Okay, first, Standard Disclaimer: I'd rather take up cutting children's hair or editing the collected works of Jonah Goldberg than study economics for a second five minutes.The narrower issue has to do with kitchens. Here's [Ryan] Avent's summary of a common argument about kitchen progress:The third argument is the simplest: the evidence of your senses. The recent rate of progress seems slow compared with that of the early and mid-20th century. Take kitchens. In 1900 kitchens in even the poshest of households were primitive things. Perishables were kept cool in ice boxes, fed by blocks of ice delivered on horse-drawn wagons. Most households lacked electric lighting and running water. Fast forward to 1970 and middle-class kitchens in America and Europe feature gas and electric hobs and ovens, fridges, food processors, microwaves and dishwashers. Move forward another 40 years, though, and things scarcely change. The gizmos are more numerous and digital displays ubiquitous, but cooking is done much as it was by grandma.I think people making this argument ought to watch a few episodes of Iron Chef America. They'll see cooks working with immersion circulators, commercial grade vacuum sealers, blow torches, French tops, pressure cookers, convection ovens, and blast chillers. Most people don't cook with that stuff. A huge share of Americans has an old-fashioned electric stove rather than an induction stove that heats much more rapidly and efficiently. Even things like high-quality enameled cast iron and multi-clad metal cookware aren't that common. In all those cases it's not because the technology doesn't exist but because that stuff is expensive. If we'd had a more equitable distribution of income over the past 35 years, more people would own the most advanced kitchenware.
Second: No. No one should watch a few episodes of Iron Chef America. Nor a single episode. Nor an ep. For the sake of the culture. For the sake of cuisine. For, if you prefer simple reasons, the simple reason that Bobby Flay is involved.
Hell, let's combine these, shall we? Food is particularly that arena where the social science heart of Economics, which economists like to pretend is not a cacophony of discursive thought but a science, is laid bare. To your average economy prestidigitator, a Hershey bar is a Hershey bar, a beer a beer, and a T-bone and T-bone. Never mind that a still-sizable portion of the population can tell you of a time--in their lifetimes--when a Hershey bar tasted like something called chocolate, and mass-market beer had flavor. And when "USDA Prime" did not mean "Whatever th' Fuck Cattlemen Want To Sell You, Regardless of What It Died of". There's no profit (and no pretend empiricism) in talking about such things, because there isn't any more of it to sell. Shit's out of stock, permanently. And economists are salesmen with advanced degrees; where the average commissioned sales rep, college-educated or street-smart, tries to dazzle you with footwork, the economist tries to make sure you don't notice you're being waltzed around.
But there isn't any fucking question about this. I'm not some geezer talking about the good old days (not at the moment, anyway). In my youth, Hershey bars were made of chocolate; I watched as the percentage of cardboard and wood shavings was increased in the 70s. That shit is unrecognizable as chocolate these days, but people who've grown up without experiencing the difference don't know it. I come from a line of teetotalers, but the fact is that beer market consolidation and greed resulted in the bland leading the bland, and lead to the unspeakably swillish. One need only one glance at his grocer's shelves to understand there was a need, a lack, later filled by microbrewers, and that lack was real beer, which the Big Three breweries could easy have produced once they divvied up the market, but it would have cost them an extra 1/2 ¢ per unit. The indifferent amateur historian can determine the exact date and hour when Ronald Reagan's pen (and millions in "campaign contributions" from meat packers and cattle ranchers) turned Choice into Prime, one miracle the Free Market couldn't achieve for itself.
Look, unless he's bored, no wine salesman wants to talk to you about '45, or '61, or '85, because he doesn't have any to sell you. That may make the past immaterial, but it does not make it irrelevant. There are pressures today on even the greatest wine producers to make their product more accessible early in its life. That's economic pressure. Philosophically and oenologically it's vandalism. Economics gets a free pass from making value judgements. So long as something sells the "market", or the "consumer" has accepted it. But on the scale of Bud and Miller taking over the national market, what choice did the disgruntled consumer have? None, for forty years. Maybe imports, assuming someone near him carried any.
Excuse me while I clear my throat.
Let's ask ourselves this: why does the modern economist simply assume that labor-saving devices save labor? Because he doesn't do any? Because he was born in the middle of that stagnation that Avent so rightly identified, and doesn't really give a fuck so long as Mom/the wife/the Girl//Armando has dinner on the table on time? Seems to me that what the modern kitchen basically reduces is drudgery, which for people, that is to say women in the19th century, was a major, and inescapable fact of life. Within a generation, indoor plumbing had begun to erase the memory of hauling water, but the time spent was transferred to other pursuits (such as cleaning sinks and bathrooms).
The peak of labor-saving in the kitchen occurred for my mother's (The Greatest) generation, which had been educated for life as farm wives, or urban farm wives, but then found, out there, the continual reduction of drudgery Avent notes. It reached the middle class in the 60s and 70s. And what my mother did with the time saved was go get a job so we could afford more shit.
For me the damned dishwasher is drudgery. My mother, who was a good cook, embraced convenience foods. I've gone out of my way to avoid them. And part of that is the amount of money saved by doing things from scratch. But mostly it's because that's a better way to do things.
In terms of kitchen gadgets my mother didn't have in the 60s, I've got a food processor (the time it saves can be invested in cleaning it), but I've got my eye on a first-rate mandoline; I've got a microwave that doubles as an exhaust hood, there's one of those immersion blenders in the basement somewhere, and a slow cooker. Oh, and a convection oven (they're pretty standard except at the low end of ovens these days, Matt). None of it saves time. At best it lets me do things in a better or more efficient way. The reason I don't have a circulator, induction-coil cooktop, or a vacuum sealer is I don't run a fucking professional kitchen. Nor am I on teevee for the people who manufacture gizmos to gift me them. The reason I don't cook with a blowtorch, by the way, is that I'm not a 10 year-old child.
Hey, I'm not coming down on Avent's side in some metaphysical sense; I would, sorta, agree that gee-whiz technical gimmickry has collided with practical considerations, in the same way that real technological advancement, in physics, say, or medicine, has occurred in the absence of ideas, or much apparent interest, in how to make it accessible and universal. On the other hand Matt's correct; if we hadn't instituted massive income disparity beginning with the Reagan administration, we might see as much effort put into the home kitchen as into corporate jets or boner pills.
Then again, we might have seen more progress if Milton Friedman hadn't received such acclaim, or if we weren't busy fighting his progeny over their absolute certainty that our corporate people must be taken better care of than our real people.