The WSJ has opinions on non-rich folks again

Donald J. Boudreaux and Mark J. Perry at the Wall Street Journal would like you to know that the shrinking middle class is a mean and “spectacularly wrong” progressive trope; or rather, a “progressive” trope. Scare quotes are apparently necessary (link). Wanna have a look at their arguments?

First, the CPI overestimates inflation by underestimating the value of improvements in product quality and variety.

The what now? Variety I can understand, because increased variations on the same crap are how this consumer economy works. But how is making Planned Obsolescence into a basic production model, and how is lowering quality of products so they can be sold at a profit at Walmart an “improvement in quality”?

Would you prefer 1980 medical care at 1980 prices, or 2013 care at 2013 prices? Most of us wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter.

1980’s care I can pay for, vs. 2013 care I can’t? Yeah, let me think about that one.

Asides from that, it’s complete BS that the increase in costs has anything to do with the increase in quality, since the US does not in fact have the best healthcare in the world, yet has the most expensive healthcare in the world. Quite the contrary, the US is below average in many aspects of healthcare as compared to other OECD countries, while at the same time spending 2.5 times the OECD average on healthcare costs. And many of the procedures cost more than in other countries, as well:
table comparing costs of 7 common medical procedures in several European countries, Canada, Australia, and U.S. Prices in the U.S. are consistently highest

And lastly, it’s not actually relevant that current care is more technologically advanced. A middle-class by definition should be able to afford a middle-level of care, regardless of its level of advancement.

Second, this wage figure ignores the rise over the past few decades in the portion of worker pay taken as (nontaxable) fringe benefits. This is no small matter—health benefits, pensions, paid leave and the rest now amount to an average of almost 31% of total compensation for all civilian workers according to the BLS.

You mean the ridiculously more expensive healthcare makes up a larger chunk of a paycheck? Shocking. Also, pensions are rarely pensions anymore, they’re 401k, which just became nearly worthless during the world economic crisis, regardless of how much money people put into them.

Third and most important, the average hourly wage is held down by the great increase of women and immigrants into the workforce over the past three decades. Precisely because the U.S. economy was flexible and strong, it created millions of jobs for the influx of many often lesser-skilled workers who sought employment during these years.

You can tell this is ass-backwards bullshit by the part where women are unskilled workers (the impressive sexism of that aside for a moment). The reality is once again the opposite: jobs entered into by women have become de-skilled as they entered them.
Aside from that… when a job that used to be a highly trained union job, but is now classified as a low-skilled non-union job, that means fewer middle-class jobs. When these jobs disappear entirely, and are replaced by non-unionized, unskilled service industry jobs, that’s once again fewer middle-class jobs. It’s not the magical appearance of uneducated wimmins and furriners that is causing this shift of the US workforce. It’s the lack of affordable education, de-skilling, and de-unionizing of jobs that did that; and those jobs were then filled by people entering the workforce, including women and immigrants.
And on the note of “unskilled labor”… you know what an easy solution to that problem is? Providing training and education for said labor; another thing that’s increasingly hard to come by, because education is becoming more expensive, because apprenticeships for union-jobs are becoming scarce, and because ever higher levels of education are required for ever lower-skilled work.

Since almost all lesser-skilled workers entering the workforce in any given year are paid wages lower than the average, the measured statistic, “average hourly wage,” remained stagnant over the years—even while the real wages of actual flesh-and-blood workers employed in any given year rose over time as they gained more experience and skills.

apparently only people who’ve been in the middle-class in the 1980’s count. O.o
Dudes, having a larger proportion of people in poverty jobs by definition shrinks the Middle Class.

No single measure of well-being is more informative or important than life expectancy. Happily, an American born today can expect to live approximately 79 years—a full five years longer than in 1980 and more than a decade longer than in 1950.

which is also still below OECD average, by a whole year. It also rose slower than in other OECD countries, and slower than in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. But once again, this doesn’t actually tell us shit about the Middle Class, since this is an U.S.-wide average. What might tell us something about the situation of the Middle Class is the fact that the life expectancy gap between the poor and the rich is growing; and unless we assume that the rich have gained enormously and/or poor people are dying much younger at much higher rates, the most likely explanation is a shifting of people out of the middle-ground. You know, a shrinking middle class.

According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, spending by households on many of modern life’s “basics”—food at home, automobiles, clothing and footwear, household furnishings and equipment, and housing and utilities—fell from 53% of disposable income in 1950 to 44% in 1970 to 32% today.

I notice that housing, education, and healthcare are not listed.

while income inequality might be rising when measured in dollars, it is falling when reckoned in what’s most important—our ability to consume.

consumption is what’s most important?! *barf*

Despite assertions by progressives who complain about stagnant wages, inequality and the (always) disappearing middle class, middle-class Americans have more buying power than ever before.

