Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Future Of Us All

There has been a fair bit of discussion on Adam Davidson‘s Atlantic article on manufacturing employment, and on David Brook’s related comments. There are a few problems with both: Brooks still reads some things wrongly, and the examples don’t quite fit what Adam wants them to say. *

Nonetheless, let’s say for the moment that they are essentially on point. We will continue to have manufacturing jobs, some of them good ones, but they will continue to decrease in number. Of those that remain, there will be downward pressure on wages. Where will jobs for people – American Dream type jobs – come from?

Megan McArdle’s and Charles Murray’s recent essays bear on this topic as well. (In fact, McArdle touches on a lot of interesting apects of this – teen jobs, where folks will live, what services we can afford, and Murray’s got a new book covering the waterfront on this ) It has become commonplace for sociologists and economists to note that two-parent families have become less necessary over the last few decades. They describe different reasons for this: increased safety net, women in the workplace, less stigma. As it becomes increasingly clear that the success-track has a higher concentration of two parent families, should we start reverting to our old claim that two parents are necessary? What do we do with those folks who didn’t get the memo? If delaying gratification becomes the A-1 necessary virtue for a decent life in America, how do we teach that?

If you are a conservative, what the hell do you do about this?
If you are a liberal, what the hell do you do about this?
Repeat for Christian, libertarian, carpenter, humanist, parent, atheist, school superintendent…welcome to a new age of conflicting roles.

Add these pieces together and project them forward: What if there are only decent full-time jobs for 50% of the people who want to work a generation from now, with the rest having part-time or intermittent employment – or none at all – a generation from now? What if only 50% of the population is qualified to fill the jobs? Remember that there is still a lot of talent in that 50%. They can drive cars, make jokes, play an instrument, read a report, build a shed, care for a child, bake bread, play cards, or grow flowers. They just can’t do so at an exceptional enough level to get paid for it. So far, we have been able to switch over to value-added goods and services over the last 100 years. Specialty foods, decoration, entertainment, enhancement, all manner of spas and self-improvers and craftspersons. How far can that be stretched?

Perhaps it can go on forever. Perhaps a hundred years from now when a permanent cheap energy source fuels the food, clothing, and shelter machines without much attention we can all just entertain each other all day, with the very few at any given moment raking in the dough because their specialty is popular this year, but many having a shot at their day in the sun at some point in their lives. How the human spirit deals with such a social order I don’t know. Science fiction writers sometimes take a stab at imagining that. The Moon Moth, and The Marching Morons provide contrasting visions. Douglas Adams has a go at it as well, but with more humorous results.

Yet why should it go on forever? What if it doesn’t work? Let’s look at some complicating problems.
They can all still vote.

All groups will have special needs kids, or will contract unusual diseases, or get hit by drunk drivers – but the bottom 50% are going to have many more, and they will expect equal treatment. This happens with school districts now. We’ve been arguing about that in NH for two decades.

The meritocracy aspect is going to be uneven, perhaps even highly uneven. Of the 50% who have the good jobs, what if a good chunk of those don’t deserve them, but got them via affirmative action, good old-fashioned nepotism and connection, corruption, or dishonest charm? The capable among the other 50% are going to be significantly resentful.

If the economy does adapt in a value-added direction, Non-Asian Minorities may do just fine. If personal energy, charm, creativity, adaptability, and service all do come to count for more and more relative to g-factor, that’s one less ground for social unrest. There might not be much racial difference in those qualities. But if current trends continue, NAM’s are going to be significantly overrepresented.

*The seeming unfairness of Maddie’s plight is highlighted by her claim, seemingly supported by the data and the opinion of those around her, “I am smaaart.” She graduated with honors, but it is later revealed that she not only doesn’t have calculus, she doesn’t have trigonometry. Those aren’t absolutely necessary for “smart,” but they are usual, and their absence calls for some substitute subject of excellence – a facility with languages, a flair for writing, something. Among the actual smart kids who weren’t especially good at math, they found a way to crawl through Algebra II acceptably even if they were relieved that this was the end of their math careers. Next, she made all sorts of good decisions as a high-schooler, but she did get pregnant early in her senior year by someone who turned out not to be an acceptable husband and father. Now, she feels unable to go to school because of mothering responsibilities, and the article seems to support her idea of the hopelessness of this because she can’t go out in the evening. Well, these days there are online courses, and you can take them one at a time. These types of life decisions are a whole ‘nother kind of smart, but she doesn’t seem to have more than average abilities here, either. She doesn’t seem to be stupid. She seems hardworking, and the description of her is that she is small and cute and charming. Those are excellent qualities, and it would be a shame if we became a country where such folks didn’t have an employable place. But let’s not overdraw unfairness here. There were girls who were a little less pretty, a little less hardworking, a little less socially graceful, who didn’t get pregnant and are now passing her in life, at least for the moment. That’s not a federal problem, a societal problem, to fix. If they all can’t find good jobs, maybe.


MaxedOutMama said...

A great and thoughtful post. Our dilemma is primarily one of irresponsibility - both individual and societal.

