A Lesson from Dalton, Georgia

Reading a larger trend from the story of one little town, Reuters posts a story about the declining middle class:
The trend is in plain sight in Dalton, Georgia, a manufacturing hub 90 miles (145 km)north of Atlanta. Massive factories that made it "the carpet capital of the world," were slammed by the collapse of the housing bubble. During the recession, with machines idle, they began investing heavily in new technology and are now laying plans to restore some lost jobs.

But the new positions are more skewed to the high and low end, and there will be fewer of them per dollar of output than before the recession, said Brian Anderson, president of the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce.

"We can produce a whole lot of new carpet with not a lot more people," Anderson said. Companies have spent between $1.5 and $2 billion on retooling and innovation, reducing demand for labor, while higher than average regional unemployment continued to hold down wages, he said.
No reason to think this isn't the wave of the future. No reason to say that employers ought to be compelled to hire people instead of buying lower-cost capital improvements that automate the process. As the economy advances in automation and robotics, though, we just don't need as many people.

The effect is that families -- not poor, but solidly middle class families who were doing well a few years ago -- are rapidly falling towards bankruptcy.
Between 2010 and 2013, as recovery took hold and stock markets soared, the average net worth of families in the top 40 percent of income earners grew. For all others average net worth shrank, declining 19 percent for the middle fifth.

Similarly, the average earnings for families in the top 10 percent grew more than 9 percent from 2010 through 2013, while those at other levels stagnated or shrank. For the middle fifth, average earnings fell 4.6 percent.

Over the six years through 2013, the middle fifth's average annual family earnings fell to $47,243 from $53,008 while their average net worth dropped to $170,066 from $236,525.
I don't think that's going to turn around, not in the next two years and not even after. It's a structural problem, though government has certainly made it worse by forcing industries to shift to part-time work to avoid the impossible obligations of Obamacare. Work is no longer going to be a reliable way to wealth, because work isn't going to be available for everyone. Everybody will be working part-time, and nobody will be making a living, until globalization levels the playing field and American workers' living standards are on par with Bangladesh or China.

Even then, when their living standards are low enough that they can live on third-world pay, we may just not need them.


Eric Blair said...

William Gibson's new novel "The Peripheral" is sort of set in such a world, (and someplace in Georgia, no less).

Not really pretty.

Grim said...

I'll have to look that up.

David Foster said...

Mechanization-based productivity improvements have been going on for a long time. A hand (or foot) operated Spinning Jenny, circa late 1700s, could do as much work as about 10 human spinsters. Power-operated textile equipment, circa early 1800s, offered much greater productivity improvements. Numerically-controlled machine tools, common by the 1970s, sparked the same kinds of excitement and fears that 3-D printing and robotics do today. Mainframe computers replaced large numbers of clerical workers starting in the mid-1950s. Records and talking pictures eliminated many jobs previously held by local musicians. And so on.

I'm not convinced that today's automation technologies represent any kind of radical discontinuity from the productivity rend line represented by these kinds of earlier innovations, and I think our present unemployment and underemployment problems have more to do with bad public policy, incompetent public education, and various cultural dysfunctions than they are any sort of inevitable consequence of technology.

Texan99 said...

Ditto. That fight has been simmering for centuries. Stasis promises security, but in the long run all it ensures is unnecessary poverty--much more severe and long-term poverty than the change spurs. I'd rather see us get better at dealing with change.

Grim said...

I'm not interested in stasis. I'm not against automation. I'm just concerned about the effect on people of permanent unemployment or underemployment.

We can fix the public policy issues (well, in theory: in practice, the government may be too broken). There's no reason to think we can, or even should, fix this issue.

So I wonder what we do instead. It might be nice to believe that un/underemployment would go away if we got the policies right, but those workers are still in competition with the ones in Bangladesh -- and it's increasing technology that makes that possible, too. I'm not interested in an America in which poor and 'middle class' workers live a third-world lifestyle, not even if I get to be one of the ones who doesn't (which is, of course, not at all guaranteed).

Texan99 said...

