Friday, February 06, 2015


Tim Worstall (3 February) asks HERE 
“So who did cook Adam Smith’s dinner then?”
"Much excitement over in Grauniadland as a new book comes out talking about why that economically rational man so beloved of us neoliberals could not ever be the economically rational woman. Because, you know, women do all that caring and cleaning and stuff for love, not for reasons of calculated rational self-interest:
But a polemical and entertaining new book by journalist Katrine Marçal suggests that Economic Man has another major shortcoming: he’s not, and never could be, a woman.
Hmm. The book’s blurb says:
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest When Adam Smith wrote that all our actions stem from self-interest and the world turns because of financial gain he brought to life ‘economic man’. Selfish and cynical, economic man has dominated our thinking ever since and his influence has spread from the market to how we shop, work and date. But every night Adam Smith’s mother served him his dinner, not out of self-interest but out of love. Today, our economics focuses on self-interest and excludes all other motivations. It disregards the unpaid work of mothering, caring, cleaning and cooking. It insists that if women are paid less, then that’s because their labour is worth less – how could it be otherwise? Economics has told us a story about how the world works and we have swallowed it, hook, line and sinker. Now it’s time to change the story. In this courageous look at the mess we’re in, Katrine Marcal tackles the biggest myth of our time and invites us to kick out economic man once and for all.”
Tim challenges to shallowness of the book’s argument:
“The contention is entirely poppycock of course. For we can only make sense of gender roles and how they have changed within that very concept of economic rationality.” The work of Gary Becker explores this world, where the decision to form a family for example, is explained in those rational economic terms. In a world reliant upon human muscle power to feed itself (ie, all of history until the tractor) there was obviously going to be a gender divide in who did what. And as the biologists tell us it really does take two to raise a family (historically one agricultural labourer could produce enough in a year to feed 1.7 to 2.3 people in total). So many other things about men and women only make sense if there is a division of labour (as Smith repeatedly pointed out, this is the basis of wealth creation) and trade in the subsequent produce. “Hunter Gatherer” as a decription of pre-agriculture societies is in itself a gender distinction of roles on the grounds of comparative advantage (which is all about David Ricardo).
Yes, we’ll probably file that under poppycock.
Quite apart from anything else it’s impossible to explain the changes in society in the past century without using that structure of economic rationality. Why have fertility levels fallen so much? Because children now generally survive into adulthood, the name of the game is to have grandchildren, thus one needs fewer children to have them. Why have male happiness rates stayed largely static while female ones have fallen as they gain ever more choice over their lives? Because having more choices means that the opportunity cost of making any single one of them rises. Why have female paid working hours risen? Because automation has meant that the gender division of labour based upon muscle power is no longer useful.”
I agree with Tim. I am not clear on what exactly Katrine Marçal is suggesting. Is it that somehow all domestic work should be monitised? How would that work out? Who pays who from what sources of income? 
Is it that theories of rational choice al la Garry Becker should be ditched (to which I would say “hear, hear”)? Is it that there is huge discrimination in work-place pay against women it should abolished (to which I would agree on principle).
Katrine Marçal may like to know that Adam Smith’s household was funded from his academic teaching and publishing incomes and before that from his small inheritance (including maturing bonds from his father’s role in the passing of the Act of Union with England in 1707), and mainly after he started employment as a lecturer in 1748 (aged 25), his Professorial salaries and his life bond from the Duke of Bucleugh which together more than covered the costs of domestic help for his mother, Margaret Douglas Smith, who from middle age was too frail and his aunt (Jane Douglas) who, apart from household chores, prepared his dinners. Both of them lived with him on campus in Glasgow University (1751-64), in Kirkcaldy at his mother’s house (1764-78), and lastly at Smith’s rented home, Panmure House, Edinburgh from 1778. His mother died in 1784 and his aunt  died in 1788, both at Panmure House.  Smith too died there in 1790 and is buried next door in the Cannongate Kirk grave yard (his mother apparently was buried in her family’s vault in the Kirk yard at Strathendry, Fife).

So who did cook Smith’s dinner? It is most likely that he fixed his own breakfast as he was very fond of strawberries (with sugar) in the morning, which fruit Scotland was famous for. Dinner was supervised by his cousin.


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