IMO, the great desire of the upper class now is to ensure that their kids wind up in the favored few.

To that end, we are actually paying more and more federal dollars out for what is welfare for the well-off.

Our prosperity will not return until we can balance our imports and exports. The story of the trade deficit is really the story of the emergence of the entrenched classes in the US. But it is also true that the more we makes excuses for people, the more we doom the next generation to the same mistakes.

When we lost the sense of shame for sleeping around, for being reckless, for being focused primarily on our own happiness, we lost something integral in our culture that can best be described as long time-awareness.

There is no doubt that the increase in non-married reproduction in neighborhoods such as Fishtown is very tied to lower incomes for males. They don't get married because they can't afford to get married. Women end up having children alone because otherwise they won't have children.

But the other reason that men don't get married unless they have achieved a certain level of security is that our society does not admire them for marrying, raising kids, and living a constrained but respectable life.

When the society of males fell apart, the psychic rewards for this fell apart also. The interlinked social structures of the old-fashioned working neighborhoods no longer exist. The lodges, churches, firehouses, etc, all of which allowed such men to be important and which also generated a community-level safety network vanished.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Thank you. Frequent commenter James had a post at his own blog, "Why Fewer Marriages?" and I added a comment there as well that echoes yours. The same-sex were a protector and a solace if marriage was difficult, so marriage was a bit easier to maintain. Expectations about exactly what a marriage was to provide were also different.

Anonymous said...

I read the article twice. The first time, I bought his thesis almost totally. Almost, that is, but enough loose ends were in there to make me re-read. For example, he talks in some detail about Maddie getting pregnant in high school, and how she knows now that that was a big mistake. But if you read the article carefully, she's initially introduced as the mother of two young children. And the second one came from... ? Apparently, spontaneously condensed out of the atmosphere one day.

Likewise, Maddie graduated "with honors", but somehow never took trigonometry? There's no other way to say it: that "honors" diploma was a lie. She graduated highschool with as much math as I entered highschool with.

And she's "smaaart", but somehow didn't notice that the higher-paid people in the same room with her were using a computer language to control the machines? She's simply missing most of the things going on around her, and she's not drawing some very obvious conclusions about the long-term consequences of her current behavior. Nobody, not even the journalist talking to her, is interested in disturbing her self-esteem enough to bring this to her attention.

I don't have an answer for the problem, but I do know that an unavoidable part of the answer is to start being honest with people... even when that means they'll be upset, or won't be compliant sheep in your school system/factory floor/whatever.

Der Hahn said...


But the other reason that men don't get married unless they have achieved a certain level of security is that our society does not admire them for marrying, raising kids, and living a constrained but respectable life.

This is key,but I would say that what's keeping them from being married is not the desire to achieve a level of security but that women of marriagable age don't value that security (why should they, really, when if they can't make it on their own the government will provide?) and the fact that marriage puts that security in severe jeopardy if the marriage doesn't thrive.

Charles Kiting said...

Murray's article is all over the road. I like Murray but I think he's lost it with this article.

The only shared culture this country had prior to 1960 was this: If you don't like me leave me alone. That may have created segregation, but in a weird way there was still more tolerance simply because people acknowledged cultural differences. Maybe an Irish guy wasn't allowed in a German bar, but at least they didn't fight at the department store. (The South was the main exception.)

Colin Woodward has a book called "American Nations" which explains (admittedly not original) the distinct cultural zones of US history that mostly remain intact today. This is in complete opposition to Murray's idea of "shared culture" and I think Murray is dead wrong about it. Because he's dead wrong about the history, he cannot figure out any meaningful fix.

To make a long rant a little shorter, what ails the US "culture" is what ailed so many other world cultures - socialism. The US brand of socialism is dominated by 2 long-time US subcultures: the Puritans and the Southern Aristocracy. Puritans insist on conformity, the Southerners insist not on conformity but on hassling those that are "inferior". (Some of the aristocracy/evangelical culture existed in the southwest but not not nearly to the same extent as in Mexico.)

The only thing Murray gets right is the "nonjudgmentalism" comment. Because the actual practice of nonjudgmentalism is actually judgmentalism gone wild.

You can't insist on conformity unless you judge someone to be different (and therefore possibly inferior); this manifests itself in welfare and education programs that mean well but don't produce nor solve anything. The idea that these advocates of welfare are accepting of other subcultures flies in the face of ever-increasing regulation that manifests itself in the definition of new "crimes". Certainly by defining more crimes you provide more opportunities for hassling "inferior" people, which suits the Southern subculture just fine.

The rest of the country could ignore the Puritans until Prohibition was enacted. The rest of the country could ignore Southern bigotry until it became economically suicidal. But we haven't rid ourselves of these destructive subcultures, if anything they've been strengthened. Puritanism has evolved into non-judgmentalism where everyone is assumed to be the same so that shortcomings and failings are ignored - this has gown into the ridiculous self-esteem movement in schools (the Maddie example is indicative) and the inability of government to properly assess risk and accept policy failure. Southern bigotry has evolved into secular hatred - you can't hassle anyone for mere racial differences anymore but now you can hassle people for being "unmutual" in so many other ways.

