September 27, 2015

If the Pope actually cares about the world’s poorest, he should embrace capitalism

Filed under: Economics, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

His Holiness the Pope would do far better for the remaining billion truly poor people on the planet if he ignored the blandishments of the anti-capitalists and looked at the actual track record of free enterprise in the developing world:

He has been called the “slum pope” and “a pope for the poor.” And indeed, it’s true that Pope Francis, leader to 1.3 billion Roman Catholics, speaks often of those in need. He’s described the amount of poverty and inequality in the world as “a scandal” and implored the Church to fight what he sees as a “culture of exclusion.”

Yet even as he calls for greater concern for the marginalized, he broadly and cavalierly condemns the market-driven economic development that has lifted a billion people out of extreme poverty within the lifetime of the typical millennial. A lack of understanding of even basic economic concepts has led one of the most influential and beloved human beings on the planet to decry free enterprise, opine that private property rights must not be treated as “inviolable,” hold up as the ideal “cooperatives of small producers” over “economies of scale,” accuse the Western world of “scandalous level[s] of consumption,” and assert that we need “to think of containing growth by setting some reasonable limits.”

Given his vast influence, which extends far beyond practicing Catholics, this type of rhetoric is deeply troubling. It’s impossible to know how much of an impact his words are having on concrete policy decisions — but it’s implausible to deny that when he calls for regulating and constraining the free markets and economic growth that alleviate truly crushing poverty, the world is listening. As a libertarian who is also a devout Roman Catholic, I’m afraid as well that statements like these from Pope Francis reinforce the mistaken notion that libertarianism and religion are fundamentally incompatible.

There’s no question that the pope at times seems downright hostile to much of what market-loving Catholics believe. In this summer’s lauded-by-the-press environmental encyclical Laudato Si (from which the quotes in the second paragraph were drawn), Pope Francis wrote that people who trust the invisible hand suffer from the same mindset that leads to slavery and “the sexual exploitation of children.” In Evangelii Gaudium, his 2013 apostolic exhortation, he chastised those who “continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world.”

Even more frustratingly, he asserted that such a belief in free markets “has never been confirmed by the facts.” Worse still, this year he stated in an interview: “I recognize that globalization has helped many people to lift themselves out of poverty, but it has condemned many other people to starve. It is true that in absolute terms the world’s wealth has grown, but inequality and poverty have arisen.” Globalization has caused poverty to “arise” and “condemned…many people to starve”?

A man Politico described as insisting “reality comes before theory” could not be more mistaken about the empirical truth of capitalism’s role in our world. While income inequality within developed countries may be growing, the income gap between the First World and the rest of the world is decreasing fast. As the World Bank’s Branko Milanovic has documented, we are in the midst of “the first decline in global inequality between world citizens since the Industrial Revolution.” In 1960, notes the Cato Institute’s Marian Tupy, the average America earned 11 times more than the average resident of Asia. Today, Americans make 4.8 times as much. “The narrowing of the income gap,” Tupy found, “is a result of growing incomes in the rest of the world,” not a decline in incomes in developed nations.

September 24, 2015

A case study – Nik-Mart in Subsistia

Filed under: Economics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Don Boudreaux looks at the different effects of international aid and capitalist exploitation in a desperately poor, far-away country:

The far-away land of Subsistia is inhabited by people who are desperately poor, not only relative to the typical person elsewhere on the globe but also in absolute terms. For decades well-meaning, well-educated, and well-funded people from the United States and other wealthy countries have visited Subsistia to help raise Subsistians out of poverty.

Alas, while these efforts by governments, NGOs, and churches have been many and munificent, all ordinary Subsistians continue to live in deep poverty – that is, until recently. A few short years ago a large U.S. corporation, Nik-Mart, set up factories in Subsistia. The wages that Nik-Mart pays to its Subsistian workers, while much higher than the average wage in Subsistia, are only a tiny fraction of the wages that Nik-Mart pays to its production-line employees in America.

Nik-Mart sells the goods produced in its Subsistian factories all around the world. One result of Nik-Mart’s operations in Subsistia is that the real prices that poor Americans and Europeans pay for shoes, clothing, and home furnishings have fallen significantly.

