Politics and pernicious expectations

Last month there was a long and mostly stupid discussion about “The Cheapest Generation,” and in the long and mostly stupid discussion someone mentioned delaying having children and that “everyone i know considers the world far too precarious to start a family.” I replied and said that, “By virtually every metric, the world is a much safer, healthier place than it used to be, as Steven Pinker observes in The Better Angels of our Nature. Someone else replied, “Safer? Yes. Healthier? Yes. Stable? No. Between income/job volatility and lack of proper social safety nets (at least in the US), its a dangerous gamble to start a family unless you’re in the right situation.”

I don’t know what “the right situation” is, but I think that person underestimates just how hard most people have worked throughout history and how low their material expectations were—and, by contrast, how high they are now. If you expect two cars, a large house with a room for each child and a spare room too, in a sweet coastal city location like L.A., San Francisco, or Seattle, then yeah, things are tough (though much of that is because of land-use policy, not because of “intrinsic” how prices). If you have lower expectations, however, it’s possible to move to Texas, buy a $140,000 house that maybe isn’t in the world’s best location but is okay, and has room for kids but maybe not tons of extra space, then things aren’t all that expensive. The “right” situation is much cheaper.

Most of the commentariat, however, is looking at NYC / L.A. / Seattle / etc., and wants the “best” schools, and wants a BMW, and interesting vacations to foreign countries, and, and, and… all those things add up. If you radically scale back expectations, a lot of things become more possible. If you realize what people use to expect, your expectations might change too. My grandparents barely escaped the Holocaust and, according to family lore, never really made it to the American middle class. Tales of living in Minneapolis without heat in the winter were and are common.

Along similar lines, Megan McArdle tells this story:

My grandfather worked as a grocery boy until he was 26, in the depths of the Great Depression. For six years, he supported a wife on that salary — and no, it’s not because You Used To Be Able To Support A Family On A Grocery Boy’s Wages Until These Republicans Ruined Everything. He and my grandmother moved into a room in his parents’ home, cut a hole through the wall for their stovepipe and set up housekeeping. They got married on Thanksgiving, because that was the only day he could get off. My grandmother spent six years carefully piecing his tiny salary into envelopes — so much for food, for rent, for gasoline for the car he needed to get eight miles into town. And they stayed married for 67 years, until my grandfather’s death in 2004.

“We didn’t have a dramatic increase in unwed childbearing back in the Great Depression,” sociologist Brad Wilcox told me. “That’s in part because we had a very different understanding of family life and sex and marriage back then. That tells us that it’s not just economic. It’s also about culture and law.”

By modern standards that sounds really crappy, but McArdle’s grandparents managed to have kids and be more-or-less okay in material conditions that would strike most contemporary Americans as being at a level of shocking privation. Yet the commenters above mention “income/job volatility” without noting that, in many circumstances, we have very high incomes—we just choose to spend them instead of save them (Note that I’m guilty of this too and am not throwing stones from my own glass house). In an environment of low or zero growth, or highly uneven growth, that may be a tremendous problem, and the problem has individual and political components—and responses.

To return to McArdle, this time in “How to Put the Brakes on Consumers’ Debt:”

[. . .] this is a conflict between what Walter Russell Mead calls the blue social model and the red-state world where Ramsey lives and finds most of his listeners. We can quibble about this or that [. . . ] But what it boils down to is that Olen thinks that rising economic insecurity calls for a massive expansion of the blue social model, while Ramsey thinks it calls for getting more entrepreneurial and adjusting your lifestyle to meet reduced income expectations. How well you think this works is probably closely connected to where you live.

(Emphasis added)

The whole piece is worth reading, but I think the debate between the two gurus McArdle cites is actually about a large-scale public response to current conditions versus how a particular individual or family should respond. Olen is arguing politics; Ramsey is arguing personal. I also think we’re going to see this change: “But for blue-state professionals, that’s something close to suggesting that they should abandon their kids in the street (or have them take out $150,000 in student loans, which is not much better). The social norm is that you send your kid to the best college he or she can get into, by any means necessary,” because for one thing I’m not convinced any school is worth $150,000 in student loans. Maybe one could make that argument for the very, very elite schools, but not many others.

The problem with arguing for a political response is that most individuals can’t do much on their own to change policies. But they can decide to say, “No, I can’t afford that house or vacation or dinner or whatever.” I also suspect that very few individuals have any coherent idea about how public policies work, as Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter shows. My own pet peeve is urban land use controls, since those raise prices by preventing new development, but very few people connect high prices with supply limits. That’s basic econ, but almost no one acknowledges it. If we collectively can’t even understand that, I’m not optimistic about Olen-style political solutions. Those mostly seem to boil down to taking a lot of money and dumping it into systems and institutions that aren’t necessarily working all that well.

Education is one of those systems, and I suspect that a basic idea is taking hold: a lot of higher education has become increasingly exploitive over time, with student loans fueling the binge. There is very little incentive for most institutions to say, “We’re going to forget about a diversity department staff and counseling staff and subsidizing dorms, and we’re just going to provide professors, classrooms, and labs, and you buy the rest, unsubsidized, if you want to.” We’re going to see some non-elite schools go for radical cost reductions, and we’ll see if people go for them. If the price is good enough they might.

In the meantime, lots of people are moving to places like Texas, where land controls are low. On average they’re leaving places like New York and California. For people with medium or low incomes and high material expectations, that totally makes sense. Historically speaking, I think it’s easy to forget high low material expectations were: until recently, houses were shockingly smaller than they are today. In 1975 the median new home was 1,535 square feet, and now it’s 2,169 square feet—even as family size and children-per-woman has been declining.

To return to the original point in the first paragraph of this post, job volatility might not matter so much for someone who decides to live in a 1,535 square foot house instead of a 2,169 square foot house, and that basic dynamic can be extrapolated across a range of purchases. Most of us, however, ask ourselves, “Why not take the Vicuna?” Then we complain when the world doesn’t conform to our material expectations.

One response

  1. Pingback: Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring sanity to our politics, our economy, and our lives — Joseph Heath « The Story's Story

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