Markets and the Good   /   Fall 2023   /    Thematic: Markets and the Good

Name Your Industry—or Else!

The dehumanizing way economics data describes us.

Sarah M. Brownsberger

YAY Media AS/Alamy Stock Photo.

My alma mater wants to know what industry I belong to. In a wash of good feeling after seeing old friends, I have gone to the school website to update my contact information. Name and address, easy, marital status, well and good—but next comes a drop-down menu asking for my “industry.”

In my surprise, I have an impulse to type “Where the bee sucks, there suck I!” But you can’t quote Shakespeare in a drop-down menu. You can only opt only for its options.

The school is certainly cutting-edge. Like a fashion item that you see once and assume is aberrant and then see ten times in a week, the word “industry” is all over town. Cryptocurrency is an industry. So are Elvis-themed marriages. Outdoor recreation is an industry. A brewery in my city hosts “Industry Night,” a happy hour “for those who work in the industry”—tapsters and servers.

Are we all in an industry? What happened to “occupation”?

From the fine print at the bottom of the webpage, I gather that this drop-down menu is part of an “alumni-management product” from a data analytics company.

How will this data describe us? Say I work as a barista, dog-walker, and freelance videographer. I report the freelancing as my career goal, though I netted only $413 on it last year. The school boasts of having produced 900 videographers, while my most crucial job is hiding my food from my housemates.

“Writing and Editing” is on the menu, but I don’t click it. I erase myself and leave the page. This classification feels not just clumsy, but dehumanizing.

“Industry” suggests commercial enterprise. Yet there are many fields that we wish were unneeded. “Divorce industry” and “abortion industry” are accusations of profiteering off human pain. Physicians may “engage with industry”—for example, train to use a patented technique—but they have an obligation not to use treatments to boost revenues. The M in HMO stands for maintenance. It’s easy to forget this as ads blare, “Ask your doctor if AbeeZlebub is right for you!” A public radio sponsor touts its stable of shrinks—a hallucinatory number to choose from. Two chic doctors pose in a penthouse, “busy entrepreneurs with multiple medical practices.”

The pressure to view all work as enterprise is not just fashion. It is being promoted. Ask Google what industry you belong to, and quizzes from headhunters will pop up, promising to reveal “the perfect industry for you.” Deeper into your search results, government sites will offer to help you find out what industry you are already in; if you get paid, you are in one. This has been quietly true for a long time. The North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS) is a key tool in our national accounts. As such, it aims to include all work. Though the eighth-century poet Hanshan said, “If I wrote my poems on biscuits, the dogs would refuse them,” you will find “Poets, independent” in NAICS. Medical care is industry #621111. If you’re unsure of your industry, you can email “Dr. NAICS” and ask, at

How did a dry-as-bones government accounting tool end up on private websites, and on the tip of every tongue?

For a century, great minds in statistics have struggled to measure the economy in terms of industries, in a system that can work across bureaucracies and borders. Their project has been so influential that in some countries their methods are revered as “universal values”: “dedication, professionalism, critical thinking, scientific rationality and rigour.”11xCarlo Malaguerra et al., Fifty Years of the Conference of European Statisticians, United Nations Statistical Commission and United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, 2003, 3–5,

The need to measure economies is as old as war and famine. How much ore can you mine for weapons? Can your enemies forge steel? In Genesis 41, Pharaoh orders Joseph to reckon how much grain to store in case of drought.

A global system of economic data is, however, a modern project. It was born in mid-nineteenth-century Europe, of imperial and trade concerns and government needs to track new industries and burgeoning populations that now chased jobs from place to place. World War I strengthened the world’s will to count mines and forges. In 1928, the League of Nations constituted a “Committee of Statistical Experts” to create a nomenclature for kinds of work. Ten years later, the League published a slender book, Statistics of the Gainfully-Occupied Population.22xCommittee of Statistical Experts, Statistics of the Gainfully-Occupied Population (Geneva, Switzerland: League of Nations, 1938), National Library of Scotland, Accessed March 3, 2023.

