Global Envision interviewed Riane Eisler for this piece highlighting her work and statistical support for caring economics.
Unlearn economics. Forget GDPs and growth rates. Ignore financial institutions (and their crises). Rethink well-being and worth. What do you care about? What in your life holds the greatest value?
This is a good starting place for a conversation with Riane Eisler, author of the highly successful book“The Real Wealth of Nations,” amongst others. She believes it is time for a practical critique of modern economics.
Eisler’s work in the fields of economics, women’s studies and social science has attracted a lot of attention. Some list her work beside great thinkers like Smith, Marx and Hegel. The book “Great Peacemakers” named her one of 20 subjects along with Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Theresa. This recognition is largely a result of her work on developing the ideas of a system of “caring economics.” We caught up with Eisler this week to discuss just what a caring economy would look like and how it might change the way the world works.
Global Envision: What’s wrong with modern economics?
Economics is the study of value, and for decades it has been assumed that value is measured mostly by money. If I value organic vegetables, I will be willing to spend more money for them. It should follow that if the government values organic vegetables, it would support the farmers that grow them. Economists devise ways to assess these values and attach number and formulas to quantify them: net worth, salary, gross domestic product. Flip to any news channel or radio station and you will hear endless debate about these figures as they rise and fall.
Eisler ignores this chatter.
“We have been stuck on a conservation that does not get to the core of the challenges we face,” she says. If economics is to be a measure of what we value and care about, why has it ignored raising infants, supporting families and nursing the elderly or infirmed? The constructs of caring extends beyond human relations and applies to the natural environment. But under both capitalism and communism, land is seen only as a source of profit. “An old stand of trees is only given value when it is chopped down,” Eisler says. “And yet we need them standing to breathe.”
Economic measures have become divorced from the real values they were originally intended to quantify, Eisler argues. For her, this is no coincidence. “Economic systems don’t evolve in a vacuum,” she says. “They are cultural constructs.” According to Eisler, the current system evolved in an environment where nature was exploited and so-called “women’s work” was devalued. Consider this: a women who stays at home and cooks, cleans, gardens, feeds, washes, and rears her three children for 16 hours a day contributes absolutely nothing to the GDP, a measure of a country’s standard of living. Instead, the GDP values only income. This includes the cleanup of environmental disasters, the sale of cancer causing cigarettes, war operations and weapon manufacture.
GE: If GDP is a bad measure of value, what statistics should replace it?
Eisler was ready for this question. In a recent report commissioned by Center for Partnership Studies, Eisler helped to synthesize 14 categories with 79 indicators that more accurately measure well-being, including human rights ratings, the number of premature deaths from pollution, and access to health care, as well as more traditional measures of joblessness rates and average annual earnings.
Eisler also hinted that measuring mechanisms should be secondary to the values behind them.
GE: In past economic transformations, the people with the least have been first to lose their livelihoods.
Eisler assured me this would not be the case. “After all, the majority of poor are women and children and a major reason for this is that care-giving is given no value,” she said. To prove her point, she pointed to societies who have already taken steps to place a greater value on caring. Many Nordic countries, who always seem to score high on human development indices, provide extended paternity leave for both parents, offer universal health care, and support government-funded child support. But can low income countries afford such programs? Eisler acknowledged the challenges they would face but also reminded me of CCTs in Latin America, a government program that financially rewards mothers for taking their children to health checkups and primary school.
GE: With this week’s massive spending cuts by an austere U.S. Congress, could the transition to “caring economics” happen here?
Eisler agrees the signs don’t look good but still remains hopeful. The way she sees it, creating an economic system that values the unpaid work of caring is an investment, not just an expenditure. In other words, the money spent now will be returned in future savings and revenues. And she has the scientific research to back her up. In her book, “The Real Wealth of Nations,” she cites substantial evidence that private corporations have been able to realize savings and increase profits by taking care of their workers.
GE: It sounds like there’s a lot of work to be done. What’s the role for those of us without advanced degrees in economic theory?
Eisler’s answer was surprising: Everything. She believes that interdisciplinary support outside the field of economics must begin valuing the work of caring. Gender equality, civil rights, environmental responsibility, access to quality education, the right to health care, and supporting families are all areas that work towards the goal of overriding the top-down, masculine-valued economic system currently in place.
“Change doesn’t happen quickly,” Eisler reminded me. “It can, but there are many steps that need to be taken.” Eisler is hoping to create a ground swelling grassroots movement that can champion such a transformation. Her foundation, the Center for Partnership Studies is making progress and inviting others to do the same. For example, the foundation offers an online training program where people from all over the world are able take leadership roles in the economic transformation. The next session begins this fall.
“The response to the online program has been wonderful,” Eisler said. But she also mentioned that with the size of this paradigm shift, “We will need more people.”