Albert Bonniers förlag, 2012.
Reviewed by B.J. Epstein in SBR 2012:2
Katrine Kielos’ new book, Det enda könet (The Only Sex), is a fine example of easy-to-read but thought-provoking non-fiction. In this well-written work, she looks at how women are left out of the study of economics and human behaviour, and how this affects human understanding of world economy.
Kielos’ book is entertaining, sometimes even funny, but fundamentally serious: quite a feat, especially given that the subject matter can be quite difficult. She covers a lot of ground to explore how ‘homo economicus’, or ‘economic man’, is used by economists to study how and why people do things, and shows how this model of human behaviour is distinctly lacking in detail.
Economists long believed, as Kielos puts it, that ‘if there were laws for how heavenly bodies moved, there ought to be laws for how human bodies moved’. So they set about trying to find these laws and in the process discounted all work done by women (raising children, cleaning, doing laundry and so forth) and also, not surprisingly, discounted what they viewed as womanly traits (being emotional, not being rational, being caring etc.) In other words, what Kielos refers to as ‘economic man’ is cold, rational, and logical, and, of course, always male. Economists thus based their ideas about how humans act in response to the concept of ‘economic man’, conveniently leaving out the obvious facts that people do not always make the most rational decisions and that they might be influenced by their feelings or their beliefs. Kielos does a thorough job of explaining the flaws behind this thinking, discussing how what economists believe is best for ‘economic man’ is not always what is best for an individual or a society and certainly doesn’t always reflect how people actually make choices.
One of the many interesting ideas in this book is that ‘economic man’ is viewed as both male and gender-neutral. The ‘economic man’ is seen to have stereotypical male qualities but is also portrayed as something that all people, male or female, can strive towards. In other words, male is the default position, which some economists then use as a way of claiming that gender need not be analysed in discussions of economics. Kielos explores why this is incorrect, backing her arguments with statistics showing that about 70% of the world’s poorest people are female and that women are less likely to have access to food, health care, education and so on. All of which suggests that economists must take gender into account and incorporate it into their models of how the world operates.
Kielos claims that ‘economic man’, with his lack of cares or fears and his egotistical perspective, has pushed the world into its current precarious position. Because the model based on ‘economic man’ discounts connections between people and views life as ‘a series of investments you make’, it encourages people to prioritise money and financial gain and success over thoughtfulness, solicitude, mutual care and assistance. And yet, ‘economic man’ is deeply appealing, because ‘he takes us away from everything that frightens us. The body, feelings, dependence, uncertainty and weakness. They don’t exist in his world.’ All this means that in order to change the idea of ‘economic man’ and the models based on him, economists must rethink how they understand what it means to be human, and this might scare them.
Katrine Kielos does not rely heavily on quotations or references, so this is not a book in the same vein as the rather more scientific Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine, but it is convincing nonetheless. She shows knowledge of a range of figures, events, and theories, from world financial crises to politics in China, from Goethe’s Faust to the history of money. The text is occasionally slightly repetitive, presumably in order to get the points across, but in general, this book is well organised and a fascinating read. Kielos is a good guide through the tricky territory of economics and gender, and I certainly look forward to her next book.