2017 Reviews, Non-fiction

Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? A Story About Women and Economics

Marçal spends the bulk of this conversational economic manifesto explaining the pervasiveness and frequent folly of the concept of “Economic Man”. Economic Man is the representation of humanity’s selfishness and predictability; the theory helped 18th and 19th century rational Rationalists in Tophats coat their faddish concept of humanity in a veneer of inarguable science. (I once got into a Reddit argument on a purely subjective topic with a rational Rationalist- he likely had a different hat. I lightheartedly asked him to ‘cut it out with this logic bullshit’ in our subjective discussion. RIP inbox.)  flowers8Adam Smith, the grand-daddy of many theories that lay the foundation for Economic Man, lived his whole life with his mother. She kept his house and clothes, fed him daily, and did immeasurable care work to make this man’s career and life possible. Smith did not find her decades-long labor to keep her adult son alive worth considering in his theories. “It is not in the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest,” he famously wrote, with his middle finger pointed in the general direction of his hunched and sweating mother.

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Most historical and modern economic theories are rendered laughable by the recognition of the invisible and undervalued work of women the globe over. RIP capitalism by chapter 3. “Women’s work” (caregiving, raising children, cooking, cleaning, shopping, mending, almost the entire realm of emotional labor and community building, etc. etc. etc.) is repetitive, unproductive, and rarely selfish. That women traditionally do this work has always been treated as inherent and assumed, rather than critical for a functioning society and devalued by systems of power. In the modern world, we continue to deal with the fall-out of ignoring women’s work. Ever wondered why you get reimbursed for food expenses on work trips but not childcare expenses? It’s because you have a wife at home, silly.

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Most of the economists described in this book lived, profited, and were laid to rest in famous tombs, without recognizing 50% of the economic engine (women). The rational market decided their irrational output of gendered theories was worth a lot. Reading this does not feel good.  In fact, it will make you pissed off almost immediately. Marçal’s anger translates more clearly than anything else she writes. The general moral of the story: never doubt how many very educated and enlightened people will sneer “it’s only rational, darling” when someone questions a glaring and subjective fault in their bulletproof scientific analysis of society.

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While the term “Economic Man” is used derogatorily today, the foundational concepts of Economic Man are still found in most modern economic theories and practices. Much like the Bechdel test, the early adopters of this theory did not intend for Economic Man to be anything more than an illustration of a stepping stone towards a better future. Instead, he ended up becoming both the foundation and the ceiling of some of our most fundamental understandings in society. Oops.

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Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner contains a great idea, but the book itself is repetitive, the prose clipped and too sarcastic, and the ‘proof’ implied rather than proven. This could have been a solid manifesto if it was as concise as the back blurb. If Marçal wanted to write a hard critique of modern economics, she needed a far less angry and far more rigorous writing style. I don’t doubt that Marçal is well-versed in economic history and theory, but I can’t prove it, because she doesn’t prove it.  If she was trying to do a feminist critique, she tied herself to the anger and cynicism, rather than an in-depth study of the value of women’s work and the damage of systemic abuse. This book will get someone open to these concepts fired up and curious. But in the battle against rational Rationalists with Logic and Jaunty Hats on their side, Marçal isn’t doing feminist economics many favors.

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