Considering the ridiculous degrees of indebtedness of Americans, this is a horribly callous thing to say. And kind of wrong, since increased debt accounts for the increased consumerism; it’s not an indicator of Middle-Class-ness.

They [...] have much greater access to the services and consumer products bought by billionaires.

like 1st class education, 1st class healthcare, protection from volatile energy prices and increased natural disasters? Oh, that’s not what you meant, is it. You meant gadgets. Oh well then: since both Bill Gates and a college student can afford an iPad, that must mean the Middle Class isn’t shrinking. WTF?

Incidentally, I looked at income distribution in the U.S. in 1980 and 2010. in 1980, median income was $44000; in 2010, it was $49000. The percentage of people living in neighborhoods between 80% and 125% of that median shrunk in that time from about 55% of the population to just over 40% of the population.

Looks to me like the middle segment of income earners in the U.S. shrunk. Huh.

Of wedding rings and red herrings

The NYT has published an article bemoaning inequality; which would be great if it didn’t basically amount to: “if those silly women would just marry, most of their problems would go away”.

Mind you, I don’t dispute that unmarried women are generally hit worse by the ravages of the US economy (and incidentally, so are single fathers), nor that being unmarried seems to cluster in economically poorer social strata. However, the article is being ignorant and/or dismissive of systemic problems it even mentions (that dropping out of college tends to result in lower income; that having inadequate and expensive child-care makes things worse for those who need it more often; that hourly workers are massively underpaid in the US; that workers can’t get paid sick-leave even for severe injuries/recovery from surgery; that in the US, extra-curricular activities for kids cost and arm and a leg, and due to lack of safe public transportation, require a parent who can shuttle said kids to said activities; etc.), in favor of pointless hand-wringing about moral decay, lack of “marriageable men” in lower economic strata*, and other similarly moralistic complaints.
It uses such deeply problematic lines** as “their odds were not particularly good: nearly half the unmarried parents living together at a child’s birth split up within five years, according to Child Trends” to imply that if only people married right away, things would get better; as if it weren’t equally well-known that single-parenthood is actually healthier than the sort of extremely conflict-ridden marriages that would have resulted if all those couples that had split up had married instead and had insisted on “staying married for the children”. Bonus for whining about “children from multiple men”, despite the utter insignificance of that to the issue at hand; after all, being a single mother because one dude left you is not objectively better than being a single mother because several of them did (and I’m NOT touching a couple other possible reasons why a woman might have children by multiple men).
Another doozy: “Forty years ago, the top and middle income thirds had virtually identical family patterns”. Well that’s nice. 40 years ago, unions weren’t almost dead yet, minimum wage was higher, economic exploitation of workers was less, education was cheaper. All of this is far more relevant than whether people are married. And I know this because Sweden has a marriage rate lower, and an out-of-wedlock childbirth rate higher than the USA, and yet, inequality is low and children aren’t “doomed” to anything. Trying to guilt-trip women about their single-parent status by blaming their poverty on their singleness is pure, unadulterated bullshit.

Anyway, the article keeps on mentioning class and educational differences at childbirth, but it insists on focusing on marriage instead of getting women educated and providing better childcare services and worker protections. Why? Because writing about responsible social policy is a snooze compared to slut-shaming; which is why we get conclusions like this: “That is the essence of the story of Ms. Faulkner and Ms. Schairer. What most separates them is not the impact of globalization on their wages but a 6-foot-8-inch man named Kevin”, when in reality what separates them is that one has a college education and a salaried job, while the other is an hourly worker with a community college degree; and a special needs child.

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*Classism and promotion of toxic masculinity FTL.
**Another favorite: “Ms. Schairer has trouble explaining, even to herself, why she stayed so long with a man who she said earned little, berated her often and did no parenting.” Hm. Might that ‘why’ have something to do with the kind of “single motherhood = teh ebil” atmosphere that makes women cling to seriously flawed men because the alternative seems even worse?***
***And since I’m quoting depressing signs of sexism making people’s lives harder, read this exchange and weep:

“I’m not the only boy anymore; we’re going to do boy stuff!” Ms. Schairer recounts him saying.
“What’s boy stuff?” she asked.
“We’re going to play video games and shoot Nerf guns and play Legos,” he said.
“We do that now,” she said.
“Yeah, but you’re not a boy,” he said.

Playing Cassandra

I’m feeling distinctly pessimistic today. As I’ve written in the past, the notion that “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice” may be a necessary belief to remain motivated in generations-long battles for justice, but as an “is” statement (as opposed to an “ought” statement), it is naive at best in light of the cyclical nature of civilizations. All civilizations in the history of humankind have, sooner or later, declined and fallen into a “dark age”.

And with that cheery introduction, I’ll give you the following:
1)Rachel Maddow analyzing the effects of money on US politics. Basically, Republicans and corporations now have enough money at their disposal to win even extremely unlikely electoral races. And the Democrats’ plan to survive and counter this? winning, then amending the constitution. except that, as just noted, they can’t really win anymore. So basically, unless the Repubicans actually manage to self-destruct, the US government is now wholly theirs, on all levels, for years to come.

