The Quagmire: Are We Better of Now?

As some loyal readers have rightly pointed out, proving we are worse off today than we were in the 70’s is tough to do in a convincing way.

It would be silly and wrong to claim that everything is worse today than it was forty years ago, and from a political, social, and fashion perspective, few would want to go back.

It’s true, there have been lots of improvements, mostly technological, to our lives since the 70’s. However, the discussion about whether a specific changes make us happier or not, can become a never ending debate over hedonics — the academic study of what makes us happy from an economic and technological perspective.  A debate that quickly becomes “hedonic quagmire,” which is something I’d rather avoid if possible.

To accomplish that, let’s take a look at the changes to daily life we’ve seen over the last forty years. I’ve found these improvements fall into three categories:

  • Negligible. Alternatives to things that we used to do differently. Changes that offer uncertain advantages in prices, quality, or experience. For example, we use the Internet to get our news today, it’s fast, but given its uncertain quality, it’s difficult to make the case that its actually better than the TV news and newspapers of forty years ago.
  • Absolute. Changes that are definitely better than the past. Technological improvements that make things less expensive or faster. Changes that allow us to do what we’ve never been able to do before. For example, interpersonal communication is better now than it ever has been. It’s also much easier, faster, and less expensive to acquire a book, movie, or song than it used to be.
  • Pyrrhic. Advances that have come at a great cost. For example, in medicine we’ve seen a considerable amount of improvement over the last forty years. Advances have added four years to our life expectancy. However, during this same period, the cost of basic medical care has gone through the roof. Medical care is now so expensive, it’s very difficult to afford the everyday care that is, and continues to be, the most important care we get.

That last part — the “Pyrrhic improvement” — is actually the path out of the hedonic quagmire.

It focuses the mind on the only question that matters.   Have the technological improvements we’ve seen over the last forty years made it easier for the American household to pursue the American Dream?

The answer to that question is no.  Most of the advances we’ve seen have fallen into the Pyrrhic category.

Here’s why.  Based on the financials of the families alone, it is EIGHT times harder to achieve the American Dream than it ever was, even without considering the costs of fragility.

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Discussion — 9 Responses

  • Mercian February 26, 2014 on 1:35 pm

    In respect of the Hedonic Quagmire:

    In the late 70s the futurists promised, that by the 2000s, Westerners would have increased leisure time and part time working for the same salary as full time work.

    This was supposed to be due to robotics and computers.

    I recall in the UK, there were numerous popular science books, and plenty of science fiction on TV promising similar things.

    The speculation of the day said what would people do with all the spare time and abundant cheap goods? Would people be happy or bored?!

    That future clearly didn’t happen.

    I have a feeling that economics, globalization, and the fiancialisation of things has an awful lot to do with it.

    (Instead of on-shore robotic factories, we ended up with off-shoring jobs to places where labour was cheaper, for instance. And of course in the Western world the products were still priced to the same level, etc, and the good jobs to pay for some of it had gone.

    I do think now though, some of the automated technologies are going to come back, and allow very cheap localised production and it will be competitive too. E.g. 3D printing, and of course its driven by information.

    I also have a feeling that extra costs are being imposed in all kinds of sectors such as medicine by legislation and regulation. Think Obamacare?)

    Hope that’s not too off topic…

  • Bruno Behrend February 27, 2014 on 8:52 am

    This argument basically comes down to class, income quintiles, and mobility.

    To your point, mobility is seems to be slowing, but I believe recent data says it’s not.

    For the top 2 quintiles, we are clearly working less, or easier jobs, or have more free time. The middle and lower middle seem to be on the edge of the abyss.

    There is much fuzziness in this debate, and one reason might be that the “American dream” is changing. It is becoming more subjective than “a house, a family, and a white picket fence.”

    For some, it’s surfing, grifting, and getting more tattoos. For others, it’s sitting in their parent’s basement trolling blog comments.

    For the real culprit, I look to government, which is only thing that has REALLY increased in cost over the last 30-40 years. A look at a property tax bill is all you need to understand the government employment kills economies slowly.

  • James Bowery February 27, 2014 on 11:17 am

    Any government that defines inflation in terms other than the cost of families raising replacement population to viable adulthood is guilty of genocide.

    End of discussion. Start of trials.

  • Burgundy February 28, 2014 on 6:57 am

    At some point in our history things changed from being about us to being about the System. Our needs became subordinated to those of the System we had created. Advancement, efficiency and productivity became more important than our well-being. But that’s not to say the System was insensitive to our plight, it provides us with an artificial habitat in which we can express our natural instincts and habits. It patches us up when we break and our body fails due to the unnatural environment we live in.

    So, yes, we are worse off. Considerably worse off. But the man in the street cannot see it or comprehend the fact. Besides having his thoughts manufactured for him, he is also bedazzled with the technological magic he is immersed in. Like Dr. Pangloss the hapless man in the street believes he’s living in the best of all possible worlds, seemingly oblivious to the reality around him.