Nik-Mart is consistently one of the world’s most profitable corporations. It is also one of the world’s most hated.

When word recently leaked out of Nik-Mart’s record sales revenues and of the healthy rate of return on Nik-Mart’s assets, protests erupted in all major capitals of the developed world. Washington, Ottawa, Santiago, London, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Rome, Prague, Moscow, Tokyo, Pretoria, Canberra – these and other cities were swarmed by protestors demanding “social justice” and criticizing Nik-Mart for exploiting workers. “Nik-Mart’s profits are in the billions,” screamed U.S. Sen. Elsbeth Walter, who gave a rousing speech to protestors on the Washington Mall, “and yet it exploits poor workers in Subsistia while it off-shores jobs from America, hurting poor Americans! Have you no shame, Nik-Mart? Have! You! No! Shame?!!” Sen. Walter rhetorically asked, her index finger pointing accusingly at an imaginary Nik-Mart executive presumably hovering, phantasmically yet bloatedly, before her.

The Sunday talking-head shows were filled with heads talking of little else. “It’s really unconscionable,” said Harmon Nicholson, a famous progressive columnist, “that Nik-Mart takes advantage of the freedom that this country gives it to produce the things it sells in America outside of America. It’s no wonder our jobs picture is so weak and that American wages have stagnated.”

Sen. Lawrence Greenham, a Republican from the south, chimed in: “I don’t normally agree with Harmon, but he’s right on this. American plutocrats are gettin’ richer an’ richer off the backs of America’s poor. It’s gotta stop.”

September 23, 2015

Comparative Advantage and the Tragedy of Tasmania (Everyday Economics 4/7)

Filed under: Economics, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 24 Jun 2014

What can a small, isolated island economy teach the rest of the world about the nature and causes of the wealth of nations? When Tasmania was cut off from mainland Australia, it experienced the miracle of growth in reverse, as the reduction in trade and human cooperation forced its inhabitants back to the most basic ways of living. In an economy with a greater number of participants trading goods and services, however, there are more ways to find a comparative advantage and earn more by creating the most value for others. Let’s join Bob and Ann as they teach us the “Story of Comparative Advantage” like you’ve never seen it before.

September 3, 2015

The beer ineQuality index

Filed under: Cancon, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

I took a couple of weeks off over the summer and subsequently forgot some of the interesting articles I’d intended to link to from the blog (but no sensible person comes here for breaking news, do they?). Here’s one from the wonderfully named Worthwhile Canadian Initiative blog:

The conventional Canadian view is that American beer is bad; watery and weak. Yet American breweries produce some of the world’s best beers — superb brews coming out of microbreweries across the country.

Why is american beer

What is striking about the United States is the country’s level of inequality — or, to be more precise, the beer quality inequality. Countries like Germany, Belgium — the Scandinavian countries in general — have much less variation in the quality of their beer.

The question is: why? Does beer quality inequality result from other forms of inequality, like disparities in income and wealth? Or do the forces that produce income inequality also produce beer quality inequality? Is it a spurious correlation, or is the armchair empiricist’s observation that the US has more beer ine-quality simply wrong?

The income-causes-beer quality inequality story is easily told. Some people are poor. They demand cheap beer, and cheap beer is necessarily poor quality. Some people are rich. They demand high quality beer, and are willing to pay for it. Hence, in theory, we would expect income inequality to produce beer quality inequality. As an empirical observation, the US has substantially more income and beer quality inequality than other rich countries, including Canada, while Scandinavian countries have some of the lowest levels of income and beer inequality in the world (here). So income inequality causes beer quality inequality: Q.E.D.

This story is plausible, and there may be some truth to it. The problem with it is that not everybody drinks beer. Take a country like England, for example. There beer was traditionally a working man’s drink — the upper classes sipped Pimm’s on the lawn, or perhaps a gin and tonic. If the rich aren’t drinking beer, an increased concentration of income in the hands of the richest 1 percent will have no impact on the variation in beer quality.

