16 February 2009

A Valentine

I saw the movie "Revolutionary Road" with my wife this weekend. Happy St. Valentine's Day, Dear!

The thoughts it inspired were not the expected ones: love and sadness, the creeping boredom of the suburbs, madness and sanity and conformity, the importance of legal and available abortion, Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio and the Titanic. No. The thoughts the movie inspired were economic. Stay with me here.

In the movie, Kate's character is a bored '50's housewife who feels like she's a prisoner of the suburbs and her husband's soulless career. She hopes to escape (with him) to Paris where she can maybe work as a secretary for an embassy or NATO or the EC—it pays big bucks—while her husband (the Leo character) takes some time off to find out what he truly wants out of life. He is in danger, now, of becoming just like his anonymous father, a salesman drone.

The Wheelers (Kate and Leo) are anomalies in the suburbs. Everyone there is cookie-cutter: men in hats go off to work on the trains and the women stay home (in the house) with the kids. It is before two-car families. Married women, of a certain socio-economic class, do not work. It is before feminism. Children are seen and not heard. (The Wheelers would be in their mid-eighties today.)

The idea of Kate getting a job is so far-fetched it borders on insanity—this is one of the key tropes of the film. But—and this is the question I keep coming back to—what happens when key members of the society (bright, trainable women) are not allowed to be economically productive? The movie is about what happens to individuals when you stifle them. The economic question is what happens to the society.

This is not an academic question, by any stretch of the imagination. We, in the West, are inured to the idea women being regular, productive participants in the workplace economy for half a century. Hell, we very nearly had our first female president this year: Hilary Rodham Clinton. Yet, in many societies, this is not the case. Anyone see the movie "Persepolis"? One thinks also of the Taliban and their brothers. Last week, I saw the following headline: "Saudi Princess Says She's Ready to Drive." Repression, suppression of females is on-going in much of the world.

I'm not trying to make a moral point here (e.g., it's wrong to repress the creative productivity of a human being), or even raise the issue of sexual liberation (e.g., god says women's place is in the kitchen and the hareem), or even the whole question of property (e.g., women are chattel).

What are the economic effects when half your productive employees are unemployed? [Of course, 'half' is an exaggeration. Many women are, indeed, voluntarily employed in the legitimate job of home-making and child-rearing and have no desire to enter the workplace. Fine. Let's call it a third, for argument's sake.] When a third of your economic producers are not allowed to take gainful employment, your economy will only chug along at two-thirds its true potential—in broad strokes.

Given the current state of the global economy, what would happen if the powers that be (the powers that squelch) were to unleash this amazing potential? Educate women equally, employ women fully, pay women what they're worth. Is this a worthwhile, transformative goal for, let's say, our current Secretary of State to pencil in to her agenda? I think so. Could it remake the global economy? That's change we can believe in.

Happy (belated) Valentine's Day.

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