From this seed grew the colossal tree of industrial classifications that now shades our world. Its larger branches include the above-mentioned NAICS, its European Union counterpart NACE, and the United Nations’ international standard, ISIC. In the 1990s, the tree sent out digital shoots, and crossbred with global finance. The result was new, altered fruits such as GICS, the Global Industry Classification Standard created by Morgan Stanley and Standard & Poor.

The pith of all this growth is the League of Nations Experts’ definition of “gainful occupation.”

The League of Nations Experts began, as Aristotle had, with the gathering of nature’s fruits. Farming, fishing, and the like were “primary production.” Next came building and manufacture, which make things from nature’s fruits. Third, to serve the first two, came services: commerce, transportation, communication, hostelry, and public service.33xCommittee of Statistical Experts, 16. Cf. Aristotle, Politics I.8–9, 1256a–1257b.

Gain Is Money

Adam Smith might well have said, “Count services as cost!” Services create no “vendible commodity.” Even the important work of armies and statesmen, “like the declamation of the actor…perishes in the very instant of its production,” Smith wrote. Service, he went on to say, is maintained by revenues derived from “the rude produce of the land.”44xAdam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Great Books of the Western World, ed. Mortimer Adler, vol. 36 (Chicago, IL: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1996), bk. 2, ch. 3, 161; bk. 4, ch. 9, 326. First published 1776.

To detach productivity from actual product still seemed odd enough in the 1930s that the US government relegated services to a separate volume of its classification handbook, where they stayed until 1957.55xEsther Pearce, “History of the Standard Industrial Classification,” US Census Bureau, April 5, 2011, 3, First published 1957. Yet the growth of large corporations meant that resource procurement, manufacture, and services were combined in single enterprises. This posed “almost insuperable difficulties,” the League of Nations Experts grumbled. The solution was to define industry as a set of “establishments”—physical places—that provided the same main product or service. A printer in a cigarette factory was in the tobacco industry, as was the office receptionist.66xCommittee of Statistical Experts, 13–14.

This corporate image of economic life bears one ghostly resemblance to Aristotle’s world. Like the slaves of his time, who might include “weavers, carvers, and armorers…bank clerks, many architects, shipbuilders, and the lower state officials,”77xNuma Denis Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City, trans. Willard Small (Perth, Australia: Imperium Press, 2020), 275. First published 1864. today’s diverse wage slaves are once more gathered with owners and clients under one roof, only it now belongs to a corporation, not an aristocrat.

The Experts’ notion of work, however, was worlds away from Aristotle’s. Their task was to measure the whole economy. The clearest way to quantify economic activity, especially across borders, was in monetary terms. Thus, a “gainful occupation” became “any occupation for which the person engaged therein is remunerated.”88xCommittee of Statistical Experts, 9.

Seen from this angle, productive work seems to begin with the market. A farm is a business that sells biological assets. The berries and cream that go down the farm children’s throats are counted, if at all, as losses. The basis of Aristotle’s economy—nature feeding “that which is born”99xAristotle, Politics, I.10, 1258a, trans. Benjamin Jowett, in Richard McKeon, ed. The Basic Works of Aristotle (New York, NY: Random House, 1941).—slips out of sight behind the market wall.

Workers Lost in the Outer Darkness

The problem of household work bothered the Experts. Urban housework did not count, the male scientists agreed, and farm wives too mostly puttered at “domestic affairs.” Sometimes, though, farm wives helped the farmer with his tasks, tasks that might eventually pertain to sales. At those moments, farm wives were gainfully occupied.1010xCommittee of Statistical Experts, 8–10. If, as a farmer mowed, his wife walked ahead of the tractor picking up dried cowpies, she was working. While tending her hens that supplied her large household with eggs and meat, she was a dependent.

