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Kelpie Wilson: A Layer Cake for Mother's Day

A Layer Cake for Mother's Day

By Kelpie Wilson
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Friday 12 May 2006

In time for Mother's Day this year, Joan Blades of MoveOn and her colleague Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner have published a Motherhood Manifesto. The demands of the manifesto seem modest: paid leave for parents, equal pay for women and mothers, affordable, quality childcare, health care, and a few other things that most modern democracies already have.

What is most compelling about the Manifesto is not its modest demands but the picture it paints of mothers at the breaking point. One story describes a single mother's attempt to find a job. The potential employer tells her point blank that he won't hire her because he does not want to pay the insurance premiums for her and her children.

But even the routine, day to day stories of families that seem well off but are stressed in a thousand ways, stories that all of us know either first hand or as the stories of our friends and relative's lives, are horrifying when you stop to think about them. The bottom line is this: as women spend more and more of their time in the paid workforce, there is less and less time for the caring work traditionally done by women: care of the sick, the elderly and the young. This is the real work that keeps body, soul, family and community together.

Journalist Ruth Rosen writes: "It's as though Americans are trapped in a time warp, certain that women will still do all this caring, even though they can't, because more than half are outside their homes working in the paid workplace. And so, we have the mounting Care Crisis."

The basic demands of the Motherhood Manifesto have been articulated for years by the feminist movement, but they have fallen on deaf ears, as women's priorities are continually relegated to the status of a "special interest." Such denigration is also familiar to environmentalists who advocate for "Mother" Earth. Women and the Earth seem to occupy a similar position in modern society's hierarchy of importance as expressed in that most authoritative of institutions: The Economy.

This recognition, that women's work and the Earth's resources are exploited in similar ways, was pioneered by one of our greatest and most overlooked thinkers, self-described "housewife economist" Hazel Henderson.

Hazel Henderson's book "The Politics of the Solar Age" taught me everything worth knowing about economics as encapsulated in her famous quote, "economics is a form of brain damage."

Henderson reached that conclusion after years of studying economic theory, but her quest for understanding began with her experience as an activist mother working for clean air. In the 1960s, not wanting her daughter to have to breathe New York City's sooty air, she wrote letters to politicians asking for their help and was repeatedly told that it would "cost too much" to clean up the air. She went on to found Citizens for Clean Air and helped to pass the Clean Air Act, but that was not enough for her. She wanted to understand why the economy did not value her child's health. With no formal college education, she taught herself economics, engaged in dialogue with economists, and eventually earned three honorary doctorates.

When she first started on her quest, Henderson was often told that economic theory was "too complicated" for a mere housewife to understand. But she made short work of that and created a metaphor to explain the economy that is easily understood by anyone: the layer cake.

The economy is like a layer cake where only the top two layers count. Those are the monetized layers: the various enterprises that make up the private sector, and the government expenditures on infrastructure and defense that make up the public sector. But these two layers are only a small part of the whole cake. There are two other layers that the monetarized layers rest on, and are supported by.

Just below the public sector is what Henderson calls the "Social-Cooperative Counter-Economy," which includes the traditional women's work of caring as well as subsistence production and do-it-yourself home labor. Then, below that is what she calls "Nature's Layer," which is all the resources we take free of charge from the Earth.

Traditionally in economics, the bottom two layers are called "externalities," and are not accounted for. That, according to Henderson, makes economics not a science at all but something more like a political theory or a religion that serves to justify the winners and keep the losers in their place. There is no better illustration of this than the $70 billion in tax cuts that Congress just passed. A family earning $1 million a year will save about $42,700, while families earning $40,000 to $50,000 a year will save about $47.

Republicans call this a "pro-growth" tax policy and insist it is rational, yet their language betrays them. Conservative columnist R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. blasted Democrats for their opposition to the tax cuts and accused them of "bigotry" against supply side economics in a recent column titled: "The Supply-Side Miracle Continues."

In a time when global oil and gas supplies are peaking and energy prices are rising, the idea that we can achieve economic health by increasing the supply of capital is absurd. Look at Exxon - all the capital in the world won't help them pump non-existent oil out of the ground.

The deficit is another reason that the "supply side miracle" won't continue much longer. The New York Times calls the rationale for the tax cuts "delusional," pointing out that, "when a nation must borrow to pay for tax breaks, as is the case in the United States today, any ability of tax cuts for investors to spur growth is severely diminished."

Left out in the cold land of "externalities" are things like tax deductions for college tuition and for supplies that teachers buy to use in their classrooms. Every teacher I know spends a significant amount of money, sometimes hundreds of dollars, to supplement minuscule supply funds and try to provide a quality experience for students in this time of shrinking educational budgets.

Women, children, families and the Earth are all at the breaking point, but the only response from our leaders is to intensify the exploitation, to keep mining the resources of the Earth and of our ailing social networks.

In the 1980s, when the first edition of "Politics of the Solar Age" was published, Hazel Henderson thought that the end of the irrational growth economy would soon be at hand. That economy, based on limited stocks of fossil fuels, could not continue. But thanks to the "miracle" of supply side economics, it did not die in the '80s. It stoked its fires and roared on into the '90s. Now it has begun to seriously sputter.

This is the moment, Henderson says, where "everything can change in the twinkling of an eye."

Hazel Henderson had an epiphany of sorts back in 1978 while taking part in Buckminster Fuller's futurist exercise, the World Game. For the first time, she said, a Pentagon official in charge of war games participated. He was asked whether the Pentagon ever considered things like climate change, species extinction or overpopulation in its scenarios. With confident "command and control" mentality, he answered "no." At that moment, Henderson said:

Suddenly, I saw in a new light the task for all of us involved in citizen movements for social change ... We now must help create greater understanding of the fact that today's "leaders" and "decision makers" are no longer in charge of events, even though they still imagine themselves the "rational actors" of their decision models, firmly in command from their "war rooms," as they once believed in simpler, slower times. They are like ancient kings who commanded ocean tides to come in, or the early priests and priestesses whose incantations "caused" the sun to rise. They, like all of us, are also puppets of all these larger forces. Thus the "spontaneous devolution" of their institutions has begun.

She then describes what's next:

The task for all of us committed to these social-change movements is to see that we are one coalition in the larger politics of reconceptualization. Together we must demystify today's counterfeit priesthood of "puppet" leaders, and map and align our own energies with these larger-field forces and the energies that, in reality, drive our planet: the daily solar flux, which in turn drives our planetary weather system, the cycles of oxygen, of nitrogen, and of hydrogen, and plant photosynthesis that is our primary economic system.

In practical terms, this may mean that we should monetize more of the economy - as Kyoto signatories are already doing with carbon credits. Perhaps we should pay mothers. A recent study found that a full-time stay-at-home mother would earn $134,121 a year if paid for all her work, and a mother who works outside the home would earn an extra $85,876 annually on top of her actual wages for the work she does at home.

Or, in many cases, it might be better to recognize that in society, as in nature, life is not just about competition and dominance; it is also about cooperation, caring and sharing. We can find ways to protect those values, just as we set aside wild lands and use regulations to protect endangered species and clean air and water.

If we don't make a change, if we keep on single-mindedly devouring the bottom layers of the cake, the top will soon cave in and we'll have nothing left but an unsightly mess. As any good mother will tell you: if you eat up all your cake, you won't have it any more.


Kelpie Wilson is the t r u t h o u t environment editor. A veteran forest protection activist and mechanical engineer, she is the author of Primal Tears, an eco-thriller novel published by North Atlantic Books.

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