25.11.15

JAW-DROPPINGLY DEVOID OF ECONOMIC CONTENT.

Some years ago, Historiann hosted a bull session on the curious aesthetics of one Susan Jacoby.   The culture-studies types put on a clinic every so often about how far you can go slinging big words around, and the now-ended Mad Men series provided lots of the material to be subjected to the usual theorrhea.  Start with Ms Jacoby.
Nearly all institutional power for 20 years after the war was indeed wielded by the war generation (and eventually by younger men born during the Depression). Yet a vast majority of men possessed limited power that could vanish swiftly if they committed the ultimate sin of failing to bring home a paycheck.

It was often said, as the feminist movement found its voice in the early 1970s, that most wives were just one man away from poverty. It would have been just as valid to say that most men were just one job away from poverty.

In 1960, about 25 percent of wives with children under 18 held jobs — many of them part time — and a disproportionate number of those women came not from the middle class but from the poorest fifth of American families. Throughout my childhood, “she works” was a pitying pejorative applied to women whose husbands had turned out to be “bad providers.”

The world of “Mad Men,” in which executives earn enough to pay for lavish hotel rooms for trysts with girlfriends, along with fur coats to pacify their wives, was unimaginable for most blue- or white-collar working men 50 years ago.
That's the cultural norms of The America that Worked(TM) and the social milieu that the Serious Thinkers of the Day had to deconstruct.  Ms Jacoby is clearly conversant with Feminine Mystique and that line of reasoning, but, in the next few paragraphs her unfamiliarity with The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and The Lonely Crowd and Organization Man and the rest of the bad ideas about excessive conformity and anomie and all the rest that burdened the emergent hippies becomes clear.
My dad worked so hard that he wouldn’t have had time for routine adultery even if he had the desire. Furthermore, my supposedly powerless mother would have spotted any unexplained expenditure of more than $20 — not enough to rent a decent hotel room even in 1960 in Lansing, Mich. Some husbands certainly did exercise tight control over money, but the basic middle-class covenant of the time ceded power to women over everything domestic, including the family budget.

The cost of that covenant to women — the suppression of worldly opportunity — has been thoroughly told. The cost to men — in terms of stress, time lost with the families they were trying so hard to support and lack of freedom to pursue personal interests — has not been nearly as well documented.
Yes, and the "do your own thing" Sixties had behind all the posturing a strong expectation that the bourgeois economy would always be there to fall back upon, and somewhere in those early feminist stirrings to pry open the social clubs and the executive suites would be the opportunity for ambitious mothers to neglect their children the same way ambitious fathers did.  We're still too close to the beginning of that transition to come to any definitive conclusions as to gains and losses, and I suspect there's going to be more than mandated leave time or taxpayer-funded child care in the final analysis.

And much of what the conventional wisdom seems to attribute to social movements and influential actors might really be emergent.  That's the point Historiann may be raising in her reaction to Ms Jacoby.
But whose power was it in the first place (allegedly) to cede to the reigning housewife?  Jacoby is right to say that men married to spouses who didn’t work for wages are more economically vulnerable than those who are married to an income earner, but whose decision was it to restrict women’s paid employment options?  Was it the women, or was it middle-class middle-managers and accountants like Bob Jacoby, who until the civil rights and women’s movements were exactly the kind of people in positions of power and who continued discriminatory hiring practices?  I’m just sayin’.
Evolutionary stable strategies are like that.  Perhaps that division of labor conferred advantages as the market expanded sufficiently for paid work outside the house to be more rewarding than autarkic households with relatively little attachment to the labor force.  It might have nothing to do with power.  Or with Ms Jacoby trying to elicit kind remarks from the boys.

And complex adaptive systems adapt in ways that do not lend themselves to a single cause, whether that cause is part of the Set of Oppressions or not.  When I first started this post, it's in response to a comment.
Did women become more interested in paid employment outside the home (because women have always worked, just not always for wages) as a response to the beginning of the wage slide, or was it the other way around? Or is there no connection at all?
The rest of the world figuring out how to do the routine industrial tasks that used to be high-tech is likely to have affected the returns to factory labor in the United States and other developed countries, whether or not female labor force participation rates increased.  And the presence of ambitious and educated women in the executive suite is likely to have contributed to assortative mating.
As someone who grew up in the 1970s and came of age in the 1980s, it often feels to me like the cultural climate responded to the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement by basically saying, “If you’re going to make us share the goodies, we’ll make sure there aren’t as many goodies to go around, so all the groups will fight each other for a share of the diminished goody pool instead of fighting for more goodies for everyone. And by the way, we’ll elevate a few oustanding members of the disadvantaged groups here and there, to trick people into thinking this is all based on merit.”
That observation comes close to a confession that the victims-rights crowd of the Sixties was actually about zero-sum thinking.  More for us, less for them.  Pie-slicing, and deckchair arranging.  But that's a lot easier to grasp than as more hands are involved in baking and eating the pie, prices will adjust to reflect both the increased size of the pie and the increased buying power of the additional hands.  Regular readers know where I'm going with this.
I would like to have an answer to that question that does not require a fairly advanced knowledge of economics. Suggestions are welcome. The problem, dear reader, is that the injection of additional productive resources into an economy implies that those resources will produce goods and receive income, either in the form of goods or in the form of claims to goods. Suppose, for the sake of discussion, that additional productive resources get injected into an economy in the form of women. At this level of abstraction, it matters not whether these women come from the ranks of stay-at-home wives seeking some income and some intellectual stimulation, or from the ranks of collegians discontented with the traditional education and nursing majors or with the notion of the M.R.S. degree. What matters is that their presence in the work force affects the potential output of the economy, as well as the equilibrium price ratio.
There are laws of conservation in economics, and commentators neglect them at their peril.

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