Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?

When the Chicago economists discovered that women exist, they added them to the model as if they were just like him.

Share with your friends

More share buttons
Share on Pinterest

By Katrine Marçal

Men have always been allowed to act out of self-interest – as in economics, so in sex. For women, this freedom has been taboo.

If not flat-out forbidden.

Woman has been assigned the task of caring for others, not of maximizing her own gain. Society has told her that she cannot be rational because childbirth and menstruation tie her to the body, and the body has been identified as the opposite of reason.

In women, lust and greed has always been criticized more harshly than it has in men. It has been viewed as something threatening, destructive, dangerous and unnatural. ‘People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute,’ wrote Rebecca West. Women have never been allowed to be as selfish as men.

And if economics is the science of self-interest, how does woman fit in?

The answer is that man has been allowed to stand for self- interest and woman has stood for the fragile love that must be conserved. By being excluded.

Even though the word ‘economy’ comes from the Greek oikos, which means home, economists have long been uninterested in what exactly happens at home. Woman’s self-sacrificing nature was said to tie her to the private sphere, and thus she was not economically relevant.

Activities like raising children, cleaning, washing or ironing for her family – these don’t create tangible goods that can be bought, traded or sold. So they also didn’t contribute to prosperity, thought economists in the 1800s. Prosperity was everything that could be transported, that had a limited supply, and that either directly or indirectly gave pleasure or prevented pain.

Get Evonomics in your inbox

This definition meant that everything that women were expected to dedicate themselves to went unseen.

The fruits of male labour could be stacked in piles and measured in money. The results of women’s work were intangible. Dust that is swept away collects again. Mouths that have been fed grow hungry. Children who sleep, wake. And after lunch it’s time to do the dishes. After the dishes comes dinner. And more dirty dishes.

Housework is cyclical in nature. Therefore, women’s work wasn’t an ‘economic activity’. What she did was just a logical extension of her fair, loving nature. She would always carry out this work, and so it wasn’t anything that one needed to spend time quantifying. It came from a logic other than the economic.

Out of the feminine. And other.

This way of looking at things changed in the 1950s. A group of men in the economics department at the University of Chicago started to believe that all human activity could be analysed using economic models, even women’s economic activities. We were rational individuals not only because we competed for our next bonus or haggled at car dealerships, but also because we cleaned behind the sofa, hung up the laundry or gave birth to children, they thought. And the most famous of these economists was a young man from Pennsylvania named Gary Becker.

Together with other researchers at Chicago, Gary Becker started to include phenomena like housework, discrimination and family life in the economic models.

One might think it strange that this happened at Chicago, a school characterized by a hard, neoliberal agenda, famous for its economic fanaticism.

The department had blossomed after the war and had become known as a stronghold for economic critics of state involvement in the market. Here, from the banks of Lake Michigan, deregulation and decreased taxation were shouted about more loudly than anywhere else. Milton Friedman, who later inspired right-wing politicians like Margaret Thatcher in an almost religious way, came here in 1946; his friend George Stigler followed in 1958.

So, why did economists, specifically those at Chicago, start to care about women?

In 1979 the French philosopher Michel Foucault held a series of lectures at Collège de France in Paris. It was the same year that Thatcher would become the prime minster of Great Britain and the new right’s ideas had started to gain legitimacy. Foucault was very worried. He spoke of Gary Becker and the Chicago School’s idea that every part of society could be analysed with the help of economic logic. All people were like economic man, Becker asserted, and so economic logic was all we needed to understand the world. Whichever aspect we wanted to study. Everything was economics. And the discipline of economics should therefore be expanded into a theory about the whole world.

This Gary Becker was interesting as a phenomenon, Foucault thought, but his ideas were far too extreme. Mainstream economics would never go this far down the path of economic imperialism, Gary Becker’s thinking was just too much. Not even the burgeoning neoliberal right could ever accept these kind of theories. They were simply too absurd. Thirteen years later, in 1992, Gary Becker was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

At that time, Michel Foucault had been dead for seven years, and Gary Becker’s definition of economics – that it was a logic that can be applied to the whole world – had become universal. Economic man had become dominant to such an extent that economists no longer cared if an activity created tangible goods with a price tag. In the world of economic man, everything had a price tag – the only thing that differed was the currency. And suddenly even traditionally feminine tasks could be analysed economically.

The Chicago economists were the first to take women seriously as part of the economy. The problem was their method. As economist Barbara Bergmann writes: to say that they ‘are not feminist in their orientation would be as much of an understatement as to say that Bengal tigers are not vegetarians’.

The Chicago economists examined the world that society had assigned to women. Armed with their economic models, they went out to uncover what they already knew. Because they already had the answer: economic man. A dream of order where everything could be boiled down to the same broth. Objective, clean and completely clear. A system of inevitabilities.

Indeed, women for thousands of years had been systematically excluded from the parts of society that held economic and political power, but this just must have been a careless mistake. A woman can of course be an economic person, just like a man. If he was independent, isolated and competitive, she could be too. She must be like that, how else would she be?