2)A graph and summary about oil prices since the economic crisis. oil prices are currently falling because of assorted political clusterfucks, but for the last year, despite fluctuations, they are as high as they were at the beginning of 2008. and anything “good” happening economically will instantly reverse the current downward trend. so, it seems our choices right now are economic collapse somewhere important and the continuation of the Era Of Cheap Oil, or economic stabilization/recovery and the official end of oil below $100/bbl. Peak Oil, anyone?

3)In Europe, xenophobia always lurks just under the surface, threatening to erupt. The EU and its predecessor were created to end a history of conflict that includes the Hundred Year War, the 30 Year War, and that started both world wars. And they were doing a decent job of it, considering, before the global economic meltdown. But because the meltdown happened before the EU figured out how to manage itself in crisis situations, it is now in a political as well as an economic crisis. With predictable results: Fascists are getting elected wherever sufficient distrust of the other EU members has managed to break to the surface

4)And last but not least, speaking of the long arc of history: here’s a paper in Nature (I haz pdf) about possible “critical transitions” in the global ecosystem in the next century or so. I’ve kind of written about these transitions before. They’re basically what happens to an ecosystem when it stops being resilient enough to withstand a particular environmental pressure: it undergoes a drastic change until it can regain (relative, temporary) equilibrium as an entirely different ecosystem, one that usually doesn’t sustain the same species and communities as before. And this paper basically discusses the possibility that our biosphere is about to undergo a critical transition as a result of human-caused pressures on the system. Some choice quotes:

Here we summarize evidence that such planetary-scale critical transitions have occurred previously in the biosphere, albeit rarely, and that humans are now forcing another such transition, with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience.

This Modelling suggests that for 30% of Earth, the speed at which plant species will have to migrate to keep pace with projected climate change is greater than their dispersal rate when Earth last shifted from a glacial to an interglacial climate, and that dispersal will be thwarted by highly fragmented landscapes.Climates found at present on 10–48% of the planet are projected to disappear within a century, and climates that contemporary organisms have never experienced are likely to cover 12–39% of Earth48. The mean global temperature by 2070 (or possibly a few decades earlier) will be higher than it has been since the human species evolved.

Although the ultimate effects of changing biodiversity and species compositions are still unknown, if critical thresholds of diminishing returns in ecosystem services were reached over large areas and at the same time global demands increased (as will happen if the population increases by
2,000,000,000 within about three decades), widespread social unrest, economic instability and loss of human life could result.

A couple thoughts on Black Friday

1)Consumer capitalism is an addiction. Black Friday demonstrates this better than any other event, because it shows the truly unhealthy relationship American culture has with consumerism: there’s riots, there’s violence, and there’s encroachment on non-materialistic enjoyments (Black Friday now starting on Thursday evening, meaning people working at these stores don’t get to have Thanksgiving; and neither do the shoppers*), all of which is deeply systemic: if people weren’t poor, they wouldn’t obsess about these supposed bargains; if huge amounts of bought-gift-giving weren’t culturally mandatory, people wouldn’t obsess about these supposed bargains; if corporations didn’t collude to have these “one day only” or even “a few hours only” sales pretty much at the same time, there wouldn’t be such massive events with huge crowds that now have entered into cultural tradition territory; etc.
And that doesn’t even address the less-visible consequences of such rampant consumersim, esp. the environmental costs, which are likely (barring a miracle cure for carbon emissions and resource depletion) to destroy our civilization in the medium-to-long-term. So, consumerism is highly destructive behavior; but it’s a destructive behavior that, to those who participate, at the moment of participation, can often be enjoyable (or at least better than the consequences of declining participation, be they pissy, guilt-tripping family or d00dz commenting on your unfuckability); very similar to most addictive drugs.
And similar to an addictive drug as well is the massive systemic shock should we decide to quit, AKA withdrawal. The entirety of the modern global economy is based on consumerist growth capitalism; when consumer spending drops because people become thrifty, suddenly the joblessness rates go up, small business profits go down, investment goes down, and people suffer. Quitting consumerism cold-turkey would destroy our civilization in short order; a slower transition out of consumerist growth capitalism may be theoretically possible, but I don’t know what that would look like. As much as I like the concepts of Deep Ecology, it is what we could have after transition; it’s not a manual for transitioning a global economy (for that matter, the Transition movement is not a manual for transitioning a global economy out of consumerism; it’s local by design)
IOW, just now I have the distinct impression that we are addicted to a drug that will kill us if we continue using it, and kill us if we try to quit. whee.

