Over the past decade, not only have we faced the biggest global economic crisis since the Great Depression, we have also seen increasing inequality, the stagnation of wages and a slowdown in economic growth. All this despite ever-more inventive technology – seen as the fundamental driver of economic improvement. As so often is the case with economic turmoil, political turmoil has followed. The politics of the West is being rewritten.
Right now, our political and business bigwigs are in Davos to do some head scratching and glad handing. They seem to appreciate the scale of the problem. But do they have the understanding needed to help bring about the right sort of change?
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Well, if sex were irrelevant for economic growth and inequality, there might be reason to be upbeat. For not only does Davos represent a concentration of riches, it does also attract some of the brightest people in the world. If they can’t get to grips with the underlying causes of our present situation, there isn’t much hope for the rest of us.
However, our understanding of the forces which shape the global economy has, for too long, been limited. Limited by a story of the past which sees men as the wealth creators, and class as central to how the resultant pie is distributed. It is a story that locks out women, sex and reproduction.
It’s time for Davos Man to move over. While the importance of gender equality for economic growth is starting to gain traction, it is much less common to join the dots between gender and income inequality. Probably because doing so requires a conception of freedom that goes beyond the male-centred one that developed with the political philosophy of Locke. We cannot understand either economic growth or inequality unless we pay attention to that vital difference between men and women: women give birth. It is those births that in turn create the labour supply that feed into the wider economy.
Modern economics, however, typically explains rising inequality through a combination of the “two T’s” (technology and trade), with those in more radical quarters, from Stiglitz to Piketty, highlighting the role of the state. Sex does not get a look in.
Yet it was Western society’s ability to control births, via late marriage, that created a high-wage economy in north-western Europe, and in turn incentivised mechanisation and economic growth. Once birth control methods improved and diffused in the 20th century, the economy could push even further in this direction.
But in large parts of the world, women have little control over the bodies. High fertility rates, particularly in places where child brides were common, meant that global population ballooned. And this population expansion happened at exactly the same time that the West and “the rest” came into direct contact in the form of globalisation.
Through outsourcing and immigration, the ballooning cheap labour became increasingly accessible to Western businesses. With it, Western wage growth suffered, economic growth stagnated and inequality widened. If we can improve the position of women and girls in poorer countries, and increase their wages, many of the problems facing richer economies will naturally resolve themselves.
That’s not about standard pro-market rights-based packages, or socialist class warfare. It’s about putting women’s reproductive freedoms first – something heavily-male dominated economic institutions such as the World Bank and the bigwigs of Davos fail to see.