Nations with large subsistence economies scoffed at this definition of work. Quite without money, you farmed, spun, wove, sewed, doctored, hunted, baked, sang epics, built and repaired houses, cooked, and worked wood and metal, but if you could not report income, you were unemployed?

Nowadays, the United Nations and European industrial classifications include unpaid household production and services. NAICS, however, still pins labor to compensation. If an American dad cooks dinner, he is playing. If a Belgian dad cooks, he is working.

The US Bureau of Economic Analysis now maintains a “satellite account” to study housework. “These unpaid chores don’t count toward the nation’s GDP. But we all know they have value,” the Bureau writes. It is trying to “extend economic measurement beyond the market economy.” How? By reckoning the market value of unpaid labor.1111xBureau of Economic Analysis, We’ve Got Your Number, January 2020, 25,

Do we want to account for private effort in market terms? Simon Kuznets, the great mastermind of measuring national growth, thought not. Household labor was “an integral part of family life,” he wrote, not of “the specifically business life of the nation.”1212xSimon Kuznets, “National Income, 1929–1932,” National Bureau of Economic Research, January 4, 1934, 4, Was that assertion sexist, or humanist? Should we fight for equity by demanding dollar values for all tasks, or by demanding the right to order our lives and society by nonmarket values?

In 2013, the International Conference of Labour Statisticians resolved to broaden the definition of work to include unpaid activities.1313x“Resolution concerning statistics of work, employment and labour underutilization,” Nineteenth International Conference of Labour Statisticians, October 11, 2013, 3, Will this vindicate unpaid labor, and provide a hard argument for social protections for all, perhaps even those of us who cobble together lives of art, craft, caregiving, and study?

While the Conference broadened the definition of work, it also explicitly narrowed “employment” and “the labor force” to mean paid work.1414xIbid., 6. It resolved to refine time use surveys, such as the American Time Use Survey launched in 2003, to discover the exact reasons why some able-bodied adults were not in the labor force, and to place each of them in the correct “category of labour underutilization.”1515xIbid., 16.

The Conference further resolved that “anonymized, confidentialized micro datasets” from these time use surveys should be publicly released annually “to analysts and other interested users.”1616xIbid., 17. Those users now include data analytics businesses such as the one my alma mater sunk our donation dollars into.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics offers a celestial graphic of “satellite accounts” orbiting core statistics. The unpaid workers circle in outer darkness, like the vagabonds of ancient Greece beyond the household walls. Recent changes seem more likely to rope vagabonds in than to help them survive on their own terms.

Dangerous Accounting

“Prevention of misuse” is one of those revered “universal values” of the statistical profession. Kuznets warned that national income accounting “becomes dangerous” when its criteria are forgotten. Lucrative industries in the accounts might not be “serviceable from the social viewpoint.”1717xKuznets, “National Income,” 5. Like a clawhammer, “the numbers” can both build and destroy.

In 1987, members of the Technical Committee revising the US Standard Industrial Classification Manual expressed concern that “SIC-based statistical measures designed for policy research and planning are being increasingly used for other purposes that have direct impacts on the public.” The various data collection activities had “subtle yet pervasive” influences on public attitudes toward the economy.1818xRolf R. Schmitt and Michael Rossetti, “SIC Pursuits: The Consequences and Problems of Classifying Establishments for Government Statistics,” Bureau of Transportation Statistics, May 24, 2017, 2, 1, First published 1987.

After the 2008 financial crisis, the US Senate held a hearing on the use and abuse of economic data. Ironically, some of the testimony against over-reliance on the metric of gross domestic product revealed just how “pervasive” SIC-based thinking had become. One witness argued that “investing in the health of infants and children has an especially high pay-off.” Children bereft of care showed “reduced productivity” later in life. Another witness agreed that this was an important problem because “the value of human capital stock may be as large as that of the physical capital stock.”1919xUS Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Rethinking the Gross Domestic Product as a Measurement of National Strength: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Interstate Commerce, Trade, and Tourism, 110th Cong. 1141, March 12, 2008, 24, 23, 27,

The Aristotelian stance that it is “unnatural” to engage in transactions “in which men gain from one another”2020xAristotle, Politics I.10, 1258b. now stands on its head. Gaining from human interaction is prerequisite to social acceptance.

