An ‘Electrifying’ Economist’s Guide to the Recovery

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The pandemic has made clear how much of the economy relies on unpaid labor — mostly shouldered by women — as well as the undervalued jobs in female-dominated industries. How can governments now start to elevate these jobs and weave them into broader economic growth policies?

Covid-19 has very much sharpened our focus on what is of value in an economy — which equates to what we can put a price on, and what we can exchange. It turns out that the areas we thought of as “high-value” — finance and real estate, for example — are not the components of society we rely on as “foundational.” Covid-19 led to government definitions of “key” or “essential” work: Our most valuable, irreplaceable citizens are those who work in health and social care, education, public transport, supermarkets and delivery services. These jobs are disproportionately occupied by women, as well as by people of color, in Europe, the U.K. and the U.S. Suffering is not inevitable for these groups any more so than others — it is a policy choice like any other.

Is it a moonshot to think that unpaid labor within households could be counted in G.D.P. measurements? How would that actually work?

Well first off, we shouldn’t be trying to adapt and adjust everything to fit into G.D.P. As a measurement, G.D.P. is inherently flawed, as within it, economic value is only determined on the basis of market transactions — only goods and services sold in markets are counted. G.D.P. is used to justify excessive inequalities of income and wealth while trying to turn value extraction into value creation.

There are evaluation components and metrics that are far more dynamic than G.D.P.

In Wales, planned public sector projects are evaluated and appraised by the Future Generations Commissioner, who is mandated to make recommendations based on impacts on the not-yet-born.

In New Zealand, the government launched the first “well-being budget” in 2019. The Genuine Progress Indicator attempts to separate environmental and social costs from benefits, to value household and volunteer work, and to adjust for inequality.

If a mixture of these kinds of evaluative approaches was emboldened and embraced, then we would possibly have a better indication of the real direct and indirect implications to society of something like labor within a household.

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