White Trash

February 14, 2018

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Nancy Isenberg. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. New York: Penguin Books, 2016.

The term “identity politics” has recently entered our political vocabulary, mainly as an accusation against Democrats. The complaint is that Democrats divide the country by appealing especially to women and minorities. In contrast, Republicans like to claim that they aim to unite the country with an economic growth agenda that will help everybody.

The truth is a lot more complicated. For one thing, a facade of unity politics can hide a reactionary kind of identity politics. A campaign’s overt message may be that it is not specifically about women’s rights or minority rights because it’s for everybody. But the underlying message may be that it’s really about defending white, male privilege. Isenberg’s history of America reveals an even deeper problem, that identity politics goes beyond issues of race and gender to infuse discussions of social class. People of the same race and gender–such as white men–have often been assigned different social identities based on their class level. The persistent use of slurs like “white trash” reveals this, and it tell us a lot about the dark side of the American class system.

Politicians have a long history of claiming to identify with one class of people or another, in order to invoke deep feelings of class superiority or class resentment. Donald Trump is only the latest and most obvious example. “Like many before him, Trump…tapped into a rich vein of identity politics: the embrace of the common man, the working stiff, the forgotten rural American.” What I find most fascinating about this phenomenon is that Trump tries to have it both ways, combining policies favoring the wealthy with populist rhetoric appealing to the poor–but especially the white, male poor. That this has worked for him shows just how powerful identity politics can be, whether the identification is authentic or manipulative.

White poverty and its stigmatization

Isenberg is interested in how Americans have characterized the white, rural poor, usually in some pejorative way: “First known as ‘waste people,’ and later ‘white trash,’ marginalized Americans were stigmatized for their inability to be productive, to own property, or to produce healthy and upwardly mobile children–the sense of uplift on which the American dream is predicated.”

Such pejorative descriptions are a response to the tension between the American dream of upward mobility and the class barriers that have made it unrealistic for those born into poverty. Attributing poverty to the innate characteristics of the poor rather than to a lack of opportunity helps preserve the American dream and deny the need for social reform. “Rationalizing economic inequality has been an unconscious part of the national credo; poverty has been naturalized, often seen as something beyond human control. By this measure, poor whites had to be classified as a distinct breed.” If rich and poor are distinct breeds, then the class system reproduces itself naturally, and there’s little to be done about it.

Occasionally, “populist themes have emerged alongside more familiar derogatory images, but never with enough force to diminish the hostility projected onto impoverished rural whites.” This makes their class struggle as much about respect as it is about financial gain. And that goes a long way to explain their enthusiasm for politicians who seem to speak for them, even if the tangible support they promise never quite materializes.

The roots of poor white stigmatization go back to Colonial times, especially in the Southern colonies originally created for economic gain.

British colonists promoted a dual agenda: one involved reducing poverty back in England, and the other called for transporting the idle and unproductive to the New World. After settlement, colonial outposts exploited their unfree laborers (indentured servants, slaves, and children) and saw such expendable classes as human waste.

Land was the major source of wealth, but it was considered wasteland until it was put to commercial use. People who were not engaged in economically productive activity were seen as a kind of waste as well. “…Colonizers denoted some people as entrepreneurial stewards of the exploitable land; they declared others (the vast majority) as mere occupiers, a people with no measurable investment in productivity or in commerce.” Southern colonies became divided between a hereditary class of owners and a hereditary class of landless servants, with only limited opportunities to cross class lines. Actual slavery was a “logical outgrowth of the colonial class system.”

By 1770, most of the land in Virginia was owned by less than one-tenth of white people. The society of “freeholders” imagined by Thomas Jefferson never came to pass because too few people could acquire the land or resources to become successful farmers.

In 1663, King Charles II granted a charter creating the Carolina colony with eight “absolute Lords and proprietors.” Several years later, John Locke wrote the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, a document that not only gave every freeman “absolute power and authority over his Negro Slaves,” but established a servant class whose status would be inherited from generation to generation.  (This reminds us that in those days, even the advocates of democracy placed severe limits on it.) While South Carolina conformed to the hierarchical model pretty closely, North Carolina became somewhat of a “swampy refuge for the poor and landless,” with a weaker planter elite. For that it got the reputation of a “wasteland resistant…to the forces of commerce and civilization,” a land of “useless lubbers.”

“Squatter” or “common man”?

After the American Revolution, many of the landless poor looked westward for land and opportunity. Even along the frontier, however, upward mobility was more limited than Americans like to imagine. “Speculators and large farmers–a mix of absentee land investors and landowning gentry–had the most power and political influence, and usually had a clear advantage in determining how the land was parceled out.” Many settlers eked out a meager living on small pieces of land, often as squatters who could not obtain ownership.

