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(Even more than usual, this is something of a rough draft. And way too long.)
A few months ago, Robin Hanson wrote a fascinating post asking what made this time period unique:
When our distant descendants think about our era, however, differences will loom larger. Yes they will see that we were more like them in knowing more things, and in having less contact with a wild nature. But our brief period of very rapid growth and discovery and our globally integrated economy and culture will be quite foreign to them. Yet even these differences will pale relative to one huge difference: our lives are far more dominated by consequential delusions: wildly false beliefs and non-adaptive values that matter. While our descendants may explore delusion-dominated virtual realities, they will well understand that such things cannot be real, and don’t much influence history. In contrast, we live in the brief but important “dreamtime” when delusions drove history.
He's thinking about the very distant future, to a time when humanity has fallen back into the Malthusian trap through an explosion in human mind uploads. I'd like to instead think a little less abstractly, and a little closer to the present.
Here's one: More than any period in the past, and probably relative to the future, we are more dependent on romantic relationships to fulfill all of our emotional needs. Our other friendships and relationships, such as with extended family, are shallower, and of shorter duration, than they "naturally" are, than they were, and than (I think) they will be.
What do I mean by dependent on romance? The decline of friendships is well-documented:
According to a study documented in the June 2006 issue of the journal American Sociological Review, Americans are thought to be suffering a loss in the quality and quantity of close friendships since at least 1985. The study states 25% of Americans have no close confidants, and the average total number of confidants per citizen has dropped from four to two.
Here's an anectodal, and I think illustrative, example: Last month, the New York Times Style section ran an article about marriage which had this remarkable bit:
Monogamy is one of the most basic concepts of modern marriage. It is also its most confounding. In psychoanalytic thought, the template for monogamy is forged in infancy, a baby with its mother. Marriage is considered to be a mainline back to this relationship, its direct heir. But there is a crucial problem: as infants we are monogamous with our mothers, but our mothers are not monogamous with us. That first monogamy — that template — is much less pure than we allow. “So when we think about monogamy, we think about it as though we are still children and not adults as well,” Adam Phillips notes. This was true for us. On our wedding day, Dan and I performed that elaborate charade: I walked down the aisle with my father. I left him to join my husband. We all shed what we told ourselves were tears of joy. Dan and I promised to forsake all others, and sexually we had. But we had not shed all attachments, naturally, and as we waded further into our project the question of allegiances became more pressing. Was our monogamy from the child’s or the mother’s perspective? Did my love for Dan — must my love for Dan — always come first?
This all came pouring out last summer in the worst fight of our marriage. At the time, we were at my parents’ house, an hour northeast of San Francisco. More than food, more than child-rearing, we fought about weekends — in particular, how many summer weekends to spend up there. I liked the place: out of the fog, free grandparental day care; the kids could swim. Dan loathed it, describing the locale as “that totally sterile golf community in which your mother feeds our kids popsicles for breakfast and I’m forbidden to cook.”
For the past few years I dismissed Dan’s complaints by saying, “Fine, don’t go.” I told myself this was justified, if not altruistic: I was taking our girls; Dan could do what he wanted with his free time. But underneath lay a tangle of subtext. Dan wished he spent even more time with his own parents, who were quite private. I felt an outsize obligation toward mine, because they moved to the Bay Area to be closer to us. We’d had some skilled conversations, which helped a bit, as I now knew those weekends with his in-laws made Dan feel alienated and left out of our family decision-making. Yet at root we fought because the issue rubbed a weak point in our marriage, in our monogamy: I didn’t want to see my devotion to my parents as an infidelity to Dan. To him, it was.
It's not my intention to criticize these people (although, for the record, I think they both come out like most people do in the NYTimes Style pages: Self-absorbed and unpleasant). Rather, I'd just like to point out how funamentally strange this approach to emotional monogamy is, historically and (I'd argue) evolutionarily. Stephanie Coontz wrote an interesting article a few years ago about the history of marriage:
In John Adams’s view, a “passion for the public good” was “superior to all private passions.” In both England and America, moralists bewailed “excessive” married love, which encouraged “men and women to be always taken up with each other.”
From medieval days until the early 19th century, diaries and letters more often used the word love to refer to neighbors, cousins and fellow church members than to spouses. When honeymoons first gained favor in the 19th century, couples often took along relatives or friends for company. Victorian novels and diaries were as passionate about brother-sister relationships and same-sex friendships as about marital ties.
