Tuesday, September 26

Pangloss School of Economics Quarterly Report

Roy unearths another example, this time from Jane Galt:
But let's say we could find someone who makes $29,931 today, and remembers the 1970's. Do you think that if you offered to send him back to 1973, with 4% more than the 1973 median income, he'd take you up on the deal? What if you doubled that, to 8%? What if you sent him back to 1973 making 15 or 20% more than the median wage, so that he could keep the wife at home and still enjoy a modern level of household income?

Personally, I wouldn't take the deal . . . and not just because I'd be the one stuck at home trying to make the Harvest Gold drapes match the new Avocado refrigerator. 1973 means no internet. No cell phones. No cheap air travel to exotic foreign climes. No computers. No blessed asthma drugs (see my co-blogger's memoir for just how much this means). Three television channels and nothing good on any of them. Expensive books. Air pollution. Shorter life expectancies . More crowded housing. About the only thing more available then were Manhattan apartments, and that was because the muggers were cramping everyone's style. Yes, we all wish we'd done like my parents and bought a co-op in 1973--but that's because we want to live in it now, not then.

Of course, you wouldn't make this sort of argument if you weren't trying to prove something, and it's the sort of thing that's driven me crazy since Physics 1&2 back in 1970, before the invention of Harvest Gold, when they ran us through the standard experiments designed to prove that Light is both A Particle and A Wave, and that you therefore should find yourself shaking hands with Quantum Mechanics, except that all I noticed was that the experiments were not consistent, so it really just made me question the people who were selling the textbooks. If they'd have just started off explaining the thing to me I'd have believed 'em. I didn't think they had any real reason to lie about such things.

So too, you know, I'm willing to give your argument a fair hearing, but when you hang the whole thing on the fatuous notion that I'd never part with my Best of All Possible iPods I'm reminded we're no closer to a cure for idiocy than we were thirty years ago, despite the need being that much greater.

Okay, one: if you simply must do this sort of thing, avoid Lileksification at all costs. People who were co-ordinating Avocado appliances and yellow formica countertops in the 70s have just as miserable taste in interior decor today, just not so dated. Nothing survives being thought of, as Oscar Wilde said. Your hipster eyewear and flat-screen latte machines are gonna be grist for some smirking retro-trendoid mill by 2036. Count on it.

Two: no internet. Cheap applause line, a Lee Greenwood lyric before the start of the Daytona 500. Hey, I loves me some internet, but I didn't pine away for it in the 70s. Apart from meeting people from around the globe, the internet means free pornography and information at my fingertips instead of a mile away at the public library in case it's not in my own.

Three: no cell phones. And none going off in the middle of a movie, and no self-obsessed bimbo carrying on a conversation about his personal life at the top of his lungs as the two of you share a grocery aisle.

This is not your standard curmudgeonly retort. It's "Conservatives" who are always going on about modern life going to hell in a basket of some sort or other, but here's a device which has clearly increased the public rudeness factor at least 6x, and that's without touching what it does on the roadways, but it makes life worth living because you can call your broker from the dry cleaners.

So this is perhaps the time to make the general point about this sort of hooey. Darwin changed the world without knowing anything of genetics, and Shakespeare changed the language without decent medical care. One has to ask what benefit we get from all this technology that makes our times so superior.

Four: no cheap air travel to exotic climes. And no rapid spread of regional diseases into worldwide pandemics. I'm sorry if that's a flippant answer, but it's a flippant comment. How many poor people--how many middle-class people--are jumping on planes for tropical locales on a regular basis? I'm comfortably upper middle class, yet any such trip would require I decide what to give up of equal or greater value, just like it did in the 70s.

Five: no computers, no asthma drugs, three channels and nothing on. So now I've got 120 channels and nothing on, and the easiest way to relate to any stranger is to talk not about Art or current events, but about Survivor. Plus anyone who's ever been on a program is a celebrity for life. You can't even get rid of Howie Mandel. There's a reason it's so profitable to repackage so-called reality into so-called programming: it's because the audience no longer knows what reality is like. Reality is the fucking remote.

Really, remember that when Warhol said everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes, he meant fifteen minutes and out. Back then you starred in Johnny Reb, US Marshall, or you crooned a couple of hits for latter-day bobby soxers, and that was it. You had amused us to the fullest extent of your talent, now go invest in real estate. Sunday, Brittany Spears was on the cover of one section of my paper. Why? Her job description for the last three years has been "public embarrassment", and she doesn't even have to produce anything to keep it.

And of course no one's going to argue than medical improvements are a bad thing, but then every time I have to go into the hospital I'm paying for all of it. I pay for equipment I don't need, amenities I don't want, fantastically expensive specialized care that doesn't just save or extend lives but helps infertile couples conceive sextuplets and increases and decreases bust sizes as fashion dictates. Being tested half to death may make you safer than you were in 1973, but it sure makes you poorer a lot quicker, too.

