When “value” became shorthand for “economic worth”

From Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist by Kate Raworth (emphasis mine):

Despite such misgivings from the twentieth century’s two most influential economists, the dominance of the economist’s perspective on the world has only spread, even into the language of public life. In hospitals and clinics worldwide, patients and doctors have been recast as customers and service-providers.

There may be no perfect frame waiting to be found, but, argues the cognitive linguist George Lakoff, it is absolutely essential to have a compelling alternative frame if the old one is ever to be debunked. Simply rebutting the dominant frame will, ironically, only serve to reinforce it. And without an alternative to offer, there is little chance of entering, let alone winning, the battle of ideas.

But when political economy was split up into political philosophy and economic science in the late nineteenth century, it opened up what the philosopher Michael Sandel has called a ‘moral vacancy’ at the heart of public policymaking. Today economists and politicians debate with confident ease in the name of economic efficiency, productivity and growth—as if those values were self-explanatory—while hesitating to speak of justice, fairness and rights. Talking about values and goals is a lost art waiting to be revived.

I love that.

And the example of healthcare I think is exactly right. Everything is a business–that’s unavoidable. It isn’t even a bad thing. Lose money and you won’t be in business very long. But not all businesses need to be organized with the primary purpose of optimizing productivity and growth.

Good patient care is inefficient. Talking to people–understanding their perspective and helping them become active participants in their health–takes time. A patient visit was never meant to be an assembly-line 15-minute med check.

It’s not that we should applaud or celebrate inefficiency. There is plenty of waste to trim in any enterprise. It’s that these ideas–efficiency, productivity, and growth–should be tools to achieve meaningful ends, not the primary endpoint. Measure what matters.

And if some of that extra “value” makes it to the actual workers? Much of our economy is predicated on individuals misallocating their income away from savings and away from optimizing their time:

As economist Tim Jackson deftly put it, we are ‘persuaded to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to make impressions that won’t last on people we don’t care about’.

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