The Victorian refusal to acknowledge strong sexual desires among respectable men and women gave people a wider outlet for intense emotions, including physical touch, than we see today. Men wrote matter-of-factly about retiring to bed with a male roommate, “and in each other’s arms did friendship sink peacefully to sleep.” Upright Victorian matrons thought nothing of kicking their husbands out of bed when a female friend came to visit. They spent the night kissing, hugging and pouring out their innermost thoughts.
By the early 20th century, though, the sea change in the culture wrought by the industrial economy had loosened social obligations to neighbors and kin, giving rise to the idea that individuals could meet their deepest needs only through romantic love, culminating in marriage. Under the influence of Freudianism, society began to view intense same-sex ties with suspicion and people were urged to reject the emotional claims of friends and relatives who might compete with a spouse for time and affection.
Look, I realize some of this was subliminated homosexuality in age of repression. And another part was probably that men had trouble developing emotional relationships with women in separate spheres. Nevertheless, I think it's virtually undeniable that friendship has declined in importance relative to marriage.
But try telling somebody that you're unhappy about the constant dissolving of friendships, unhappy that every couple years you move and everything starts over. You get told, bluntly, that's life, grow up. And it does just sound juvenile, doesn't it? But then there's this, from the always fascinating The Edge:
Women in hunting and gathering societies breastfeed around the clock, eat a low-fat diet and get a lot of exercise — habits that tend to inhibit ovulation. As a result, they regularly space their children about four years apart. Thus, the modern duration of many marriages—about four years—conforms to the traditional period of human birth spacing, four years.
Perhaps human parental bonds originally evolved to last only long enough to raise a single child through infancy, about four years, unless a second infant was conceived. By age five, a youngster could be reared by mother and a host of relatives. Equally important, both parents could choose a new partner and bear more varied young.
She doesn't talk about friendship, but I strongly suspect that it's evolved in order to bond tribes. You're more likely to fight with and die with someone with whom you share an emotional connection. And that bond is permanent: Men didn't get a new tribe every four years. They got a new wife every four years. In other words, we're evolved to be fine divorcing, not moving.
My fellow conservative-leaners share some of the blame for this, with their overemphasis of marriage as the apotheosis of human existence. When I was looking for that Coontz piece, I ran across this old Ann Althouse post, where in the comments Coontz is made out to be a radical for wanting people to build deeper relationships. (To be fair, here's a more sensible response, someone who appreciates the deep benefits of real community.)
Coontz attributes the decline to Freudianism. As happy as I am to blame him for the world's ills, I'd like to suggest another possible reason: Economics. Specifically, mobility. As the economy became more dynamic, it became necessary to move often. As people did so, they rationally stopped developing long-lasting, deep friendships. Why bother? The people will simply move away in a few years. The only person you could (barely) count on remaining was your spouse, and consequently, people became emotionally dependent on them, and only them.
So far I've been a downer about things here. I've said friendship has been on the decline, and nothing about why I think this is a transient stage. Here, of course, I'm of necessity vaguer, since I'm looking to the future, but I'll give it a shot.
One reason is the growth of communications technology. The rise of "helicopter parents" is, in my view, a negative. And surely it's partially driven by sociological factors. But it's also a result of technology. Without cell phones, webcams, etc., it's simply not possible to be a helicopter mom. And this development will continue. I IM my brother, 1000 miles away, far more than I would call him. And then what about something like this:
A new Army grant aims to create email or voice mail and send it by thought alone. No need to type an e-mail, dial a phone or even speak a word.
Known as synthetic telepathy, the technology is based on reading electrical activity in the brain using an electroencephalograph, or EEG. Similar technology is being marketed as a way to control video games by thought.
"I think that this will eventually become just another way of communicating," said Mike D'Zmura, from the University of California, Irvine and the lead scientist on the project.
Things like this will only continue. Already, I strongly suspect facebook and the like has led to people staying in touch for longer. True, some of these are shallow "reationships", but the technology is new. Imagine what instant, effortless communication, or truly authentic-looking holograms, or whatever would do. Friendships would be cheaper to maintain, and thus more enduring.
Potentially even transportation advances could help. Already airplane flights are far cheaper than they were a few decades ago. What about something like hypersonic transport? I don't think that's as big a deal as communications advances (partially because I view the advances as less radical). Even so, as economic growth continues, expect the time cost (that is, the hours you need to work to pay for something) of moving from one place to another to fall.
Another reason I view this phase as passing is the future of time off. I think I'm probably in the minority here, but I tend to think even highly skilled workers? Why? Because there simply isn't that much that money can be spent on. As Will Wilkinson once wrote, "The difference between rich and poor in transportation used to be feet versus carriage. Now, its a 1988 Escort vs. a 2002 BMW, which, despite our keen sense for the social distinction, is in fact a triumph of equality." This trend will only continue. Sure, people will work hard and compete, but there comes a point where the marginal gains are simply not that high, relative to just sloughing off and playing more golf.