You've suggested before that you don't believe we can fix the problem of unemployment or underemployment. I know from experience I can't persuade you otherwise! But that seems to leave you protesting that you're not interested in the consequences. I imagine you're not alone there. I mean, I know by "uninterested" you mean "opposed," but then no one else is in favor of poverty, either, right? It's just that not everyone agrees with you that it's inevitable. I'd say history suggests otherwise. Several hundred years ago people were convinced poverty was permanent and inevitable, but that turned out not to be the case, in large part because of a new attitude toward change.

Inequality, in contrast, may be permanent and inevitable.

Grim said...

I'm hoping it's not inevitable. I'd like to think that the automation can bring about a world in which prosperity is easier to achieve than ever before. We'll be able to make more, and better, goods than we've ever been able to do, with less work! What's not to like about that?

Well, there's nothing not to like about it, as long as we can deal with the problem of making sure our fellow citizens aren't living in easily avoidable poverty. The poverty ought to be easily avoidable since, after all, we as a country will be able to produce more and better stuff than ever before, and more cheaply since we've largely disposed of labor costs. It ought to be a short gap to cross to general prosperity, but the way things are set up now, instead we're watching wealth in the middle class destroyed rather than increased.

Texan99 said...

That's right. Sometimes the best thing you can do when you get in a mood like this is take out your checkbook.

Grim said...

I suppose I might pray for a day when my checkbook could solve anyone's problems -- even my own. I don't because it would be unworthy to pray to God for prosperity. Forgiveness is already a gift undeserved, and of far greater value. How dare I pray for money?

Whatever the case, charity has not yet striven to answer this problem. Perhaps it someday shall, and that would be noble and wonderful. So far, it has not approached it.

Texan99 said...

There's always someone worse off.

Grim said...

That's why I'm interested in them too. I can't save them. I may not even be able to save myself. But I can at least care about whether they drown or not. I can at least think about, care about, how to save them.

Texan99 said...

I wonder if it would be worthy to pray for someone else to have prosperity, so they'd have the means to give to people less fortunate than ourselves?

Grim said...

May God save them, if it is right that He should do so. Amen. But if it isn't right -- if it is right that it falls to us -- we should perhaps give that duty some thought.

Texan99 said...

If we haven't yet given it some thought, now would be a good time to start.

Grim said...

Good. So far, the thought I've seen is that it's chiefly a public policy problem -- that it will all work itself out -- and that, anyway, perhaps people will give enough money freely, in spite of the standing example of history, that it won't matter.

That leaves a philosophical problem of some importance to one side -- of how we can have a government in which we are in any sense 'equals' if some few are paying the freight for everyone else. How can that possibly be sustainable? How could it be just?

I haven't meant to propose an easy answer or set of answers. But it's a problem that's going to be on top of us, and the pat answers people give for it today are entirely out of order with the scale of the problem. They are non-answers.

Texan99 said...

You were so close, but now you're back to thinking of it as someone's job. It never can be. For each person who believes charity is the answer, the duty lies on himself. It's not conceptually difficult. It's only hard to do.

Grim said...

The duty I'm proposing is a citizen's duty. It is our duty to think about how to address this set of problems.

The answer you're proposing is not a good answer for two reasons. First, whether it works effectively or not is completely contingent on whether the people who have money are also the sort of people who feel a duty to charity. There's no guarantee that will be the case; indeed, there's pretty good evidence from human history that it probably won't be the case.

Second, even if it did work, it sets up a very strange sort of equality. Let's say that some billionaire is donating charitably to all the families in Dalton, GA, so that they don't fall into crushing poverty. (This is not without precedent: Kim Bassinger once bought the entire town of Braselton, GA, for a similar purpose. She ended up losing a lot of money on the deal, but it was an act of charity intended to keep peoples' businesses from going under more than it was an investment.)

Now the election comes around, and he very publicly supports one candidate over another. How much political equality do the families he's supporting have? A little, because of the secrecy of the ballot, but if they get out and support a candidate he'll know. Possibly some more, contingent on whether this guy is a really good sport and won't cut them off. Possibly more than that, if they're willing to trade his support for their liberty.

So even if there's plenty of charity to go around, which is far from certain, it's destructive to the form of government we believe in. We need a solution somewhat more like Jefferson's yeoman farmer solution, in which people are able to own their own means of production. You don't need equality in the sense of everybody having the same wealth; you can have rampant inequality in those terms. But you do need people to have a measure of independence, a way of earning a living, or the form of government will collapse. You'll end up either with an oligarchy, or the last gasp of democracy will be to vote for some sort of socialist tyranny.

