Escaping the Tyranny of Production

Three women destined to be counted as ‘founders’ of a new economic paradigm that liberates humanity from the drudgery of GDP.

Vinny Tafuro


Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times criticized the propensity of industry to rule over humanity.
Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ criticized the propensity of industry to rule over humanity.

Twentieth-century economics, dominated by masculine values, elevated growth to a level of dictator over human activity. A boundary was created that divided society by productive and non-productive time. A divide that ignored the value of how any of that time was spent in pursuit of our own personal, national, and global wellbeing. By contrast, twenty-first century economics is emerging as a nurturing companion of human activity with leading ideas emerging from women.

In the depths of the Great Depression a metric was created to count what we produced in an effort to understand an economy that had fallen so far. In 1934 the United States government for the first time had a numerical accounting of production that illuminated a 40 percent economic decline during the preceding four years following the 1929 stock market crash. The new metric, known today as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), was presented with a warning by its creator, Simon Kuznets. “The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income.”

Despite the inability of GDP to measure national welfare, the explosive growth of industry and technology in the twentieth century allowed economists to ignore its flaws and cling to its simplicity. Correlation is not causation, but in economics oversimplification allowed rising GDP to be held as proof that national welfare was also improving–despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

Today, under the pressure of a global pandemic we are finally begining to reckon with the tyrannical damage resulting from chasing GDP. With GDP as our king, we’ve gutted the American middle class, terrorized communities of color, and sabotaged the environment to the detriment of the Global South all-the-while placing the burden of payment upon our children.

We can and must do better. As automation marches forward we can no longer falsely link production to welfare. Like Kuznets nearly a century ago, we must meet our contemporary crisis with new metrics to navigate the twenty-first century. Metrics that are holistic, egalitarian, and inclusive.

Time, Well-being, and the Doughnut

Three internationally distinguished women have economic proposals that would dramatically reduce the negative impacts of GDP on individual liberty, national sovereignty, and global health.

Considered a principal founder of feminist economics, Marilyn Joy Waring believes that “time use is the most important indicator going forward.” In 1975 Waring, aged 23, became the youngest member of the New Zealand parliament and is best known for her 1988 book, If Women Counted. Her work is a systematic critique of GDP and its wholesale lack of accounting for domestic work and the value of nature in human society. In her 2019 TEDxChistchurch Talk, Waring notes that in nearly every country where unpaid work is surveyed, the unpaid sector “is the single largest sector in the nation’s economy.”

As a head of state and the first woman to serve as First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon is proud of the role that Scotland played in the enlightenment era and subsequent birth of economic thought. Under Sturgeon’s leadership, Scotland has established the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, an international partnership to help bring about societal change that prioritizes shared wellbeing on a healthy planet. In her 2019 TEDSummit Talk, Sturgeon reflects on the past decade of political and economic turmoil and growing inequalities as compelling evidence in support of “a much broader definition of what it means to be successful as a county, as a society.”

English economist, Kate Raworth of Oxford and Cambridge universities, is revamping how economics balances essential human needs within the environmental boundaries of the planet. Dubbed ‘doughnut economics’, Raworth attacks the narrow focus of twentieth century economic models that restrict human purpose to insatiable consumption and require economic growth with no regard for human fulfillment or planetary boundaries. In her 2019 TED Talk, she likens GDP growth to the flight of an airplane, “but this plane is like no other, because it can never be allowed to land.” Raworth’s work reinvents macroeconomics, creating tools to allow both policy makers and the private sector to comprehensively evaluate the impact of decisions on society and the environment.

The achievements of Waring, Sturgeon, and Raworth are notable and it is likely that their combined work will be cited decades from now as foundational to twenty-first century economics. While supply-side and demand-side economists continue to bait partisan policy to address a bygone era of production, these women are presenting the market-side economic tools needed to escape. Tools that empower private enterprise and governments to move forward together–profitably in the broadest sense–and in the best interest of society while staying within the natural limitations of our planet.

With over 7 million combined views, their three TED talks are easy to understand and worth the time to view and effort to share.

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