I've noticed an interesting trend in my classmates. I don't have much to compare it to, but many, including myself, seem far less enthused about moving to random parts of the country/world than our predecessors. A huge number have strong desires to move back to the Pacific Northwest, or the South, or whatever. And why not? We have become so rich that we can allow ourselves to be moved by these non-economic considerations. Sure, you might get a few more bucks moving, but so what? Diminishing returns in material possessions kicks in, and being somewhere you want to be becomes more important. (This is, by the way, an excellent reason not to go to graduate school. More than perhaps anything else about the academic lifestyle, I'm distressed by the total lack of geographic flexibility in it.)
Better communications, transportation, and time off to enjoy them. All of this makes friendship cheaper, and just like with anything else, when things are cheaper, you get more of it. That's what I think the future looks like. I could, of course, be wrong. Perhaps the future is moving ever more often, severing all social ties every time, and having a social circle that consists of a single person, until you divorce. But I'm optimistic that we're seeing a passing phase in civilization, unprecedented and unusual.
I've never been very fond of the use of Benjamin Franklin's old aphorism that "Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither." For one, it reveals the sort of childish refusal to confront the reality of tradeoffs that I usually associate with the most naive of leftwing economists. For another, it's actually a misquote, since what Franklin said is that "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." That is true, but rather uninteresting. Almost by definition it makes no sense to give up something "essential" for something "temporary". As guidance, this is worthless, since it just kicks the problem down the road: What is essential, anyway?
I bring this up because the attempted Christmas airplane bombing has brought these up these issues once again. The TSA, as you would expect, have chosen to fight the last war, first outlawing standing during the last hour of flight, then going to a "follow the crew's directions" standard.
But there are technologies that apparently would have stopped this kind of bombing. Namely, backscatter X-Rays, which produce images like this:
Now, according to the people who want to use these, the images wouldn't be kept, and would be viewed by someone in a different room than you. Some people have claimed the images would inevitably end up on the internet. If you're really worried that an image than kinda looks like an outline of you, but can't possibly be identified as you, could end up being viewed by someone, I really think you should find something better to worry about. This hardly strikes me as worse than removing shoes, which I've already declared as a triviality to me. (And honestly, what kind of moron would look at these things instead of good, honest porn anyway? Am I alone in thinking these things are utterly boring as "revealing" images?)
Jonah Goldberg nails it here:
Anyone who flies regularly will tell you, the hellishness of airline travel is not primarily derived from the outrage of lost privacy, it's derived from the outrage of inefficient, time-consuming, idiocy.
He's right. The problem of security is not that someone, somewhere, might get to see something that kindasortanotreally looks like a naked picture. The problem is it's slow, inefficient, and unhelpful.
So let's have two lines. One for people whose irrational hangups lead to nightmarish lines and delays. And those of us who are adults can get to where we are going.
Or, better yet, we could let the market decide what security people want. But I don't see that happening.
Ann Althouse has here one of the odder criticisms of President Obama I've heard, in response to yesterday's attempted plane bombing:
"President Barack Obama’s Christmas Day began with a briefing about a botched attack on an airliner in Detroit and ended with a visit to a dining hall for members of the military. His holiday vacation was designed to be an island respite from the pressures of the White House."
Well, tough. Whoever puts himself forward to become President is asking to be on call constantly for the next 4 years — every day of the year, around the clock.
"Obama and first lady Michelle Obama made a quick trip to Marine Corps Base Hawaii after a private day exchanging gifts and eating a holiday meal of roast beef at their rented home in Kailua — between briefings on the disrupted plot of suspected terrorism."
Why, exactly, are they in Hawaii — over 5,000 miles* from the White House? I'm not criticizing Obama in particular for going on vacations. I mean to criticize all the Presidents who go far away from Washington.
But what, precisely, do we expect presidents to do? She admits that there was essentially nothing Obama could do about this but that it is a "a reminder of what can happen".
OK, then, think back to 9/11, which is what "can" happen. What, in a precise way, did Bush do that day? What could he have done? I don't mean that as a criticism of him in any way. When you have a functioning organization, the fact that the top leader is momentarily out of the loop is of little consequence. I admit my memory is a little fuzzy, but I remember great acts of heroism, but little in the way of federal government action. And that is OK.