Different stereotypes of settlers coexisted in early nineteenth-century America. They could be courageous and hardworking frontiersmen, or lazy squatters who built nothing and stood in the way of real progress. Andrew Jackson promoted their positive image and represented their interests up to a point, but Isenberg believes that his presidency was “not about equality so much as a new style of aggressive expansion.” Jackson’s forcible removal of Native Americans from the southeast appealed to many white settlers (as Trump’s deportation of undocumented aliens appeals to many whites today), but Jackson did not support more egalitarian measures like universal male suffrage.

Identity politics in the Civil War

Beyond their obvious disagreement over how to view slavery, Northerners and Southerners had very different views of poor white Southerners as well. A common view in the North was that poor Southerners had been reduced to “white trash” by the plantation system. In fact, it was during the war that this derogatory term came into wide usage.

Northerners, especially those who joined the Free Soil Party (1848) and its successor, the Republican Party (1854), declared that poor whites were proof positive of the debilitating effects of slavery on free labor. A slave economy monopolized the soil, while closing off opportunities for nonslaveholding white men to support their families and advance in a free-market economy.

Ulysses S. Grant saw it as his mission to liberate not only the slaves, but also the poor whites, from the grip of the planter aristocracy.

Southern intellectuals like Daniel Hundley saw it differently, of course. They blamed the problems of poor whites on their own natural inferiority rather than on any injustice of the social order. At the same time, Southern aristocrats had the challenge of enlisting the enthusiastic support of the lower classes in the war effort. Many people who owned no slaves complained that it was a “rich man’s war and poor man’s fight.” The way to counter that complaint was to appeal to all classes of white Southerners as exactly that–white Southerners. James Henry Hammond of South Carolina argued that every society needs a “mudsill,” a class of menial laborers to do the lowest forms of work. By assigning such work to the most inferior of all races–Negroes–the South had elevated all whites to a somewhat better position. White Northerners, on the other hand, had debased their own race by confining too many of their fellow whites to the “mudsill.”

Social Darwinism and eugenics

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the idea that poverty was a natural, inherited condition for some segment of the population got additional support from a widespread interpretation of Darwinian evolution. (In The Descent of Man, published in 1871, Darwin himself distinguished “civilized” and “savage” races and predicted that the first would eventually replace the second through evolutionary competition.) The idea that whole categories of people were biologically more fit than others was a powerful weapon not only in racial and ethnic conflict, but in regional and class conflict as well.

Northerners who had opposed slavery wanted to believe that former slaves could become good citizens. “In account after account, freedmen were described as capable, thrifty, and loyal to the Union.” But many Northerners had far less confidence in the potential of chronically poor Southern whites, whom they saw as a “‘dangerous class’ that was producing a flood of bastards, prostitutes, vagrants, and criminals.”

Southern Democrats countered these ideas with their own racial arguments. For them, the former slaves were still the most unfit of races, still to be confined to the “mudsill” of society as much as possible. The mixing of the races would produce a “mongrel” race unfit for achievement or good government. That argument was useful not only for preserving white privilege in general, but for protecting the leadership class in particular. Keeping poor people of different color separate and unequal prevented them from joining together as a class to challenge the Southern elites.

Isenberg discusses the eugenics movement in some detail, since it represented Social Darwinism taken to a logical extreme. Eugenicists wanted to protect and improve racial fitness by discouraging the reproduction of inferior stock. One way to accomplish this was selective mating–encouraging people to marry only qualified partners. A more drastic measure, legalized in twenty-seven states by 1931, was the forced sterilization of the “unfit.” That term was defined rather broadly to include “feeblemindedness, epilepsy, criminality, insanity, alcoholism [and] pauperism,” according to one list. When IQ testing of recruits during World War I found the lowest scores in the Southern states–not surprising considering their lack of funding for public education–eugenicists focused their efforts in that region. In 1927 the Supreme Court upheld the right of states to regulate the breeding of its citizens, in a Virginia case involving the sterilization of a poor white woman.

A question of identification

Identity politics in general–and disagreement over how to characterize certain groups such as poor rural whites–is obviously not something invented by today’s liberal Democrats. The idea that one party divides the country with its identity politics while the other is above such things is ludicrous. All parties need to think long and hard about how they identify and relate to different segments of the electorate.