The Chicago economists started to ask completely new questions using the same economic logic. Why do people get married? they wondered. To maximize their own utility. Why do people bring children into the world? To maximize their own utility. Why do people get divorced? To maximize their own utility. The economists wrote their formulas and wrote out their equations. Look, look, it works! Even with women.

If women earned less, it must be because they deserved to be paid less, they reasoned. The world was a rational place and the market was always right – if the market decided that women should earn less, then it must be what women deserved. The economist’s task was simply to explain why the market, even in this case, was making a correct assessment.

Women’s lower wages were a result of women being less productive, Chicago economists concluded. Women weren’t lazy or less talented, but it was quite simply not rational for a woman to make the same effort at work as a man. After all, a woman would take a break in her career for a few years to give birth. There was no reason for her to seek further education or to try as hard. Therefore women invested less in their careers and therefore were paid less.

This analysis became influential. But when the theories were compared with reality, it was clear that the explanations weren’t sound. Many women were as highly educated as some men and still earned less – no matter how hard they worked. There seemed to be something called ‘discrimination’, and how could the Chicago economists explain that?

Gary Becker’s theory about racial discrimination is their best-known attempt. Becker asserted that racial discrimination happened because certain people quite simply preferred to not mix with black people. If all people were rational and discrimination occurred, then even discrimination must be rational.

A customer who happens to be a racist might prefer not to go to a restaurant that serves black people, in the same way that he might prefer to drink his coffee with four splashes of milk. This also implies that black shop assistants might scare off certain customers, reasoned Becker. And to compensate, employers pay black people less. White workers who are racists might also demand compensation because they are forced to work with black people, and racist customers might demand lower prices: if you want to entice racist customers in spite of having black employees, you have to compensate them for having black hands pack your goods in the storeroom. And all of this combined decreases black people’s wages.

Gary Becker thought that discrimination was unpleasant. But he was convinced that the market could solve even this. All we needed to do was to do nothing.

Store A, which only has white customers, would eventually be driven out of business by Store B, which would become more pro table precisely because it employed black people and had a lower overhead. Moreover, companies would realize that it was cheaper to split the work force. Blacks and whites could work in different stores within the same company – then the employer wouldn’t have to compensate white racists with higher wages. In other words: everything will be fair, and everyone will earn less.

The problem was that it didn’t turn out as the economists had expected. Discrimination didn’t stop – of black people or of women. With regard to gender discrimination, they had other explanations to hand. This was Gary Becker’s theory about housework:

What does a married woman do when she comes home from work? She wipes down the counters, irons the laundry and does homework with the children. What does a married man do when he comes home? Reads the newspaper, watches TV and maybe plays with the children for a spell, Becker imagined.

Career women simply spend more of their free time on housework, and that’s more tiring than being off-duty. Here, according to Becker, lay the explanation as to why it is rational to pay women less. All that story-reading and counter-wiping made them much more tired than men. So, they couldn’t make as much of an effort at the office.

At the same time, economists asserted the opposite – that the reason women did more housework was because they earned less. Because women earned less money, the family lost less on the woman being at home.

In other words, women’s lower wages were because they did more housework, but the fact that women did more housework meant, in turn, that they had lower wages.

The Chicago School calculated in circles.

Other theories about women and housework were based on the idea that women were quite simply made for it. If it was true that more women did the dishes, wiped children’s noses and made lists of the things that needed to be bought, then it must be because this was the most efficient division of labour. Economists modelled families as single units with a single will, a kind of small business that acted independently out of a shared utility function.

The man picked up his briefcase and the woman picked up the oven glove because the woman was better at housework. If the man had picked up the oven glove, it would be less ef cient and the family as a whole would lose out. How can economists know this? Well, if the family didn’t benefit from women tending to the home, then men would be the ones tending to the home. And they weren’t.

They didn’t formulate any actual arguments for why women were more efficient domestically. If they wrote anything at all, they stated briefly that it had to do with biology.

When legitimating the patriarchy, one is almost always referred back to the body. To be human is to subordinate the body to the intellect, and woman was not thought capable of doing this, and therefore she shouldn’t have human rights either, society reasoned. Woman became ‘body’ so man could be ‘soul’. She was bound more and more tightly to a corporeal reality so he could be freed from it.

In other words, it was easy for the Chicago economists to refer to biology. For hundreds of years the assertion that something is natural has meant that it could not and should not be changed. We’ve been taught to think about the relationship between what’s natural and what’s possible in this way. We assume that biological facts carry political conclusions, rules as impossible to rebel against as nature itself. The fact that there are biological differences between men and women is seen to justify a certain kind of politics, and it is thought that the only way to reject this kind of politics is to deny that there are biological differences. But it isn’t a question of biological differences. The question is what conclusions do we draw from them? That the woman bears the child means that the woman bears the child. Not that she should stay home and nurse it until it starts college.

That the woman’s cocktail of hormones contains more oestrogen means that the woman’s cocktail of hormones contains more oestrogen. Not that she shouldn’t teach mathematics.

That only the woman has a body part with the sole purpose of giving her pleasure means that only the woman has a body part with the sole purpose of giving her pleasure. Not that she doesn’t belong on a board of directors.