Presidents matter. They help set policy at a broad, macro level. But what they do not do, and cannot do, is run the government as a micro level. Even in a "crisis" situation, ordinary people, government functionaries, police, doctors, etc. will do their jobs, and it doesn't make a damn bit of difference if Obama, McCain, Clinton, or Kucinich is "in charge".
Obama was in Hawaii? Irrelevant. There were people on the plane who subdued the attempted bomber. Ordinary citizens, being heroes, with no government orders from On High.
The greatest President in American history was inaugurated on August 2, 1923. He was woken up after the death of his predecessor, strolled downstairs, took the oath of office, and went back to bed. Would that we understood today how to behave as the chief bureaucrat of the central public goods administration.
Life expectancy for Americans by 2050 will surpass government projections by as much as eight additional years for women and five for men, with disastrous implications for a country unprepared for an explosion of elderly, a new study released today says.
Forty years from now, women will live 89.2 to 93.3 years; and men, 83.2 to 85.9 years — driven by ongoing advances in both treatment of major fatal diseases and slowing of the aging process — according to the report in a journal of health and health policy, The Milbank Quarterly.
U.S. government projections for life expectancy by 2050 now stand at 83.4 to 85.3 years for women; 80 to 80.9 years for men.
It's bad enough that the article doesn't even mention the positives. More time with the grandkids, more time to travel? Bah, the budgets must be balanced!
Even if one is inclined to look solely at the budget, this isn't all that hard a problem to solve. There's fairly strong evidence that we could cut Medicare in half and suffer no adverse health consequences. Social Security isn't actually all that damaging to the budget, and relatively minor increases in the retirement age would handle the longevity "problem".
Whether or not we choose to do so as a society is another matter. I tend towards optimism in this matter, based on Herb Stein's old maxim that what cannot go on forever will not. We won't spend 150% of GDP on health, because we can't. Libertarians seem to run towards a pessimistic outlook on an imminent implosion of society from excess government (at least the ones on the internet do), but that has hardly been the record of the last 200 years.
But as Bob Fogel recently noted, why should we be concerned that we're spending more money on health care? What else are we going to spend it on anyway?
The main factor is that the long-term income elasticity of the demand for healthcare is 1.6—for every 1 percent increase in a family’s income, the family wants to increase its expenditures on healthcare by 1.6 percent. This is not a new trend. Between 1875 and 1995, the share of family income spent on food, clothing, and shelter declined from 87 percent to just 30 percent, despite the fact that we eat more food, own more clothes, and have better and larger homes today than we had in 1875. All of this has been made possible by the growth in the productivity of traditional commodities. In the last quarter of the 19th century, it took 1,700 hours of labor to purchase the annual food supply for a family. Today it requires just 260 hours, and it is likely that by 2040, a family’s food supply will be purchased with about 160 hours of labor.12
Consequently, there is no need to suppress the demand for healthcare. Expenditures on healthcare are driven by demand, which is spurred by income and by advances in biotechnology that make health interventions increasingly effective. Just as electricity and manufacturing were the industries that stimulated the growth of the rest of the economy at the beginning of the 20th century, healthcare is the growth industry of the 21st century. It is a leading sector, which means that expenditures on healthcare will pull forward a wide array of other industries including manufacturing, education, financial services, communications, and construction.
I'd rather, of course, this expansion be done primarily through the private sector. But if it isn't, and government expands, well, what of it? Our extra money from productivity will be going to finance longer lives, and we will be slightly worse off (from deadweight loss from taxation) than otherwise. Suboptimal, yes. A crisis, no.
I should note, by the way, that these projections are somewhat conservative relative to some others out there. People have dire predictions about those as well, which I find equally non-credible.
Federal legislation that will lead to a college football playoff tournament will move a step closer to reality on Wednesday in a hearing before a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection will consider a bill that would allow the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to prohibit any bowl game from calling itself a "national championship" unless the game is "the final game of a single elimination post-season playoff system." The subcommittee is expected to vote on the proposal on Wednesday after a line-by-line consideration of the bill.
Written and sponsored by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), the bill is a direct attack on the BCS and, if enacted, would bring the long simmering controversy over the BCS to an end. In a legislative process that is long and can be tortuous, the hearing is a significant step. This is the furthest any bill on the BCS controversy has ever progressed on Capitol Hill.
I'm not going to argue that this represents a stupid government intervention into private economic affairs or a blatant attack on free speech. That is obviously true.
No, what interests me about this story is Munson's belief that this bill would "would bring the long simmering controversy over the BCS to an end." I think it's quite clear that it wouldn't. Since Congress has not (yet) decided it can impose a playoff system, it's working through its authority over false advertising. So you can't call something a "championship". Who cares?
