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Elinor Ostrom Gets the Nobel Prize in Economics, and We All Win

These days everyone seems to be caught up in the Obama Peace Prize hullabaloo: He's only been in office for 9 months! How do we know he deserves it? What if he surges the troops in Afghanistan? Personally, I couldn't care less. By now, the Nobel Peace Prize is right up there with the Grammys in the respectability category (or lack thereof), and the prize has a history of rewarding American Imperialism. The original war-mongering president Teddy Roosevelt won one, for Pete's sake. In the irony category, the prize in economics often seems to follow suit, so my jaded trust in the Scandinavian art of prize-giving was pleasantly proven wrong today when I read that Elinor Ostrom became the first woman ever to win the Nobel Prize in Economics.

This prize is exciting partly because Ms. Ostrom is the first woman to win it, but not just because of that. Her winning this prize will hopefully help to highlight women's voices in a field that is desperate for them, and the noble work this Nobel is rewarding will hopefully change the way we think about economics in general.

Anyone living through this shitstorm of a recession will probably agree with me that the economy is a big, bad, scary thing, prone to whims of violence and outrage that seem to leave our Bank of America accounts constantly overdrawn. What we often forget when thinking about the economy is that it isn't some all-knowing system handed down from the gods (or up from the demons), but instead a system constructed entirely by humans. Nope, scratch that: men. Nope, scratch that: straight, white, upper-middle class men. As the feminist economist Marilyn Waring points out in her book Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and Women are Worth (great book! Everyone should read it!), economics students can still look forward to studying the works of a long list of male economists whose ideas on society are regarded as science and help to shape every aspect of the way we live. "Wherever one of these students of economics looks, she will find women's experience excluded or numbed by language," she writes. "The writings of feminist economists Olive Schreiner and Charlotte Perkins Gilman will not be part of the curriculum. Ritual bows may be made in the direction of equal pay or discrimination against women in the labor force or comparable worth (equal pay for work of equal value.) Yet even these are more likely to be found in 'women's studies' publications than in mainstream economic journals."

So before we start celebrating Professor Ostrom's life work, let's talk about the silver anniversary of an economics prize that was also a huge landmark for women. The 1984 Nobel Prize in Economics went to a British man named Sir Richard Stone for his work on helping to formalize the United Nations' system of national accounting, a system that is now used in virtually every country in the world to calculate Gross Domestic Product. When international institutions like the U.N., the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund started becoming the beacons of international aid, they needed a way to determine how to distribute aid to the places and problem areas that needed it the most. This system of national accounting was their answer. Unfortunately, in addition to the charge that the system is a form of neocolonialism for its tendency to force developing economies to squeeze into its post-industrial ideas of economic production, it's notorious for making women and the environment invisible. For example, it has no way of accounting for the unpaid labor that women perform all over the globe, nor does it find it necessary to account for the innumerable services that natural resources provide. So if aid is being distributed based on the data collected by the national accounting system, good luck to those invisible women and natural resources who are trying to get some of it. This is a huge problem, but the system's supporters are large in number, and in a world where economics is treated as a science, the system's shortcomings are written off as a minor by-product of an infallible method worthy of the highest honor.

Fast-forward to today, and what we've got is a woman being awarded the prize for her work on studying the ability of humans to care for the commons without the help of governments or corporations and finding out that we don't do that bad of a job. In fact, according to Ostrom's research, we often do a better job of taking care of nature's gifts than institutions do. Who would have thunk it! A quarter of a century later, and the Nobel Prize in Economics is not only bringing women and the environment out of the woodworks, it's putting them front and center. Ostrom winning the award is also noteworthy because her research falls decidedly into the field of social science. This is already pissing off people in the world of economics. Steven D. Levitt, professor of economics at the University of Chicago, which is coincidentally the college that has produced a slew of some of the douchebaggiest Nobel Prize-winning economists, said in the New York Times, "The economics profession is going to hate the prize going to Ostrom even more than Republicans hated the Peace prize going to Obama. Economists want this to be an economists' prize (after all, economists are self-interested). This award demonstrates, in a way that no previous prize has, that the prize is moving toward a Nobel in Social Science, not a Nobel in economics. I don't mean to imply this is necessarily a bad thing — economists certainly do not have a monopoly on talent within the social sciences — just that it will be unpopular among my peers."

So this isn't just a prize for Ostrom, it's a prize for all of us feminists and environmentalists. This prize is dangerous! It means that all of those economics students out there might now be reading Ostrom in addition to Stone, and that means that maybe even Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Vandana Shiva and other feminist economists and thinkers could make their way into economics curricula and turn the field into less of a dick-waving meatfest, and more of what it should be: a social science that is supposed to be looking out for the rest of us.

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Great post. Huzzah for Elinor Ostrom!