2)I recently re-read some writings about the “conspicuous consumption” model of status-signaling, which was developed before mass-production really took off. Anyway, it occurred to me that due to that mass-production, almost everybody can conspicuously consume now; and plenty of people do still follow that model of behavior (pin-striped jet anyone?), but in addition to “conspicuous consumption”, “conspicuous leisure”, and “conspicuous waste”, I think now in the age of mass production and universal consumerism (and near-universal lack of leisure-time, at least in the USA), I think we can add another status-symbol: the “conspicuous willpower”.
Being fat used to be a high-status symbol, but now that even poor people can be fat, it isn’t, and instead being able to have the time, money, and willpower to stay fit and skinny is; having a car or two used to be a high-status symbol, but now that a car is a basic necessity, it’s the ability, energy, and willpower to bike and walk everywhere that signals high-status; etc. Basically, now that pretty much everyone can participate in conspicuous consumption, and now that everyone is pretty much compelled, by cultural and economic imperatives to do so, it’s the abstaining from these acts of (over-)consumption that has become a status-symbol of the (white?) upper middle class (see also: “I don’t even have a TV”). The reason I refer to these things as “conspicuous willpower” is that all those things are counter-luxuries in the traditional sense: they add effort, instead of reducing it. That, in combination with the scientific research showing that willpower is a limited resource, can make the showing off of willpower a status symbol: if your have to use up all your willpower to work two shitty-ass jobs, dealing with the constant status-threat of being at the bottom of a very unequal society, having to constantly deal with a constant barrage of low-level emergencies not solving themselves because of lack of emergency funds, etc., you likely don’t have any of that very limited resource left to NOT stop by your favorite fastfood/desert-joint, to NOT hop into your car to go to work/shopping/whatever, or to NOT indulge in any number of unhealthy or environmentally damaging but easily accessible and cheap forms of relaxation and entertainment. OTOH, when you don’t have to spend all your willpower just on surviving, you can conspicuously show off the reminder in displays of righteousness, of individualist rejection of social ills.
And this works, btw, for conservatives as much as for liberals: teen pregnancy isn’t going to solve itself by personal willpower any more than global warming will (and both groups, for different reasons, tend to whine about consumerism, conservatives calling it “godless materialism” while liberals calling it “capitalist consumerism”), but both are talked about often in that context, instead of in the context of systemic change that would, again, allow even those who don’t have spare willpower lying around to not contribute and be affected by those social ills.

3)The actual reason that prompted me to finally write on this blog again is actually the shortest: pandagon linked to this article, which is not too bad overall, but the concluding sentence is making my brain hurt. she writes “When we create a political alternative to [...] capitalism, the consumer problem, if it is a problem, will take care of itself”, which earns a big “no shit, Sherlock” from me; consumerism is simply the most common form of capitalism, so of course getting rid of capitalism would get rid of its most common form. But saying we shouldn’t do anything about it is a bit like saying that “When we create a political alternative to sexism, the sexual harassment problem, if it is a problem, will take care of itself”. Of course it will, but sexism WON’T be eliminated if we don’t focus on the way it manifests and self-perpetuates: bottom-up approaches that attempt to interrupt the self-perpetuation cycle of the cultural aspects of capitalism as well as sexism are just as needed as top-down approaches meant to eliminate the root of the systemic problem.

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*if having to work on Black Friday, or participating in these “riots” is something you find you need just so you can get away from your family for a few hours, you probably shouldn’t be going home for Thanksgiving in the first place. Though I get that for many people, that’s just as culturally mandatory as having to buy people shit for Christmas; what I get less is what exactly the cultural consequences are, since shunning by a family you can’t stand to be around doesn’t seem salient. Is it the financial support some people get from family? Are there really families out there that will demand visits on holidays under threat of not allowing visits at less crowded times? I iz confoosd.

Shock Doctrines and Hurricanes

The “Shock Doctrine” is a term coined by Naomi Klein in the book of the same name. It’s basically the idea of using (or even fabricating) crisis situations to push through privatization and other neo-con reforms that wouldn’t be possible in situations when people are less scared, less panicked, and more in control of their political process. The book mostly focuses on the big instances, generally when governments are overthrown (Chile’s military coup, the fall of communism, the end of Apartheid, and more recently, the abduction of the Haitian president by the US and France and installation of an Interim Government that was meant to (but failed) push through a lot of privatization before a new democratic government could be elected).

However, the Shock Doctrine can be used on a smaller scale, and without a government collapse, as well.

The largest current example would be the Debt Ceiling clusterfuck, in which the Tea Party basically squeezed a ridiculous amount of concessions out of the Democrats, because previously they had managed to scare a country in a recession into believing that increasing the debt ceiling without making significant cuts (or, in some instances, raising the debt ceiling at all) would make the recession worse. the attacks on Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare are also more of the same: a nation traumatized by a massive recession being pushed into fucking themselves over even more. same with the stripping of union-rights in many states in the name of budget-cuts. More localized uses of the Shock Doctrine can also be found at the city level: first in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and now increasingly in other cities as well, assorted real and manufactured crises are used as opportunities for selling off public schools; after NO, the other city suffering the worst of this is Detroit, where an “emergency manager” (a state appointed local dictator with the power to override city government decision in the name of protecting the budget) has been on a cutting-spree destroying what’s left of Detroit’s public education (this included a highly successful school for teen mothers, which had been originally scheduled for closure and will now be operated as a charter school).