For Republicans, that means a lot of soul-searching about how they think about Blacks, Latinos and women. For Democrats, it means taking another look at poor southern white men. When they think about them, is what comes to mind a racist like Bob Ewell, the villain in To Kill a Mockingbird? Or do they see a victim of an oppressive race/class system, who clings to increasingly shaky white male privileges because upward economic mobility is so elusive? There was a time, not so long ago, when Democratic leaders identified strongly with the underprivileged of Appalachia, seeing them mostly as decent people who needed a decent break. I would like to see a time like that again.


The Nordic Theory of Everything (part 2)

February 8, 2018

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Anu Partanen does a good job critiquing the American mindset that pits individual liberty against “Big Government” or the “welfare state.” She argues that a system of social supports available to every citizen is actually liberating, contributing to more rather than less freedom, independence and opportunity. Of course, if critics of the Nordic countries could show that such a system makes people lazy and underachieving, that would undermine her argument.

Individual and national excellence

The American system does produce a lot of high achievers, with its relentless emphasis on competition and its concentration of rewards at the top of the distribution. The price we pay for that is leaving so many people behind, the slogan of “no child left behind” notwithstanding. By placing more emphasis on cooperation and the public good, Nordic countries are noted for a high standard of general excellence.

Partanen describes Finland’s educational system as “one of the highest-achieving public education systems the world has ever seen.” Finnish students consistently rank near the top in international assessments of reading, math, and science. Finnish schools accomplish this without lengthening the school day, assigning much homework, or skimping on less academic subjects like arts and crafts.

Finland rose to the top in international rankings by deliberately tackling educational inequalities that were once worse than in the United States today. It succeeded in reducing the disparities among schools in funding and educational outcomes, as well as the performance gap between different kinds of students. It raised standards for teachers, requiring at least a a master’s degree from the elementary level on. It promoted teaching excellence by supporting rather than attacking teachers, making the profession so attractive that “teacher-training programs are among the most selective university majors in the country.”

In contrast, the United States creates large resource disparities by relying on local property taxes to finance public education. It has a much higher rate of child poverty, many more underfunded schools, and a widening gap in test scores between rich and poor students. Educational reforms emphasize more testing, closer monitoring to identify poor teachers and underperforming schools, and more public support for private or privatized schools for students fortunate enough to attend them. Consistent with our competitive approach to things, such reforms help a few students while so far failing to produce much increase in excellence across the board.

In higher education, American universities are known for their excellence in research, but less for their undergraduate instruction. When the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment included university graduates for the first time in 2013, Finnish students scored among the best in the developed world, while Americans were below average.

Partanen does not prefer the Nordic model in all respects. She continues to admire certain aspects of American culture:

If I could choose, I’d want my child to have the best of both worlds. From Finland I would take the affordable, relaxed day care, highly educated teachers, high quality of all neighborhood schools, and lack of tuition. From the United States I would take the diversity of student populations and the systematic and inspiring way that the best American schools encourage students to express their individuality, think for themselves, and communicate their opinions and skills to others without self-consciousness or unnecessary timidity.

With regard to excellence in health care, Partanen says that world-class health care is available in both the U.S. and Finland, but is available to more of the population in Finland. There it is a universal service like public education, while here access depends much more on what you can afford. She cites a 2011 Commonwealth Fund study comparing developed countries on quality, access, efficiency, equity, and healthy lives, as well as on death rates from preventable or treatable conditions. “The United States ranked dead last.”

The pursuit of happiness

If Finland surpasses the United States on many objective indicators of well-being, why are Americans noted for being more upbeat and optimistic? Although Partanen does express some admiration for that “all-American optimism,” she thinks there is something a little compulsive and phony about it. We tell our children that everyone is special, and they can be anything they want to be, but then we expect each of them to rise above their peers and become a super-achiever through their own effort. In our winner-take-all system, you’d better be a high achiever, or you risk joining the ranks of the left-behind. So you embrace the can-do spirit and resist admitting defeat.

…In the absence of the kind of true security that comes from things like being able to pay your bills, having affordable health care, knowing your children will get a good education no matter what, or being able to take time to rest, all you can do is either give in to depression or try to build your own personal well-being bubble—with yoga, meditation, diets, and keeping your thoughts in check. That—or eating fast food and burying your worries with the TV remote.

The U.S. also has a huge self-help industry to sell you the means of personal success, from SAT prep courses to seminars on how to get rich in real estate. So corporations profit, even as Americans dream of what they may never have.