But these things started happening over 100 years ago, it is not a post-WWI phenomenon. At best, WWII created a one-generation "speed bump" in the process. I actually think things were speeding up during the Depression when numerous federal agencies were created and new crimes were defined.

Charles Kiting said...


I find it fascinating how women were such a vital part of the workforce in WWII and then had to be brainwashed into becoming "homemakers" after the war. It seems to be a veiled acknowledgment that we have more people than the workforce can incorporate. I think we've been kicking that can for one generation more than people are admitting. When keeping women out of the workforce wasn't enough (and counter-productive) the movement for compulsory education beyond grade 8 gained steam, then the shrinking of apprenticeship programs, etc. The country has been very protective of "select" labor groups for a long time - the groups may have changed over time, but there has always been the desire to be exclusionary. It only "worked" post WWII because other societies were trying to be even MORE exclusionary - the Communism experiment in dozens of countries took hundreds of millions of people out of the global labor market - and American arrogance saw our "economic winning" as cultural superiority rather than the short-term fluke that it was.

The cultural superiority of America was simply this: NOT getting in the way of people. But interference has become some sort of default mindset that I don't know how we're going to rid ourselves of.

Texan99 said...

"They just can’t do so at an exceptional enough level to get paid for it." -- I disagree; they can almost always find someone to pay them to do whatever they're moderately good at. But they can't find someone to pay at an artificially high level set by the government, designed to "let a worker support a household." It may pay only enough to permit them to keep living with their parents or with a bunch of roommates, and not to raise a family of their own. Which is sad, but the only other choice is for other people to subsidize their decision to raise a family, without requiring them to change their behavior so as to make it possible.

I echo Anonymous: it doesn't help people in troubled circumstances for us to lie to them about how well what they're doing is working for them.

David Foster said...

MoM..."the great desire of the upper class now is to ensure that their kids wind up in the favored few"

Up through about 1870, commissions in the British Army were awarded by "purchase." The talented individual without means could not become an officer or was stuck at the lowest ranks; meanwhile, Lord Cardigan (he of Charge of the Light Brigade fame) paid 40,000 pounds for his.

The emphasis on credentialism, especially on credentials from a small number of "elite" universities, significantly resembles "purchase."

Odysseus said...

Likewise, Maddie graduated "with honors", but somehow never took trigonometry? There's no other way to say it: that "honors" diploma was a lie. She graduated highschool with as much math as I entered highschool with.

Your provinciality is showing.
I grew up on a farm, and attended a rural high school in the late 1980s. The math curriculum was exactly the same for everyone:
freshman year: Algebra I.
sophomore year: Algebra II.
junior year: Geometry.
senior year: Trigonometry.

Like Maddie, I would have said I was "smart". I got straight As without even trying.

My sophomore year, I moved to a suburban magnet school. Talk about a kick in the ass. I was one of five students who had "only" Algebra I as a background. You want to take Sophomore Physics with no higher math? I did. Guess what? My grades reflected it. My first report card was 1A (foreign language) 1B and all the rest Cs.

The American School System is in no way consistent across regions, or even within the same state. That's one reason why national initatives such as No Child Left Behind are such a joke. We're happy to fail a far larger population than just "ghetto kids".

If I hadn't changed schools, I would never have graduated college. I simply would not have built enough of a work ethic, and my freshman year would have hammered me into dropping out. And I'm betting I'm not unique.

Texan99 said...

In my (suburban public) high school, it was:

9th: Algebra
10th: Geometry
11th: Analytical geometry/trig
12th: Calculus & series

It's a terrible thing to try to stuff physics down students' throats without giving them some calculus first. The simplest relationships among position, velocity, and acceleration become nightmares of rote memorization. It would put the average student off the subject for good.

jaed said...

Fragmentary thought: since when does the American dream consist of having "a job"? This is something that's been bugging me about Walter Mead's thoughts about Liberalism [X.x]... the assumption that the independence of American life pre-Depression was just some sort of aberration.

What was attractive about the iconic family farm wasn't the fact that agricultural work was what was done... it was precisely that the farmer, the smallholder, was independent his own boss. The household was an economic unit beholden to no one.

For some reason, we have all gotten the idea that the shape of prosperity is to have a good job. To be a cog in someone else's economic enterprise. Running your own business is almost sneered at unless it's large enough to provide a lot of jobs itself.

But isn't the personal or family-run business a lot more compatible with the American dream than going to work for someone else and hoping that you can please your boss enough to keep your job? Not a terribly independent or proud way for millions of people to live, I don't think - not even if you're a skilled employee and your employer values your services.

I think the pattern of the last half century or so will eventually come to be seen as the aberration. Not that there's anything wrong with working at a job, but I suspect most people won't except when they're starting out or switching occupations.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

An excellent correction. I think there will be a lot of reinventing oneself in the future - contract work, hustling for business, related pieces which may include "a job" only in a broad sense.