Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Precarians of the world, disperse

Frances Trollope, via.
David Brooks writes:
Once upon a time foreign visitors to America used to describe their impressions of the culture, in books. I don't know why they don't do that any more, or indeed whether they do or not, but I bet if they do they don't get into the Chicago Great Books list like back in the day, or at least Tocqueville. I do sometimes feel like a foreigner myself, I don't know why. At any event, [jump]
as they came up with their accounts, they used to play a little game, which was called What Property Characterizes Americans Most, and they invariably decided it was energy*.
By energy I mean, naturally, working frantically, relocating frequently, and changing jobs. In 1950, 20 percent of Americans moved in a given year, at least if the given year was 1950, and lived in the same house for an average of five years; nowadays only 12 percent move in a given year, and not only that but they live in their houses longer, 8.6 years. Apparently there's a mathematical relationship between the number of times you move in a ten-year period and the amount of time you spend in any particular house.
There are a number of theories as to why this curious phenomenon of a reduced geographical mobility is occurring: that our average age as a society is rising, and since older people move less often therefore the society as a whole moves less often; that people can't move if their houses are underwater; and that there's no point in moving any more as locations in the U.S. grow more and more alike. But these explanations only offer at best a limited and partial answer to the question, except for the first and the third ones.
Another possibility is that geographical mobility is related in some obscure way to social mobility, but since we know that low social mobility is caused by single motherhood, that's hardly plausible. A more interesting point is that people with lower levels of educational attainment are less likely to move than those with higher levels**. And when we ask what differentiates people with lower educational attainment from people with higher educational attainment, one thing really stands out***: self-confidence.
That's because it takes moxie to uproot yourself from the kind of idyllic, tight-knit, and mutually supportive suburban environment I've been imagining in print for the last 20 years and relocate to some urban hipster hotel. This is borne out by the startling fact that when people actually do move nowadays, they tend to move from higher-income places with higher housing costs to lower-income places with cheaper housing****. It is undoubtedly a lack of self-confidence that makes people downvalue their ability to thrive in a higher-class neighborhood.
Peter Beinart has argued in a fascinating essay that Americans no longer believe in the things that made us an exceptional people: organized religion, international adventurism, and the classlessness of our society. It's not going too far out on a limb to suggest that this pessimism is brought about***** by that same lack of confidence, the feelings of insecurity that have contributed to what British wise person Guy Standing has called the "precariat", the growing class of people who rarely find a full-time job or a "narrative of occupational development".
The members of the precariat are plainly a bundle of different kinds of insecurity******, accounting for their difficult position, and worse they are likely to join protest movements. I don't know what we can do about this, other than to follow the advice of Michael Strain at the American Enterprise Institute to give them all moving-out vouchers*******. Here's an advance on your unemployment, sonny. Now get out of town.

*Thus Mrs. Trollope (1832) focused on Americans' "lack of manners and learning", Evangelical enthusiasm and tobacco chewing, and slavery; Dickens (1842) was particularly disturbed by the press, public sanitation, copyright violation, tobacco chewing, and slavery; Simone de Beauvoir (1948) was most struck by the lack of engagement with the social and political issues of the day, particularly racial segregation, and noted that eating chili left her "utterly dazed with pleasure"; Martin Amis (1986) described the country as a "moronic inferno"; and the Canadian author and environmental advocate Farley Mowatt (1986) wondered why the immigration authorities wouldn't let him in. The Wikipedia entry on Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America (1835-40) does not employ the word "energy"; one online summary says the book finds America's uniqueness mainly in the absence of social class and the dominance of liberal ideas.

**Or, as the US Census Bureau puts it, not:

Sometimes the best facts you can make up just aren't true! Of course this table conflates very different kinds of moves, from those who leave Cleveland for Houston and a fabulous job developing new carbon footprints to those booted a couple of blocks uptown from a gentrifying Harlem brownstone. But then this is true of the actual numbers Brooks cites as well, rendering the whole argument pretty much meaningless.

An up-to-date table showing a much more detailed picture is here (this could actually be Brooks's source, misreading the columns as significant when it's the rows that matter): it's pretty clear that educational attainment is not particularly associated with migration at all. The most important factors are the fairly obvious ones: you were far more likely to move in 2005-2010 if you had been renting rather than owning your previous home; if you were separated, divorced, or single than married or widowed; and if you were aged between 25 and 29. The most interesting and linear correlation is with poverty, with 52.5% of those below 100% of the poverty line moving during the period as compared to 42.2% of those at 100-150% of poverty and 31.6% of those above. Thus, in terms of the Brooksian argument, it should be clear that poor people have more self-confidence than the rich.

If I were getting paid for these effusions (if you're interested I'm a lot cheaper than Brooks) I'm pretty sure I could show that the long-distance career move is more strongly associated with higher education today than it was in 1950 and that the difference could be accounted for largely by the strongly pro-growth, pro-worker federal policy of those days, with the powerful stimulus to home ownership and higher education provided by the GI Bill and funded by truly progressive taxation.

***They have less money?

****I think it likely that he did read this somewhere, possibly in the Harvard Magazine, where the 2013 paper by Peter Ganong and Daniel Shoag is summarized in terms accessible to the numerically challenged, though not to Brooks, who is unable to see the main point that since ca. 2000 in those high-income places the rent, as Matt Yglesias once remarked, is too damn high.

*****Actually Beinart explains quite clearly that it's brought about by the last 40-odd years of conservative socioeconomic policy.

******Really, it's the economic kind that counts.

*******As described by Reihan Salam in the National Review:
A program like this already exists under the Trade Adjustment Assistance program. Certain workers who have secured employment in a new city can receive a relocation allowance of up to 90 percent of the “reasonable and necessary expenses” of moving, plus an additional lump-sum payment of up to $1,250. The unemployment-insurance system could create a similar program for the long-term unemployed, possibly financed by letting them take an advance on their UI benefits.

Driftglass suggests for our consideration the possibility that the word Brooks has in mind may be not "precariat" ("That's an ill phrase, a vile phrase!") but "prokaryote", or maybe "prevaricate".

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