And now, with two disasters hitting the East Coast one after another, they’re doing it again: Eric Cantor holding earthquake relief hostage, Boehner and Cantor holding hurricane relief hostage, and Ron Paul saying there should be no federal aid for places devastated by the hurricane at all. And while Paul’s comments are really just the equivalent of Bachmann’s statements about not ever voting for raising the debt ceiling (meaning, they won’t affect policy this time, but they do tug at the Overton Window), Cantor and Boehner may well get the cuts from a Democratic party and president very used to caving to Republican demands.

And here’s the thing: the near future holds a lot more such “opportunities”. Not only are all these cuts going to continue giving the US economy shock after shock, there’s a long list of natural disasters (made worse and more frequent by AGW) waiting to happen and be exploited. already on the horizon are, for example, spikes in food prices as this year’s crop has been killed off by floods and drought. And the 2011 hurricane season, predicted to be even worse than 2010, is only half done, as well. It will be followed by blizzard season, flood season, tornado season, fire season, and again another hurricane season.

And each one of those is another opportunity to cut and privatize public services.

Warning: coldhearted cynicism ahead

I’ve been trying to read as much as I can find about the riots in Britain over the last few hours. And you know what? All I feel while reading it is cold anger and cynicism. “I told you so” never felt that shitty: I’ve been saying for years that there’s few things more dangerous to the stability of a society than bored, prospect-less youth. And lo and behold, they went and proved me right, in a rather impressively nasty way. Chances anyone is going to learn the right lesson from this clusterfuck, and try to undo the alienation, desperation, and futurelessness of British youth? Not fucking likely. What’s more likely to happen is even more criminalization of youth, criminalization of poverty, more power in the hands of police (the riots started during a march for the victim of a police-shooting, btw), longer and harsher sentencing, and certainly no end to austerity measures, now that the riots really did cause a real blow to the economy, with all the looting, property damage, and closed businesses.
Already you have politicians stating that the riots are “just” criminality “pure and simple”(because that totally makes sense, right? A bunch of people randomly decided to become criminals this weekend. There couldn’t possibly be a cause, right?), and you have people spout stupid shit like “You have a generation of kids now that don’t respect their parents or the police”, as if a lack of authoritarianism were the fucking problem (granted, plenty of people are capable of seeing what’s really going on (including a number from that article). But if those will be the people who’ll be listened to in the end, I’ll eat a broom).
And when you look at Britain and then look at the US, you gotta admire the ability of the US elite to keep the poor and disenfranchised in check. The US is so much worse than anything experienced in Britain; compare the complete non-event that was the shooting of John T Williams with this shooting. Compare the poverty in American cities; and yet, it’s been forever since anyone rioted, or even protested much. If “austerity” measures that only target the poor are turning industrialized democracies into Banana Republics, then it’s pretty clear that the US are turning themselves into one much more skillfully than Britain is, having pretty much distracted and pacified its populace despite egregious abuses.

And since I’m in a shitty, morbid mood anyway, here’s a soundtrack for this shit: The Clash — Guns of Brixton

the 19th century vs. the 20th century

recently, I’ve encountered the odd, neo-con/libertarian meme that says that quality of life improved more in the 19th century than in the 20th century, because the 19th century was more libertarian and less socialist than the 20th. To me, that does not sound right, on so many levels. So, I went digging for some statistics, just to see what the numbers say.

The first indicator I checked was life expectancy changes in the USA. I’ll split the data by gender and race, because that’s how the data is split up, and because the numbers aren’t evenly available. Also, most of the data is unfortunately only available for 1850 and later, except for northern US white males in 1800, where the life expectancy is listed as 36 years (and judging from the data for 1750 and 1700 showing southern life expectancy to be lower than northern (tropical diseases?), I’m guessing it was still lower in 1800 as well1. In another source2, Table 5 lists the life expectancy in the US in 1820 as 39 (I’m willing to bet that’s not including slaves, though). Anyway according to available data3, in 1850, life expectancy for whites was as follows: men 38.3 at birth/48 at 10 years, women 40.5/47.2; in 1900, it was men 58.2/50.6, women 51.1/52.2; in 1950 it was men 66.3/59, women 72/64.3; in 2000 it was men 74.8/65.4, women 80/70.5 Roughly then,the 50-year-increases were, between 1800 and 1850 apparently not noticeable, as far as the available data goes; between 1850-1900, it was 20 years at birth/2 years at 10 years for men, 11/5 years for women; between 1900 and 1950 it was 8/9 years for men, 21/12 years for women; between 1950 and 2000 it was 8/6 for both men and women.
For non-whites, the data only starts at 1900. However, life-expectancy for non-white men increased from 32.5/41.9 in 1900 to 58.9/53 in 1950 and 68.3/59.6 in 2000, while for women it increased from 35/42 in 1900 to 62.7/56.2 in 1950 and 75/66.2 in 2000. For the 19th century to match those rates, all non-whites would have had to have been murdered at birth in the years 1800-1850 (for completeness sake, the only datapoint I found for life expectancy of black Americans was for 1850 and was 23 at birth, most likely due the abysmal infant mortality rates4)
So, to sum it up: looks like in the USA, 1850-1900 was good for white infant boys, while 1900-1950 was great for everybody else. Call me biased, but I’m handing this round to the first half of the 20th century.

