues.  Folbre (1998, 167) goes on to say that "increased reliance on forms of labor motivated entirely by pecuniary concerns poses some genuine risks to dependents, like children, the sick, and the elderly, who cannot monitor or control workers who provide them with services."  Thus the view that material incentives will provide the goods we want and need (consumer sovereignty) does not capture the realities of economic life for many people.

 

8.       People compete, cooperate and care.

The valorization of competition in Mankiw and many other principles texts is overly simplistic.  Cooperation and caring also play a role in the economy, often yielding superior outcomes to competition.  Folbre (1998, 166) describes the important economic role of caring in the passage below:

Ever since Adam Smith, economists have relied on the assumption that our moral sentiments are so inborn that we can encourage one another to be self-interested without lapsing into selfishness.  But feminist theory suggests that this assumption is overoptimistic.  Women's altruism, especially towards children and other dependents, has long provided a counterbalance to the individualism of the marketplace.  If women are to become more self-interested it seems to me that men must also become more altruistic.  Neoclassical economists are always talking about "getting the prices right."  Institutionalist economists need to explain how much more important it is to "get the norms right."  Without better rules and norms of cooperation, we could regress to the Hobbesian world of the war of all against all.

Within feminist economics, cooperation and caring are viewed as essential components of our economic system, and competition is not a panacea.

 

9.       Government action can improve market outcomes.

Here our principle is identical to Mankiw's, but our interpretation is somewhat different.  The issue is not if we should have government intervention, as it is typically framed in Mankiw and other principles texts.  The government is an inevitable part of a capitalist economic system which serves to support property rights, determine the legal status of corporations and individuals, and set economic policy for the country as a whole.  The key issue to many feminists is: whose interests are being served by the government.  As an institution that is dominated by white males, the U.S. government tends to preserve the interests of white males and thereby contributes to the perpetuation of patriarchal relationships in the economy.

The government can also be used to address issues of concern to feminists.  In her book In Defense of Affirmative Action, Barbara Bergmann notes that government intervention in labor markets is absolutely essential to break down the barriers to gender and racial-ethnic equality.  Thus a gendered perspective on government illustrates particular aspects of the functioning of government and highlights the government's role in changing or maintaining the status quo.

 

10.    The scope of economics must be interdisciplinary.

If the field of economics hopes to contribute to solving real problems in our global economy, it must look beyond the narrow definition of economics found in Mankiw.  Mankiw's very first principle, and a cornerstone of neoclassical economics, is the notion that "people face tradeoffs."  This is indeed true, but typically, these tradeoffs ignore key issues.  Mankiw's very definition of economics is problematic in this respect.  To Mankiw, "Economics is the study of how society manages its scarce resources."  But economics also involves much more, and the narrowness of the questions asked by neoclassical economists and the data gathered to answer these questions excludes many important economic issues.  Thus feminists such as Marilyn Waring (1988) have criticized the focus on GDP growth in neoclassical economics, and the corresponding lack of consideration given to women's issues and environmental concerns.  Furthermore, one's perception of scarcity depends on one's point of view, which is directly related to the social conditioning of wants and the cultural norms that are ignored in most economics principles texts.

Thus feminists have made a point of pushing out the boundaries of traditional economic analysis and investigating subjects and constructing data sets which "encourage research accountable to the well-being of all people" (Strassman 1998, viii).  Feminists emphasize the importance of understanding history and context when analyzing economic events.  Only through a broad definition of economics can an effective assessment of our capitalist economic system take place.

 

Afterthoughts

Critics have been generally kind to Mankiw’s presentation of introductory economics.  Indeed Fortune magazine offered the list of ten principles under the headline, "Some things economists actually agree on" (Norton 1997).  Additionally, there have been a few reviews gently reminding readers that a list building approach may not ultimately be the most effective—either at introducing the next generation of economics students to the joys of the discipline, or at fulfilling a need to deal with increasingly complex global economic issues. 

In his review of the new Mankiw text, New School economist Robert Heilbroner commends the clarity and brevity, and applauds Mankiw’s handling of some contentious questions.  He points out, however that there are many things missing "between the covers" of the text.  As we pointed out earlier, Mankiw chose "to boil economics down to its essentials" (1997).  This "boiling down" process left out many of the stories which generate a context and a fuller explanation of our feminist principles and other heterodox principles of economics.  But, Heilbroner believes that the most important thing missing is some explanation of capitalism and how it relates to economic principles.  Heilbroner writes, "How can we understand economics unless we perceive it as the explanation system that applies to capitalism but not to tradition- or command-run societies, because the latter are not driven to accumulate capital, not bound up with markets and not characterized by a high degree of separation of economic and political life" (1997).

Heilbroner is concerned for the future as well:  "Is not the central question for our future likely to be the location of the U.S. on the spectrum of advanced capitalisms?  Is contemporary economics, with its antigovernmental bias, its unwillingness to speak the language of politics and sociology, its "dispassionate," "scientific" approach, likely to be the instrument best suited to help us accomplish this task?"  Heilbroner doubts that this is the case.

Unless students in introductory economics classes understand that these lists are created without a recognition of social and cultural boundaries, they cannot fully understand the scope or the richness of economic thought and the power of economic analysis.  Thus, it appears that there is a need for some feminist antidote—perhaps to serve as a starting point for discussion. 

 

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[1] A longer version of this paper was presented at the annual meetings of the Southern Economic Association in Baltimore, Maryland, November 1998.  The authors would like to thank Myra Strober, Diana Strassman, Sue Hatt, Nancy Folbre and KimMarie McGoldrick for their valuable input.  These persons, along with the authors and other people to numerous to name, participated in a roundtable discussion on the principles of feminist economics in Amsterdam in June of 1998, and contributed significantly to the construction of this list of feminist principles.