And frankly, those do seem to be the evolving positions of our major political parties. It's a real threat now, not just in the William Gibson future.

Texan99 said...

"It sets up a strange form of equality"--Well, as you know, I don't believe in equality of that sort. I only believe in a personal obligation of charity.

If I see someone needs help, I do what I'm willing and able to do to help. If I can't or won't do enough, I live with it the discomfort of knowing that there's misery in the world that I can't or won't fix. I could try to persuade others--richer others--to donate in my place, but I'd lack moral persuasiveness if I were willing to stop giving before my economic circumstances had dropped so that they were equal to the person who needed help. If there were a duty to eradicate inequality, isn't that what it would come to?

Grim said...

I don't believe in equality of that sort.

Ah, which sort? You don't believe in financial equality, but that's not the issue: rampant inequality of resources is fine, as long as there's a kind of independence available to most citizens.

The equality I'm talking about is political equality, which I think you do believe in. It's about having a society in which people have a similar capacity to engage in politics and pursue their interests. That's the danger -- not inequality of wealth.

You would not, for example, think it acceptable for women to have no resources nor capacity for resources of their own, no matter how charitable the men in their lives were being. There are ways in which being dependent and incapable of independent wealth make you also politically unequal. You've written about that a number of times here.

So if we develop an economy in which there just isn't work for a lot of people at a level that would allow them to avoid poverty, we have a similar problem. They aren't being forbidden to own wealth or make money, but the opportunity is nevertheless not there. That's a problem by what I take to be your standards.

More than that, it's a problem that charity can't solve. Just as it won't do for women to live by the charity of men, it won't do for ordinary citizens to live by the charity of the rich. Not because they'll be poorer than the rich, but because they'll be reduced to a subject class.

Texan99 said...

I would not think it acceptable for women to be formally denied access to resources, or more properly, to the opportunity to offer goods and services in trade for them. I have no political views about ensuring that women have equal results in terms of accumulating resources.

The word "poverty" is not one we use in the same sense. I don't believe we have an economy in which there is not work to prevent people from maintaining themselves. That they may maintain themselves in a level that someone else defines as poverty I don't dispute. I've been that poor, my family has been that poor, and I don't think there's any system that can prevent it, here, in the third world, or anywhere. I only think there's a system that can do the best job of ensuring that the average prosperity, and therefore the average level of the least fortunate/successful, is higher than it would have been in the sort of centralized redistributionist systems that typically are put in effect in order to reduce "inequality."

I agree that there are problems that charity can't solve. They are the same problems that economic reforms can't solve; to the best of my knowledge nothing can solve them. No one ever promised us a world free of material dissatisfaction. I see our duty as helping those we can, not as establishing an ideal world order. I don't believe our duty of charity is in any way contingent on whether it will achieve equality or, frankly, any other result than our having given freely, which God tells me is an end in itself.

We've got to run to Houston now and make a hospital visit, so any replies will have to be delayed! (Not a big deal, just a show of support to an anxious person.)

Texan99 said...

PS, before I run, and lest I be too misunderstood while I'm away, when I say I don't think we have an economic system that prevents people from maintaining themselves, I'm contrasting the economic system with the political one. We have a political system that prevents people from working at the wage they can command, if that wage is below a legally established minimum. In that case they are restricted to charity or nothing. We also have laws allowing unions to prevent work. But economically there is nothing to prevent employment for non-disabled people. There is merely a real-world obstacle to ensuring that they do it at any particular level of material satisfaction, has been since the beginning of time, and as far as I know will be forever.

Grim said...

By the same token, I'm not talking about 'equality of results' or 'material satisfaction.' I'm talking about the availability of independence. Formal disabilities to independence are obviously problematic; it just strikes me that informal disabilities may end up leading to very similar results.

Nobody's doing anything unjust to produce the undesirable state, if that happens: the company that automates is not doing anything wrong, nor is the investor who favors his investment being looked-out-for by seeking greater profits this way. The worker who is put out of work hasn't done anything wrong, and if there isn't work available they aren't doing anything wrong by falling into poverty: it's just a natural consequence of the work having ceased to exist.