Now, let’s look at Britain, for comparison. For some reason, I’ve been unable to find such nicely detailed data for Britain, but what little I did find, mirrors the story in the US: one ghastly little chart (written in Comic Sans, FFS!) for school children noted life expectancy in 1750 as 31 for men and 33 for women, and in 1900 as 45 for men and 48 for women5. The aforementioned table 5, being an international comparison, lists UK life expectancy as 40 in 1820, 50 in 1900, 69 in 1950, and 77 in 1999. And lastly, a government source lists the life expectancy at birth in 1900 for men at 45 and women at 49, and in 1999 at 75 for men and 80 for women6. So, it looks like the 20th century wins in Britain, too.

Now, let’s look at some other data:
GDP per capita (Measured in 1990 international dollars) was $1707 in 1820, $4921 in 1913, and $18714 in 1998 in Britain; in the USA, it was $1257 in 1820, $5301 in 1913, and $27331 in 1998; the average height for US men was 172.9cm in 1800, 170cm in 1900, and 177.4 in 1970 7. For education in the US, data is available once again only from 1850 on. The percentages of 5-19-year-olds enrolled in school were as follows: in 1850, it was 59% for white men and 53.3% for white women, and 2% for non-white men and 1.8% for non-white women; in 1900, it was 53.4% for white men and 53.9% for white women, and 29.4% for non-white men and 32.8% for non-white women; in 1950, it was 79.7% for white men and 78.9% for white women, and 74.7% for non-white men and 74.9% for non-white women; in 1990, it was around 92% for everyone8.

At this point, I could dredge up statistics on other specific living conditions (which, yes, did improve some over the course of the 19th century; generally with the passage of laws forbidding some atrociousness or another) like eradication of diseases, better working hours, etc. However, I’ve now pretty much lost interest in continuing. People’s lifespans have improved, famines are unheard of, people have more money and better education. And all of it improved more in the 20th century than in the 19th. So, Libertarians and neo-cons are wrong. Anyone surprised?

assorted short thoughts

1)this being the last few weeks of school, I’m swamped with work and taking a blogging-break until mid-May

2)I was linked by a real-life journalist! yay! plus, the blogpost she wrote was very interesting, so go read

3)visual WTF of the day

4)verbal WTF of the day:

If the demand for land were only D4, land rent would be zero. Land would be a free good — a good for which demand is so weak relative to supply that an excess supply of it occurs even if the market price is zero. [...] This essentially was the situation in the free-land era of U.S. History

medium-length thoughts about economics

1)my textbook is trying to kill me. I nearly fell of my chair when I read the following paragraph:

Our discussion of resource pricing is the cornerstone of the controversial view that fairness and economic justice are one of the outcomes of a competitive capitalist economy. Table 12.7 demonstrates, in effect, that workers receive income payments (wages) equal to the marginal contributions they make to their employers’ outputs and revenues. In other words, workers are paid according to the value of the labor services that they contribute to production

It does no such thing.

That Table 12.7 is only showing that given two resources, their price, their productivity, and the resulting profit, you can calculate the least expensive and most profitable combination of the two resources, which indeed tends to fall in the area where marginal revenue of adding a unit of a resource = marginal cost or adding a unit of a resource. Which has fuck all to do with real markets. Because in real markets, a hell of a lot of the necessary information is impossible to come by (for example, accurately calculating marginal revenue from a unit of labor is near impossible. seriously, how does one calculate the marginal revenue of CEO A over the marginal revenue of CEO B? one doesn’t, and can’t considering their pay is established a priori, before they’ve had a chance to create any marginal revenue at all); plus, they disappeared the ever-necessary ceteris paribus that accompanies such mathematical games with very limited variables. What may be true for a mathematical game with only a few variables will not be true in a real-world situation with fuckloads of variables, including human error and human biology.