June 22, 2015

An insurance scam that targets the most vulnerable

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Law, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

At The Intercept, Juan Thompson talks about a burgeoning insurance scam that not only rips off the victims for their insurance premiums but then makes it worse through police action:

Martin was taken in by a widening scam in which crooks, posing as auto insurance agents, prey on working people struggling to find affordable policies. Under the scam, the perpetrator offers auto insurance for a low price — low because the scammer, posing as a broker, will buy an authentic policy using fraudulent means of payment, keeping the policy just long enough to collect a proof of insurance card.

The racket is a growing problem in New York City and South Florida, according to an insurance industry group, but seems most prevalent in Michigan, where premiums are inflated by a state mandate that drivers purchase insurance plans that have unlimited lifetime medical benefits, among other features. Victims in Michigan are thrown even deeper into crisis when police, as is common there, accuse victims of being in on the scam and seize their vehicles and other assets under civil forfeiture laws.

The scam and seizures show how crooks and cops can end up working in concert to further imperil those already on the economic brink. Indeed, in this case, low-income residents are pinched at every turn. They start off with especially high insurance premiums, consumer advocates argue, because insurance companies sometimes charge people in low-income communities more for auto insurance in a practice some have labeled modern redlining.

Bogus agents exploit the need for cheaper policies by selling insurance that’s too good to be true, leaving victims financially exposed, for example, in the case of an accident. As if all that weren’t enough, the police then turn on the victims of the fraud, who are far easier to track down than the original perpetrators.

“You have a blend of crooked agents selling innocent, squeezed drivers bogus policies and insurance cards, and high insurance premiums,” said James Quiggle of the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, a group that receives funding from insurance companies.

May 16, 2015

Charles Murray and Jonah Goldberg on civil disobedience in America

Filed under: Books, Bureaucracy, Government, Liberty, Media, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 11 May 2015

The American ideal of limited government on life support. Is it time for civil disobedience? Charles Murray says yes. Murray has been writing on government overreach for more than 30 years. His new book, By The People, is a blueprint for taking back American liberty. Jonah Goldberg sits down with Murray to discuss civil unrest in Baltimore, the scope of the government, and why bureaucrats should wear body cameras.

According to AEI scholar, acclaimed social scientist, and bestselling author Charles Murray, American liberty is under assault. The federal government has unilaterally decided that it can and should tell us how to live our lives. If we object, it threatens, “Fight this, and we’ll ruin you.” How can we overcome regulatory tyranny and live free once again? In his new book, By the People: Rebuilding Liberty Without Permission (Crown Forum, May 2015), Murray offers provocative solutions.

May 11, 2015

Nepal’s tragic unpreparedness for disaster

Filed under: Asia, Government — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In The Walrus, Manjushree Thapa explains why Nepal was so badly prepared for the earthquake:

Following the April 25 earthquake, Nepalis have had to learn the value of preparedness in the most painful way possible. In the aftermath, Pushpa Acharya, a Nepali friend at the University of Toronto, observed, “Knowledge was not our problem.” Indeed. We all knew that our country sits on an active fault line, where the subcontinent collided with the Eurasian plate with such force it created the Himalayas. The last big quake took place in 1934. Others have since struck, but none with the force of 1934’s 8.0 or April 25’s 7.9. We knew that a big earthquake was due.

It was our duty to prepare, and though some of us did so individually, as a society we ignored the warnings. In the past ten days, during search and rescue, and then the beginnings of relief, we’ve had to do some hard thinking about how our country could become more responsible going forward. The root problem may seem obvious: Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its poverty is, however, a symptom of our history of ill governance, and the reason for our national failure to prepare, which has kept us from becoming a functioning democracy.

When the earthquake struck, the country was in a deep and deeply depressing stupor. The governing parties — a coalition of the Nepali Congress Party and the Unified Marxist Leninists — had reached an impasse with Nepal’s thirty-three opposition parties about what kind of constitution to draft. There was no plan for the country as a whole, let alone in the case of an emergency. The drafting of a constitution has preoccupied, confounded, and eluded Nepal’s polity since 2006, when the Maoists ended a ten-year insurgency to join forces with other parties to remove Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah. Nepal’s king had used the war as an excuse to end a fragile fifteen-year spell of democracy and install his own military-backed rule. A mass movement restored democracy, and the subsequent peace process promised to restructure the country along just and equitable lines through the drafting of a new constitution