The billionaire who doesn't feel a duty to give away most of his fortune isn't doing anything wrong, and the one who does feel a duty -- and does it -- is doing something praiseworthy, but which cannot solve the problem.

Aristotle recommends government redistribution in the face of this problem. Jefferson recommended developing an independent capacity for wealth production in the citizenry -- Georgia tried to do that via a land lottery (which is an option, given the existence of large amounts of Federal lands). Chesterton advocated what is called distributism, a private-property alternative to socialism. None of those strategies have really worked, though.

I've tended to advocate political policies that pursue small business and small farm development to counterbalance economies of scale that favor centralizing ownership (and therefore wealth). Then nobody's getting a free ride, and you'll only achieve independence if you work for it; but the kind of independence that allows for a stable sort of political equality is available even in times when markets don't favor it.

Grim said...

Have a good trip!

David Foster said...

It is interesting: there is widespread concern about mechanization and offshoring driving a decrease in work-to-be-done...yet at the same time, there are a high % of families in which both members of the couple work, and work a lot more hours than they would really like to, and also have a lot less vacation time then they would like to.

Grim said...

That's explicable because the government has followed many policies, usually advocated by corporate donors, designed to depress the price of labor. So, on the one hand there's less work. On the other hand, the supply of labor has been artificially inflated (both through winking at illegal immigration, through legal immigration, and through H1B visas and the like). As Cass sometimes used to point out, another major driver of the depression in labor price was the introduction of women into the broader workforce (no pun intended), which almost doubled the labor supply.

Thus, work is scarcer than it used to be; but if you can get it, it pays less and each family will need more of it to get by.

douglas said...

"I'm not interested in stasis. I'm not against automation. I'm just concerned about the effect on people of permanent unemployment or underemployment."

I think the questionable term there is "permanent". David's comment seems right on the mark there.

"We need a solution somewhat more like Jefferson's yeoman farmer solution, in which people are able to own their own means of production."

You assume that if carpet production isn't providing jobs, then they have nothing. When carpet gets cheaper to manufacture, people have a little money left for something else. What? Well, figure that out and you have your opportunity to make a living. Our necessities are well taken care of- but our desires provide a never ending source of potential income streams.

Texan99 said...

"the government has followed many policies, usually advocated by corporate donors, designed to depress the price of labor"--How so?

Texan99 said...

"the kind of independence that allows for a stable sort of political equality is available even in times when markets don't favor it."--How so?

Grim said...

As regards the first one, policies that have depressed the price of labor include especially the massive immigration of the last two decades, and the dropping of tariffs with third-world countries like Mexico. (Two more such bills, one aimed at Asia and one at Europe, are in the works now). Both of these have the effect of inflating the supply of labor available to firms that want to compete in the US market: many can move abroad (as did whole industries after the passage of NAFTA), and those who won't or can't have access to large pools of imported labor. So, by the laws of supply and demand, the price of labor is depressed.

The effect of this is that household income has been essentially flat for fifty years even as women have entered the workforce in record numbers, and people have had to take second jobs or work extra hours (as David says). See the second chart: for the bottom three quintiles, i.e. those who are middle class or labor, there's almost no change since 1965 in income, though it used to be these were single-income households and now they are mostly double-income.

At some point, unless we rescind the child labor laws, we'll have used up all the cushion of unused hours in the family. At that point, the trend lines will start to fall. They've only been held steady by the fact that households work harder and longer for the same pay.

Grim said...

...even in times when markets don't favor it.

By accepting some market inefficiencies in return for the opportunity to steer work towards smaller, family-run businesses. Markets often don't favor these businesses because of economies of scale. So you have to find ways to make them competitive: tax breaks, regulatory breaks, set-asides (the DOD often sets aside a certain number of its contracts for businesses below a certain size), etc.

Not leveraging economies of scale as fully as possible does mean that less wealth gets created overall. But it means that the wealth that is created is created among far more families, and that someone willing to work hard can find a kind of independence that they might not be able to find now -- no one has a job to offer them, and if they started a business of their own they'd be crushed by regulatory burdens and the effect of economies of scale favoring larger businesses nearby.

Texan99 said...

I've been chewing it over. I can't logically get to political independence from subsidies. Naturally I'm on board with eliminating crushing regulatory burdens--on all businesses, not just small and family businesses.