Finns have much lower expectations for standout success, and Partanen admits that they can take this attitude too far. They can emphasize equality to the exclusion of uniqueness. Perhaps they underestimate what some individuals can accomplish, as much as Americans overestimate it. But the upside of that pessimism is that Nordic citizens are less tolerant of social conditions that impede the development of whole classes of people. “They are quick to demand real changes that improve their external circumstances.”

Trying to find some middle ground, Partanen suggests combining American positive thinking with Finnish realism. For Americans, that means recognizing that individuals do have great potential, but they need supportive social structures and policies to help them fulfill it.

Toward a stronger economy

Defenders of the American system like to treat some of its worst features–notably, the extreme gap in wealth and income between social classes–as unavoidable side effects of a dynamic and growing economy. We must reward the biggest winners, even if there isn’t enough left over to provide other people with a decent life. The Nordic societies undercut that argument, since they have achieved economic growth and general prosperity with far less inequality.

The United States and Nordic countries both “rank among the most business-friendly nations in the world,” but accomplish this in different ways. U.S. businesses benefit from weak unions, low minimum wages, loose regulation, and, Partanen argues, government assistance to the poor. She points out that American taxpayers subsidize the fast-food industry by providing over half its workers some form of public assistance, so they can survive on low wages. Nordic businesses may have to negotiate with better organized workers, pay higher wages, and provide more family leaves, but they get workers who are on the average healthier, better schooled, and less stressed.

As in other books I’ve reviewed lately, human capital is key here. “…The Nordic nations have cultivated the single most valuable resource a society can have in the twenty-first century: human capital. That dynamism, innovation, and prosperity result should come as no surprise.”

There was a time after World War II when business was booming, unions were strong, and most Americans believed that business and labor could prosper together. Somehow we have gotten into a zero-sum mindset, believing that worker gains can only come at business’s expense. Investors interpret a modest rise in wages as a sign that the economic expansion is coming to an end, so it’s time to dump stock. The Nordic countries seem to have a better grasp of a basic truth–that if a country wants its people to prosper, it has to invest in them. The investment can pay off in higher productivity and a larger economic pie to be shared by all.


The Nordic Theory of Everything

February 7, 2018

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Anu Partanen. The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life. New York: Harper, 2016.

This book nicely complements George Lakey’s Viking Economics, which I reviewed last summer. Both authors are interested in comparing the United States to the Nordic countries. While Lakey focuses especially on Norway, Partanen focuses on Finland. Lakey is more factual and sociological, while Partanen is more impressionistic and journalistic. Partanen emigrated from Finland in 2008 to the US to be with her future husband, an American she met at a conference. She became a US citizen in 2013.

Partanen is hardly anti-American, and she expresses her admiration for “all-American optimism, gumption, ingenuity, and knack for magically transforming challenging circumstances into profitable advantage.” Nevertheless, she finds much to criticize here. Having grown up in Finland, she finds many aspects of American life curiously backward: “…To leave Finland or any other Nordic country behind and settle in America at the beginning of the twenty-first century was to experience an extraordinary—and extraordinarily harsh—form of travel backward in time.” She felt that she was “…lost in a wilderness. And in the American wilderness, you’re on your own.” She says that America has been looking toward its “Wild West past,” while Nordic countries are looking more to the future.

Who’s really modern? Who’s really free?

American society has been celebrated for providing certain “benefits of modernity,” especially freedom, independence and opportunity. But Partanen observes:

…In order to compete and to survive, the Americans I encountered and read about were being forced to depend more and more on one another, in a throwback to the traditional relationships of old. And in the process, individuals were becoming beholden to their spouses, parents, children, colleagues, and bosses in ways that constrained their own liberty.

As she sees it, the problem is that American families lack forms of social support that are essential for achieving and thriving in today’s world:

American society, despite all its high-tech innovation and mobility, just doesn’t provide the basic support structures for families—support structures that all Nordic countries provide absolutely as a matter of course to everyone, as does nearly every other modern wealthy country on the planet.

Compared to Finnish children, American children are economically dependent on their parents for a longer time, since they get less help obtaining the education and vocational training they need to succeed. Elderly parents are more dependent on their adult children, because less elder care is provided as a universal social service. Workers are more dependent on employers for health insurance and retirement plans. Because the US is behind the Nordic countries in gender equality, American women are more dependent on their husbands’ careers, along with the health and retirement benefits that come with them.

Partanen describes a “Nordic theory of love,” which asserts that “authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal.” Americans believe in strong families, but put severe strains on them by weighing them down with more responsibilities than many couples can bear. Partanen does not say “It takes a village,” but that’s the general idea. Americans pursue an extreme idea of independence that doesn’t really work out in practice, while Finns share social responsibilities in ways that leave individuals better off.