    Life for most people is a cheap imitation of the real thing. Their health is a cheap imitation, maintained by drugs, medicines and surgical procedures. Their food is a cheap imitation manufactured by industrial process. Their homes are a cheap imitation, one step up from cardboard (wood chip) and paper mache. Their lives are increasingly lived through a technological interface that separates them from their natural environment. Their intimate personal and psychological needs are likewise handled trough the System’s interface, which monitors their well-being and makes necessary adjustments.

    We are now a product and a consumable. Which I consider to be a situation far worse than our prior status as consumer. The odd thing is that most people are content with that situation and would probably turn down any offer of freedom, as it would be seen as an unacceptable way of living.

  • Georgiaboy61 March 5, 2014 on 12:52 am

    Re: “As some loyal readers have rightly pointed out, proving we are worse off today than we were in the 70’s is tough to do in a convincing way.”

    Mr. Robb, haven’t you already made the case that the 1970s were the last somewhat normal decade in our recent history – before the deterioration of our society began to pick up steam?

    I am old-enough to have been alive in the 1970s – I turned nine in 1970 and nineteen in 1980 – and although there were difficulties of various kinds in that decade, life wasn’t bad for ordinary Americans.

    Although Nixon had taken the nation off the gold standard, inflation had not yet debased our currency to the degree we see today. The national debt was much smaller than at present, and deficit spending, though a problem, was not nearly as severe as seen today.

    During the 1970s, ten thousand dollars would still purchase a Cadillac or a Lincoln; today that same $10,000 would barely get one into the smaller and most-basic new economy car. A new home – at least in some neighborhoods – could be had for under fifty thousand dollars; that sum today barely suffices for a down-payment on a home… or a full-sized pickup truck!

    There were no unemployed people on my street – those who wanted jobs could find them – and few of the signs of economic hardship we take for granted today, i.e., beggars panhandling at stoplights, homeless people, etc.

    Re: “It would be silly and wrong to claim that everything is worse today than it was forty years ago, and from a political, social, and fashion perspective, few would want to go back.”

    Speak for yourself, John… if it suddenly became possible to return to the 1970s right now, I’d go in a minute…. and I suspect I wouldn’t be alone. Life, despite its hardships, was better then. Of course, you have the last laugh, because this analog man is stuck in the digital age whether he likes it or not!

    • James Bowery Georgiaboy61 March 5, 2014 on 4:57 pm

      John has repeatedly cited Elizabeth Warren’s magnificent work on the economic plight of families that declined starting at least circa 1970.

      However, despite Elizabeth Warren’s work being magnificent — it was far from adequate. It was magnificent compared only to her peers in academia and government form whom the standard lies about the demographic collapse of the Nation of Settlers formed a virtual catechism that she, herself, transcended only after being beaten over the head with the actual data. So Elizabeth Warren was a magnificent mule who, unlike the other mules, had a 2×4 applied directly to her head to get her attention. That doesn’t mean she did more than begrudgingly move the discourse forward — a relatively magnificent accomplishment given the abject insularity of “the great and the good”.

      If she had been truly anti-genocide she would have adopted my definition of inflation:

      “the cost of families raising replacement population to viable adulthood”

      and followed through with more than just her work on the purchase prices of critical _things_, such as a house, car, health insurance, food, education to remain in the middle class, etc.

      How could there be a significant amount beyond that?

      Women’s choice.

      The quadruple whammy of widespread birth control, options for an “empowering career”, misleading myths about the attractiveness of women in their 30s and beyond (a constant theme in “chick flicks” to this day) in addition to a wide array of government transfer programs protecting and targeting women had the cumulative effect of seducing women away from reproduction.

      Indeed, one might call it an addiction targeting women and their total fertility rate.

      Given the pervasive offering of this heroin that merely cost women their total fertility rate, what would be the monetary cost of buying a woman back from her hard core mainline sterilizing habit?

      A government that had my definition of inflation that honestly looked at the human ecology would be forced to confront facts that are still censored from public discourse.

      • James Bowery James Bowery March 5, 2014 on 8:19 pm

        Another way of looking at this genocide through the lens of classical economic theory’s “Iron Law of Wages” which states:

        ‘According to Lassalle, wages cannot fall below subsistence wage level because without subsistence, laborers will be unable to work. However, competition among laborers for employment will drive wages down to this minimal level. This follows from Malthus’ demographic theory, according to which population increases when wages are above the “subsistence wage” and falls when wages are below subsistence.’

        What the classical economists never counted on was the quadruple whammy “empowering” women I mentioned in my prior comment.

        Those who object, saying this is merely a case of “the demographic transition” have a lot to answer for when “the demographic transition” results in racial replacement.

  • Everette Hamilton March 12, 2014 on 4:12 pm

    I see more disruptions coming with the revolution in nanotechnology , but also a silver lining in the longer term . We must get the government out of the way in medical technologies to bring the cost of medicine to an individual basis and a lower of cost. 3D printing brings promises that will outstrip the industrial revolution and free individuals of their dependence on our current distribution systems.