Does anyone honestly think the NCAA wouldn't respond to this either by (1) calling the championship game something else like the "Awesome Megabowl!", or (2) just doing away with the BCS and going back to the old system. After all, everyone on Earth will know when a matchup between a #1 and a #2 is coming, and that it almost certainly will decide who ends up winning the polls. How much can the words "national champion" be worth in advertising? It has got to be smaller than what the schools would give up through the destruction of the bowl system.
Now, I'm virtually alone in viewing that as a good thing, since I'm anti-playoffs for sporting reasons. But even if you are a proponent of playoffs, given the money at stake, wouldn't that strike you as a far more likely outcome than acquiescence?
There is going to be a great deal of discussion in the coming weeks about the climate change negotiations to be held in Copenhagen later this month. Almost without notice, however, there could be technological changes brewing which have a much greater impact on carbon emissions than any treaty signed this year could ever hope to (hat tip: Megan McArdle):
Researchers in the Netherlands created what was described as soggy pork and are now investigating ways to improve the muscle tissue in the hope that people will one day want to eat it.
No one has yet tasted their produce, but it is believed the artificial meat could be on sale within five years.
Vegetarian groups welcomed the news, saying there was “no ethical objection” if meat was not a piece of a dead animal.
Personally, I'm not really particularly worried about global warming, but if one is, this could be tremendous news. Shifting to vegetable-based food has been estimated to be equivalent to reducing driving by 8000 miles. And this would have the added advantage of actually having a prayer of working to reduce emissions.
Politics tends to be a focal point of conversation (perhaps especially for libertarians), but it's worth keeping in mind that in the many cases, factors beyond the control of elected officials are even more important. And thank God for that.
I keep holding out hope that this story is some sort of bizarre hoax. Via Alex Massie:
A former soldier who handed a discarded shotgun in to police faces at least five years imprisonment for "doing his duty".
Paul Clarke, 27, was found guilty of possessing a firearm at Guildford Crown Court on Tuesday – after finding the gun and handing it personally to police officers on March 20 this year.
The jury took 20 minutes to make its conviction, and Mr Clarke now faces a minimum of five year's imprisonment for handing in the weapon.
[. . . ]
In his statement, he said: "I took it indoors and inside found a shorn-off shotgun and two cartridges.
"I didn't know what to do, so the next morning I rang the Chief Superintendent, Adrian Harper, and asked if I could pop in and see him.
"At the police station, I took the gun out of the bag and placed it on the table so it was pointing towards the wall."
Mr Clarke was then arrested immediately for possession of a firearm at Reigate police station, and taken to the cells.
I say I hope this is all a mistake or prank, because this story seems to be getting very little attention in the press, and it seems like it would be. Although it apparently was in the Sun print edition.
I honestly don't know how people like Radley Balko or our own Randall McElroy read these things constantly and stay sane. I'm an economist and get pretty annoyed at bad policy, but rarely does it make me feel physically ill like reading this story did. Disgusting.
Everyone's favorite crazy politician, Silvio Berlusconi, strikes again:
An indignant wave of political opponents, women’s groups and online activists are clamouring for the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to apologise for a sexist insult that he made to a female politician during a live television show.
Mr Berlusconi appeared on the late-night talk show Porta a Porta hours after the country’s highest court stripped him of his immunity to prosecution, reactivating a series of criminal court cases against him.
When he was interrupted by Rosy Bindi, a politician in the Democratic Party, he told her: “I recognise you are increasingly more beautiful than you are intelligent.”
What a charmer!
I admit it: I'm usually out of the loop in social and entertainment developments. I didn't know about Jon and Kate until after they broke up. I don't understand the point of Twitter; I don't text message. I still don't understand why so many of my friends were excited about the premiere a new show (Glee) I had literally never heard of.
So maybe I'm just not that connected, but could someone please tell me when the announcement of the Olympics host city became such a big deal, especially outside of sports media? I can see why it was important in my current hometown in Chicagoland. But outside of that, what's the big deal?
Is all of this hoopla because of Obama? If so, I find that pretty sad (why should people care so much what he does), but also fairly hilarious (that it went so poorly for him).
Or am I just totally wrong, and this announcement has always been so major?
(For the record: I'm delighted not to have to deal with the mess Olympics bring.)
At Double X, the womens-interest section of Slate, Sharon Lerner argues that America's workplace policies are responsible for a decline in happiness among women:
The United States is a glaring exception in the developed world and beyond in having no mandatory paid maternity leave, no nationwide childcare system, few flexible work options, and, as we’ve heard lately, no universal health coverage. So while mothers in the Czech Republic can choose between having their paid leave stretch either from one to three years after giving birth, and every French parent can count on low- or no-cost preschool, women in the United States are bearing the brunt of working motherhood with far fewer supports.
