Most readers will want to skip this post.
One of my great frustrations is that I am frequently misunderstood by commenters. It’s my own fault—I try to say EXACTLY what I mean. The prisoners in the Soviet “gulags” had enjoyable days. I really believe that. Seriously. But almost any other human who said something like that would have an ulterior motive. ”Communism wasn’t as bad as many people think.” In contrast, I really believe the gulag inmates had numerous enjoyable days, and I also believe communism was far worse than even Ronald Reagan believed. No wonder I’m always misunderstood.
A few comments on the recent comments:
I don’t think young people are lazy. I’m glad America today is much richer than in the 1970s. I’m glad the dorms are much nicer. I’m glad teens don’t have to work as hard, and can have more fun. I wish I hadn’t had to work as hard when I was 15.
The current generation of young people seems like the best ever. Simply removing lead from gasoline boosted IQs by 6 points. My generation had their brains addled by breathing in lots of lead, and I made it much worse by playing with lead. Hacking off chunks from a big sheet of construction debris, melting it down to make soldiers. Even worse, the sheets of lead had paint all over them, and it might have been lead paint! Seriously, as a teacher I can see the improvement in students, even since the 1990s.
Go back another generation before me to the “Greatest Generation.” My dad was 5 inches shorter than me, and he told me that he was the tallest kid in his class. WWII was won by a bunch of nutritionally-deprived midgets, many of which couldn’t read or write. My dad occasionally wrote letters home for them. (In making these generalizations I exclude my 88 year old mom, who is still 5 foot 9! And my 89 year old stepfather, who showed more bravery in Okinawa than I’ve shown in my entire life.)
Of course the “Greatest Generation” that won WWII really was the greatest ever at the time. Generations like the Italians of 1500-1525 were so far inferior that it’s an act of generosity to even consider them human. And let’s not even talk about Periclean Athens. (OK, I guess I don’t always say EXACTLY what I mean.)
Now about those comments:
Finally, people have been grousing about college students for over a century. That means you are officially a grumpy old man. Sorry.
I am a grumpy old man, but one of the few I know that doesn’t look down on younger people. (Unless they are on my lawn.)
And from another:
You are basically saying the middle class should be happy because they have a higher standard of living than their parents. You don’t believe that that is the relevant point of reference, rather than peers at the top of the income scale. Why? Is your belief self serving?
These comments are so vague it’s hard to know how to respond. I don’t think anyone “should be happy.” I’d like it if everyone was happy. I don’t believe middle class people should worry about their “peers” with more money. I do believe middle class people should worry about their peers with less money—the poor. That should be their “point of reference.”
I guess you either care about equality or you don’t. I can imagine your response: “those at the top have *earned* their wealth”. I guess you believe it is fairest to distribute income in exact proportion to people’s ability to produce.
I recently did a post arguing exactly the opposite—that people at the top don’t deserve their wealth. I would add that I also don’t believe that rich people (like Robin Williams) deserve their suffering from depression. I’m a utilitarian, and there is no “deserve” in utilitarianism.
Inequality makes people unhappy. If it has been rising, that raises the probability that doing something about it would increase aggregate utility, no?
If inequality were increasing, then that would make it more likely that redistributive policies could raise aggregate utility. But remember, if you are going to make a “happiness” argument you need to use consumption (not income) data, and it’s not at all clear that consumption inequality is increasing.
Some on the left mock the “technology” argument for improved living standards. “Let them eat cell phones.” But that’s exactly the point—revealed preference. Peasants in low income countries will buy cell phones before they can afford TVs, or indoor plumbing, or even “health insurance.” (HT: Morgan.)
A third commenter:
I am having some difficulty understanding your exact stance here. Your post seems to involve a lot of hand-wringing, essentially stating that the American middle class is not your concern, should not be anyone’s concern, and certainly any problems it has have been self-inflicted (laziness).
I’ve addressed the “laziness” charge. Is the American middle class “my concern?” I don’t even know what that means. Is Robin Williams “my concern?” Are the Yazidis being massacred in Iraq “my concern?” All I can say is that I favor public policies that maximize aggregate happiness. I want people to be as happy as possible. I favor lots of public policies that I believe would help the American middle class. But I don’t believe global utility can be improved by transferring bags of money to the American middle class from other groups. Nor will it make them significantly more “happy.” Something is a “problem” if there are policy counterfactuals that address it while boosting aggregate utility. If not, then focus your “concern” on something else.
Here’s what I read yesterday morning:
U.S. jobs pay an average 23% less today than they did before the 2008 recession, according to a new report released on Monday by the United States Conference of Mayors.
So I decided to check the actual data. Average hourly earnings have risen from $21.63 in July 2008 to $24.44 today, that’s up 13%. And PCE price index has risen from 219.016 in July 2008 to 237.693 today. That’s up 8.5%. Everyone needs to take a deep breath; the “American middle class” will be fine.
And just so I’m not misunderstood, let me remind readers that I’ve spent the last 6 years of my life pushing for policies that would boost the incomes of the middle class by creating more jobs. I hope actions speak louder than
words “concern.” But I’m willing to furrow my brow if that will help.
PS. Speaking of misreading me, who can forget Noah Smith:
What’s also interesting is how mad people get when their friends get called “stupid.” Kotlikoff is mad at Krugman for calling his pal Paul Ryan stupid (whether or not Krugman actually did this is beside the point). I guess it’s good to feel protective of one’s friends. But as a politician, doesn’t Ryan take much worse abuse on a daily basis from hundreds or even thousands of people? Compared to what Ryan gets in the political sphere, Krugman’s disses must seem like pretty weak tea.
In the end, I think people overreact to the “stupid” insult because, as a society, we use arguments the wrong way.
Yes, let’s not overreact. Why would someone feel “protective” when their friends are called “stupid?” And yes, does it really matter if the charge is true? No, that’s “beside the point.”
PS. Please don’t write comments saying that some kids still live in houses with lead paint. I know that, one of them is my daughter.
PPS. The grumpy old reactionary in me liked this Kevin Erdmann post:
Again, thinking of Jane Austen characters, or even of people in many pre-capitalist societies today, for peasants, human capital would be largely unattainable or pointless. For the landed elite, it would be insulting. Traders and commercial innovators – producers – became tolerable, and capitalism was the result.
Because of the capitalist revolution, not only is being personally productive tolerated today, but we would find it incomprehensible to imagine it another way. In fact, we are concerned about it! We say: It’s not fair that rich kids get the opportunity to be more productive! Today, high income workers work longer hours than low income workers. Imagine the look of confusion you might get from a pre-capitalist gentleman if you told him that in your society, the poor work fewer hours than the rich and the government is implementing school lunch programs to make sure poor kids don’t ingest too many calories. He wouldn’t just have a hard time understanding how that could be. Those words literally could not form that sentence. You might as well speak martian to him. Don’t even try to explain to him that you’re outraged by how the richest kids have an advantage in attaining productive employment. He’ll think you’re crazy before you even get to that.
PPPS. About the gulags. I recall one interview where the description of life by a former inmate was so horrific it seemed almost unreal. At the end they said some thing to the effect; “not that there weren’t some fun days, when we sang and danced and joked around.” It’s all about your happiness thermostat set point.