Sigmund Freud did indeed assert that women were inherently better at cleaning. The father of psychoanalysis thought it was because of the vagina’s inherent filth. Women scrubbed, wiped and dusted to compensate for a feeling in their own bodies. But now, Freud didn’t know much about vaginas, did he?

A woman’s sexual organ is an elegant self-regulated system – much cleaner than, for example, our mouths. Countless lactobacilli (the kind you also find in yoghurt) work around the clock to keep things tidy.

When the vagina is healthy, it’s a little more acidic than black coffee (pH-5) but less acidic than a lemon (pH-2). Freud didn’t know what he was talking about.

There is nothing in a woman’s biology that makes her better suited to unpaid housework. Or to wearing herself out in a vastly underpaid job in the public sector. If you want to legitimate the global relationship between economic power and having a penis, you’ll have to look elsewhere. The Chicago economists never got that far. And even working within their framework, one starts to wonder. Is it really rational to have total specialization within a household? Is it actually ‘valuable’ to have one adult devote themselves to housework and the other to a career? Even if the world is totally rational, how reasonable is it for a family to decide that the one adult should spend all their time on unpaid housework and the other all their time on paid work outside the home? Irrespective of who does what, is this division of labour really efficient?

Yes, perhaps if you have fourteen children, no dishwasher and cloth nappies that have to be boiled in a large tub in the garden. When housework takes that kind of time and effort, having one person devote themselves to it is likely to be more efficient. The tasks are difficult and complex, and because you spend all your waking hours on them you’ll get better at doing them. That one person’s specialization makes the family as a whole more productive. But in a modern society and in a family with fewer children – it can’t be that great a gain. Pushing a button on the dishwasher or changing the bag in the vacuum cleaner doesn’t happen much more quickly if you’ve been doing it full-time for a decade. But the Chicago economists weren’t such progressive thinkers.

Furthermore, their reasoning assumes that the experiences one gains doing housework aren’t useful on the open market. The person who takes responsibility for domestic life loses work experience, so it’s only natural that he or she will earn a lower wage, they reasoned. That is, what you learn from unpaid work in the home only applies to the home.

But who says that you don’t become a better boss by getting a household to run smoothly? Who says that one, for example, can’t become a sharper analyst by taking care of children? As a parent, you’re an economist, diplomat, handyman, politician, cook and nurse.

Play, patience, compromise. The big questions: Mum, why is the sky blue? Dad, why does the kangaroo carry its baby on its stomach? Mum, how long is forever?

When one, like the Chicago economists, supposes that a household has a shared utility function, all the conflicts within a family become invisible. In reality, income earned outside the home can have an impact on power relationships within a family and can in turn influence the choices a family makes. Mum has less say because Dad pays the bills.

That competition and buying power are important everywhere except within a family is – like so much else that’s part of what we call economics – an absurd hypothesis.

However economists calculated it, in principle they always concluded that woman’s subordination was rational. Her lower economic position around the world must be a function of free will, what else could it be the result of?

The picture of the individual in the story of economics is bodiless and is therefore said to be unsexed. At the same time, economic man possesses every quality that our culture traditionally attributes to masculinity. He is rational, distant, objective, competitive, alone, independent, selfish, driven by common sense and in the process of conquering the world.

He knows what he wants, and he strikes out to get it.

Everything that he isn’t – feeling, body, dependence, kinship, self-sacrifice, tenderness, nature, unpredictability, passivity, connection – is what has traditionally been associated with women.

But that’s just a coincidence, say economists.

When the Chicago economists discovered that women exist, they added them to the model as if they were just like him. But that proved more difficult than Gary Becker anticipated. Since Adam Smith’s time, the theory about economic man has hinged on someone else standing for care, thoughtfulness and dependency. Economic man can stand for reason and freedom precisely because someone else stands for the opposite. The world can be said to be driven by self-interest because there’s another world that is driven by something else. And these two worlds must be kept apart. The masculine by itself. The feminine by itself.

If you want to be part of the story of economics you have to be like economic man. You have to accept his version of masculinity. At the same time, what we call economics is always built on another story. Everything that is excluded so the economic man can be who he is.

So he can be able to say that there isn’t anything else.

Somebody has to be emotion, so he can be reason. Somebody has to be body, so he doesn’t have to be. Somebody has to be dependent, so he can be independent. Somebody has to be tender, so he can conquer the world. Somebody has to be self-sacrificing, so he can be selfish.

Somebody has to prepare that steak so Adam Smith can say their labour doesn’t matter.

11 November 2019

Excerpted from Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?: A Story of Women and Economics, Pegasus Books.

Donating = Changing Economics. And Changing the World.

Evonomics is free, it’s a labor of love, and it's an expense. We spend hundreds of hours and lots of dollars each month creating, curating, and promoting content that drives the next evolution of economics. If you're like us — if you think there’s a key leverage point here for making the world a better place — please consider donating. We’ll use your donation to deliver even more game-changing content, and to spread the word about that content to influential thinkers far and wide.

 $3 / month
 $7 / month
 $10 / month
 $25 / month

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

If you liked this article, you'll also like these other Evonomics articles...


We welcome you to take part in the next evolution of economics. Sign up now to be kept in the loop!