It's certainly a plausible-seeming theory. But it directly contradicts the paper from which the factoid about womens' happiness is taken. Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson are quite explicit about their findings:
There are no statistically significant differences in the trends for women with and without children nor are their differences between these groups in the trend in happiness for men (or the subsequent trend in the happiness gap). Along with the decline in marriage has come a rise in single parenthood, both through growth in out-of-wedlock births and through divorce. Thus, we disaggregate the fertility results to consider trends in happiness separately among single parents and married parents, and, to account for the duel burden of working parents, between employed parents and non-employed parents. Once again, we see similar trends in happiness across these groups, casting doubt on the hypothesis that trends in marriage and divorce, single parenthood, or work-family balance are at the root of the happiness declines among women.
Moreover, it's a bit strange to look to this study for support for European policy. Virtually the same trends are observed in Europe as in the United States. (Note: While women in the U.S. report a slight decline and women in Europe a small increase, I would caution against reading too much into that; for one thing, the questions asked in the surveys are not identical.)
These increases in subjective well-being have been experienced to a greater degree by men, leading to a pervasive decline in well-being among women relative to men. Indeed, women’s happiness fell relative to men’s in all but one of the countries in the sample, and while the pattern is by no means uniform, the magnitudes are remarkably similar. The only exception to this rule is West Germany, although even there, the data are not clear cut.
The Stevenson-Wolfers paper is fascinating and well worth reading. The cause of this gender gap in happiness is an interesting discussion to have. But this paper doesn't lend easy support to any side of the political debate, weak attempts to do so notwithstanding.
But there's an even more fundamental question I'd like to ask: Is it really true that the United States is hostile to working mothers? The question itself seems ridiculous, in light of European family policies. And yet, here's an interesting tidbit from Lerner's article:
While an American woman still typically has around 2.1 children over her lifetime, in other rich countries, family size has dropped significantly as women have gained access to jobs and education. More than 90 nations throughout Europe and Asia now have fertility rates well below ours. Second, even while we’ve continued to raise sizable families, American women have achieved the very highest rate of full-time employment in the world, with 75 percent of employed women working full-time.
So while the United States is supposedly so bad for working mothers, the women (1) have more kids, and (2) work more. At least superficially, then, it seems as though the U.S. is better for working mothers, not worse.
Now, one can certainly argue against this behavioral argument. Maybe men in the U.S. are so poorly paid relative to Europeans that the women have to work. (I think this is clearly untrue.) Or maybe the lack of universal health care means people don't want to risk only having one person with employer-provided insurance (more plausible to me). But the burden of proof is clearly on those who claim the U.S. is on a whole worse for working mothers, since so many more of them seem to be choosing the lifestyle. And the question of how the U.S. might really be better for working women is an interesting one, but one I think I'll defer, since this is getting long already.
Thomas Friedman recently stuck his foot in his mouth with an ode to the "leadership" of China:
One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century.
Unsurprisingly, this has ignited a fair amount of controversy. And yet, I'm not sure he's 100% wrong, although I couldn't quite express why I thought this way.
John Derbyshire finally put into words why I felt a twinge of sympathy for Friedman's rather outlandish position:
A lot of us, including a lot of conservatives (remarks by Mark Steyn and George Will come to mind) feel that we have become so bureaucratized, lawyered-up, regulated, and PC-whipped that great national projects of the past — the trans-continental railroad, the transformation of Manhattan, the interstate highway system, wars we can actually win in less than a decade, . . . — are no longer possible. Our system has seized up somehow, and no innovation much bigger than a hand-held gadget stands a chance.
To us, stuck in this glue-trap, the sheer ability to get things done is bound to have some appeal, even when the agent of it is a brutish and callous despotism like China's.
Yep. A few weeks ago, I complained about our inability to dream of anything big anymore. But I think I undershot the problem, because I was talking about not being able to think of grand, new things. It's worse than that. It's difficult to even imagine building things that are already in existence.
To borrow a phrase from Arnold Kling, my "most wrong belief" is that productivity growth in construction has actually been negative over the last, say, 75 years.[*] I mention this to people, and they tend to chalk it up to improvements in safety standards, but I'm not so sure. It's difficult to even imagine constructing something like that Empire State Building in sixteen months. I'm not even confident we've made positive progress, let alone approaching anything like the growth we've seen in other manufacturing sectors.
