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About the Architecture

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I think it’s interesting that, in what comments there were, what I got was:  oh, okay, we should do social programs, and that kind of thing.

But I specifically didn’t say social programs–I said that society should be structured in a way that made a decent life possible for the vast majority of people who work and save and act like responsible adults.

Stucture is a lot different than a program.

The earned income tax credit–invented, by the way, by the libertarian economist Milton Friedman and called then the “negative income tax”–is a program.

The America of the 1950s, however, represents a structure:  immigration was minimal to the point of being almost nonexistent; most women automatically quit work when they were married and were often restricted from entry into the professions; decisions about what went on in public schools were made locally; almost nobody had health insurance, rich or poor, except for unionized workers in large industries.

I’m not saying that any of these aspects of Fifties America was a good idea.  I was only saying that structures produce effects and these effects were all, by and large, good for that 40%


First, because large-scale immigration puts downward pressure on wages.  This is part one of the law of supply and demand in the above.  These days, we’re constantly being told that immigrants (and especially illegal immigrants) take jobs “Americans won’t do.”

That’s not quite true.

Illegal immigrants take jobs Americans won’t do at those wages. 

As long as there are more people willing to do those jobs than jobs to be filled, wages in those jobs will be low.  In a Fifties social structure,  the number of people willing to do those jobs is distinctly limited, and to get somebody to work for you you have to pay more.

This was not a zero sum equation. With the cost of labor higher, some jobs that exist now didn’t exist.  These days, for instance, virtually everybody I know has a lawn service at the very least, and there’s barely a woman on the Connecticut Gold Coast willing to do her own housework. 

In the Fifties, men mowed their own lawns and women cleaned their own houses, at least in New England, unless they were upper-level executives at the least, and sometimes even then. 

This did not cause significant unemployment because of number two:

Most women did not work after they were married.

Women in the working class did work, of course, but women in the middle and upper middle and upper almost never did, and that did two things.

First, it meant that to fill the ranks of workers above the working class, in medicine and law, in the executive and middle management ranks of businesses, half the competition for jobs was gone. 

There were, of course, fewer of such jobs than there are now, but there was still only half as much competition, and that meant that men who would otherwise have stayed on lower ranks ended up on upper ones, pulling the whole food chain with them. 

And to make that effect even more pronounced, the assumption that women quit work when they married meant the companion assumption that women who worked worked for themselves, while men worked for families. 

That brought us the “family wage,” where not just men in general, but specifically men with families, were paid more on the assumption that they needed more.

Then we have health insurance, and the lack of it.  Health insurance sounds like a great idea, and it is.  But here’s the thing:  third party payment systems drive prices up. 

And any area of life in which third party payment becomes the majority form of payment for the service will be an area where prices are rapidly out of reach for almost everybody.

In the pre-insurance landscape of Fifties America, medical costs were expensive but not impossible, because if they had been impossible, nobody would have gotten paid.  Doctors who charge $485 for an annual physical would see their supply of patients dry up. 

No matter how rich a doctor wants to be, he’s  not going to get that way if nobody can pay for his services.  He’s just going to be unemployed.

In a third party payer system of any kind, private or public, the only brake on costs is the intransigence of the third party institutions doing the paying–and, if history is any judge, they’re bad at it.

In the Fifties, men and women went to the doctor and paid not much more than the $5 copay my insurance demands now.  That was a lot more money in the Fifties than it is now, but it was not out of the reach of parents with a parent with a child with the chickenpox. 

And don’t even get me started on house calls.

And finally, we have the public schools.

The 40% depend on public institutions. They have to. 

But saying that they depend on public institutions is not the same thing as saying that they’ll take whatever they can get and be happy with it.

Far from it.

The issue in those public institutions is not whether they’re “good” by some abstract and academic standard, but whether they’re “good” by the standards of the people who use them.

And it is here where we start having some problems, because the standards of the people who use the public schools in Palm Harbor, Florida, or Colchester, Connecticut, or Kirkwood, Illinois are likely to be very different from the professional standards of the Ed Schools and to have very different priorities from the agendas of state lawmakers. 

In a Fifties world, however, where decisions about the local public schools are made by the localities themselves, there’s much less of this sort of mismatch.  The schools reflect their communities, and because they do, the parent who use them trust them, and it is trust that is the key here.

That, above, is a structure–not a program.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a good structure, as things go. 

I know there were problems with it, even at the time.   In fact, there were big problems of it.

And there have been substantive social changes that would make going back to some of it, even if it were desirable–and a lot of it isn’t.

But what is needed is still, first and foremost, a structure, not a set of programs.

And that will have to wait for later.

Postscript:  I noted the comments about group homes yesterday, but they were not the kind of group homes I was talking about.  In the one I know best, two normal intelligence adults live full time in a house with eight mentally challenged people.  The mentally challenged people all have full time jobs, usually at local grocery stores as baggers and sweepers and cart-rescue people.   They go to work on their own, often walking their by themselves, and attend their churches on their own.  They have freedom of movement.  They’re not in a “facility,” if that makes sense.  They get paid, and after deductions for their rent for the home and a stipulated percentage for savings, their money is their own to spend as they like. 