In an interesting formulation that I hadn’t heard before, Partanen says that the Nordic societies have “taken modernity to its logical conclusion.” Universal social services available as a matter of right create a “new culture of personal self-sufficiency” that is more relevant to the demands of modern life. The result is actually more freedom, independence and opportunity than Americans have.  As Ed Miliband, leader of the British Labour Party, said several years ago, “If you want the American Dream…go to Finland.”

“Welfare” or well-being?

I can hear defenders of the American system now, objecting that what Partanen is calling independence is really just dependency on “Big Government.” How true that is may depend on whether public benefits are designed to enable individual achievement or replace it.  As Partanen describes Finnish public policy, the emphasis is not on paying people not to work, but helping them obtain the qualifications for work and balance their careers with family responsibilities. For example, paid parental leaves are kept short because they are “meant to be breaks in steady careers, not a way of life.”

Partanen says that she never heard the terms “Big Government” or “welfare state” until she came to the United States. She had to learn that for many Americans these are pejorative terms, conjuring up images of lazy people collecting unearned benefits. That explains why so many Americans are critical of government social programs, even as the need for those programs has expanded from the poor to the middle class. A large proportion of the population relies on Medicaid to pay for nursing homes, federal loans to go to college, CHIP to pay for children’s health care, Social Security to retire without falling into poverty, and on and on. But Americans often resent the government for providing these things and vote against the taxes to pay for them, even if that means starving the very programs on which they rely. The result is a patchwork of benefits that leaves too many needs unmet.

When Americans hear that Nordic countries provide more public benefits than we do, they imagine those countries as even bigger welfare states, presumably robbing their citizens of their independence and initiative. Partanen prefers to call them “well-being” states, and she describes them as liberating rather than subordinating their citizens:

Unlike in some bogeyman welfare state, participation in a well-being state does not require you to bow in submission before the altar of altruism, sacrificing your own advancement to help the unlucky. It supports your own personal freedom, your own autonomy, and each individual’s ability to determine his or her own fate, since we don’t need to depend on the financial largesse of parents, spouses, or employers for the fundamental services—health care, education, and aid during times of crisis—that each of us requires to fulfill our potential. On top of that there’s a less tangible benefit: the pride and satisfaction of participating in a society that truly enables equality of opportunity for all.

Citizens of Nordic countries do pay higher taxes, but not as much as many Americans imagine. The average Finn pays about 6% more than the average American. Partanen sees that as a reasonable price to pay for all they get in return.

In the next post, I’ll address the question of whether the Nordic approach fosters or undermines excellence.


Kids These Days (part 2)

February 2, 2018

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Malcolm Harris describes a world in which young people must struggle to develop their human capital in order to remain competitive in a hi-tech economy. Some succeed more than others, of course, but Harris is focused less on individual differences than on the Millennial experience in general. He notices how much of the enhanced value of labor is going to benefit employers rather than laborers. Higher productivity is not translating into higher wages or more leisure, but into lower labor costs and higher profits. The Millennial generation and their families are being systematically ripped off, being forced to bear the costs of human capital development while seeing most of the benefits go to someone else.

Inner stress, outward conformity

“More competition among young people–whether they want to be drummers, power forwards, scientists, or just not broke–means higher costs in the economic sense, but also in the area of mental health and social trust.” The percentage agreeing with the statement that “generally speaking, most people can be trusted,” has dropped precipitously in this generation, while rates of anxiety, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have soared.

Millennials have been heavily medicated for these conditions, and Harris links medicalization with a broader youth control movement, “a way to keep kids quiet, focused, and productive while adults move the goalposts down the field.” He describes Millennials as the “most policed modern generation,” with authorities quicker to suspend or incarcerate young people who get out of line. On the other hand, society has also taken some steps to protect children, such as cracking down on child abuse.

Whether it is an effect of tighter social control, social protection, or something else, “Millennials are significantly better-behaved than earlier birth cohorts.” They have lower crime rates than Baby Boomers or Generation X had in their youth. They are also having a little less sex. The median age of sexual initiation has gone back up to 18, after dropping from 19 to 17 between 1939 and 1979. The percentage of young people using protection from the outset of sexual activity has increased dramatically.

A bleak future?

Harris is much better at extrapolating worrisome social trends into the future than he is at envisioning social reforms. He imagines that students may become even more weighed down by their student loans, as lenders “start demanding a percentage of future earnings from borrowers in return for money up front….” We would then have a generation of urban sharecroppers, forever indebted by their need for capital to those who can help supply it. He also imagines that the country may have to institutionalize more and more of the people who just can’t measure up in a hypercompetitive system.

