Living Standards Are Going Up… Didn’t You Notice?

This week a friend sent me this article by TV-villain-lawyer-looking Kenneth Rogoff about “keeping living standards on an upward trajectory.” (We like to exchange articles that we think will rile the other up, with some David Foster Wallace and articles about the bitcoin crash thrown in.)

Okay full disclosure: I took one look at this guy’s picture and immediately hated him. His 2011 Deutsche Bank Prize in Financial Economics didn’t help. But while I didn’t go to Harvard, my humble opinion is that his assessment (admittedly just the tip of the iceberg, fit into a 1,000-or-so-word article) has some underlying assumptions that are deeply flawed.

Judging from his experiences and world-view (and face), he most likely does not understand what it’s like out there on a daily basis for the overwhelming majority of people on the planet, who don’t go to elite universities and who don’t work for fancy international banks. So I guess I wonder if his version of a higher standard of living is slightly skewed. When he looks around, life must look pretty good. But when a Mexican farmer looks around (if he isn’t decapitated by vigilante drug lords), not so much. These rosy glasses let him write something like:

“By and large, most advanced economies have fulfilled this promise, with living standards rising over recent generations, despite setbacks from wars and financial crises.”

Which “advanced” economy is fulfilling this promise, exactly? I look around and see a national student loan debt bubble. I see Greece, Ireland, and Spain. I see no new major transit projects developed in my town or in any town. I see people with chronic stress and joint pain from being overweight, people with 1,000 Facebook friends but no real friends, people who will literally step on another creature, just to cross the street. I see no living wage, more part-time employees without health insurance, Wal-Mart having a food drive for its own employees. I see confusing, expensive (and arbitrary) medical costs. I see violence over shortages in The Ukraine, in Venezuela, and even at The University of California. I see Americans—AMERICANS, the least likely group to substantially protest anything that doesn’t involve clicking the “like” button—sitting in the streets, sitting in front of the White House, sitting in front of Wall Street, because they realize that they’re probably the first generation that won’t have it as good as their parents.

But don’t fret, Rogoff assures us:

“And, despite a disconcerting fall in labor’s share of income in recent decades, the long-run picture still defies Marx’s prediction that capitalism would prove immiserating for workers. Living standards around the world continue to rise.”

I’m no economist, but I don’t think you can just say that living standards are rising, based on numbers on a computer screen at Goldman Sachs. And if service-sector Americans (so, Americans), let alone the global community, can agree on one thing, it’s that capitalism is pretty fucking immiserating. Informal poll: how many people do you know who love their jobs? Corollary question: How many Asian pre-teens mining metals for cell phones like theirs? Here’s something you won’t read in any stock market report: in America, more people now die by committing suicide than they do in car accidents.

“A leading example is food supply – an area where technology has continually produced ever-more highly processed and genetically refined food that scientists are only beginning to assess. What is known so far is that childhood obesity has become an epidemic in many countries, with an alarming rise in rates of type 2 diabetes and coronary disease implying a significant negative impact on life expectancy in future generations.”

But wait, I thought things were getting better because of capitalism?

“Capitalist economies have been spectacularly efficient at enabling growing consumption of private goods, at least over the long run. When it comes to public goods – such as education, the environment, health care, and equal opportunity – the record is not quite as impressive, and the political obstacles to improvement have seemed to grow as capitalist economies have matured.”

So to produce cell phones, capitalism is A-Okay. But for everything that actually matters, like water, “the record is not quite as impressive.” No wonder this guy worked at the IMF.

Cf. this insipid bullshit from The Guardian, Technology has created a flat earth where we can participate as equals, which ends with—and I’m not making this up: “We are all particles in the wave of a future that is ours to make.” Oh, well then, what am I so worried about?

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6 thoughts on “Living Standards Are Going Up… Didn’t You Notice?

  1. Stop making sense! But really, this is the overwhelming attitude of this country, or at least most people I’ve encountered (I need better encounters…). They believe unfettered growth, just as it occurred for the last several decades, will continue apace, as if it’s some divine right. Surprise! It’s mostly Baby Boomers crowing about this loudest. The first Generation American Empire got everything it wanted, doing its part to turn it all to shit in the process. Now the collective head is so far in the sand … ahh fuck it. It’s so difficult to contain myself in the face of MORE MORE MORE coming from a boomer in this slow-motion nightmare.

    Thanks for the post. Let me ask you: How do you address folks, let’s say boomers, that lay on this attitude of a limitless, bounitful future at the standard of living they are/were largely accustomed to? It’s not that they seem to not care of the future, they just refuse to believe the disappointing news, they’re too far gone. Is it not even worth it? Just talk to the kids?

  2. It’s not just boomers; bringing up material limits/carrying capacity is also a sore subject with people my age and younger. Or rather, it’s either a sore subject, or it’s all they want to talk about. People are starting to come out of the woodworks, and everyone loves a worst-case scenario. That said, I only know a few people of the boomer generation that I can be honest with re: the insanity of infinite growth on a finite planet, and one of them is my dad. The other is Bob Jensen. (http://robertwjensen.org/) I don’t really talk to kids younger than me about the need to scale down industrial civilization, but I do try to teach them the scientific method and an appreciation for non-human life and ecosystems.

  3. Well, there’s nothing wrong with preparation and concern, to be clear. No offense intended. I meant that that phrase has been used by those I’ve encountered as 1) a reference to the television show, which I have not seen but has been described to me as featuring more than a few right-wing-militia types or “conspiracy theorists,” thus 2) a convenient way to dismiss anyone who is concerned about effects of, say, global climate change, water shortages, rising income inequality, etc.

    • Right, you’re absolutely correct. There are also quite different ways of “prepping”; saving seeds, learning lost skills, building communities of support, learning how to identify edible plants – all these things seem like useful exercises to me.

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