A Smart But Brief Look at the Undervalued Half of the World's Population

Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? is a sharply written book on economics for people who aren't economists.

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

Publisher: Portobello
Length: 240 pages
Author: Katrine Marçal
Price: $6.98
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-06

Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? is a book about economics for people who are not economists. That’s a good thing, because today everyone needs to understand finance and economics. Just consider a snippet from the introduction of the first book in the Best Business Writing series published in 2012: “…the crash and ongoing crisis remind us that, in a democracy, it’s not enough to understand only political events and actors. We need to know economic and financial ones as well. The debate can’t be left to experts and cognoscenti (clearly) and must be opened to as wide a swath of society as possible… Put another way: hopeful ignorance about matters business and financial is no longer an option, if it ever was.”

With its thoughts on things like the housing bubble in 2008, challenges facing the healthcare industry and economic incentives, Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner certainly deserves to be part of the aforementioned debate. Additionally, much like the essays and articles in the Best Business Writing books, Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner is often, with its sharp writing, numerous examples and familiar pop culture references (think Pretty Woman, Robinson Crusoe, and the goose that laid the golden egg), engaging and non-threatening (even for people who break into a sweat when trying to balance their checkbooks).

The book has a clear point of view, and anyone who reads the title before opening the cover should know this book explores economics from a feminist perspective. It begins with Adam Smith, often considered the father of modern economics, and his statement: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Of course, as Marçal is quick to note, one important person is left out of this equation: Smith’s mother Margaret Douglas, who fed him from the time he was born until her death.

What has been traditionally considered “women’s work” and its value (or lack thereof) in society is one of the main focuses of the book. Marçal discusses the lack of payment for such services, the attitude toward people who perform these services, and the problems when countries don’t consider childcare, homecare, and family care part of the economy (specifically part of the gross domestic product). Marçal also wonders what might happen if we don’t have enough caregivers.

To help make these points, Marçal provides historical prospective and analyzes the concept of the economic man through a feminist lens.

Many of the historical examples Marçal includes are interesting; for example, her discussion of Florence Nightingale and the mistaken idea that Nightingale was a “quiet, shy discreet angel disinterested in money”. Marçal reminds readers that Nightingale fought all her life for good wages for nurses, but that society and history prefer to forget this part of the story. Moving into current times Marçal notes that because of poor salaries there's a global nursing shortage and then wonders whether even Florence Nightingale would become a nurse today. Marçal’s answer: “Probably not. She’d have become a doctor, a researcher, a health economist or a professor of statistics. And that would have been excellent. But who would be the nurse?”

Discrediting economic man is also a main part of Marçal’s argument. She describes economic man, a hypothetical figure created to help develop/explain economic theories, as a seductive and universal figure who is “rational and driven by reason, he doesn’t do anything he isn’t forced to do, and if he does anything, he’ll do it for pleasure or to avoid pain.” These traits make economic man predictable and perhaps this accounts for what Marçal believes is his seductive nature. As Marçal notes “a model based on economic man can predict what people will do and what will happen in the economy” and who wouldn’t like a predictable economy?

Marçal’s discussions of the economic man may not be the strongest parts of the book -- at times the tone becomes a little didactic. Marçal’s examples that help disprove notions related to economic man are still noteworthy, though. Take, for example, the section on economic incentives that discusses the rat-catching initiative in Hanoi. As Marçal relates, to help stop the spread of the plague, officials offered rewards to people who brought in rat tails. The assumption was that people would kill the rats and take the tails. Instead “the streets appeared to be full of tail-less live rats. And people had even started to raise the animals for the sole purpose of cutting off their tails and getting remunerated by the authorities.”

Or consider Marçal’s description of Queen Elizabeth II visiting the London School of Economics in the fall of 2008. The Queen asked, “Why did nobody see this [the financial crisis] coming?” One economist replied “God created economists to give astrologists a better reputation”, but the more serious answer came from Noble prize-winning American economist Robert Lucas who “explained that economists didn’t predict the crisis because they had predicted that this kind of event couldn’t be predicted.” If the economic crisis of 2008 hadn’t been (and for many still is) devastating, this exchange would almost be comic.

As a whole, the book includes interesting examples, thoughtful questions, and sobering statistics -- such as the number of women who die in childbirth each year and the percentage of women who make up the world’s poor.

Because Marçal tries to do so much -- in the prologue she states the only way to understand current economic problems is to start at the beginning -- and because the book is a short 200 or so pages, it’s perhaps not surprising things sometimes feel just a little rushed. Still, Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? should be considered an important book. As Marçal makes clear, societies and economies that ignore the needs or devalue the work of approximately half their populations are always going to struggle, or more simply put, "If you want the full picture of the economy you can't ignore what half the population is doing half of the time".

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