Harris is pessimistic about the standard ways that liberals encourage people to change society–through their votes, their protests, their buying power, or their volunteer work. For example, he doesn’t see how voting can bring about campaign finance reform, if politicians are more responsive to the financial elites than they are to the voters.

In the end, Harris offers no positive vision or program for the future, beyond the vague advice to stop playing the entire game and become revolutionaries.

Positive models

I am not content to leave it at that, because I think Millennials need more than a wish for an alternative order too unimaginable to be described. They could use some positive models for how the country might do things differently.

Having reviewed George Lakey’s Viking Economics and Anu Partanen’s The Nordic Theory of Everything, I think that some constructive policies to deal with the issues raised in this book are available. Nordic countries do a couple things better than we do. They share the costs of developing human capital through more generous public support for education and job training. And they support stronger worker organization, so that workers can bargain for a better share of the fruits of their own productivity. As a result, young people can grow up with more confidence that their talents will be both developed and rewarded. Easy to say, harder to accomplish, but it can be done.

As for the grip that rich and selfish conservatives have on our political institutions, I will only say that we shouldn’t underestimate the power of cultural change. When public opinion shifts dramatically in a particular direction, it usually finds a way of inducing institutional reforms. Consider, for example, how sexually abusive men are starting to be ostracized (well, okay, not all of them).

I think Malcolm Harris has done a good job describing what makes life so difficult for the Millennial generation. For ideas about how to make it less difficult, readers have to look elsewhere.

A place in history

A more inspiring vision for Millennials was published by Neil Howe and William Strauss in 2000 under the title Millennials Rising. They had already given the generation its name in their previous book, Generations, where they laid out their elaborate theory of generational cycles in American history. Here are their birth dates for Millennials (slightly different from Harris’s), along with those of other living American generations:

  • G.I. (1901-1924)
  • Silent (1925-1942)
  • Boom (1943-1960, often dated 1946-1964 based on birth rates)
  • 13th (1961-1981, more commonly known as Generation X)
  • Millennial (1982-2002)

Once every 80 to 100 years, according to Howe and Strauss, a “hero generation” passes through the life cycle and has an unusually transformative effect on society:

A hero generation arrives just after an era of societywide upheaval in values and culture that many historians call a “spiritual awakening” and passes through childhood during a time of decaying civic habits, ebbing institutional trust, and resurgent individualism.
A hero generation directly follows a youth generation widely deemed to be disappointing [in this case, Generation X], reacts against the older “postwar” generation that fomented the spiritual awakening as young adults [Baby Boomers]–and fills a void left by the passing of an elder generation known for civic purpose and teamwork [G.I. Generation].

As they are entering adulthood, the generation is challenged by a “heroic trial,” such as World War II for the G.I. Generation. Howe and Strauss did not yet know what that might be for Millennials, but I am tempted to speculate that the current assault on our democratic institutions by the forces of oligarchy is a good candidate. In their midlife years, “they create powerful and enduring institutions, build big new infrastructures, craft a new modern world, and dominate politics and economics deep into their old age.”

Each generation has to solve problems created by the excesses of previous generations. Howe and Strauss see the Millennials reacting against the “narcissism, impatience, iconoclasm, and constant focus on talk (usually argument) over action” associated with Baby Boomers, as well as the “over-the-top free agency, social splintering, cultural exhaustion, and civic decay” associated with Generation X.  While my generation rebelled against powerful institutions that seemed intimidating and repressive, Millennials may do the opposite, rebuilding civic institutions weakened by excessive competitiveness and social polarization. “A new Millennial service ethic is emerging, built around notions of collegial (rather than individual) action, support for (rather than resistance against) civic institutions, and the tangible doing of good deeds.” In the economy, Howe and Strauss predict a new era of worker organization, class consciousness, higher taxes on the rich, and expansion of the middle class.

The Millennial generation would not be without its own excesses. Those might include “excessive collectivism and rationalism, a capacity to push technology too far or follow leaders too unquestioningly.” But those dangers would be the risk side of their historic opportunity, “to usher in an era when public events move the fastest and furthest, when nations and empires rise and fall, when the likelihood of political or economic calamity (and war) is high, when societies can either self-destruct or ratchet up to a higher level of civilization.” If Howe and Strauss are right, those who can see only gridlock and stagnation are in for a shock, probably very soon.

Kids These Days

January 31, 2018

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Malcolm Harris. Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2017.

