What’s the Economy For, Anyway?

Nancy Folbre
5 February 2008

Sometimes its hard to see through that almighty dollar. We need to stop and ask what the economy is FOR, anyway. This question is the focal point of a campaign being organized by filmmakers John de Graaf and Laura Pacheco, an outgrowth of the Forum on Social Wealth, described in my last post.

The campaign got off to a big bang last summer with some terrific sessions at the Green Festival in Washington D.C. and is currently fundraising for and developing a video–hopefully one that will be as successful as their last masterpiece, The Motherhood Manifesto. In the meantime, the Center for Communication and Civic Engagement at the University of Washington has posted some very useful powerpoint presentations at www.citizeneconomy.org.

I’ve recently watched two short on-line animations on economic themes. One is a delightful cartoon critique of consumerism cum capitalism called The Story of Stuff that’s recently gone viral. The other is Life and Music, a shorter, more whimsical riff on careerism, with cartoons by Trey Parker of South Park fame illustrating the words of philosopher Alan Watts.

At the other end of the genre spectrum, academic economists are paying more attention to measures of reported happiness, which aren’t as closely associated with wealth and income as they have traditionally assumed.

Plus there’s growing interest in the the contribution of family and community work (raising kids, taking care of elderly, volunteering) to our collective standard of living. Now that many countries, including the U.S., collect data on how people use their time, its possible to quantify the relative importance of this work.

I have been toiling away this week on an essay for a forthcoming book called The Oxford Handbook of Economic Inequality, explaining why measures of inequality based on income or consumer purchases are incomplete. They don’t take the value of family work–or the value of leisure–into account.

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