On April 24th, 2016, I sent a circular email to the deans of eleven economics departments in German-speaking Switzerland. I asked them two questions:
1. How important is the subject of care-work, especially unpaid work in private households, in your department? 2. Which relevant research projects have been completed, are in progress or planned? This email has become the beginning of a freakish process of exchange that I want to reflect on now, four years later, in the middle of the global Corona crisis.
Why did I write this circular email?
Four months before, in December 2015, five women had founded the association WiC (“Wirtschaft ist Care”, “Economy is Care”) in St. Gallen. WiC’s aim is to remind economists – and all of us – of the essential task of the economy which is the fulfillment of the needs of billions of humans living in the vulnerable habitat Earth. We were motivated to organize around the fact that loads of need-fulfilling work done all around the globe every day is not recognized as relevant in any standard concept of our economy. Rather, the common concept of “the economy” is focused on money, profit and (over-)consumption. Giving credence only to such a narrow definition has negative concrete side effects, for example climate change and a progressive destruction of the natural environment. According to the Federal Statistical Office of Switzerland and many other reliable institutions, unpaid care-work in private households is the biggest economic sector. It enables and upholds added value in all other sectors. But while the so-called “economists” still claim to deal with the fulfillment of human needs, they in fact conceal, exploit and undervalue the basic work while enabling bosses to become more and more wealthy at the expense of working people and humanity’s natural habitat.
While the founders of WiC from the beginning were able to build on at least twenty years of statistical data collection, we at first only suspected that the basic sector was still neglected by economic research and teaching. So, how could we find out if our assumption was justified? Well, just ask the experts, I thought. And so I wrote the first circular email to the deans on April 24th, 2016.
It took us a long time, much patience, many reminders and an accompanying desk study to finally, in November 2017, be able to draft some results in eight theses. Now our suspicion is confirmed: In the economics departments of German-speaking Switzerland, there is hardly any research interest for the biggest economic sector. There is no institution that encourages, coordinates or finances relevant research or teaching. What we know about unpaid care-work up to now we owe to some underfinanced institutes for home economics abroad and to unpaid care-activists.
The fun factor
Having got, at last, some answers which have since then informed and strengthened the politics of WiC, is one thing. Being entertained through the ongoing process of exchange with academics who were not at all expecting questions like ours is another: When for example Harald Gall, the dean of the excellent economics faculty of the university of Zürich had left my fifth reminder unanswered, I finally decided to post a text on my DurchEinAnderBlog to show the stark contrast between the over-embellished self-praise of the faculty and the dean’s blunt refusal to answer questions. Many readers were amused, others weren’t. – Another dean, quite a chatty fellow, told me that of course there are activities which people do and which do create value outside of their paid jobs. For example they sleep, watch TV, cook or care for children. Well, I asked on my next blogpost, do you, the professional economist, really claim that sleeping belongs in the same economic category as cooking and caring? – On March, 10th, 2018, I got to know a professor of economics at a conference in Germany. I asked him for an independent verdict about my emailing with his Swiss colleagues. One year and four months later I decided to name this professor “Mr. Silent” in a blogpost. On March 27th, 2018, he had told me that unfortunately at the moment he was much too busy to answer my question. The rest was pure silence, despite six reminders.
These are just three of many outlandish moments on my way through economics departments. It’s fun to turn such encounters into jokey blogposts, to the amusement of my followers.
Joke aside: What does this kind of exchange mean?
Some of my care-activist friends tell me that it’s futile to talk to the class enemy. Well yes, sometimes it feels useless and boring. But the longer I am involved in the politics of correspondence the more I realize that it is a great adventure to incite conversations between people who normally do not meet. I love to listen to arguments I would never have thought of myself. It’s fun to get to know a bunch of people that are nearly as weirdly dogmatic as Good Old Mother Church. And sometimes, yes, I even learn something new and understand the logic of another person’s standpoint that is worth considering.
Moreover, economists seem to be very influential people. In a recently published empirical study about their political power I read a statement made by Larry Summers, former US Secretary of Treasury under Clinton and director of the National Economic Council under Obama:
“(W)hat economists think, say, and do has profound implications for the lives of literally billions of their fellow citizens”.
So, in order to put in motion real change towards a care-centered economy, couldn’t it be useful to actively defrost these powerful men’s frozen views? The longer I insist on the fact that it is not logical to exclude the biggest economic sector from the theory of fulfilling human needs, the more I get the impression that economists become speechless and feel guilty. One of the profs I corresponded with explicitly asked me to delete his address from my address list as he felt overexerted by my questions. Couldn’t it be that at last they will be convinced and get the word out to their influential customers: politicians, businessmen and the greater public? Could this happen right now, in the Corona crisis that pitilessly reveals which work is essential for our human future and which jobs are bullshit?
In my youth in the Germany of the eighties nobody believed that the Berlin wall would come down soon. But it did. Why shouldn’t the wall of a careless and blind mainstream economics come down, too?