This is an unusual book, a portrait of a particular generation’s experience, interpreted in the context of a changing capitalist society. I found it reminiscent of Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd from the 1950s, a book that resonated with many young Baby Boomers. Here the focus is on the Millennial generation, who were born between 1980 and 2000 and make up today’s young adults 18 to 38. Malcolm Harris himself is one of them.

Here he describes the book’s goal:

The only way to understand who we are as a generation is to look at where we come from, and the social and economic conditions under which we’ve become ourselves. What I’m attempting in this book is an analysis of the major structures and institutions that have influenced the development of young Americans over the past thirty to forty years.

Harris is not a social scientist, but just a “committed leftist and a gifted polemicist with a smart-aleck bent,” according to one reviewer. He provides no deep analysis of capitalism, but makes a broad claim that the frenetic quest for profits is now bringing society to some kind of breaking point:

Lately, this system has started to hyperventilate: It’s desperate to find anything that hasn’t yet been reengineered to maximize profit, and then it makes those changes as quickly as possible. The rate of change is visibly unsustainable. The profiteers call this process “disruption,” while commentators on the left generally call it “neoliberalism” or “late capitalism.” Millennials know it better as “the world,” or “America,” or “Everything.” And Everything sucks.

The burden of this supercharged capitalism is falling most heavily on Millennials. They will either by crushed by it, as America becomes some sort of fascist dystopia, or else lead a revolution against it. Harris sees little middle ground.

Human capital and hypercompetition

For Harris, the key to understanding what is happening to the younger generation is the idea of human capital. “We need to think about young people the way industry and the government already do: as investments, productive machinery, ‘human capital’.” Human capital is the economic value placed on the capacity for future work. New technologies can reduce that value by making existing capacities obsolete, most obviously when manual labor is replaced by machinery. But future workers can enhance their value by acquiring new capacities, enabling them to master technologies or provide some essential human input. This puts young people under pressure to become one of the value-enhanced winners instead of the devalued losers.

Isn’t this just the same old competition for success that has been a hallmark of modern society? Harris obviously sees it as more than that. As the development of human capital has become more extensive and more costly, paying for it has become a systemic problem. Society is currently organized in such a way that the benefits of human capital formation go primarily to capitalist organizations and their shareholders, while the costs fall primarily on individuals and their families. Investment in human capital is good for society, but it is risky for individual employers, since they do not normally own their workers and their future labor. Workers can leave and take their newly acquired human capital with them. So employers find it more profitable to hire workers who are already capable–or nearly capable–of doing the job; or just replace workers with robots, whose future labor they do own.

The intensified competition for good jobs becomes more than an individual competition to demonstrate merit. It is a competition among families to raise the most accomplished children they can, with the most expensive educations and all the trimmings–the music lessons, science projects, field trips, SAT prep classes, and so forth. Families of limited means are at a big disadvantage.

The paradox of productivity

In theory, the higher productivity resulting from new technologies and skills could lead to higher wages and/or more leisure. If people are more productive, why shouldn’t they enjoy a higher standard of living? And why shouldn’t the most tech-savvy generation be on its way to the highest standard of living of all? There’s little sign of that so far. “As it turns out, just because you can produce an unprecedented amount of value doesn’t necessarily mean you can feed yourself under twenty-first-century American capitalism.”

The problem goes to the heart of the capitalist system. Producing more per hour doesn’t translate into higher pay per hour if the extra output and its economic value belong solely to the employer. In that case the employer gets the benefits, in the form of higher revenues and lower labor cost per unit of output.

On the one hand, every kid is supposed to spend their childhood readying themselves for a good job in the skills-based information economy. On the other hand, improvements in productive technology mean an overall decrease in labor costs. That means workers get paid a smaller portion of the value they create as their productivity increases. In aggregate, this operates like a bait and switch: Employers convince kids and their families to invest in training by holding out the promise of good jobs, while firms use this very same training to reduce labor costs.

We may wonder why competition among employers for good workers doesn’t force them to raise wages. It does, but mainly in specialized occupations where needed skills are actually in short supply. What is remarkable is how little wages have risen in recent decades, even for college graduates. “Wages for college-educated workers outside of the inflated finance industry have stagnated or diminished, with real wages for young graduates down 8.5 percent between 2000 and 2012.” What seems to be working in favor of employers is a system that delivers a large enough supply of human capital to hold wages down, while making families bear the costs of developing that capital.

