Gross Domestic Product

I’m sure that when you read the title some of you were afraid this essay would be about poop or leftover oatmeal or something. But no. It’s about economics.

For anyone who’s not clear, and even I had to look it up to be sure, Gross Domestic Product is generally defined as the total of the monetary value of all goods and services produced within a country’s borders.

GDP is often cited as the main economic indicator of the health of the economy. An official definition of a recession (like the news media and politicians keep talking about) is two quarters in a row of decline in GDP. However, there are some drawbacks to using GDP as the sole indicator of economic well-being of a country.

For one thing, GDP does not account for any of the resource costs involved in that production. For example, many economists, professional and amateur, have written about the fact that the environmental degradation required to produce goods and services is not accounted for.

Another major point of discussion is how to account for the “informal” sector. Goods and services that are produced and distributed but not bought or sold through the ordinary retail system. This might include union carpenters who moonlight as handymen or the people who sell televisions by the side of the road.

One of the largest elements of informal labor is housework. From cleaning your toilet to making dinner to knitting Christmas presents – a tremendous amount of labor and materials are consumed but not accounted for. If you work as a maid in a hotel, that is counted as part of GDP. If you change sheets for your grandmother, even if she slips you five dollars for it, that is not counted.

So why the economics lesson? It’s because I am reconsidering my own economic participation. Over the last couple of years, I have not contributed much to the official GDP. I just did our income taxes and I had none last year. But I did a lot of work.

One estimate of the fair market value of a housewife’s labor would be $138,000. Which does not include the services I provide as a fundraising and organizational development consultant for a number of Quaker organizations. Or writing this blog. (More on that note in a minute.)

At various points in my career, I have felt more and less concerned about the economic value of my work. Over the years, I have earned between $3.35 and $75.00 an hour. I have complained heartily about being nothing but a wet nurse. I have railed against the injustice of the gaps in my career that are associated with child bearing. I have also been really grateful for times when I haven’t had to feel conflicted about staying home with a sick child.

Right now, I’m pretty happy with the mix of homemaking and ministry in my life. I’m managing to both write and make dinner almost every day. I feel like my contributions to my family, my local Meeting and the wider Quaker world are being recognized as valuable even if I’m not getting paid.

Unfortunately, this happy balance is not to last. In 2008, I will need to bring more cash into our household. Why? Because the financial aid system for our children’s school expects that once all your children are in school, both parents will be employed, for money. They can’t make me go to work, but they will adjust our assistance as if I were earning money. So I’m looking for work.

But if I were working 15-40 hours a week on a paid job, I would have to give up some of the other activities that fill my days. Our house cleaning standards, even such as they are, will probably decline. I will have to step off at least one, maybe all five of the Quaker committees I serve on. I probably won’t have time to be costume mistress for my kids’ school plays. Certainly it will affect my traveling ministry with convergent Friends. And this blog will surely suffer.

But I hope my blog won’t die. It has brought me much joy, many new Friends, and provided a discipline of writing that has served me well.

Part of my efforts to find ways to make writing pay was the addition of the Google ads to my blog. I was hoping it would cover the purchase of new reading material. Well, so far, they’re earning about $1 a month. Which is pretty close to covering my actual costs of writing this blog, since I only use free online services. It would just about keep me in pens and notebook paper for the first drafts of my posts. However, Google only sends you a check when you reach a total of $100. So in about 10 years, I’ll get paid back. Ummm, that’s not actually going to work very well. So I’m looking at other forms of writing for a living.

Suggestions are welcome. Prayers are welcome. Sympathetic ranting about the warped economics of family life in postmodern America is also welcome.

Here’s my current prayer:
May God help me to find the right balance of GDP and domestic harmony.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

My friend was telling me about True Economics. It's about factoring in everything from the growth of a product to the manufacturing and shipping and subsequent costs due to environmental damage, etc.

It's too bad no one has figured out a system that works this in.

1/29/2008 2:25 PM  
Blogger Rudy said...

I don't see any Google Ads.
Could that be why you are
only getting $1?