For the life of me I can't understand why subsidizing businesses that don't perform up to par in the marketplace (or "steering" wealth their way, which amounts to the same thing) is different from putting women in the armed forces and lowering the standards for them. When the function is important to you, you instinctively understand the dangers of fudging results. I'm not sure you really believe that the profitability of a business is quite respectable, which may be why it doesn't bother you to fudge that.

As for the government's depressing wages by allowing competition from immigrants or international trade, I can't disapprove of it. No anti-competitive restraint of trade improves the general prosperity in the long run, even if "general prosperity" is given the limited and local meaning of "the prosperity of the people within the area in which competition and trade are restricted." It's never worked. I don't see why we should believe it ever will. What does work is for people in a competitive economic system to find out what they do best, and leave other people to do what they do best. There are things we can't do as well and as cheaply here as people willing to live very, very cheaply elsewhere. By the same token, we have enormous advantages that come simply by being born here, and it's up to us to use them to do things that can't be done as well far away.

Grim said...

Well, the reason not to introduce women into the combat arms (and lower standards for them) is the same reason that you should make it possible for individuals and families to make a living independently: the system of government we believe in depends on it. The military needs to perform at its best to defend a space in which political equality is possible. People need to be able to make an independent living in order to maintain that political equality. From my perspective, they're consistent because they are both ordered by the same principle: you do the one and not the other because they're both part of achieving the system of government and political equality that we want to have.

Texan99 said...

Whether the context is the military or the economy, if we value performance over egalitarianism, we won't reward failure (which is what subsidies are).

The people who want a finger on the scale to help women succeed in the military implicitly believe that women's political equality depends on things like full access to successful military careers. It's an exact parallel to the idea that everyone else's political equality depends on equal access to success in employment or business.

We can maximize equality or prosperity, but not both at the same time. If we emphasize equality, we're accepting that material prosperity isn't everything--even if we believe it's intimately tied to political equality or independence, which I think is a defensible but decided iffy proposition. When it comes to political independence, I think freedom from barriers to effort is lots more important than equality of outcome.

Grim said...

What I value is not performance or egalitarianism -- and certainly not 'equality of outcomes' -- but the achievement and sustaining of a particular political and social order. That order is the point of having a military, which exists to protect it and provide a space for it. It's also the goal toward which our economics should be directed. Economics is not a force of nature, it's a human activity. It should be directed toward the best human ends, like any other human effort.

Texan99 said...

"It should be directed toward the best human ends"--Well, that has been tried.

Texan99 said...

Isn't it a trifle like arguing that the military is not a force of nature, it's a human activity? What if a lot of people conclude that it's more important to use it to achieve Muslim outreach and an improvement in the dignity of the lives of women and gays? Sure, we'd have to do that at the expense of the success of our defense effort, but that's a value judgment. "We want to improve lives, not kill people!"

We don't have to choose an economic system that maximizes prosperity, if we don't mind being poorer. Some things are more important than avoiding poverty. Still, it's hard to reconcile this point of view with agonizing over the plight of workers consigned to third-world financial conditions.

Grim said...

The military is a human activity, and should be directed at the best human ends. Particularly, it is to defend the space in which a society aimed at the best human ends is possible.

We don't have to choose an economic system that maximizes prosperity, if we as a whole don't mind being poorer. But look again at those charts, especially the second one. An economic system that maximizes prosperity doesn't mean that we as individuals or families will get richer. Family income has been flat in almost all of the quintiles. All that prosperity isn't making "us" richer, it's making a narrow group of people richer.

So why not a system that doesn't make "us" as much wealthier, but offers the lower quintiles more movement? I mean, individuals may be in one quintile one year and a different one later, but the "poorest fifth" or "middle fifth" would be better off now than the same group ten years prior? I'd much rather see that than a system in which there is maximized wealth production, but most of the population has to work harder and harder to stay just where they were ten, twenty, forty years ago.

Texan99 said...

Who is to say that defense is the best of human ends? That it is the best of ends for a military, though, is the only conclusion I can come to that's consistent with a continuing interest in there being a military in the first place. And the same is true of an economy: if it's not about prosperity, it's no longer an economy, it's a system for achieving something else that we value more than prosperity. At the expense of prosperity, which means at the cost of increasing poverty.

