Friday, September 10, 2010

Genteel Motivations

David Brooks's piece on "The Genteel Nation" has gotten some play around the blogosphere. There are certain social tendencies than Brooks does hit upon here, but I think he sometimes overplays his hand. Consider this paragraph:
Then there’s the middle class. The emergence of a service economy created a large population of junior and midlevel office workers. These white-collar workers absorbed their lifestyle standards from the Huxtable family of “The Cosby Show,” not the Kramden family of “The Honeymooners.” As these information workers tried to build lifestyles that fit their station, consumption and debt levels soared. The trade deficit exploded. The economy adjusted to meet their demand — underinvesting in manufacturing and tradable goods and overinvesting in retail and housing. These office workers did not want their children regressing back to the working class, so you saw an explosion of communications majors and a shortage of high-skill technical workers.
The supposed prestige of the "white collar" has been with us since the Industrial Revolution.

But there is also an economic motive here. Manufacturing is not exactly the most stable job field right now, with factories closing down left and right and laying off workers. It's ironic that Brooks should write this column in the same week as the publicizing of the closing of the last major incandescent light bulb plant in the US. And the salaries of many "high-skill technical workers" are often at the risk of being undercut by foreign workers through mechanisms such as H-1B visas and outsourcing.

The middle class have sent their children into fields like real estate and finance in part because that's where the jobs are. That might be a good thing or a bad thing (the economic period of 2001-2008 leaned very heavily upon those sectors for growth), but that's how it is. There is an economic motive for some of these social changes.


  1. Brooks in on to something in his Bill Moyeresque musings, but I would look more to Edwin Friedman and his thoughts on leadership and society. Specifically, Friedman contrasts anxious times with adventurous times. We are clearly in the former. We anxiously want to live in a risk-free world. Not only is this not possible, but it requires the presence of mass delusion and imaginary (and hence unverifiable) solutions. Manufacturing and "blue-collar" trades often involve risk -- both physical and investment risk. But they are also essential to create wealth. No where has this become more apparent than the venture capital world I live in. This industry has all but died in America because of the non-appetite for risk in our society and the persecution of anything that can be characterized as a failure.

  2. And the information industry (computer programming, silicon creation, etc) also has been steadily declining. People who are either in those fields or going into those fields surely know that there is a vietnamese engineer available for 1/20th of the price.

    There are few if any defendable boundaries anymore except for healthcare, law and other industries which require proximity.

    When you see the US training our competition in high-tech industries, you know sooner or later we'll have....well competiton...and very strong competition.

    The competitors we have are much more nationalisitic than we are, much cheaper and they do not have the left causing a silicon fab to cost 1billion more in the US than overseas.

    China can openly protect local industries and we treat them as equal partners. Stupid..

  3. There is a chicken/egg question. Small business manufacturing was priced out of the US employment market by a combination of (slightly) higher labor costs and massively higher regulatory costs here (environmental, OSHA, Zoning, taxation) compared to other nations.

    By small business manufacturing I mean the family that owns a metal-bending business or a loom embroidery business or a casting business. I personally know these owners, who closed their businesses or moved their machinery to Mexico, rather than make the capital investment to stay in compliance with new USA regulations.

    Their workers were perfectly happy to work for them; they continually hired and trained young people; they were emotionally drained when they closed down.

    Writers and thinkers who make these sweeping pronouncements should spend time with some of they people the (presume to) write about.

  4. There are still good jobs in skilled trades. Compare what a doctor gets for a house call with what a plumber gets. Europe is in a panic about the "Polish plumber" who undercuts the local overpriced tradesman. We have little problem with this as the Mexicans who are flooding our southwestern states have no skills. They do work hard; I will say that for them, and when they learn a skill, they are just as good as we are. However, their housing costs are as high as ours. You can't export plumbing or painting. Illegals will work for much less and have devastated certain industries, like agriculture, but close the border, let the Latinos who learn English and raise a family stay and we will be fine.

    Then you have Karl Rove, who should know better, saying he doesn't want his 17 year old son to "have to work with his hands." If he never learns to work with his hands, he will never be a surgeon; or at least I hope not.

  5. Michael is correct, Rove's statement was poorly ideated. If the job requires complex on-site and hands-on action it is rather difficult to outsource or automate.

    But, if the job can be done while never leaving a ten foot radius you are nothing but a machine waiting to happen.

  6. I'm presuming the rarified air up there where Brooks resides [in a 30-room or so mansion] as he peers down his nose at the middle class is affecting what intelligence he does have.

    My middle class children [and nephews and nieces] went into skilled trades as often as not, even though I'm a PhD. It's what they liked, and they're good jobs.

    Aside from that, the various regulatory bureaucracies, being largely in thrall to those who promulgate and promote "the Precautionary Principle" [i.e. do nothing new, ever] except when it suits their political and/or ideological ends [it's okay to proceed to wreck the world economy on the off chance it might slow Global warming by a year or so out of 1000] is totally strangling the businesses Brooks is whining about. Jeez.

  7. Brooks claims that "These office workers did not want their children regressing back to the working class...." Strange notion given the explosion of popular culture respect for people who work tough jobs. You can't skip through the TV channels without being bombarded by shows like "Deadliest Catch," "Ice Road Truckers," "How Its Made" or Mike Rowe commercials. A few generations ago, parents wanted their children to work in air conditioned offices with comfortable chairs. Now, I see more and more younger parents hoping their kids will do something productive instead of shuffling papers from one side of the desk to the other.

  8. You are so right. Beware prognostications based on demographic trends that have never before been seen. Today's paper pushers see the writing on the wall, and want no part of that future for their children. Many of us, like myself, are only one generation from the 'working class' whatever that is, and we don't look back on it with elite derision. I took my children out of school to homeschool them in part because of the relentless push toward college and away from any consideration of 'real' work. One now works in wildlife management, and the other currently wants to be a farmer like his grandpa. Neither of those jobs can be done by someone calling in from India, so no, Mr. Brooks, I'm fine with 'regressing'.