2)And not only is the content of the textbook trying to kill me, so is their language-abuse:

It is no coincidence that the service occupations dominate the list [of 10-fastest growing US occupations for 2006-2016]. In general, the demand for service workers in the US is rapidly outpacing the demand for manufacturing, construction, and mining workers.

well, no, it’s certainly not a coincidence. That’s because you can’t have a coincidence with only one variable. You need at least two, so that they can, you know, coincide. Of course, it could be that the paragraph meant to say “it’s no coincidence that service occupations dominate the list while the demand for service workers is rapidly outpacing…”, but that would be so blatantly obvious, it would not be worth the paper it’s printed on. I’m thinking the word they were looking for here was “surprise”, as in “It’s no surprise that the service occupations dominate the list.”

3)Unrelated to my text-book, I’ve found the term for a phenomenon I’ve been observing in people who talk and write about economic issues: goal displacement.
Goal displacement is when the means to achieve a goal either become the goal, or become more important than the goal. So, when I read articles about the Chinese economy were the writer says that China needs to get its population to save much much less of its income to increase consumer-spending to improve the economy, I know that the writer is suffering from goal displacement: a healthy economy is a means by which the well-being of people is to be accomplished. to diminish the well-being of people to make an “improve” the economy is turning the means of achieving something into a goal unto itself.

Homework-blogging, episode one

since my brainpower is completely taken up with working on these class-papers, I figure I should repurpose at least a few of them for blogging; at least the ones from my Social Inequality class, since they’re relevant to my blogging in general. So, here’s the first one.

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Planned Parenthood in the Media: Dividing Gender and Class issues

The Media have become one of the biggest influences on how we perceive and interpret the world. In terms of the Dimensions of Oppression discussed by Patricia Hill Collins (2011, pp. 763-768), it has become an important social institution, as well as a producer and distributor of the symbols that create the Symbolic Dimension of Oppression. This is true both in its fiction as in its non-fiction: in his essay “Media Magic: Making Class Invisible”, Gregory Mantsios describes the ways in which the Poor and the causes of their poverty are disappeared and distorted in the Media in their news programs. These are narratives that create strong symbols and dichotomies between “them”, the poor and “us” the wealthy.

Most of the time, the poor don’t show up in the news-media at all, even if the issue under discussion affects them or relates to them in some way., because the story is written from an “us” perspective, and the “us” are middle-class and wealthy people. And if the poor are mentioned in the media at all, they’re usually either blamed for their condition, considered undeserving of help, or considered a problem to “us”.

Currently, the importance of the news media as a symbol-making institution is best represented by the way the issues surrounding a bill that would defund Planned Parenthood are being presented in the news, and how that presentation shapes any discussion and defense of Planned Parenthood is being held in society. Planned Parenthood is a non-profit organization that provides various services to women, and it discounts them or even provides them for free for low-income women. It also provides some services to men (cancer screening and STD treatment and diagnosis, for example), which are similarly discounted for poor men. On February 11th, the US House of Representatives voted in favor of banning all federal funding for the organization. The media and politicians have been discussing this event in one of two ways, either focusing on abortion and women’s sexuality, or on fiscal responsibility that requires cutting the budget. An excellent example of that framing is evident in Judson Berger’s article from February 5th, in which he writes “Republicans are trying to juggle the abortion issue as they wage a separate, and more high-profile, battle in Congress over spending.” Another article on CNN.com mentions that proponents of the ban are saying that current restrictions on abortion funding aren’t enough because “applying the government’s money to other procedures leaves more of the group’s own cash on hand to allocate to abortion-related services”. The same article says that the cuts are “part of a continuing resolution that included dramatic spending cuts across a range of programs” (Political Ticker, 2011). In other words, the media uses the symbols of an innocent, righteous, and victimized “us” (the middle class, the men, the “morally responsible” women) who are being asked to shoulder an ethical and financial burden on behalf of a “them” (the non-taxpaying poor, sexually irresponsible women) that is demanding an unethical service to be provided from “our” taxpayer money, even though they brought the problem on themselves (see Mantsios’ “The Poor Have Only Themselves To Blame” narrative, p. 95) and who are undeserving of help because of their immoral behavior both in terms of what led to their situation and the service they demand (Mantsios’ “The Poor Are Undeserving”, p. 94). The best example of this particular line of argument could in fact be seen when Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) debated the defunding of Planned Parenthood, as broadcast on C-SPAN and distributed on the internet via YouTube and MediaMatters: his argument for defunding Planned Parenthood was that “they” were “invested in promiscuity” and that “we” needed to “stand on principle” and not fund them. The narratives are those Mantsios describes as being used against the poor, but in this case they are strengthened, in terms of the othering they do, because they’re used for not one but two of the opressive categories identified by Collins: class and gender. The othered aren’t just undeserving and guilty poor, they are undeserving and guilty poor women, making the “them” an even smaller, even more marginalized, and even more easily ignorable group less likely to be in any way connected to “us” and “our” problems and needs.