Yes, prosperity doesn't mean equality, as I acknowledge roughly three times a day. If increasing overall prosperity hadn't consistently, over time, also meant raising the standard of living of the poorest people, I'd question whether having a system for increasing prosperity was a good idea. But the fact is that, although we never eliminate inequality, we do on the whole and over time alleviate conditions for the poorest--even if the richest benefit even more at the same time. All the countries who have tried focusing instead on eliminating the inequality have succeeded only in crashing the prosperity for everyone eventually, after a brief honeymoon involving redistribution. I wish it were otherwise.

Grim said...

... if it's not about prosperity, it's no longer an economy...

But it is about prosperity. It is about the prosperity of the people -- of your fellow citizens. They aren't prospering under this system, they're falling more and more behind. And those trends will only accelerate for several reasons we've laid out here at length.

Look, the good news is that these same charts prove that all the social welfare systems we have since the Great Society are worthless. We need to abolish them and try something else. But we shouldn't stop caring about whether our fellow citizens, those who are part of this American project with us, whether they prosper or whether they wither.

Texan99 said...

Our system has never resulted in the poorest getting and staying poorer over time. The worst accusations that can reasonably be made against our system are that (1) it fails in the absolute prevention of even temporary or local eruptions of poverty, and (2) it does not ensure that everyone gets richer at the same rate. The problem is, the same accusations can be hurled at any system, not just this one, and the others are worse.

There isn't a competing system available that both prevents all poverty and allows everyone to get richer at the same rate. Our choices at present are (1) a system that lets the poor steadily get better off, while the rich get better off even faster, or (2) a system in which the poor are stagnant or at best increase their standard of living very, very slowly, while the rich do much the same. Often in the latter system, everyone actually gets worse off on average, including those at the bottom: we start to see shortages and even outright famine.

It's tempting to say that if we can't ensure prosperity for everyone we shouldn't allow it for anyone, but in practice that attitude just makes things worse for the poor. What's the point?

Grim said...

I think now you're disputing the facts. What those charts say is that, adjusted for inflation, the poor -- and the working class, and the middle class -- aren't getting richer over time. They're just about holding steady in incomes since the 1960s. As was pointed out, however, now that family has transitioned to two incomes and is working as many hours as they can arrange.

So really, they're not getting better off, albeit slowly: they're getting worse off. And that situation will accelerate once we have (a) topped out on the number of hours both partners to the family can work, as they are now both working more-than-full-time, and (b) jobs go away due to automation and economies of scale.

This isn't about refusing to let anyone make money because everyone can't. It's about trying to structure our society in a way such that we achieve what you're claiming is true -- but which is not in fact true -- for this structure. Even if the poor can't get better slowly over time as many of them are there due to disabilities (mental, moral, or physical), at least the working class and middle class ought to be able to do so.

Texan99 said...

Are we talking about a recent six-year decline, as the article is, or about trends since the 1960s? The recent decline is a business cycle, one in which the recovery has been much slower than in previous cycles--I would argue because we screwed it up with crazy redistributionist schemes, crazy Keynesian-stimulus schemes, and crazy monetary policy. None of these schemes are compatible with the system I claim has been steadily improving the lives of the poor for the last three centuries.

If we increase the time scale even from 6 to 60 years, I don't believe one can make a coherent case for the steady declining wealth of the poor in America between 1960 and today. There may be a way to play with statistics to get to numbers about flat real income, but you have to ignore what people have been able to buy with their money. The material standard of living of the poor today can't seriously be compared with that of the 1960s--to say nothing of the 1900s or 1800s. The household trappings and routine medical care of someone in the bottom 5% in the U.S. today would look positively luxurious to someone in the top 50% in 1950.

If the point is that we, too, can bring economic disaster on ourselves with anti-free-market policies of the sort that have impoverished socialist societies worldwide, then I agree. But you would have great difficulty in persuading me that that longterm trend of a free market society is for the poor to get poor on an absolute basis.

Grim said...

Well, let's pause to notice a positive thing that's come out of this discussion: we do seem to have an agreement on what a successful economy should look like. It doesn't need to produce anything like equality of outcomes, but it should mean a steady increase in the overall wealth of all classes of society (possibly omitting the very poorest, whose poverty may be for noneconomic reasons like disabilities).