April 24, 2015

Relative and absolute poverty

Filed under: Economics, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

We in the west are so rich, in historical terms, that we are losing our grasp on what poverty really has been for the majority of humankind for the majority of our recorded history:

People generally just don’t get what poverty actually means. This is a charge often enough aimed at me and people like me, well off white guys who pontificate upon economics. But those making that charge often enough don’t actually understand what real poverty means. So, here’s a nice example of it. There’s a campaign in New York to insist that SNAP (ie, food stamps) should not be cut. Views on that can vary either way: I’m generally in favour of a larger welfare state than the one the US has at present so I’m probably against such a cut. But that’s a political point and not the one I’m interested in here. Rather, I want to point out just quite how rich someone getting food stamps is on any global or historical basis.

Yes, you did read that right: how rich someone getting food stamps is. As one example, the food stamp allocation in New York State appears to be $29 per person per week in a family receiving the full possible allocation. That, on its own, is a yearly income of $1,508 and that’s an amount that puts you, on its own, in the top 50% of all income recipients in the world. No, really, you can look that up with this little calculator. More than half of humanity is poorer than someone who only gets the New York food stamp allocation.

All of which gives us an interesting little look into the difference between absolute poverty and relative poverty. For, obviously, the people who are receiving food stamps in New York are those we consider to be poor in our own society. And in our own society, they are indeed poor, as Adam Smith pointed out with his linen shirt example. It’s not necessary for a working man to have a linen shirt, he’s not poor because he cannot afford one. But if you live in a society where you are considered to be poor if you cannot afford a linen shirt, and you cannot afford one, then in that society you are of course poor. This is relative poverty, more usefully known not as a measure of poverty but of inequality.

April 22, 2015

“Victorian style poverty” in the UK

Filed under: Britain, Economics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In a recent Forbes column, Tim Worstall pours scorn on the recent claim that some British children are living in “Victorian conditions”:

There’s a very large difference between arguing that we have Victorian style (for those unacquainted with British practise, this means late 19th century style) poverty in the UK and that we have Victorian style inequality in the UK. That second is at least arguably possible, although untrue, while the first is simply a flat out untruth. There is nothing even remotely akin to 19th century poverty in the UK today. Nor is there, of course, in any of the industrialised nations. The problem stems from people simply not understanding how poor the past was.

The claim is made this morning in The Guardian:

    Many children are living in Victorian conditions – it’s an inequality timebomb

That second assertion could be true but is a matter for another day. That first is just wrong.

    I was reminded of this by the teaching union NASUWT’s warning this week that there are children in this country living in “Victorian conditions”, turning to charity for regular meals and going without a winter coat.

“Going without a winter coat” might be something we’d like to remedy (and yes, I think we would like to do so) but it’s not a reminder of Victorian levels of poverty, it’s nothing like it at all. It’s necessary to actually understand what Victorian poverty was. Late 19th century Britain had some 25% of the population living at or below the subsistence level. This subsistence level is not a measure of inequality, nor of the lack of winter clothes. It is a measure of gaining enough calories each day in order to prolong life. This is the sort of subsistence level that Malthus and Ricardo were talking about. The sort of level of poverty that the World Bank currently uses as a measure of “absolute poverty”.

This absolute poverty is set at $1.25 per person per day. No, this is not the number that can be spent upon food per person per day. This is the amount that can be spent upon everything per person per day. This covers shelter, clothing, heating, cooking, food, education, pensions, health care, absolutely everything. This number is also inflation adjusted, so we are not talking about $1.25 a day when bread was one cent a gallon loaf. This number is also Purchasing Power Parity adjusted: so we are not talking about lentils costing two cents a tonne in India and £3 a kg in Tesco. We are adjusting for those price differences across geography and time.

Just to note, by these PPP and inflation adjusted numbers, being on the minimum wage in the UK puts you in the top 10% of all income earners in the current world. Being on nothing at all but benefits would put you into the top 20%.

Up to 25% of the population of Britain were that badly off in the late Victorian era: “Actual real starvation to death as a result of poverty was not unknown, even that late, as late as 1890.”

