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A snarky critique dresses down the “economic man”

Who Cooked Adam Smith's Dinner?: A Story about Women and Economics

Katrine Marçal
Portobello Books
2016
Translated by Saskia Vogel
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If I asked you to close your eyes and picture an economist, “pale, male, and stale” might come to mind. The “dismal science” is not only overwhelmingly composed of men (1) but also built around a hypothetical economic man, known as homo economicus. H. economicus was never cared for by others, nor does he care for others, engaging in his pleasure-maximization calculations without being influenced by those around him. In Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, Katrine Marçal recounts how economics came to rely on this calculating and self-in terested man as the prototype of human behavior. Luckily, this is not your standard economics text and Marçal, a Swedish journalist who writes in snappy (and often spirited) prose, focuses on what an alternative, and more inclusive, economics should look like.

Marçal weaves the history of mainstream economic doctrines with pop culture references to tell the story of economic man’s construction and his rise to dominance. By focusing on a selfish and market-oriented man, she argues, the discipline has created a self-fulfilling prophecy, limiting itself to market analysis of self-interested individuals.

Marçal begins her story in the 18th century with Adam Smith, the father of modern economics. Smith famously pointed out that we owe our dinner not to the kindness of “the butcher, the brewer, or the baker” but rather to their self-interest. When everyone acts selfishly, he maintained, the market is so elegantly coordinated that it’s as if it were led by an “invisible hand.”

However, Marçal argues that Smith omits an important actor in this framework: the person who transforms the meat, beer, and bread into an actual meal. As a well-off, never-married man, Smith likely did rely on the market to secure cooking services on occasion, but Marçal’s point is well taken: A slab of meat doesn’t magically become dinner. That process requires significant labor and expertise.

This nonmarket work, and the disproportionately female population that does such work, is unaccounted for in Smith’s reckoning of the economy. Even today, it’s not captured by gross domestic product (GDP), our standard measure of economic well-being.

Marçal concludes with a plan for dismantling economic man by redefining economics as a discipline dedicated to the study of wellbeing: one that considers not only the butcher but also the butcher’s wife; not only the cost of meat but also the time costs of cooking dinner. Although feminist economists have been making this argument for decades, Marçal’s book serves as an accessible and lively primer on the topic.

Marçal, and the feminist economists she cites, would likely argue that the feminist lens can’t focus solely on remedying the exclusion of unpaid provisioning activities but must be applied to all aspects of mainstream economics. Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? is a well-written and thoroughly researched call to change economics into a discipline that makes “room for the entire human existence” that all economists would do well to heed.

References

  1. Less than 12% of all full professors in economics are women. M. B. McElroy, 2014 Annual Report, CSWEP News, 2015, Issue I (2015), p. 13.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Economics, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT 84112, USA