That's good. We're only disputing a narrow question about the right way to get to a goal we both share.

Texan99 said...


Grim said...

but you have to ignore what people have been able to buy with their money...

I was expecting that argument, but it's a moving of the goal posts. "Sure, you haven't got any more money, but you can buy better stuff with it" is true as far as it goes, but it doesn't go as far as you may think.

Another thing that's changed since the 1960s is the average family size, which has fallen by almost a whole family member during that period. So in addition to moving from a single-income to a double-income to a double-income-working-beyond-full-time, parents have had to have fewer children to maintain this illusion of not falling behind.

Now the most important things in your life are your intimate relationships. Quality of life is about health, yes, and increases in the quality of health care are important. The only thing that can really compete with health -- or even be valued above health -- is family. Family has really taken a hit during this period.

So the technological increase is good, it's great, but the prosperity of the average family (and not just the poor) is being maintained at a substantial additional cost vice 1960. This is true both in hours worked to maintain it, and in the size of the family that can be maintained. The average working dad of 1960 could sustain with his wages a family consisting of himself, his wife, and two kids. Now it's him and his wife working as hard as they can, and one kid.

Grim said...

Narrow by comparison! :)

Texan99 said...

Narrow by comparison with what? The butcher's bill over this narrow dispute was at roughly 100 million deaths last I checked.

""Sure, you haven't got any more money, but you can buy better stuff with it" is true as far as it goes, but it doesn't go as far as you may think." It doesn't? Is money an end in itself, or is the important issue about poverty whether you can have material goods?

People aren't working harder, for less results, than the generation before me worked in the Depression or even the generation before that. Certainly not harder than people did in 1850 or 1750.

Any decrease in material prosperity than can't be viewed without a microscope, a massaging of data, and a lot of redefinition of terms is not a problem I'm prepared to ditch free-market principles over. We're living in an age so determined to find material privation that people are twisting themselves into pretzels to explain why poverty causes obesity. Our ancestors would laugh themselves silly.

Grim said...

Narrow by comparison with what? The butcher's bill over this narrow dispute was at roughly 100 million deaths last I checked.

This is not true. The Marxists are responsible for 100 million deaths. People like Jefferson are not. It's not reasonable to say that everyone who isn't in favor of a completely unregulated market is a communist.

It doesn't? Is money an end in itself, or is the important issue about poverty whether you can have material goods?

That's not far enough. Material goods aren't ends in themselves either; what's important is what kind of life they support. That was the point about children: the average American family has shrunk by almost a full person, while the number of workers in the per family has nearly doubled on average. Whereas one person's wages could support a family of four, now two people's wages are needed to generate the same money to support three.

So we have one fewer deeply meaningful intimate family relationship per family on average.

People aren't working harder, for less results, than the generation before me...

I think that's right. We've passed the peak, and the decline is only just beginning.

Of course, it's possible some technological improvement will change the game, but it won't change it by creating more work like in the past. It'll change it by making work less necessary, as automation is doing all the time. At some point, we'll need a different system from the market for distributing material goods.

Grim said...

That system could be a system in which we distribute things as gifts, but doing that has very negative effects. As Mr. Hines says, it makes people into a dependent class. That's a real problem whether it's being done as welfare or as charity. The problems are slightly different, since charity is voluntary, but the effect on the recipients is the same. It creates a society in which they are not politically equal to those who are paying their freight.

What I would like to do, which is similar to what Jefferson and Chesterton tried to do, is to create conditions in which they can earn their way if they work hard at it. If the market happens to create those conditions, great. If it doesn't -- for any reason -- then we need to take a hand in creating the conditions in some other way.

Texan99 said...

People have fewer kids now, but I question whether it's a question of not being able to afford more. What's much more important is that it is technologically possible to control fertility. Very poor people still find a way to have lots of kids when their religion and culture encourages it--not just in the U.S., but worldwide. So I'm averse to the notion that having fewer kids is a sign of the material poverty of our lives, or that that kind of material poverty is on the increase.

Texan99 said...

As long as "some other way" doesn't involve confiscating and redistributing wealth, it probably can do very little harm. Certainly no need to slaughter 100 million people. Might want to avoid Venezuelan tactics, though.