April 21, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore’s amazing economic success

Filed under: Asia, Economics, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Earlier this month, Alvaro Vargas Llosa examined the economic success of Singapore under the authoritarian rule of Lee Kuan Yew:

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s legendary statesman, who died last month at the age of 91, posed a challenge to those of us who believe in political and economic freedom (and all other freedoms). His combination of authoritarianism and economic freedom, of social engineering and self-reliance, worked. The result was a society that is more prosperous than most others, but free only in some respects.

For years, the best examples one could come up with to show that the marriage of economic and political liberty could work were the liberal democracies of the developed world, whose achievements originated in centuries past and different circumstances.

Lee Kuan Yew’s credentials became strong as many countries that also gained independence in the 1950s or 1960s opted for a mix of nativism and collectivism that kept them poor while tiny Singapore, with no natural resources, emerged as an economic powerhouse. While Mao, Ho Chi Minh, and Castro — not to cite Mobutu, Idi Amin Dada, and others — destroyed the chances of a decent life for many generations, Lee Kuan Yew created the conditions for a 124-fold increase in Singapore’s per capita income in half a century.


Singapore’s case is exceptional, which makes it a tough challenge for those of us who think freedom is best served by not carving it up. My belief is that Singapore has been able to preserve its curious mix because of the absence of prosperous liberal democracies around it. But its model is based on globalization, and it’s therefore porous to good ideas.

In a world in which more countries, including Asian ones, end up successfully embracing democracy under the rule of law as well as free trade, it will be impossible for the city-state to avoid the comparison and the contagion. It is one thing to preserve an authoritarian model because your neighbors espouse a less successful one, and quite another to perpetuate it in the face of equally or even more successful societies that espouse a freer model.

April 10, 2015

QotD: Zoning hurts the poor

Filed under: Economics, Government, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

One kind of regulation that was actually intended to harm the poor, and especially poor minorities, was zoning. The ostensible reason for zoning was to address unhealthy conditions in cities by functionally separating land uses, which is called “exclusionary zoning.” But prior to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, some municipalities had race-based exclusionary land-use regulations. Early in the 20th century, several California cities masked their racist intent by specifically excluding laundry businesses, predominantly Chinese owned, from certain areas of the cities.

Today, of course, explicitly race-based, exclusionary zoning policies are illegal. But some zoning regulations nevertheless price certain demographics out of particular neighborhoods by forbidding multifamily dwellings, which are more affordable to low- or middle-income individuals. When the government artificially separates land uses and forbids building certain kinds of residences in entire districts, it restricts the supply of housing and increases the cost of the land, and the price of housing reflects those restrictions.

Moreover, when cities implement zoning rules that make it difficult to secure permits to build new housing, land that is already developed becomes more valuable because you no longer need a permit. The demand for such developed land is therefore artificially higher, and that again raises its price.

Sandy Ikeda, “Shut Out: How Land-Use Regulations Hurt the Poor”, The Freeman, 2015-02-05.

April 8, 2015

Venezuela’s economic plight

Filed under: Americas, Economics, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

J.R. Ireland sums up the Venezuelan situation:

The current fate of Venezuela is one of the most wretched and tragic foregone conclusions in modern history — an economic system that was doomed, from the first optimistic days of its implementation, to fail miserably and to beggar the poor, beleaguered Venezuelan people as it did so. There was no other way it could conceivably end. This sort of command economy has been tried continuously throughout the 20th century and humanity’s failure to learn from socialism’s shortcomings is the primary reason the next century is unlikely to greatly improve upon the last, at least from a human rights perspective.

So anyone who had paid attention to the decay, stagnation, and eventual collapse of every command economy of the 20th century knew immediately that Chavista socialism would be no more successful than Castro’s socialism, Mao’s socialism, Lenin’s socialism, or Pol Pot’s socialism and would end, eventually, in the same great grey void of hopelessness, impotence, shortages, inequity and despair. Therefore, those of us who actually know anything about the failings of such command economies cannot be particularly surprised by the fact that condoms currently cost $755 for a 36 pack of trojans, that authorities have begun making it illegal to shop more than twice a week in a desperate attempt to alleviate shortages, or that women must now wait in long lines to get something so simple as tampons. This was guaranteed to occur all along and the foreordained Day of Judgment was only ever so slightly delayed by a period of high oil prices which allowed the Venezuelan government to paper over systemic failings with a vast influx of petrodollars.