Harris notes that men and women have experienced this situation differently. “Median wages for men (50th percentile) have remained stagnant, at nearly $18 per hour, while median wages for women have increased from $11.28 in 1973 to $14.55 in 2009.” Women’s improvement in labor force participation and wages is a mixed blessing. Putting wives as well as husbands into the labor force is one way for families to try and get ahead. But it places the burden on families to work harder instead of on employers to pay better. “All work becomes more like women’s work: workers working more for less pay. We can see why corporations have adapted to the idea of women in the labor force.”

To summarize:

Technological development leads to increased worker productivity, declining labor costs, more competition, a shift in the costs of human capital development onto individual competitors, and increased productivity all over again. Millennials are the historical embodiment of this cycle run amok….

Education: The labor of enhancing one’s labor

One of my graduate school professors used to say that the social function of higher education was not to produce and disseminate knowledge, but to keep young people out of the labor force so they could serve the economy as needed consumers rather than unneeded producers. Maybe that made sense at a time when people were enjoying the new prosperity and leisure of the post-Depression, postwar era. Having recently achieved good wages and a shorter work week, unions weren’t eager to see a horde of young people enter the labor force and drive wages and working conditions down.

Harris’s take on youth and education is very different, and probably more relevant to our times. Not only are a large percentage of young people in the labor force already–70% of college students, for example–but they are working very hard at their own human capital development, primarily for the benefit of their future employers. As a result of the economic conditions described, “Every child is a capital project.”

…It’s cheaper than it used to be to hire most workers, and extraordinarily hard to find the kind of well-paying and stable jobs that can provide the basis for a comfortable life. The arms race that results pits kids and their families against each other in an ever-escalating battle for a competitive edge, in which adults try to stuff kids full of work now in the hope that it might serve as a life jacket when they’re older.

In theory, new information technologies ought to make it easier to learn. My generation could have saved many hours digging for information in the library if we could have accessed a whole world of knowledge on a laptop (not to mention the time we could have saved on a term paper if we had word processing). Paradoxically, Harris reports that American children spend more time in school, more time on homework, and less time on unsupervised play than they used to. And they are producing a lot: “Nongrade measures of educational output–like students taking Advanced Placement classes or tests, or kids applying to college–have trended upward….” Grades have risen too, and Harris is not so quick to dismiss that as mere grade inflation.

A government study reported that “the number of applicants to four-year colleges and universities has doubled since the early 1970s, [but] available slots have changed little.” That form of intensified competition allows schools to raise tuition and fees dramatically. Only part of this increase is due to reduced public funding, since the increase by private schools is almost as great. The additional revenue has not gone into instruction; on the contrary, the ample supply of graduates seeking academic employment has allowed colleges to hire more lower-paid, part-time and temporary teachers. Instead it goes mainly toward administrative salaries or amenities to attract well-heeled students.

What this all amounts to is a clear tendency for both public and private colleges to behave like businesses, passing off a lower-quality product at a higher price by tacking on highly leveraged shiny extras unrelated to the core educational mission. Stadium skyboxes, flat-screen monitors, marble floors, and hors d’oeuvres for the alumni association. Consultants of all flavors and salaried employees to make sure it’s all efficient. Competition hasn’t improved the quality of higher education, it has made colleges more like sleepaway camps or expensive resorts.

Because they are defined as students rather than real workers, students can be made to work very hard for someone else’s profit. College sports generate substantial revenue, but not for the athletes, who regularly spend thirty to forty hours a week on their sports without being paid. Many students try to enhance their credentials with unpaid internships, although research has found no more than a slight impact on job offers.

Even the time spent on social media can be seen as exploitable unpaid labor. “These technologies promise (and often deliver) connectivity, efficiency, convenience, productivity, and joy to individual users….” Older adults may see them as a frivolous form of leisure. But they are also a way that young people self-publish their creative work and build an audience for it. That also generates profits for others, most obviously for the big companies that run the sites, but also for record producers that are spared the costs and risks of developing talent themselves. They can wait and see who is becoming popular, and only then offer a recording contract.

Not only do students get little immediate reward for their hard work, but most of them have to borrow against their future earnings to finance their higher education. They have to indenture themselves to obtain an enhancement in earning power that may or may not materialize. If their schools educate them poorly–and some for-profit schools seem to make that part of their business model–borrowers are still on the hook for the money. Excessive debt is one of the reasons why today’s young adults have relatively low net worth, not just in comparison to today’s older adults, but also in comparison to young adults of an earlier time. Between 1983 and 2010, net worth dropped 21% for the 29-37 age group.

Overall, Malcolm Harris finds that the pressure to develop their own human capital has forced Millennials to compete harder for a limited supply of rewards. What they get for their harder work is the mere promise of a higher standard of living–someday. So far at least, someday has not arrived.