The Politics of Economics

The Politics of Economics

An Interview with S. Charusheela


S. Charusheela, Associate Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Nevada Las Vega, sat down with I.M.O.W. at the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE) conference in Boston in May 2009. Charusheela discusses human investment capital, the politics of economics, and what she considers feminist economics.

International Museum of Women: What do you think of the current popular approach to economics? Does it exclude women?

S. CHARUSHEELA: My colleague Kathy Ferguson, wrote a book called The Man Question, which actually explores the fact that we are always asking about women's place in the world and in the economy and so on. Questions like, should women be given rights? How can women raise issues of social justice? In national movements, where do women fit in? What she points out is that the woman question assumes is that existing frameworks are fine-that they reflect the reality of the world.

I.M.O.W.: And in fact, those frameworks are flawed?

S. CHARUSHEELA: Yes. The problem is that they don't incorporate women. So instead, we should be asking the man question: What about men? In economics, we always ask why women are in certain kinds of jobs--daycare, nursing, secretarial services, etc. But we can also ask: how come men are not in these jobs? Why are men not in unpaid labor, daycare, and certain jobs? Why don't men do domestic work? What is it that men are doing?

So the question is not, "Why don't women have enough resources?" but "Why do men have all the resources?" If you start asking the man question, you realize that existing theories tend to exclude women. Not just because they don't adequately explain what women do, but they also don't adequately explain what men don't do.

I.M.O.W.: What are some of the things that feminist economists would want to reframe, in terms of what's being discussed right now in the mainstream conversation?

S. CHARUSHEELA: I think it's very important to interject new understandings of certain economic concepts in the mainstream conversation. For example, Gross Domestic Product. Marilyn Waring explores this in her book, Who's Counting? She asks what exactly Gross Domestic Product measures, and what does growth mean. Most people do not fully grasp what that GDP number is, or how it is calculated, and it leaves out uncounted work that women do. It also counts things that we may not want to promote if we thought about environmental degradation.

I.M.O.W.: Feminist economists argue for a fundamental return to basics, such as welfare and standards of living. What do you think is standing in the way of that?

S. CHARUSHEELA: I think it is partly our own fault. Take, for instance, education. We've known for a while that human capital investment is important for growth. I would say that in both classicalism and neoclassical economics, that is not a controversial statement. That is, I do not think you are going to come across any economist-feminist or not-who is going to argue against human capital investment.

I.M.O.W.: And "human capital investment" means investing in people in terms of their education, skills, creating jobs, etcetera?

S. CHARUSHEELA: Exactly. But there is a lag between how we start addressing the need for this in economic scholarly articles and publications and what we teach in our classes. I would be highly shocked to find that there is any economist of any political stripe who does not think that human investment capital is essential, but many other people don't understand how human capital investment-which can sound a lot like social services-is essential to economic growth.

I.M.O.W.: Why don't you think alternative approaches to economics are covered in the news and other public media?

S. CHARUSHEELA: I do think that, apart from the question of how and what we teach, there are vested power interests. For a long time, because of how the field developed, there was hostility to alternative approaches within economics itself, and not to mention news coverage and business coverage.

Economics is a discipline that bears the social imprint of the world around it. In the case of economics, the debates and critiques about planning and free markets was impinged upon by political forces, particularly during the Cold War. But I think there are also political vested interests, because it is true that there is redistribution at stake. If I want to improve the lives of children, I'm going to have to get the resources from somewhere. Somebody is going to have less so that children can have more. But it is a question of values. It is a question of whether or not you value, as a society, the ability of ordinary citizens to access resources and rights. And there's a lot of resistance to that.

I.M.O.W.: How do you hope the discipline of economics evolves?

S. CHARUSHEELA: Economics is constantly changing. Long term needs for government spending are going to change. I can come up with a checklist of today's needs, and 20 years from now that checklist will be inadequate. We are going to be living in a different world; we don't want to leave the current generation with the idea that we've figured it out, and that things will never change. This generation, and the next generation, will have their own priorities and checklists. So we must pass on the mechanisms to help the next generation make their own priorities for economic spending and investment in the future, and we have to be flexible. In the long term, that's the only democratic, sustainable solution to economic justice that I can imagine.

Interview conducted in May 2009 by Economica Curator Masum Momaya; Edited by Amity Bacon, I.M.O.W. Editorial and Outreach Volunteer.


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