It may or may not be a good deal for the two mentally normal house parents, but it’s a wonderful idea for the mentally challenged people, who are able to live something very close to the kind of life you and I call normal. 

I think this is a very good idea.

Written by janeh

August 10th, 2011 at 7:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'About the Architecture'

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  1. Your group home sounds like the approach used by Jean Vanier when he started L’Arche communities. Most admirable.

    I’m not sure how we can create or foster (I refuse to use ‘grow’ in this context!) structures that enable everyone to earn a basic living. You’re certainly going to run into the law of unintended consequences. If you cut out or reduce immigration, you’re going to put the cost of home care even higher without freeing up women to stay home and provide more of it – especially when they don’t have even whatever financial security they had back when marriages were kept more stable by both legal and social forces.

    Maybe it’s all gone too far to change back. I’ve been slowly reading through a little of Jacques Barzun, and maybe the movement to individualism has made it impossible to create new collective structures – in fact, our focus is on tearing them down – except of course, for people like Jean Vanier who are willing to spend their lives setting up structures to help others.

    And he’s not of this generation. Can the current generation produce someone like Vanier?


    10 Aug 11 at 8:33 am

  2. Structure and program aren’t all that distinct. The reduced immigration rates–and the more easily assimilated immigrants–of the 50’s and early 60’s were specifically the outcome of legislation, and the current influx came about due to the Johnson/Teddy Kennedy immigration “reform.” The rise of third party payers in medicine are largely two more programs of the same vintage. Several of the customs you describe are specifically outlawed now–which is also a program of sorts.

    But yes, we need to adjust the system so hard work and frugality pay off better. Some of that may be programs, some of it laws, and some of it will be fixing or repealing some of our previous “improvements.” It would be nice to see someone attempting to keep the 40% in mind in making laws and in advocating changed behavior, but I don’t expect to see it anytime soon.


    10 Aug 11 at 4:10 pm

  3. I’ve been thinking and I came up with something I think is similar to what Robert posted.

    You have to have some kind of social programs. In those homes you are talking about, someone has to buy the house, see to the maintenance, choose and pay for the houseparents, see to it that no one’s creaming off the money so that it all does go in the accounts of the inhabitants or the house rent and so on. That means someone’s set up a program.


    10 Aug 11 at 5:12 pm

  4. “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

    I have a friend who worked for a long time as one of several “house mothers” (not sure what her official title was) in a house with a number of reasonably functional but intellectually handicapped people. It was not a sinecure, and I think in the end the whole thing fell over, or at least descended into a degree of chaos, because it became almost impossible to attract and good, reliable staff – almost certainly the most critical problem faced by all employers in this modern age. Political interference, often at the behest of influential parents of residents who feel somehow offended or abused, discriminated against or who simply believed they were unfairly treated by other residents, always rebounded on the staff.

    This, to me, is a microcosm of modern society where someone, somewhere is always dissatisfied with their lot and there are others only too willing to take up the cudgels on their behalf regardless of the facts. No structures/programs or any other organised solutions to roblems are likely to work in what seems to have become, in the west at least, impossibly polarised and/or alienated societies.

    These British riots lead me to despair, and I can only see them spreading even to Australia.


    10 Aug 11 at 10:49 pm

  5. Excuse me. What do you mean by “Most women [in the 1950s] didn’t work after they were married”? Oh, right. My mother didn’t “work.” All she did was do all the housework, all the laundry (washer, but no dryer, so she had to haul the baskets full of wet laundry from the far end of the basement to the front end of the basement, up the stairs, and out to the back yard, where she hung the clothes on the lines), all the ironing (no perma-pressed anything, and my father was expected to wear a white shirt to work every day), all the cooking (no frozen entrees, no delis, no take-out, no fast foods, no hamburger helper, everything from scratch), the dish washing until her kids started being old enough to do that (no dishwashers), baked all her own bread, canned all the fruit and many of the vegetables her family ate, sewed almost all the clothes for her family. This was for a family of SEVEN. She also participated in church activities, helped with fund-raising for various charities, helped her children with their homework, cut everyone’s hair in the family (including her own), was a cub scout den mother (three different years, once for each son), and baked all the cookies, pies, and cakes her family ate. And the other mothers I knew did only slightly less than she did (maybe they sewed but didn’t can, or the canned but didn’t bake bread, etc.).

    So are you trying to tell me that she and the others didn’t work after they got married?

    I was also a stay-at-home mother, although I always had to find ways to earn money and ways to be very, very frugal. Already in my generation, it was difficult to find mothers who could do things like be room mothers or be cub scout den mothers or brownie leaders, because they all had jobs outside the home.