How did we come to justify caring for children in terms of “pay-offs”?

Numbers as Product

While senators, activists, and economists study how to better account for nature and need, the market is promoting and selling hotly competitive SIC-derived indices. Industrial classifications used in finance and data analytics are shaped more or less like public classifications and are clothed in the same scientific raiment. Fidelity Investments writes, of GICS, “Just as chemists need universal and stable units of measure to create precise formulations, investors need objectively defined investment categories.” Yet GICS is “more market oriented than production oriented,” Fidelity notes. Instead of making “a clear distinction between consumer goods and consumer services,” GICS classes industries according to their “expected response to changes in business cycles.”2121x“The Global Industry Classification Standard (GICS): An Objective Language for Sectors,” FMR LLC, 2016,

In the 1930s, the League of Nations Experts reluctantly lumped production and services together, when necessary, within industries, but took care to recognize the material difference between the two kinds of work. Their aim, after all, was to describe capacity at home and abroad so that societies could plan for the future and cope with the present.

If the eighteenth century factored manufacture into measures of productivity, and the twentieth century added services, high finance now has added the numbers themselves, detached from the reality of workers and goods. Indeed, its systems give the numbers primacy. Probabilities pay. If the emperor’s new clothes are going to trend, buy! The aim, after all, is profit.

Aristotle worried that coin money harmed society by confusing us about why we seek wealth in the first place: to meet need.2222xAristotle, Politics I.9, 1257b. One can only eat so much, but numbers are infinite.

We think: I buy corn with money; if I make infinite money, there’ll be infinite corn. Money comes to seem like the goal. The source of money is the market. Market success becomes the index of social contribution. Working for other reasons becomes deviant, “not only immoral but also mad,” Karl Polanyi wrote.2323xKarl Polanyi, “Our Obsolete Market Mentality,” Commentary, 3, no. 2 (February 1947): 109–17, Conversely, someone who buys an airplane with gold-plated fixtures is seen not as a madman but as a provider.

Calling Illusion to Account

In the Book of Job, God reproaches Job for his moral presumption by asking him, in essence, Can your own right hand save you?2424xJob 40:9, 14: “Hast thou an arm like God? or canst thou thunder with a voice like him?... Then I will also confess unto thee that thine own right hand can save thee.” (King James Version) Clever as opposable thumbs are, hands are merely instrumental to feeding ourselves. We can twist fibers, make a net, and catch fish only if there are fibers and fish. Nature feeds us.

Self-importance confuses us on this point. Money confuses us on this point. So do the manmade environment and coexisting with eight billion other people. Accounting methods can contribute to the illusion that we subsist on our own industry.

Conquering this confusion is now essential to survival. If we do not show more restraint toward the rest of the biome, we will die. Yet high finance and data analytics promote the confusion by touting numbers themselves as productive. They cloak their benchmarks in the authority of our national accounts, and present market growth as communal well-being.

Market numbers tell us that we “grow” growth. We have come to believe it. The “in-vitro fertilization industry” purrs, “We build families”—as if technology summoned our urges or fulfilled our longest commitments.

Karl Polanyi foresaw that attempts to achieve a “market utopia” would lead to environmental as well as social devastation. He urged a clearer recognition of mortality and the force of human nature in society.2525xKarl Polanyi, The Great Transformation (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2001), 266–68. First published 1944. A first step might be to take statisticians at their word when they say that their tools are destructive when deployed out of context.

For example, applying SIC codes to alumni might not be the best way to keep alumni close and boost donations. Since this is an essay, not a drop-down menu, I can leave it to Shakespeare to name what might make alumni recoil: “That daily break-vow, he that wins of all,… / Commodity, the bias of the world.”26Shakespeare, King John, 2.1, 569, 574.