Balancing the debate, Christine Woods

False Economy: New Zealanders face the conflict between paid and unpaid work
Anne Else
Tandem Press, $29.95
ISBN 0908884 826

It is often said that the purpose of life is not simply to survive, but to thrive. Exponents of the restructuring that has taken place over the last 12 years would argue that the best way for individuals and the economy to not only survive but flourish is through a largely unhampered market system. The language of the market has become familiar to us all. Phrases such as level playing field, supply and demand and user pays are part and parcel of the vocabulary of all those living in Aotearoa in the 1990s.

We are told time and time again that choices are there for the taking and that the market model, through the interaction of supply and demand, is the most suitable vehicle through which these choices can be made. Prices, set by an unhampered or deregulated market system, are a true reflection of the value that is attached to the goods that are demanded. The market is thus able to allocate scarce resources in the most efficient manner.

Making these choices are allegedly independent, self-interested individuals. They trade with other like-minded agents, maximising profits and satisfying their own needs in the process. And, of course, everyone is better off having made these choices — otherwise why else would these free agents have made them? So if we just keep on working hard enough and smart enough for long enough we’ll get there, right?

Wrong. Well, at least that is Anne Else’s answer in False Economy. She asserts that there is something not quite right with the interplay between market theory and the experience of many in the economy. Rather than thriving, many are struggling to make ends meet. But the concern expressed is not just about material wellbeing, although that is obviously important. At the end of the book, Else writes:

Without families and communities, the economy means nothing. It has no life of its own. Its only purpose is to enable us to live, to care for one another and to raise our children to take our place. If we lose the power to do that, no matter how fast the gross domestic product rises or how much the budget surplus grows, we will not have a future worth working for.

Life is not just about getting there, it’s also about deciding where “there” should be. Families and the community in which families live are a more important consideration than the forces of demand and supply. With the market or public sphere determining what is valued, always at a price, it is then difficult to value what cannot be priced within families and communities. Of particular importance is the relationship between paid work and the unpaid extra work that is hidden behind it. Unfortunately, the market economy has marginalised the experience of women, rendering much of their contribution invisible.

How does this happen? Feminist economists like Prue Hyman have suggested that part of the reason for the invisibility is the very separative nature of the market model. With its focus on rational choice and value measured only in terms of price, there is little room for emotional connection. The self-interested individuals operating in the marketplace are seen as autonomous, impervious to social influences. Choice dominates the rhetoric, with little attention paid to constraints on choice. The skills and work that go into making the emotional connections are left out of the market story.

Rather than address the validity of the market model at a theoretical level, as Prue Hyman and Jane Kelsey have done, Else prefers a narrative approach. The book brings together a collection of stories. The underlying narrative that runs through the book paints a very different picture to the success stories told by those in New Zealand who advocate a free-market system. In a blend of interviews, statistics, comments and quotes the economy we live in is presented as anything but a level playing field.

Interviews with 12 people are included as stand-alone sections throughout the book. I found this use of interview material refreshing and effective in terms of grounding the analysis and purpose of the book. Those telling their story include nine who are typical of any community in New Zealand and the more well-known personalities of Kim Hill, Ian Fraser and Suzanne Snively. The chapters written by Else are pertinently titled as are the section headings used within the chapters. Such germane titles as “Hidden Hands — and Minds” and the “Incredible Shrinking Job” are useful in helping to crystallise and connect the various threads of the book.

The double shift of paid and unpaid work described in the book will be familiar to most woman readers. Else’s discussion of unpaid work begins with one of the many wonderful metaphors that weave their way through the book. Unpaid work is described as “a huge transparent trampoline … a vast springboard-cum-safety net spread beneath the formal economy”. It explores the ironies that women’s unpaid work brings out, not least of these being the “done nothing” excuse. While we live in times that constantly demand more and more in terms of time management, organisation skills and flexibility, the one job that brings all these together, running a household, just does not look good on a CV. The time spent bringing up children and the volunteer work that is often included in this does not count.

Once again reference to the market model helps us understand why. In the market we buy and sell; supply and demand indicate what is of value and just how do we value the love that a parent has for their child?

The book then moves to “his world”, work that is paid for. Else gives a comprehensive and informative review on women’s increasing involvement in formal employment. She runs across an all-too-familiar problem when trying to document this involvement — official statistics don’t fit women’s lives. While Else generally makes good use of statistics, I did feel at times some of the figures could have been more reader-friendly, perhaps better presented in tables or diagrams. But by and large the statistics complement the analysis.

