gender, service and the economy
WYPR's business commentator, Anirban Basu, reported today that there were really two economies in this recession: one for men and one for women. That is, whereas men have lost 700,000 jobs recently, women have gained 300,000 jobs. He goes on to explain that the jobs most vulnerable now are the ones men traditionally occupy: manufacturing and construction, while the job sectors that are growing are the ones that women traditionally occupy: teaching and healthcare.
While Basu couched this insight in gender terms, it is so much more than that. It is, if we allow it to be, the opening insight into the necessity of redesigning the definition of a vibrant economy. That is, instead of building a successful economy on paying more and more people to make more and more things (and encouraging the consumer to buy more and more things), we can build an economy on paying more and more people to do more and more things, like service -oriented jobs, healthcare, homecare, childcare, eldercare, teaching, coaching, protecting, training.
Maryland began to experiment with this changed view of the economy when it suggested taxing computer services. I am not here engaging in the debate of whether that particular effort was right or wrong. What I want to stress is that it opened up for the general public an awareness, whether conscious or not, that services are also a "good" produced by society. Why, it seemed to ask us, do we distinguish between the two in the tax code? If we tax the one (goods), would we not tax the other (services)?
(I am sure this is a topic that has been hotly debated among economists for a while. And I would bet this sounds naive to the finance cognoscenti. Indeed, I would love to hear economists weigh in on this subject and teach the rest of us benighted folks what the state-of-the-art thinking is on the status of goods and services. But I write as one of the public - not an economist.)
Truth be told, I never thought of that before. I never wondered why we pay 6% more for the stuff we buy but not for the things people do for us. The divide between things we buy, which incur a sales tax, versus services we buy, which do not, create a psychological divide in our mind between the two. Again, I am not arguing about whether sales taxes are good, or whether we should tax services. I am only arguing that the way we structure our tax system indicates different attitudes toward services and goods, and thus the economic value we attach to them.
The good news about Basu's report is that gender issues are now so mainstream that one cannot look at society without viewing it through a gender-sensitive lens. The challenge we learn with Basu's report is that we have to now make the environment as ever-present and sensitive a lens through which to read economic trends. For with such a green lens on, we can read these same figures as trending toward a healthier, more futuristic, sustainable economy - reducing our reliance on the creation of unnecessary "stuff" to keep the economic wheels greased (thereby bringing manufacturing more in line with the needs and rhythms of the earth) and increasing our output and investment in service, a marketplace with never-ending demand.