What Really Counts: The debt, women and our future

What do women really want from our President? This is a question President Obama should be asking if he wants to keep his job for another term – which hinges on the women’s vote. His campaign emphasizes the appointments of very talented women: Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, Elizabeth Warren to launch the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; and other outstanding women to top Cabinet posts; such as Secretaries Hillary Clinton, Janet Napolitano, Kathleen Sebelius, and Hilda Solis.

But such accomplishments do not begin to go far enough. For one thing, by authorizing major cuts to traditionally women’s jobs in education, health care and family planning, the President allowed an assault on women’s economic status and health-care access. Moreover, he allowed opponents to divert the conversation about economic recovery from the millions of unemployed and the massive increase in Americans in poverty to an obsessive focus on reducing the deficit through government program cuts. And because women comprise the vast majority of public-sector teachers, nurses, social workers, caregivers and others being laid off, women are now bearing the brunt of job losses.

These shortsighted and cruel cuts are not only harming millions of people and their families; they will soon harm us all. With health, education, and poverty alleviation programs being scrapped, our nation is undermining the most important asset for our economic future: the “high-quality human capital” economists tell us is essential for success in our post-industrial knowledge/service economy. Yet instead of educating the public about this, the Administration has itself started to talk about job creation exclusively in the private sector – with no mention of the havoc being created by gutting employment in the public sector, or of its dire future consequences.

Instead, the Administration joined “the sky is falling” talk about the deficit, failing to point out that our federal debt (roughly equal to our annual GDP or about $14 trillion, a ratio of 1-to-1 according to the most alarmist calculations) is actually far lower than our debt to GDP ratio during World War II. It is also far lower than that of many other countries. Japan had a 2.25-to-1 debt to GDP even before the massive earthquake and tsunami disaster. Certainly we have to watch our national debt, especially because so much of it is owed to foreign nations. But it must not be used as the rationale for cutting essential services or for a wholesale firing of public employees, much less as an excuse for demonizing unions, without which we would not have had a middle class.

As television and radio host Larry King stated recently, “The average guy isn’t sitting today in a diner going ‘Oh, the deficit.'” Instead we’re supposed to genuflect to the “wisdom” of the old boys clubs on Wall Street and the Chamber of Commerce about the importance of addressing the deficit through spending cuts alone to jobs which provide needed human capital. Continued focus on cutting teachers, health care workers, and other traditionally female jobs will not address the stalling of the economy, but instead will mean a lot more pain and no gains for a lot more people both in the short and long term.

We’ve got to also debunk clichés about a typical American family sitting around the dinner table being better at understanding how to balance a budget than officials in Washington. In reality, most Americans’ mortgages average about $172,000 – more than four times the $40,000 average annual salary. College students also amass heavy debts with student loans, but few would encourage young people to forgo the enormous future value of a higher education. Moreover, businesses routinely take on substantial debt in order to invest in future research and development that produces a high return. As Sally Kohn reported in her USA Today op-ed, “IBM borrows twice as much money as it earns annually. Boeing borrows four times more than it earns. JP Morgan Chase… borrows 50 times more than it earns … If the U.S. were borrowing anywhere near as much as Chase bank, we’d have legitimate reason to worry. But in general, borrowing money is necessary to invest in the future – whether the future of a business or the future of a nation.”

With the recent announcement of an opening for a new Chair of the President’s Council on Economic Advisors, there is an opportunity for the Administration to re-direct the conversation to what has been ignored at our peril: the urgent need for investing in our nation’s human infrastructure. And choosing a woman who understands these vital matters could go a long way to applying the fundamentals of economics in a more balanced way. We need the voices of women to talk about what really counts: increasing the real wealth of our nation by investing in its human beings.

Riane Eisler is best-selling author of The Chalice and the Blade and most recently of The Real Wealth of Nations and founder of the Center for Partnership Studies (www.partnershipway.org). Kimberly Otis is a women’s rights advocate and Director of the center’s Caring Economics Campaign.