What I now have to ask is this: When can we expect an apology from the various ‘enlightened’ and ‘caring’ progressives who applauded Chavez during his rise to power, who claimed that every one of Chavez’ failings was the fault of bigoted American imperialists undercutting the Savior of South American, and who declared Chavez to be some sort of righteous admixture between Jesus Christ, Gandhi, Albert Einstein, and George Washington?

April 5, 2015

The war on drugs in two charts

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:56

I saw this on Google+ and thought the two graphics included in the post were interesting enough to present on their own — because they pretty much tell the whole story in a glance:

Drug addition rate and drug control spending

State and federal incarceration rates

In 1969, the prison population was 200,000 and the overall population was about 200 million people. This means that approximately 0.1% of all Americans were in prison in 1969. As of 2010, the prison population had expanded to 1.6 million while the overall population was 309 million. Therefore, the current prison population is 0.5%. The prison population has expanded 5 times when adjusted for population size while the rate of drug addiction has remained largely constant. I do not believe that any reasonable person can look at the statistics on incarceration versus drug usage and come to any conclusion other than that the Drug War has been an immense cataclysm for the American people and that this cataclysm has fallen horrifically and disproportionately upon the poor. From a drug usage standpoint the inner cities have not improved in the slightest when it comes to overdoses and other tertiary consequences of drug use and we have simultaneously turned our inner cities into armed police states where the inhabitants are frequently terrified of the police, where the police engage in the worst sorts of paramilitary tactics, and where a large portion of young men are hurled into prison cells and ruined in the prime of their lives.

But none of these bourgeoisie facts and evidence shall deter Mr. Walters from his noble, righteous quest! No, he knows the evils of marijuana which shall be visited disproportionately upon the poor, and he will not rest until such toxins are driven entirely from the field:

    The focus on marijuana legalization trades on the public perception that the drug does little damage, and hence, that any criminal justice penalty for its use is an unnecessary affront. In fact, marijuana use does serious harm, and its legalization promises more use by the most vulnerable in communities like Angela Dawson’s Oliver neighborhood.

Personally, and I do realize this would shock Mr. Walters, I actually don’t care how damaging marijuana is to its users. Provided its users are of legal age and therefore are capable of consenting to its use, whether or not it is ‘damaging’ is of no relevance to me — consuming massive quantities of sugar is damaging, large amounts of fat is damaging, failure to exercise is damaging, drinking to excess is damaging — yet none of these are, or should be, illegal. Even if you prove the negative consequences of weed, it doesn’t matter — it is not the responsibility of the state to treat its citizens like children in need of mollycoddling and governmentally sponsored salvation and it certainly is neither the duty nor the purpose of the state to save us from the consequences of our own decisions.

March 30, 2015

The built-in advantages of the traditional family structure

Filed under: Media, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Megan McArdle on the reactions to a recent book dealing with traditional and non-traditional families:

Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis has touched off a wave of print and digital commentary. The book chronicles a growing divide between the way affluent kids are raised, in two-parent homes whose parents invest heavily in educating their kids, and the very different, very unstable homes in which poorer kids generally grow up.

Naturally, social conservatives are delighted with this lengthy examination of the problems created by unstable families, even if they are not equally delighted with Putnam’s recommendations (more government programs). Equally naturally, there is pushback from those who see the problem as primarily one of economics and insufficient government spending, as well as from those who argue that there are lots of good ways to raise kids outside the straitjacket of mid-century, middle-class mores.

I have been trying to find a more delicate way to phrase this, but I can’t: This is nonsense. The advantages that two people raising their own biological or jointly adopted children have over “nontraditional” family arrangements are too obvious to need enumeration, but apparently mere obviousness is not enough to forestall contrary arguments, so let me enumerate them anyway.

Raising children the way an increasing percentages of Americans are — in loosely attached cohabitation arrangements that break up all too frequently, followed by the formation of new households with new children by different parents — is an enormous financial and emotional drain. Supporting two households rather than one is expensive, and it diverts money that could otherwise be invested in the kids. The parent in the home has no one to help shoulder the load of caring for kids, meaning less investment of time and more emotional strain on the custodial parent. Children will spend less time with their noncustodial parent, especially if that parent has other offspring. Add in conflict between the parents over money and time, and it can infect relationships with the children. As one researcher told me when I wrote an article on the state of modern marriage, you frequently see fathers investing time and money with the kids whose mother they get along with the best, while the other children struggle along on crumbs.

