What is Economy Anyway? or Lessons from Home Ec.
Home Economics is a class I took in junior high where I learned how to follow a recipe, use an oven, and sew a usable, but lopsided duffel bag. It may have covered finances, but I don’t remember.
I do remember the class was co-ed. I was delighted to be measuring and mixing ingredients with Josh Lien, the tall, dark-haired, surprisingly mature boy I had a huge crush on. I can still see him bending down to take a tray of cookies out of the oven wearing a black apron and oven mitts. My mouth watered, but not just for Josh or the cookies. My body was responding to the notion that everyone, women and men, adults and kids alike, are responsible for the management of the household because we all live in it, at least in theory, and at least in the mini-kitchens of Edison Junior High School.
The word economy, at its root means “household management.” Fundamentally it is the care and keeping of the house and the people who live in it. Yet, the word makes my brain wince as I try to comprehend all the dynamic complexities of the interaction and exchange of money, resources, and ultimately power in our human household.
When I was in junior high my household consisted of my mom, my sister and me. My mom held the power when it came to our household management because, well, she was the mom, and because she was the one who made the money to pay for all the things we needed to survive. Being the power holder and the money/resource provider and distributor, her goal was to manage those things well so that not only she was taken care of, but my sister and I as well.
If economy is household management, then it seems to me, the job of any economy is to manage the resources for the well being of all who live in the house. Power naturally falls to the ones who hold, and thus control the distribution of money/resources. They are the managers of the household. But what if they are not concerned with the well being of the rest of the people living in the household?
An article in Forbes states that the 85 richest people in the world have as much wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest. That’s half the world’s population. It’s hard to wrap the mind around such numbers. While not anywhere near exact, it would be something equivalent to my mom enjoying the space of our three bedroom, two-story house all to herself, while my sister and I shared the front hall closet with every single person living in the state of South Dakota (the state we lived in at the time) and the state of California combined. That’s somewhere near 41 million people. Same goes for the dinner plate. One for mom, and one for the rest of us to share. And clothes? Well, let’s just say mom would’ve had the wardrobe she always wanted and we would be clamoring over each other to get our feet into a pair of sneakers. My ability to survive, let alone thrive in that environment would not have been possible.
Because my basic needs were met, however, I was able to do my part and take on bigger forms of responsibility. On the nights mom worked late, I did dishes after my sister made spaghetti. On weekends, I cleaned the bathroom while my sister mowed the lawn and mom did bills. Afterward, we had time for a movie together, or to be with friends. We all shared the burdens so we all could have the benefits.
Home Ec. taught me that the management of the household is the concern of everyone, and it gave me skills to be a more responsible member. But it also instilled a false belief that I could have control over the economic realities of my life. Home Ec. failed to convey that economy is a system of intentional design. It doesn’t necessarily matter if you are a responsible member of the household, you don’t always get the resources. It was only after going through bankruptcy and foreclosure, and a lot of reading about mortgage-backed securities and the practices of the mortgage lending industry, that I realized how much the system we currently have is designed to benefit a few over the many. It isn’t just the way things naturally are. Deliberate decisions are being made about who earns the money, who pays the bills, what bills get paid, who eats, and who gets to live in the house.
Perhaps, making my blue and white duffel bag did teach me a thing or two. I had never sewn before and didn’t know I could. With each stitch I saw that it was a design created through pattern and repetition. The closer I get to the realities of our economy, the more I see how it is actually stitched together. With each prick of the needle, I see more clearly that it is possible, and necessary, to envision a new pattern. I don’t care if it’s a little lopsided; I just want it to hold everyone.
This previously appeared on my Write In Power Blog www.writeinpower.com