I am doing housework right
now, well, a few minutes ago
and a few minutes from now :)

1/29/2008 3:27 PM  
Blogger cubbie said...

i'm myself at this point where i'm really into my life and my schedule... and keep creeping more things into my schedule, and sort of liking my life more, but getting a little less satisfied with my schedule... and wondering what's going to happen to me when i start work 5 hours earlier than i do most days of the week now. will i still get up 3 hours in advance to read and worship and write?...

in other words, i hear you. i wish there was more value placed on... more things.

1/29/2008 10:32 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Allison, I think this is one of the cutting edges of economics. There isn't a perfect system yet, and probably never will be, but I think there's a lot of grad students taking it up right now.

Rudy, I'm not supposed to promote my google ads, but perhaps another reader will point them out to you.

I find that blog reading and writing is a fine balance to physical housework, and that housework, like folding laundry or scrubbing bathtubs, is conducive to composing better comments. Does it work that way for you?

cubbie, today I met with my spiritual director and our discussion was largely about opening space - in my home, in my time, in my prayers. How can I live with the empty space? For me, is emptiness a good thing, like spaciousness, or is it negative, like loneliness?

I want to remember that a bare shelf is not empty - God is there too. And making fewer commitments to other people (and committees!) is also not empty time - it can be the prayer time I've been whining about not having.

I think it's important to remember that sleep is a virtue too.

1/29/2008 11:18 PM  
Blogger Angelique said...

Hi Robin!

I completely understand how you feel. Currently, I work part-time, go to graduate school part-time, volunteer part-time, and of course raise a family and keep house full time. It isn't easy to find balance, but it can be done. One of the things I have become okay with is having a messier house. Sometimes, it drives me crazy and I go on a frantic cleaning spree. Other times, I enlist the help of other members in my family. Then there are the days when I get take-out instead of cooking, although we try really hard to make sure that doesn't happen very often.

My point is, you will adjust, I know it. I've become really good at saying no and only committing myself to what I know I can realistically handle. It can be hard because I really do want to do it all.

Like you, I wish our contributions to our home lives were valued by society. There seems to be an attitude that housewives aren't doing anything during the day. So unfair ...

1/30/2008 12:26 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thanks, Angelique. It is such a juggling act. I remember from when I worked part time before. This time will actually be easier because both my children are in the same school now - only one vacation schedule to work around!

Also, my children are more involved in cleaning up and generally helping around the house than they were even two years ago. Everyone here can now dress and feed and bathe him- or herself.

We just have to keep supporting one another - it sounds like a cliche, but it really makes a difference to know I'm not the only one.

1/30/2008 3:39 PM  
Blogger Martin Kelley said...

In recent times I've had wildly-varying pay scales--up to three a week. Without a doubt the lowest-paying work was the hardest yet fulfilled the clearest social need. It was also the most complicated business, with revenues a hundred times the annual budgets of the nonprofits where I've generally worked, yet its senior management probably pulls in less pay than the senior management of the nonprofits.

If you look at Quaker bodies, apart from schools there were no Quaker staff until relatively recent times. I wonder how the professionalization of Quakerism has mirrored women going into the workforce (most often because of economic issues) and not being able to provide the kind of unpaid work you've been doing. I struggle with this of course, spending much too much unpaid time trying to connect blogs...

FYI: many of us have ad blocking on so we'll miss the ad. I recently turned Google ads back on Nonviolence.org, plastering the page with them, and still only and average about a dollar a day.

1/30/2008 6:09 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

I didn't know there was such a thing as ad blocking - another learning moment. Thanks, Martin, I always learn something from you. :-)

I think that paying staff also came from a desire to have men and women working who couldn't afford to just donate their time and travel expenses.

1/31/2008 1:59 AM  
Blogger Chris M. said...

The pioneer in the field of redefining progress is, well, Redefining Progress in San Francisco. They have a tool called the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), which they explicitly compare to the GDP:


They do things like factor out the costs of manufacturing nuclear weapons and hauling toxic goo to the dump -- transactions that build up the GDP nicely, but which actually harm us.

Chris M.

2/02/2008 5:00 PM  

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