    My daughter is a stay-at-home mother also, and in my granddaughter’s kindergarten and first-grade classes, she was virtually the child who had a stay-at-home mom. Which meant my daughter was the only parent who could be a room mother, or who could volunteer at school on a regular basis, although some grandparents did.

    Yes, I know that women want to have careers… or at least some do. I have talked to a lot of those 40% women who would like to have stayed home and raised their own kids. Too many couldn’t afford it (see Jane’s posting), and too many of the 60% white collar workers who could have afforded it didn’t want to stay home because they thought life would be better (more money to spend on vacations, on two cars, on more clothes, on more toys, on more eating out, etc.) if they worked outside the home.

    Of course they need household help. We had one bathroom for 7 people (later my parents added a half-bath). Now you find families of two or three people who have 4, even 5 bathrooms. As one of my friends moaned, “I didn’t stop and think before we bought this house with three bathrooms, that I was going to be the one having to clean the three bathrooms.”

    And yes, there is that 40% who have to have both parents working just to be able to afford to feed their family of 4.25 people (or whatever the latest census figures are).

    Can we go back to those days when most mothers stayed home and raised their own kids? I don’t see any way. Among other reasons is that most women don’t want to go back to the days when their husbands controlled the family money, and the wives had to beg their husbands for what they needed (my mother didn’t have to, but I knew mothers who did).

    I can’t help thinking that the day-care problem would be in a large measure alleviated if all the mothers (or fathers) who did want to raise their own kids were able to do so, at least until all their kids were in school full time.

    When we lived in Siberia, back in 1970, my husband was busy with a post-doc, and I was busy taking care of my 1-year-old son (and standing in line to buy food). Since I spoke some Russian, I thought, before I went there, I would be able to make friends with other young mothers while our toddlers played together. The problem was, there weren’t any other young mothers taking care of their toddlers. Either the children were in day care, or the grandparents were taking care of them, which often meant that the child lived for the first six years of his/her life with a grandparent in a different town, sometimes hundreds of miles away. I did have one friend there, who taught English in the high school, and from her I learned a lot about life in the Soviet Union. She told me that even though it hurt not to be able to raise your own children, the retirement age was young enough (I think it was about 55) that there was a pretty good chance you would be able to raise a grandchild or two.

    I think all this goes back to what Jane was talking about in her posting on the Dutch troops in Bosnia (or wherever). I think the cultural mythology that we tell ourselves now is “Every women wants to have a career,” and “If we just buy more things, we’ll be happy,” and “There is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow if we just try hard enough and work hard enough.”

    I am reminded of a Jules Feiffer cartoon: The man is climbing the ladder of success, tossing aside friends, spouse, children, and parents as he climbs ever higher. Then when he gets to the top of the ladder he feels betrayed because he discovers it was leaning against the wrong building.


    11 Aug 11 at 3:34 am

  6. “Worked” is still sometimes used as shorthand for “worked for pay outside the home”.

    My own mother did and didn’t work for pay outside the home, at various periods thoughout her life, and always worked inside the home. Ditto for my maternal grandmother. I don’t know about my paternal grandmother, who died when I was a baby, but I think she always stayed at home with the kids.

    The whole issue is irrelevant to my life since I not only don’t have children, I don’t have a husband, and have always worked ‘outside the home’ – and worked inside it as little as I could get away with, which is very little, given I have only to please myself.

    As for the difficulties of finding staff … I’m wish I could think it was easier, or that (as someone is sure to suggest) privately-funded would invariably work better. The only private care homes around here (a) aren’t set up for mentally slow adults and (b) are so expensive that I don’t expect that I would ever be able to afford on should I become disabled – and there are lots of people poorer than I am.

    A friend of mine recently died from cancer. While she was dying and disabled, because she and her family had little or no income (it varied a bit depending on whether her husband could work), the government provided home care workers. It seems that the government contracts with private providers to get these workers, and will even allow the ’employer’ some choice. I met one of them, and after remembering our friend/employer, she told me she was quitting the home care company. She was being assigned to work 12 days in a row, routinely, which is apparently against local labour laws. I’ve never had a job that inspired me to look into that aspect of the labour laws. She’d be working from early morning to late in the evening, if you include travel time, but of course she only got paid for the hours she spent with the clients, at a little over minimum wages. The workers in that and other businesses had organized a union and agreed on a wage increase, but this particular employer refused to pay it. So she quit and got a job as a maid in a big hotel, where you get benefits after 3 months, you get paid as well or better, and you have a better schedule. She liked doing homecare, and thought her work was of enormous value in helping people like my friend stay out of hospitals or nursing homes. But she just couldn’t put up with the conditions any more.

    Sometimes staffing problems aren’t due to the faults of the workers or even the relatives of the client.

    The riots? I hope the rioters do get justice, and I don’t think they’re rioting for political or social reasons, unless you consider a desire for free goods and excitement to be social issues.


    11 Aug 11 at 6:28 am

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