People often argue that extended families can substitute, but of course, two-parent families also have extended families — two of them — so single-parent families remain at a disadvantage, especially because other members of the extended family are often themselves struggling with the challenges of single parenthood. Extended families just can’t substitute for the benefits of a two-parent family. Government can’t, either; universal preschool is not going to make up for an uninvolved parent, or one stretched too thin to give their kids enough time. Government can sand the rough edges off the economic hardship, of course, but even in a social democratic paradise such as Sweden, kids raised in single-parent households do worse than kids raised with both their parents in the home.

March 19, 2015

There’s a deep-seated problem with how we measure the so-called “standard of living”

Filed under: Economics, History — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

My family are tired of hearing me say any variation on the expression “the past is a foreign country”, but I ring the changes on that phrase because it at least frames some of the problem we have in trying to comprehend just how much life has changed even within living memory, never mind more than a couple of generations ago. At the Cato Institute, Megan McArdle tries to avoid saying exactly those words, but the sense is still very much the same:

The generation that fought the Civil War paid an incredible price: one in four soldiers never returned home, and one in thirteen of those who did were missing one or more limbs. Were they better off than their parents’ generation? What about the generation that lived through the Great Depression, many of whom graduated into World War II? Does a new refrigerator and a Chevrolet in the driveway make up for decades and lives lost to the march of history? Or for the rapid increase in crime and civic disorder that marked the postwar boom? Then again, what about African Americans, who saw massive improvements in both their personal liberty and their personal income?

We should never pooh-pooh economic progress. As P.J. O’Rourke once remarked, I have one word for people who think that we live in a degenerate era fallen from a blessed past full of bounty and ease, and that word is “dentistry.” On the other hand, we should not reduce standard of living to (appropriately inflation adjusted) GDP numbers either. Living standards are complicated, and the tools we have to measure what is happening to them are almost absurdly crude. I certainly won’t achieve a satisfying measure in this brief essay. But we can, I think, begin to sketch the major ways in which things are better and worse for this generation. Hopefully we can also zero in on what makes the current era feel so deprived, and our distribution of income so worrisome.

My grandfather worked as a grocery boy until he was 26 years old. He married my grandmother on Thanksgiving because that was the only day he could get off. Their honeymoon consisted of a weekend visiting relatives , during which they shared their nuptial bed with their host’s toddler. They came home to a room in his parents’ house—for which they paid monthly rent. Every time I hear that marriage is collapsing because the economy is so bad, I think of their story.

By the standards of today, my grandparents were living in wrenching poverty. Some of this, of course, involves technologies that didn’t exist—as a young couple in the 1930s my grandparents had less access to health care than the most neglected homeless person in modern America, simply because most of the treatments we now have had not yet been invented. That is not the whole story, however. Many of the things we now have already existed; my grandparents simply couldn’t afford them. With some exceptions, such as microwave ovens and computers, most of the modern miracles that transformed 20th century domestic life already existed in some form by 1939. But they were out of the financial reach of most people.

If America today discovered a young couple where the husband had to drop out of high school to help his father clean tons of unsold, rotted produce out of their farm’s silos, and now worked a low-wage, low-skilled job, was living in a single room with no central heating and a single bathroom to share for two families, who had no refrigerator and scrubbed their clothes by hand in a washtub, who had serious conversations in low voices over whether they should replace or mend torn clothes, who had to share a single elderly vehicle or make the eight-mile walk to town … that family would be the subject of a three-part Pulitzer prize winning series on Poverty in America.

But in their time and place, my grandparents were a boring bourgeois couple, struggling to make ends meet as everyone did, but never missing a meal or a Sunday at church. They were excited about the indoor plumbing and electricity which had just been installed on his parents’ farm, and they were not too young to marvel at their amazing good fortune in owning an automobile. In some sense they were incredibly deprived, but there are millions of people in America today who are incomparably better off materially, and yet whose lives strike us (and them) as somehow objectively more difficult.

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress