Saturday, February 20, 2010

Marilyn Waring's Shadow Economics

Marilyn Waring is a former New Zealand MP who is a known advocate for "female human rights".

Who's Counting? Marilyn Waring on Sex, Lies and Global Economics is a film that outlines Waring's views on economics, outlining what could be considered an early version of Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine.

In fact, Waring's description of disaster economics sound a great deal like Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman) from the Fifth Element.

In the film, Zorg -- a weapons dealer -- insists that his business actually facilitates the creation of life. He notes that when something is destroyed, it creates work for thousands of people, and creates a use for millions of dollars in capital.

How he imagines he would profit from the destruction of planet Earth by the Shadow entity.

Early in Who's Counting, Waring notes that the economic consequences of many disasters -- such as the wreck of the Exxon Valdez -- are generally assessed by how much productivity they produce. Certainly, the environmental consequences are considered separately, but they aren't tabulated against the Gross Domestic Product of the country in which such disasters occur.

Moreover, it's ideas like this that lend themselves to considering those responsible for operating nuclear aresenals -- perhaps as close as the world today offers to the Fifth Element's Shadow entity -- as economically active.

If GDP alone is used to decide what the economic value of a particular country is, externalities such as those imposed by the Valdez disaster, simply do not count economically.

It's ideas such as this that lend themselves so effectively to Klein's shock doctrine -- the argument that free-market capitalists have helped provoke disasters so that they may benefit from the results, both in terms of profit-making opportunities, and in terms of political influence.

Klein argues that because the externalities of such acts -- environmental, human, and social costs -- aren't counted against GDP, those who provoke such crises (or simply take advantage of them) can often argue that their policies have been an overwhelming success.

(On some occasions, they very clearly have not been able to make such claims.)

Waring argues that the prime currency of economics shouldn't be dollars, yen, or pounds sterling, but rather time. Her argument doesn't really answer the question of how, precisely, one could assign value to time.

But, then again, this is a hurdle that such an argument may not even necessarily need to answer. After all, economics doesn't necessarily give objective value to anything. Instead, the value of goods, services, and even time is judged by the value it can attract in the open market.

In other words, value is determined by whatever the market is willing to pay -- which, in and of itself, is a subjective value statement.

In that particular sense, the economic value of the Exxon Valdez (unless one considers the environmental and human costs of the disaster) was determined according to what those involved were willing to pay to clean it up. Likewise, the economic value of the recent earthquake in Haiti is determined by how much the rest of the world is willing to spend to repair the damage.

When the damage that would result from such events is total (as with the arrival of the Shadow entity, or global nuclear war), one should certainly reconsider the assessed economic value of such activities.

Economics seems to have yet to do this.

This certainly makes economics a cold and hard social science. Whether Waring's conception of using time as a currency would make a difference is difficult to determine. (After all, they say time is money.)

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