The fact that Planned Parenthood is a health-care provider for the poor for such things as cancer screening, UTI treatments, and even diabetes testing is not mentioned in either article. Neither is the fact that the tax-burden is minimal, and that tax-payers themselves often either use their services themselves, or have within their communities people who do. The effects on the health of those people from various backgrounds who might now lose access are ignored entirely by the Media coverage of the discussion. No mentions are made of what will happen to people from a wide section of the population, including plenty of people belonging to the “us” category (middle-class students, married women with children, men who go for cancer testing) if clinics have to close, or if they won’t be able to provide their services at reduced cost or for free any longer. These realities have been excised from Media discussion in favor of the negative, dichotomous symbolism.

Understanding the narratives Mantsios describes can help see past the narratives trying to frame people who use Planned Parenthood as “the other”. But that alone is not enough, because Mantsios essay focuses only one one dimension of oppression, i.e. class, while the issues surrounding a defunding of Planned Parenthood involves both class and gender oppression.

Patricia Hill Collins’ essay “Toward a New Vision: Race, Class, and Gender as Categories of Analysis” can help broaden the perspective and make it possible to understand the issues surrounding Planned Parenthood not in terms of divisive “othering” and entrenched interests, but rather as an issue that spans the different dimensions of oppression. This may enable people to look at the services Planned Parenthood provides as being beneficial to people in all sorts of different groups, groups that maybe wouldn’t otherwise be able to see each others as allies in the provision and maintenance of health-care access. Her suggestion of how to find new ways to conceptualize race, class, and gender away from dichotomous either/or categories that classify someone as either oppressed or oppressor(2011, p. 762) can help feminists fighting for women’s reproductive rights see poor men and conservative charities for the poor not as oppressors withing the Patriarchy, and conversely can help organizations trying to help the poor see middle-class feminists not as oppressors within the class-structure. Similarly, her description of how to transcend the barriers that were erected in identity-politics by splitting people into distinct categories by race, gender, and class and form alliances on common causes(2011, pp. 770-771) provides useful advice on how to overcome social and cultural differences of opinion on issues that divide people, in order to make it possible for all of them to work together on issues that they share in common. Her example of a inner-city school in which people from all sorts of different spheres came together with the common goal of educating Black children can very well be transferred to the discussion about Planned Parenthood. The same goes for her suggestions for how to build empathy between people who are affected differently by the different oppressive structures of society. Instead of focusing on Planned Parenthood as a place where “the other” (“immoral women”, “non-taxpaying poor”) receive services, such discussions would be able to focus on the very broad range of services provided, as well as the very broad range of people using them: affordable cancer screenings for men and women, birth-control for poor families who can’t afford any more children, regular health-checkups for students and poor women and men, etc.

Being able to visualize such common-ground issues affecting a broad intersection of people could make it possible for more people to feel invested in the organization and look past the divisive Media narrative. It could enable them to cooperate with others in the fight against the ban. Building empathy between women who feel their reproductive choices attacked, and the poor who have their access to basic health-services limited, can also foster discussion about the real dimensions of whom Planned Parenthood is helping, and in what ways. And it can diminish the effect of the two-pronged attack on Planned Parenthood, on the one hand from the moralistic stance on women (targeted at conservative groups and men), and on the other from the fiscal stance against poor people (targeted at middle class and wealthy people). Only if we learn to empathize with the experiences of people in group to which we do not belong ourselves, understand that many people fall within both categories, and understand that while everyone is affected by issues of gender and class (as well as race) differently, with different aspect being visible and salient to them to different degrees (Hill Collins, 2011, p.763), no one is unaffected entirely, can we begin to look pas the single-focus divisive Media narratives and instead look on the actual range of effects of defunding Planned Parenthood. Effects that aren’t shown in the narratives provided by the Media, which prefers to ignore the poor altogether and prefers to show those who use Planned Parenthood’s services specifically and solely as women seeking abortion, usually portraying it as a moral failing.

References

Berger, J. (2011, Feb 5th). Abortion Debate Returns to Capitol Hill as Lawmakers Weigh New Restrictions. FoxNews.com. Retrieved from http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2011/02/05/abortion-debate-returns-capitol-hill-proposed-restrictions-advance/

Hill Collins, P. (2011) Towards a New Vision: Race, Class, and Gender as Categories of Analysis and Connection. In T. Ore (ed.), The Social Construction of Difference & Inequality(5th ed.) (pp. 760-774). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill

King, Steve (2011). MediaMattersAction YouTube-Channel. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vex77n65nJ0

Mantsios, G. (2011) Media Magic: Making Class Invisible. In T. Ore (ed.), The Social Construction of Difference & Inequality(5th ed.) (pp. 93-101). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill

Political Ticker (2011, Feb. 28th). Boehner in ‘war’ against Planned Parenthood. CNN Politics. Retrieved from http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2011/02/28/boehner-in-war-against-planned-parenthood/