Who Cooked Adam Smith's Dinner? A Story of Women and Economics
New York: Pegasus Books, 2016, 230 pp.
John Maynard Keynes once wrote of Hayek that one of his arguments was "an extraordinary example of how, starting with a mistake, a remorseless logician can end up in bedlam." Katrine Marcal's Who Cooked Adam Smith's Dinner? A Story of Women and Economics is a nice example of how an author can actually start with a correct observation, yet also end up in intellectual bedlam. The correct observation at the heart of Marcal's book is that economics has, historically, paid far less attention to the household and family than it has to the market, and that, when it has examined the family, it has frequently done so through a framework that is too narrow to really capture how the institution works. From that truth, she begins her path toward bedlam by laving blame on economics for constructing itself around the hyperrational, self-interested, and very masculine, "economic man," which she thinks has blinded the discipline to women's concerns and other forms of behavior more associated with women. As a result, economics fails at understanding a world containing men and women with a wider range of motivations and personalities, which, in turn, she believes, undermines the case for the market.
Her title gets at the core of her argument: Adam Smith invented modern economics by creating the idea of "economic man"--who is, in Veblen's terms, "a lightning calculator" of his self-interest--and the idea of the invisible hand, by which greed and self-interest are always good in leading to economic growth. Furthermore, she argues that this vision of the economy, which came from Smith and has been mathematically refined by generations of thinkers, was an attempt to create a kind of Newtonian mechanics of the social world. Armed with this view of humans, which was masculine to its core, economists have been blind to the household and family, as well as ignoring all the ways other than self-interest in which humans interact. At one point, she describes economics as all about "conserving love." Economists believe love is scarce, but self-interest is not, so it makes more sense to run an economy on the latter rather than the former. Thus, Smith never discusses the question of who cooks his dinner (his mother), nor why such issues might be important.
Marcal then argues that once one understands that this is how economists see the world, we can understand the origins of the financial crisis and Great Recession that began in 2008. By focusing on and...