Six: longer life expectancies. Very nice, I'm sure, provided you can afford it. In 1973 you might still imagine you could live on Social Security. At least you had no reason to suspect it would be yanked out from under you.

But let's note here that "longer life expectancies" is not just a linear, March-of-Science achievement but the result of a lot of things that "Conservatives" or Conservo-Libertarians don't think much of. Safer automobiles, safer households, public anti-smoking campaigns, all accomplished with government dollars and "nuisance" lawsuits. It's not just the medical-science-assisted extension of your Golden Years you get to hope you're healthy and wealthy enough to enjoy.

This offer may be void in certain areas if you're a young black male.

I don't know that any of this is meant to be taken any more seriously than Jane's "Harvest Gold" crack. I hope not, or not much. Because--ye gods and little fishes, if this plastic gimcrack society is the Civilization we think our young people should be killing and dying for it won't be too long before the guns are turned the other direction.


Stephen Green said...

Amen. Ezra Klein, bless his little heart, was making comments similar to Galt's a week or so ago and my reaction was quite similar to yours. Despite what these kids might think, daily life didn't suck, at all, due to our lack of PCs or IPods or xboxes and 200 channels. Somehow actual life was varied enough that you could find other entertainments to fill your days.

doghouse riley said...

Ezra Klein, bless his little heart, was making comments similar to Galt's a week or so ago and my reaction was quite similar to yours.

Dear me. I don't think youth is much of an excuse (and I haven't tracked her down, but I don't think Galt is all that young). When I was thirteen I imagined 1953 was the best year to be born in in the history of the world; we, after all, got to indulge in Beatlemania in a way that adults didn't and even older young people couldn't. Within a couple years I was pining away for having been too young to go to San Fran for the Acid Tests, and it's a small step from there to wishing you'd been in Harlem in the 20s or Paris between the wars, and to realizing, conversely, that all the hot young sloe-eyed things are getting younger and you're not. At which point it's time to stop congratulating yourself for being young.

I mean, I'm a modern urban boy, not an faux-agrarian dreamer. I understand if people want to keep their Blackberries, but I find it impossible to understand how any educated American can miss the fact that the 19th century gave us Emerson, Lincoln, Whitman, and Mark Twain, while the glorious Computer Age has given us Johnny Knoxville and overpriced, ice-cream flavored coffee.

D. Sidhe said...

Your points about medical care and life expectancy are especially good.

Listen, this kind of rhetorical exercise is only valid if you can say that better unions, living wages, universal healthcare, whatever, in some way would have prevented internet and cell phones and crap. Because otherwise, it is not unreasonable for people to want both.

And the suggestion that somehow paying workers more for increases in productivity that mean they're now doing the jobs of three people (and in some cases this is because the company laid off a pile of people and *assumed* the current employees could carry the extra load, generally without in any way having made it easier--which they may be able to, but why the hell should they have to? Employees have a right to go home once in a while.) means that Bill Gates would never have started Microsoft and Merck would never have bothered with better asthma medications, is debatable at best, and hopelessly fucking idiotic at worst. Otherwise, we'd be cutting CEO pay, too.

The thing that kills me about this idiotic argument is that we're pretending a cell phone in every pot is the reality. It's not. There are an awful lot of people out there who, say, pay so much for their asthma medications that they cannot afford *food*, and vice versa. These people aren't sitting at home enjoying the 120 channel universe, they're working two and sometimes three jobs. Ask them if they'd prefer their non-access to the internet or a decent wage.

And I'm not even going into the fact that a nation hell-bent on making life easy for corporations allows them not only to stiff their employees on health coverage in the name of making widgets cheaper, but also to pollute to where more people have asthma to begin with.

It's an amazingly facile argument. It relies on some bizarre apples or oranges choice: Would you rather have a decent haircut or a head?

It's the sort of thing the economically insulated say to *stay* insulated from the effects of their beliefs, and it's inherently dependant on the fact that the people who would absolutely say "Screw the cable, I need money to pay off my bills" are completely unable to join the conversation long enough to tell you that.

You want to play this little What If game? Go stand in front of the food bank, or in the reception room of a free clinic, or the employee break room of any hotel, and ask *there*.

R.Porrofatto said...

Hilarious. And commenting is so much easier when all I have to say is "What D. Sidhe said."

You can't even get rid of Howie Mandel.

This pretty much explains everything wrong with the 21st Century.

pseudolus said...

Man, that was perfect. Found another bookmark. Me likey, me linkey.
Rock off, dude!

isabelita said...

Waal, I ain't no conservative nor free marketeerian libertarian, and I am constantly saying this country's goin' ta hell yatta yatta, but for quite different reasons, naturally.
Consume, consume, boom boom boom.
Bulldoze and build, play golf, be smug and stupid.
That's the way of the ones taking charge.