And that's private sector. The situation in government is even worse. Subway systems largely built at the turn of the last century are bigger and better than what we can turn out now. Highway construction is a non-starter in urban areas.
So, like Derbyshire, I can see why Friedman gets frustrated. Unlike him, I don't want to see despotism. Deregulating at the national and state level would be a large step forward in allowing things to actually get built. We will still be stuck with the local NIMBYs, of course, but at least progress will be made somewhere. Maybe.
[*] A friend of mine, on hearing a rant from me on this topic, dug up some statistics and found that the total factor productivity growth rate in the U.S., for the construction sector, was -0.02 from 1970 to 1987. So that's something, although I don't know where that statistic came from.
Ryan Avent argues that failing to include illegal immigrants in a national health care plan is shameful:
We’ll treat an immigrant kid with tuberculosis, because we don’t want him infecting our American kids, but you know, we’re not about to acknowledge the basic humanity of people who are enduring many hardships to give their families a better life, just as the ancestors of most of the population of America did.
This whole health care mess is enough to make a man lose his faith in people.
Derek Thompson (from whom I found the above) concurs:
Again, I'm with Ryan all the way morally. I think every person in America deserves health care. I think it's an issue of morality, of human rights. And immigrants are people, too.
I realize that few readers of the DR are both (1) in favor of immigration limits, and (2) in favor of national health care. But those are probably both majority opinions on the left, and so I hope someone here can explain this to me.
Here's my question, and I mean it in a completely non-snarky, honest-inquiry way: How can it possibly be the case that by breaking the law of a country, one acquires a claim against its inhabitants?
Consider: Virtually no one would argue that American taxpayers have an obligation to pay for the health care of a Nicaraguan in Nicaragua[*]. But if that person comes to the United States illegally, then apparently it becomes an obligation of Americans to care for him.
So what is it that the illegal immigrant has done that suddenly entitles him to my taxes to pay for his health care? Thompson thinks he deserves health care because he is "in America". But if health care is a "human right", then surely it belongs to the Nicaraguan while he was in his native land.
Maybe it's because the illegal immigrant contributed to the economy here? But I don't see how that can be the case. Suppose the person had remained in Nicaragua as a farmer exporting his entire crop to the United States. Then he is economically linked with Americans just as the immigrant is, but few argue he is entitled to health care.
Now for something like a communicable disease, then one rationale for providing health care would be naked self-interest. But I don't see how that applies to something like cancer or heart disease.
And I think it violates many (most?) peoples' sense of propriety to reward people for breaking the law, even if they don't agree with it. I spoke to several people during the immigration debates of '06 who were outraged about the amnesty proposal despite being in favor of continued (and even increased) immigration. They just did not think it was right that someone from India who had trouble keeping his visa (to take one example I know of) got nothing out of the amnesty, while someone who came here illegally did. And I have very strong sympathy for that viewpoint. Even if you think bad laws should be disobeyed, does it then naturally follow that legal advantages should accrue to that person? That is very odd to me.
So, I'm posing this question to Avent, Thompson, or anyone else who holds positions (1) and (2) above: Suppose there are two brothers in Nicaragua. Brother A illegally comes to the United States and gets cancer. Brother B stays in Nicaragua and gets cancer. Why should I pay for Brother A's chemo and not Brother B?
I'd like to avoid a discussion here of the morality of immigration restrictions and national health care, if possible. I'm saying that taking those as given, why should illegal immigrants here get preference over, say, those who stayed in their native countries?
[*] I'm going to use Nicaragua as a random example of a foreign country from whom many immigrate illegally to the United States here for concreteness sake, but I do not intend to stereotype.
I suspect that the majority of readers of the DR are also interested in seasteading and related matters, so this is probably old news to most of the people here. But I think it's important enough to warrant at least a passing mention.
Stanford's Paul Romer recently launched a project very related to seasteading that he's calling Charter Cities. The basic idea is that governments in Third World countries should contract with other countries to manage parts of their territory. Think Hong Kong being run by the British but staffed by the Chinese. True, governments are still involved, so it wouldn't satisfy the ancaps here. But it has the advantage of (maybe) being more acceptable to governments and more likely to take off, and (definitely) easier from an engineering perspective.
(Which is easy for me to say I suppose. Although I'm quite enthusiastic about seasteading, I'm probably not nearly as radical in my beliefs as the average interested person. Singapore + drug legalization/end of conscription is probably good enough for me.)
Now, I'm not sure what Paul Romer thinks of seasteading, although I see that he's speaking at the Seasteading Institute conference this fall. But Charter Cities would be a major step in the direction of "intentional government", and strikes me as one of the most hopeful methods for helping the global poor that I've heard in a long time. I'll probably have more to say about that in some later posts. That alone bodes well for seasteading.
