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Marilyn Waring: still counting

This should be Marilyn Waring’s time. 

Thirty years after her groundbreaking book, Counting for Nothing, exposed the rampant sexism at the heart of our system of national accounts, Treasury is finally overhauling the way they calculate just what is happening in our economy.

Its Living Standards Framework aims to broaden the way we look at the economy and it will sit at the heart of the first Wellbeing Budget, Grant Robertson will deliver next year.

Broadly speaking, the idea behind a Wellbeing Budget is to look at how government can maximise the quality of life for New Zealanders, rather than just add value to a nation’s economy.

It’s the sort of revision that Waring might have been looking for — only it’s not, and she’s calling Treasury out on it.

“I would love to be out of this space,” she tells me. 

“But the living standard framework won’t get me there”.

Waring is one of New Zealand’s most significant political figures. She entered parliament in 1975, as a member of Robert Muldoon’s caucus. 

She led a distinguished parliamentary career, eventually chairing the influential public expenditure committee, a precursor to today's’ Finance and Expenditure Committee.

But Waring eventually brought the Muldoon Government to its knees. She advised her party that she would cross the floor and back Labour’s nuclear-free bill. A disconsolate Muldoon responded by getting drunk and calling the now infamous “schnapps” election. 

But Waring did not stick around for the economic upheavals of the 1980s. Instead, she entered academia and began working on an idea that had begun gestating during her time on the Public Expenditure Committee. 

Waring’s political life awoke her to the way women counted — or rather didn’t — in the national accounts. Representing a rural district, she noticed how farming, the national breadwinner, was reliant upon unpaid work, often done by women and children.

Another event brought Waring to focus on national accounts. 

In the late 1970s, New Zealand began reviewing its system of national accounts. Waring, as chair of the committee in charge of such things, requested from Treasury a copy of the rules for national accounting. 

Waring assumed someone would have a copy. 

But they didn’t. 

Treasury confessed they didn’t have a copy and asked Waring to try a university. She did, but the universities didn’t have them either. Then she tried institutions in Australia, who again were unable to provide a copy. It wasn’t until after leaving parliament that Waring was able to track down a copy of the accounts at the UN library in New York. 

“It seems to me very odd to be running your major dataset when no-one needs a copy of the rules — that tells you that it’s ideology, there are a lot of holes here,” she says. 

Waring set to work redressing the balance, critiquing national accounts in Counting for Nothing, the book which led to her international fame. 

She looked at the boundary of production. This is the boundary that sets what does and does not qualify as productive in the economy. 

Certain hypocrisies came to light. Why is the lactation of seemingly every mammal qualify as productive — cows, goats, sheep – while the lactation of humans, which is essential to life, falls outside the boundary of production.

This needed to be set right. Waring looked at finding ways to fit these activities within the existing system, by finding a way to estimate their market price.

“Thirty years ago if you’d asked me I would have argued for market estimates of environmental services and market estimates of time use and reproduction” she says.

“The immediacy of my experience as a politician haunted me – the only way we could make these characteristics visible was to attribute a market valuation”.

But now she’s changed her thinking. 

“From a moral or ethical position I'm not interested in child birth and lactating sitting beside weapons”.

There have also been significant advances in accurately measuring unpaid work through time use surveys. 

This too, comes back to the wellbeing indicators, which, according to Waring, shoehorn ideas about nature and cultural wellbeing into existing modes of economic thinking by measuring them as stocks and flows. 

“I am opposed to this new colonisation which turns all life into capital. Assets and capital and living standards and investments are the old paradigm, they have nothing to do with wellbeing,” she says. 

Such valuations can do more harm than good. She says early French attempts at valuing ecosystems were not used in France to value their own environment, but to evaluate ecosystems in former colonies. 

At its worst, it could even be a step backwards. Her book points towards the National Parks Act 1980, which said that national parks should be preserved for “their intrinsic worth… [ and for containing] scenery of such distinctive quality, ecological systems, or natural features so beautiful, unique, or scientifically important that their preservation is in the national interest”.

By even attempting to measure the natural value of parks, the indicators take a step backwards by failing to recognise that parks value is immeasurable.

Still fighting 

Waring is frank that she’s not going to give up without a fight. 

She appeared before her old select committee earlier this year, briefing members on why the framework was inadequate and her new book Still Counting expands upon her criticism of national accounts. 

Government appears to have ignored her for now, but Waring has gained traction in the still male-dominated world of economics. Mariana Mazzucato’s The Value of Everything, shortlisted for the Financial Times’ Business Book of the Year, frankly critiques the system of national accounts. 

And while we’re waiting for the Government to take note, Waring has written a memoir of her parliamentary years. Alas, it’s far too interesting for her to tell me about over the phone, instead, she says I’ll have to wait until the book comes out next year.

But as far as political books go, Waring’s account of serving in the Muldoon caucus sounds positively enticing.

Still Counting is published by Bridget Williams Books RRP $14.99

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