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Book Review: 'Screwnomics' by Rickey Gard Diamond

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Screwnomics: How Our Economy Works Against Women and Real Ways to Make Lasting Change by Rickey Gard Diamond, She Writes Press, 320 pages. $19.95
  • Screwnomics: How Our Economy Works Against Women and Real Ways to Make Lasting Change by Rickey Gard Diamond, She Writes Press, 320 pages. $19.95

As a result of the #MeToo movement, Americans have learned that sexual harassment and assault are pervasive problems, generally rooted in the inequality of power between women and men. The stark contrast in reactions to that dynamic was on dramatic display during last week's testimony from U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.

But another realm of exploitation has yet to get the airing it should, and it lies at the heart of women's oppression. Economic dependence on men looms large not only in the workplace and political arena but also at home, where it often keeps women from leaving their abusers. Vermonter Rickey Gard Diamond has taken up this subject with gusto in her recent book Screwnomics: How Our Economy Works Against Women and Real Ways to Make Lasting Change.

Diamond is a founding editor of Vermont Woman, which began publishing in 1985, when a campaign to pass a Vermont Equal Rights Amendment to the Vermont Constitution was in full swing. The ERA campaign was an eye-opener to many because it exposed the realities of economic and political discrimination against women. We learned, for example, how insurance companies — which quietly funded anti-ERA groups — benefited from charging women higher fees for hospital services such as maternity care.

Ultimately, the Vermont ERA narrowly failed, and probing discussions of gender inequality faded away.

Picking up that topic, Screwnomics offers a guided tour, complete with cartoon illustrations, through "No-Woman's Land" and an economic system that deliberately obscures certain realities by describing them in language only elites understand.

"Economic secrets," Diamond writes, are "hidden right under our noses, when we don't speak the language." She introduces some of that language in a glossary of terms and in "unpacked definitions" throughout the book.

And Diamond does it with irony and humor. Did you know that the word "bond" derives from "bondage"? That "mortgage" is French for "dead-pledge," meaning that the property is bound to the creditor until paid in full, released "only when the pledge is dead"? Or how about a more realistic definition of credit cards as "debt cards"?

Most adults would be hard-pressed to come up with cogent definitions of margin calls, mortgage securities, collateral debt obligations or derivatives. All Greek to you? Diamond convinces us these terms shouldn't be, because understanding them helps explain how we got into one of the biggest economic crises in modern history. Many Americans still have not fully recovered from the 2008 meltdown.

The author eases us into the world of "EconoMan," described as "the pale male voice of money and privilege." Diamond bravely confronts this divide, not in dry academic fashion but using personal stories, many drawn from her own life.

She describes what it was like to grow up poor with a single mom who worked hard to provide for her family, clinging to the notion that "we all make choices and have to live by them" — but without questioning who was ultimately in charge of the options.

Diamond came to realize that "sometimes grown-up choices weren't between good and bad but between bad and horrible ... Good was not even an option sometimes. The guys in charge made choices for you, and they could make choices you didn't want" — such as low pay, tolerance for racism and sexism, and the Vietnam War.

In the 1980s and early '90s, Diamond finally found some measure of economic security with her modest college-teaching salary and her husband's small online music business.

"I knew nothing about Wall Street and [the] Glass-Steagall Act, or what ... investment bankers were up to," she writes. (In brief, the 1932 legislation separated commercial and investment banks.)

Still, being only a few paychecks away from disaster, she understood how it is possible to go broke from an illness, disability, job loss or divorce. Cuts in college salaries, digitization of music, and the internet revolution and its emphasis on "free" information (to the detriment of creators) reinforced in Diamond the notion that her own ongoing struggles "were not exceptional."

Meanwhile, President Bill Clinton's final gutting, in 1999, of the already weakened Glass-Steagall Act gave bankers profits in the billions, fostered reckless lending policies and eventually contributed to the 2008 crash.

Screwnomics explains all of this through the stories of female whistle-blowers such as Brooksley Born, who specialized in derivatives law at a Washington, D.C., law firm before heading the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission. She apparently lost sleep over the lack of regulation she witnessed.

"No federal or state public official had any idea what was going on," Born told the investigative television series "Frontline," "so enormous leverage was permitted, enormous borrowing."

In 2006, Sheila Bair, then head of the U.S. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, tried to warn her male colleagues (including Treasury secretary Hank Paulson) about the increasing number of troubled banks, to no avail. Bair concluded in her own 2013 book, Bull by the Horns: Fighting to Save Main Street From Wall Street and Wall Street From Itself, that guys did not appreciate her "playing in the same sandbox."

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who oversaw the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program bailout, described the same problem in her 2014 memoir A Fighting Chance.

"Women from both parties reported being dismissed and discounted by EconoMan colleagues on Wall Street and [in] Washington," Diamond concludes.

She even dares to critique a fundamental tenet of capitalism: reliance on competition. "EconoMan finds competition unerringly good," Diamond writes. "By contrast, biologists find competition a state that brings harm to species."

Describing a field trip to Cape Cod to study horseshoe crabs, she shares her discovery of adaptation and equilibrium in the natural world. "[E]quilibrium within an ecology results when species efficiently interrelate and reproduce only enough offspring to sustain members."

In stark contrast, Diamond writes, "the division between human economics and a living environment" in our society is "as false and convenient as the old, two-gendered-spheres doctrine of work, divisions benefitting only EconoMan."

As a result, the Earth is increasingly endangered by "inefficiencies" such as climate change, overfishing and pollution.

The point Diamond drives home in myriad ways is that human survival — not just our economic survival — is at stake. She strives to get women talking to women — "EconoGirlfriends" — about the themes in the book, a sort of modern-day version of the consciousness raising of the 1960s and '70s. At the end of each chapter, she provides conversation starters on topics such as the unforeseen cost of rearing children, money stories women are willing to share (or not), and the experience of foreclosure.

Diamond even produced a hands-on workbook that further explains potential avenues for making change. One of those avenues is the creation of a state bank, drawing on the Bank of North Dakota's successes in better serving communities and avoiding a 2018 meltdown.

Screwnomics is an approachable book on a previously unapproachable subject. For anyone who wants to challenge EconoMan's sphere of influence, it is a must-read.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Feminist Economics"