Thursday, August 09, 2007

Middle Class Values

[T]he Industrial Revolution — the surge in economic growth that occurred first in England around 1800 — occurred because of a change in the nature of the human population. The change was one in which people gradually developed the strange new behaviors required to make a modern economy work. The middle-class values of nonviolence, literacy, long working hours and a willingness to save

Critics fault the author for holding that the origin of this change is genetic. It doesn't seem likely that significant genetic change is possible in the relatively short period of time from the high middle ages to the industrial revolution. Moreover, the relatively small genetic differences in the population that could have occurred over roughly 500 years wouldn't make such a big behavioral difference. Where he does seem to get it right is in the surprising idea that downward social mobility resulted in these wide-spread changes in England--where the upper classes were more fertile, drifted downward socio-economically but took their "middle-class values" with them--thrift, literacy, and future-orientation, and that this wasn't a matter of intelligence (hunter-gatherers and farmers need to be smart) but the tendency to invest in literacy, save money, avoid violence and sacrifice now for future security and gain.

The implications one may draw, not suggested in the article, are intriguing. There's good news (at least on my non-genetic reading) and bad news.

The bad news is that upward social mobility by the same reasoning is potentially destructive--at least if it comes about largely by way of dumb luck. Lower class people taking their "values" with them when they become socially dominant shop until they drop without thinking about the future, go heavily into debt and screw up the economy. Welcome to Southern California. Just checking in a minute ago the Dow was down 387 points which, according to an article I just read, is fallout from the sub-prime mortgage crisis. And that is a consequence of trailer trash who stumbled into wealth buying the biggest possible trailers they couldn't afford--4000 square foot MacMansions via "creative financing."

The only place where the thesis doesn't fit is on the work issue. Americans are working ever longer hours, and willingness to work long hours is one of the pieces, along with thrift and literacy, that does good. However the question then becomes one of how productive these long hours are, not for individual workers so much as in terms of what it is that's being produced. In the US the answer is relatively little since the elite and semi-elite workers who put in the longest hours are engaged largely in finance and services rather than production--shifting around money, creating bubbles and semi-scams like the sub-prime mortgage market. So I think the thesis holds: you have the culture-makers, with little interest in security, going into debt and producing nothing, even though they're drudging in office park carrels 12 hours a day. This is the dictatorship of the proletariat: white trash values have become dominant and drag us along. Try "depriving" California kids of the crap all their friends have.

The good news is that "middle-class values" can be taught, not only to kids, but to adults who, if they can be persuaded to try out the program, get sold on it. Normal human beings can be thrifty, prudent and hardworking, literate and non-violent; they can be reflective, make long-term plans, invest in their futures and their children's. It's not all that hard. Conservative Protestant churches and the military do a very good teaching job.

It's not that easy though because the culture and people's circumstances make this commitment difficult. I read sometime back, for bedtime reading, Life in an English Village, describing how thing were in a village somewhere in East Anglia from time immemorial to the early 20th century. When feudalism was in full swing there were 1000 policies and customs that stymied the peasantry, penalized thrift, promoted the Pay Day Loan ethos, and made social mobility virtually impossible. When a peasant died, his family owed their best beast, the herriot, to the Lord of the Manor and the mortuary, the second best beast, to the Church; they also had to kick in when their children were married. Peasants were expected to spend the bulk of their time working to eat and eating to work and, in their leisure time, Sundays and Saints' Days, to burn up any surplus frolicking and drinking themselves silly. According to the author, the custom of the manor in most places required the coolies to kick in for periodic communal celebrations, which he calls "scot-ales." He describes one case in which a family refused to participate in the jolly festivities: their jolly peasant peers poured beer down their chimney and trashed their house. This is all very cute if you like the idea of beer-fests on saint's days and morris dancing on the green but it locks in a pretty miserable life: don't bother improving your stock because the Lord and the Church will take your first and second best beasts, and leave your widow and children impoverished; don't try to save money because your peers will just humiliate you for your efforts.

Forget about us 'uns for a moment and think about the underclass, the modern representatives of this medieval peasantry. Don't try to be thrifty because the Lord of the Manor will appropriate your savings. In one particularly appalling story I read, before "the end of welfare as we know it," a welfare mom scrimped and saved to build a "college fund" for her daughter and the state, discovering it, appropriated it. Peasants aren't supposed to have savings accounts. Don't get married--the Lord of the Manor will exact a fee. Don't try to opt out of the culture of improvidence and violence or your peers will pour beer down your chimney--trash your house and beat you up. We don't expect, or want, you to join the middle class: we just want to contain and control you.

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