But here's my elitist reason for why I view this as such an incredibly positive development for the seasteading movement. As I see it, seasteading suffers from the view that it's about rich people evading taxes or smoking dope. But even more than that, it suffers from a overall weirdness factor that's difficult to overcome.
But Paul Romer is not some random grad student blogger like yours truly. He's not some kook railing about the evils of fractional reserve banking in 10000 word screeds. He's one of the more important economists alive today, a man who fundamentally reshaped how we think about economic growth. He's mainstream, and he's certain to win a Nobel Prize, probably in the near future.
The engineering challenges of seasteading are high, but perhaps more difficult is developing the idea that the government you live under should be a competitive choice. To the extent that mainstream, respected people promote this view, seasteading becomes more probable. Having people on your side like Paul Romer is a major step in that direction.
In Sunday's Washington Post, first-rate economic historian Gregory Clark lays out his dystopian case for greater redistribution in the future. Basically, unskilled labor will become worthless with increasing automation and robotic technology:
In more recent decades, when average U.S. incomes roughly doubled, there has been little gain in the real earnings of the unskilled. And, more darkly, computer advances suggest these redoubts of human skill will sooner or later fall to machines. We may have already reached the historical peak in the earning power of low-skilled workers, and may look back on the mid-20th century as the great era of the common man.
I recently carried out a complicated phone transaction with United Airlines but never once spoke to a human; my mechanical interlocutor seemed no less capable than the Indian call-center operatives it replaced. Outsourcing to India and China may be only a brief historical interlude before the great outsourcing yet to come -- to machines. And as machines expand their domain, basic wages could easily fall so low that families cannot support themselves without public assistance.
I think Will Wilkinson does an admirable job here of explaining why this outlook is excessively pessimistic. But what I'd like to address is the question of what will these people be doing, if not manufacturing.
Now, I don't think it's incumbent on technological optimists such as myself to answer this. Two hundred plus years of the Industrial Revolution have taught us that labor market adjustments will eventually take place. But I'd like to take a stab at it anyway: Where will the new jobs come from? (Note: I'm leaving aside scenarios such as true, human-or-greater level AI. I'm talking about "mundane" technological progress here.)
Myself, I think it's pretty clear, actually. The growth sector of the future is in personal service. As automation reduces the cost of physical goods, the relative value of things like massages or even basic housecleaning rises. In the robot-dominated future, no capitalist is going to want to waste his scarce time cleaning or cooking. He'll outsource that, and it's difficult to imagine robots taking over cooking for a long time.
Is that a society we want? Many people of an egalitarian outlook seem to recoil at the notion of servants. Myself, I don't find it particularly bothersome; I do not find plowing through exams as a grader much more dignified than being a chauffeur would be. Nevertheless, it's not about what I would want, it's about what society will look like. And I think the future is servants.
Does anyone else want to take a stab at it? When robots handle manufacturing, what will the low-skilled do?
Megan McArdle has a very long, very good post about why she opposes national health care. In a nutshell, she thinks it would have a deleterious effect on innovation. I agree with her, but here's a simpler "proof" of why I think she's correct: How many times does Obama (or any other supporter for that matter) mention improvements in innovation as a motivation for health care reform?
Politicians, generally speaking, will promise that any particular program will deliver a cornucopia of riches if there is any remotely plausible rationale. So if they fail to mention a potential benefit, it's either because (1) there's no good argument for it, or (2) they think the public doesn't care.
(2) strikes me as possible, but pretty unlikely. Although a depressing number of comments on McArdle's post take an extraordinarily blase attitude towards the importance of new medicine, I still think most Americans see the potential benefits of innovation. Think back to the embryonic stem cell debates. How many times did politicians trump them as the cure for virtually any disease you can think of? At least in that context, the public seemed to care a great deal about curing Parkinson's.
So I think we're left with (1). I think people can, and do, make reasonable arguments about why national health care would be cost saving, and more short-run efficient (I believe those arguments are wrong, but not self-evidently stupid). But the arguments that it wouldn't harm innovation mostly amount to some handwaving about the NIH and the evils of pharma advertising.
Don't believe me? As of right now, there are 165 largely hostile comments on McArdle's post. I did a word search for "innovation", after having trudged through the entire thread. Only one pro-nationalized care poster used the word trying to defend national health care, and it was basically "what about the NIH"? That is not an argument.
If the left thought national health care was pro-innovation, for sure you'd be hearing about it, but you're not. What does that tell you?