What if somebody told you that you were an investor in the most valuable commodity in the whole world? What if, every day for two decades or more, you made a small but significant contribution into the most promising enterprise available; in fact, the single asset on which all other profits would depend? Would you think of yourself as shrewd venture capitalist? Would you feel wealthy? Would you expect a solid return on the discipline and dedication of your regular investment?
Well, prepare yourself for a shock.
If you are a parent, you are that investor. The most valuable commodity in the world, the single product on which everything else depends, is your child. What’s that? You don’t feel particularly rich? In fact, your children seem to be costing you an arm and a leg? Maybe we ought to take a look at our assumptions about economic production, human capital and the market economy.
There’s an old saying – what gets measured matters. In other words, if something is important, it gets attention. It is studied, tracked, assessed, evaluated, calibrated and compared. We have data on unemployment rates, economic production rates, interest rates, population growth, inflation and currency exchange rates. We know how many people are incarcerated, how many new cars are bought every year, the balances on our credit cards, and what movies fill the most seats. Every time money changes hands, the market economy is stimulated and the transaction is noted. We are drowning in data. You would think we were put on this earth to work more, spike production, boost profits, and do our utmost to make the market economy go up, up, UP.
It may seem like we measure everything. Actually, we don’t. For example, we know how much wealth is created in a given time frame, but we don’t measure exactly how it is distributed. This makes a difference in how people live. For example, a million dollars in one person’s bank account has a different economic effect than a million dollars shared between 100,000 people. We can tell how many houses were bought in a year, but there is no tracking whether they were bought with debt or with money saved up by purchasers. Both wealth creation and home-buying are regarded as economic growth, but the underlying differences, while significant, are not tracked. Just looking at the numbers won’t tell you the whole story. We should also be gathering information about how much households have left over to spend after paying their bills every month. Home buying is a positive indicator, but what if the homes bought are vacation homes, or third or fourth homes, while the number of people owning their own home is actually stagnant or declining? Consumption can go up if lots of people go shopping. But if all their purchases are on credit, it’s a sign of trouble, not economic strength.
The same is true of people. We have no scale to measure the value of a parent’s care for a child. The hours devoted to reading stories, feeding, loving and holding our children are not entered in the ledger. The ceaseless round of drop-offs and pick-ups. Stepping up to chaperone the field trip, lead the cub scout troop, drive to the away games, bake for the bake sale, show up at the PTA meeting. Paying attention to and spending time with our children is what makes them grow to functioning adulthood as productive citizens. They become both the producers and consumers in the economy. If there was no family care, there would be no economy, no society and no future.
Because of the absence of collected information about household operations, there is scant policy devised to further household interests and facilitate the kind of parental care essential to our individual and national well-being. Our public discussions about family carework and earning family income seem to belong to two different worlds, on parallel tracks stretching into the horizon. In our daily lives, however, family and work bump into each other every day as we encounter the need to absolutely be in three places at once. The disconnect happens in large part because we don’t have a measure for household production the way we track economic activity in the market economy.
A caring economy would change that. A caring economy includes information about activities that create value but don’t have a price tag. It would reflect the wealth that is created by parents and families, as well as the cost of caring for children and running households. It would expand our understanding of the resources necessary for the production of human capital and allow us to craft effective policies. With the right kind of information, we could unhook caregiving from poverty in old age. We could give parents real choices in blending work with family. We might even remember that we do not live merely to grow the economy. The economy, actually, is supposed to further the well-being of people.
Which is what you do, as a savvy investor in the growing sector of human capital.
Or, as your children put it, “Mom”.
’til next time,
Your (Wo)Man in Washington