Sexism in the National Accounts, QOTD

Since 1953, the United Nations has published an influential set of standards for national income statistics called the System of National Accounts (SNA). In the 1970s and 1980s, these statistics came under assault for ignoring women’s work, culminating in the influential critique of Marilyn Waring, If Women Counted published in 1988. (Edit: Specifically, the statistics were criticized for treating differently unpaid/non-market work performed by men from that of women. Much of men’s work was argued to be worth trying to estimate a value for even though no price was directly paid for it, while women’s work was simply left out.) What I would not have guessed is how much those critiques had already been internalized by the experts working in the UN. Among the papers of Richard Stone (lead author of the original 1953 SNA), I found this gem from a 1982 United Nations expert paper laying out an agenda for revising the SNA:

To a considerable degree, the [UN] Blue Book’s borderline between subsistence output, to be included in production and consumption, and household activity, to be excluded, reflects a sexist view that is gradually changing. Subsistence activities, for the most part, are male activities; household activities are female ones. Thus winemaking is included, cooking is not; caring for animals is, caring for children is not; and communal volunteer projects like road building and similar activities are, but those of women’s groups running volunteer community service programs like libraries health services, and school services are not. This disparity in treatment should be remedied.

And yet to present, 30 years later, not that much has changed. What went wrong? The report’s next paragraph offers some insight:

The problems of valuation are more difficult, however, for the kinds of non-market activity not now included in the SNA. In order to value household activity, for instance, it is necessary to decide whether to use the opportunity cost of the housewife in the labour market or the cost of hiring comparable household services o the market. For analyzing resource allocation an opportunity cost valuation might be appropriate, but for measuring consumption of household services, a market valuation might be better.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, from the 1920s to present, the objections to including housework have very rarely been on the principled ground that housework shouldn’t count but rather on the (seemingly) practical objection that valuing it is very hard. And yet, the end result is the same – housework remains (largely) uncounted (in official national accounts).

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2 Comments

  1. I agree with the general point that we should housework should be included in the national accounts, and that doing so is no uglier than many of the bits that already go in to the national accounts. At the same time, Waring’s book is quite simply awful in ways both large and small. She wonders, for example, why we don’t hear more about Adam Smith’s wife – could it be because he was a lifelong bachelor? Would it have been that hard to check? More seriously, she blames everything on Chicago economics when in fact much of the technology for credibly measuring the value of housework was developed by scholars associated in one way or another with Chicago. Indeed, even bringing the family into economics at all as an object of study was largely a Chicago-driven enterprise. It is a screed, not a serious book, even when evaluated as a policy book rather than a scholarly one.

    • I was pretty underwhelmed with Waring’s analysis as well. What I’ve written about the history of housework in the national accounts has been in the form of a critique of her oversimplified claim that national accountants simply ignored women’s work (as evidenced by the quote here, but also by extensive discussions all the way back to NBER’s first publication, “Income in the United States: its Amount and Distribution, 1909-1919” (1921)). For me, Waring’s work is important as an historical document – an important instance of a tradition of feminist critique that has been influential, albeit in limited ways, even if Waring’s is not the most analytically or historically accurate of those critiques (e.g. Nancy Folbre’s work is in general a lot stronger, I think).