Economics–Calling All Mothers

14 10 2010

Author: girlwithoutawatch

For the better part of the last century we’ve been trapped by two economic ideological forces and much like the political factions that govern our society, these forces have often served to polarize, even radicalize our beliefs, rather than help to find any common ground. Until the late 1990’s you were either a capitalist or a communist, you either believed in the individual or the state, you either trusted in the market or you were naive.

It has only been in the last decade or so that the true multidisciplinary nature of economics has finally woken up the contributions made by anthropologists, sociologists and political scientists.  Oliver Williamson and Elinor Ostrom, the two Nobel prize winners for economics this year, were recognised largely because of this growing trend in more creative economic thinking.  Ostrom’s work focuses on the study of common pool resources–in particular, how humans interact with ecosystems to maintain long-term sustainable resource yields (common pool resources include many forests, fisheries, oil fields, grazing lands, and irrigation systems). Both Williamson and Ostrom consider the effects of institutional arrangements—(while Williamson focuses on the transaction costs that arise from these institutional arrangements, Ostrom focuses on social-ecological impact of such arrangements).  Institutional arrangements include a combination of the formal rules (laws, regulations, contracts) and the informal rules (culture, values, traditions, social norms and pressures) that encapsulate our society. Incorporating greater understanding of the role of these institutional arrangements provides a more holistic and nuanced application of economic analysis on the role of incentives, institutions and behaviour, as well as a common link in understanding between traditional economists and other social scientists.

What does all this mean for us as mothers, especially those of us with no background in economics, political science or sociology? As mothers we have access to a great deal of critical information and material—cognitive data based on what we observe in the behaviour of our children (and perhaps our partners too), household consumption patterns, resource access and productivity, as well as a closer understanding of the ways formal and informal institutions operate and the community level (local neighbourhood, schools, health care facilities and our social networks). As mothers, we are at the forefront of understanding first hand that people’s choices and behaviours are conditioned not only by their own preferences and budget constraints, but also by social and cultural forces, moral influences, information asymmetry, media bias, manipulation by pressure groups and hierarchical perceptions of power.

You don’t have to be an economist to have something to say about economics. Running a household, especially households filled with children, makes you a practice the art of economics every day.  Data from your average everydayness, can provide additional information regarding those core elements that make us human, as well as those core elements that make us happy: what makes us tick, what motivates us, what influences us, what drives us, what are our true preferences and exactly how volatile do they seem to be?  We can learn through our children what our intrinsic human needs are—we can unravel the ways in which our raw (state of nature) interests and incentives develop—which are innate and which are learned—how we compete for affection—how we compete for survival? As mothers we are aware of the fact that our children can often act irrationally.  Well, behavioural economists for example, incorporate the ways in which we are often influenced by irrational tendencies. Irrational behaviours of individuals include taking offense or becoming angry about a situation that has not yet occurred, expressing emotions exaggeratedly (such as crying hysterically), maintaining unrealistic expectations, engaging in irresponsible conduct such as problem intoxication, disorganization, or extravagance, and falling victim to confidence tricks.

Try to explore the influences that informal institutions (values, customs, traditions, norms) and formal institutions (rules, regulations, laws) have on the choices you and your children make every day.  And if you haven’t done so already, begin to interpret the behaviour of your children in the context of improving upon the economic system that cradles the society in which we live.  Through this collective act and through our writing, questioning, debating, we will surely come up with the creative insights and out of the box thinking that our children are entitled to.


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