Paid work is in part the story of the incredible shrinking job. With technology changes and restructuring, the way in which people are employed has changed. Part-time and temporary fulltime work is increasingly becoming the norm. Else reports that while part-time jobs grew 76% between February 1987 and August 1995, over the same time period fulltime jobs fell by 7%. Although some women may benefit from part-time work, finding its flexibility helpful when meeting the commitments of family life, the low wage, poor conditions and lack of job security that may accompany this type of employment make it a precarious work environment.

And women are not the only ones experiencing these conditions. Else argues that features traditional to women’s work are appearing in areas of employment where both men and women are working. Invisibility and insecurity are beginning to characterise paid employment.

Long hours, several part-time jobs, short-term contracts: these are all options increasingly common in New Zealand. But each of these can place more stress on the family. Else tells the story of one manager who, if out late at night, would drive past the office and note whose office lights were still on. He would then ask, “What has gone wrong? Is it the organisation or your work, or how we’ve defined your job? Why are you still here at 10.30 at night?” Why is it that more managers do not think this way? Hopefully, a few of the suits on the front cover of the book will find this passage food for thought.

All too often people are not seen as assets to a company. They are disposable cogs in the production process, a cost. But what of the costs to the families and community? In the chapter that gives the book its title, Else brings together notions of paid and unpaid work and explores the complex web of connections that underpins daily life. It is here that we glimpse the self-interested individuals of the market model once again. In their self-interest they become free riders. Else points out, rightly, I think, that the idea that people are free riders (translated by some as free-loaders) lies behind many of the major policy moves of the last 10 years. In a particularly telling comment on domestic violence, Else relates a 1988 interview with Ruth Richardson where Richardson states that leaving a violent marriage and going on the domestic purposes benefit was simply moving from partner dependency to state dependency, with the consequence that “the state might just beat out of you your will to become self-sufficient”. It seems that for policymakers of this ilk, self-sufficiency must be achieved with little or no consideration of the social costs or the social processes involved.

Self sufficiency is portrayed as a choice but the constraints to this choice are not recognised. At what cost do we pursue self-sufficiency? What of community responsibility? It has often struck me that the only thing to have trickled down through the reform process has been the self-interested attitude which is labelled self-sufficiency. This snowballing individualism is encouraged by the privileged elite who actively encourage competition amongst others, while at the same time ensuring that their own security and economic wellbeing is not threatened. The socialisation process at present seems intent on encouraging self-interested behaviour typical of the market at the expense of the connected, co-operative behaviour that should typify the family. Else points out that our modern society has worked because society has at least partly been protected from market forces. However, now we “blow up the market model until its fills the entire frame, crowding out everything else”.

In this crowding out much of what is pushed out of the frame is community work. It is increasing difficult to get volunteers, as anyone working in community organisations would testify. (Did David Green just forget to ask?) Women are increasingly now in paid work and everyone is fighting over the one volunteer in the patch. The irony is that with the quest for self-sufficiency there are now more demands on the time of women. As one commentator in False Economy says, the community is shrinking, but it’s getting more to do.

The book paints a realistically bleak picture of what is happening in some sections of society. Quiet desperation is a phrase that comes often to mind. Else begins that last chapter: “We are caught in a tug-of-war between two clashing time worlds.” As it did in the nineteenth century, market time is once again struggling with family time for control of our lives. Family-friendly workplaces, job-sharing, teleworking, portfolio employment are all discussed and considered as a means of balancing paid and unpaid work for both men and women.

While this chapter serves as an informative review of suggestions for more work friendly environment, I felt the solutions were limited to tweaking at the edges. More fundamental changes seem to be needed if paid work is to be reshaped to fit around the rest of life. Else briefly mentions the idea of a universal basic income and it would have been interesting to have seen this idea explored more fully.

That one suggestion aside, I found False Economy to be a welcome read. I believe it is essential that the debate about New Zealand’s future become more balanced. While an improvement in choice is welcomed, what are the costs that go with increased choice? The book articulates the experience common to many New Zealanders as they struggle to cope with the choices available to them. The catchcry that there is no alternative to the path we are following seems to me to be closing our eyes to other possibilities that exist for improving the future. This book is a necessary contribution to balancing the debate.

Christine Woods teaches economics at Auckland University. 

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Posted in Economics, Non-fiction and Review
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