Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

A Little Rewind

with 14 comments

Sometimes when the comments go haywire, I’m completely surprised.  Sometimes, I know it even as I’m typing the original post.  Yesterday was one of those second times.

So, to be clearer here:

I DO NOT want to return to the Fifties.

I was just trying to give a clear example of the difference between structural conditions in society and government initiatives. 

Structural conditions can be affected by, and sometimes wholly subverted by, government initiatives–but it’s more likely that the conditions subvert the initiatives rather than the other way around.

But on top of everything else, I don’t think it would be a good idea to go back to the days when most women did not work outside the home, at least as that was backed up by direct discrimination in education and employment.

There are, of course, some changes in social structure I’d be happy to see if we could get them back:  the conviction that it’s better to live on less than to leave the kids all day with that very nice Guatamalan woman who doesn’t actually speak English but couldn’t really be inpacted the children’s ability to cope in school.

Maybe all I really want back is the willingness to cope with less. 

Every time I read one of those long rants–there was one by Michael Moore a couple of days ago–about how everything was so much better in the Fifties and Sixties when families could afford to have one parent stay home full time because everybody was unionized and there were lots of “progressive” policies in place–I remind myself that “afford to stay home” meant “willing to put up with 900 square feet, one bathroom, only one coat and only once a year for the children and once every five for the parents,  eating in restaurants maybe twice a year if you were lucky…and all the rest of it.”

To a certain extent, families in the Fifties could “afford” to have one parent stay home because they were willing to put up with what it took to do that.

And we’re largely not.

Nor was I trying to say that government programs were unnecessary.  Both government programs and policy affect what we choose to do. 

I just think they are a sort of ham handed way of going about things, and likely to produce lots of unintended consequences.

To the extent that conditions on the ground determine these things, then, the more stable and workable they will be.

That being said, I have one thing I want from whatever social program we attempt to put in place–I want them to be more like social security than like welfare, whatever we want to call welfare these days.

By saying I want them more like social security than like welfare, what I mean is not that people should pay into them, but that they should be a matter of handing out the money, period.

You get your social security check.  You use it for what you want.  Government workers do not come to your house trying to figure out how you spent it.  You will not be assigned to a mandatory program about how to run your finances, nor asked to produce evidence you did something the government approves of in order to get your benefits.  You buy liquor and cigarettes and lottery tickets if that’s what you want.  It’s none of anybody’s business.

That makes social security both infinitely less expensive per person benefited than something like TANF, and not a threat to the liberty of individuals. 

And yes, the Earned Income Tax Credit would be a good paradigm.

But right now, welfare is more about attempting to coerce people into being “good” than it is about helping families in need, and no employer in the country would be allowed to demand the kind of minute, intimate accounting the welfare people are allowed to make if you use their services.

It makes “helping the poor” cost much more than it has to.

But I also think we should accept, going in, what is inevitable–in any system that provides such help, from welfare payments to unemployment insurance, there will be free riders.

Somebody brought to my attention the other day that Obama said, during the last Presidential campaign, that people who milk the system for all they can get and postpone going back to work until the benefits dry up are “mythical.” 

Well, the myth lives among my own relatives, who do plenty of that.  The trick to understanding it is to understand that different people have different standards for what makes a pleasurable life.  You might not be able to stand living hand to mouth just in order not to show up at a job, but you may have a different kind of job, or be a different kind of person.

There is no answer to the free rider dilemma.  It will come up whenever anybody–private charities as well as government programs–offers help, and there’s not much we can do about it.

What we can do something about is the fact that we make it very expensive to hire people in this country–although not as expensive as it is in France or Germany–that we take too much of the power to make decisions away from localities, and that we have a problem with illegal immigration that nobody wants to deal with because the people who live above that 40% see advantages in it for themselves.

But that’s all for another time, and another day.

Written by janeh

August 11th, 2011 at 6:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

14 Responses to 'A Little Rewind'

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  1. Hey, even my mother didn’t want to go back to the “good old 50s.” She was very happy when she got a clothes dryer, and a dishwasher, and when she could buy good whole wheat bread in the store. And she didn’t hesitate to put her sewing machine and her pressure canner aside when the family could afford to buy store-bought clothes and canned fruit packed in light syrup rather than heavy syrup. She also took up weaving and opened her own yarn shop when she was 58. She much preferred reading books to doing slog labor.

    I am likewise not willing to go back to the 50s. First of all, I’m not willing to go back to the “good old days” of “separate but equal,” and the time when women had the right to be a teacher or a nurse or a secretary but not a principal or a doctor or a manager. And I don’t want to go back to the “wonderful” summers when your parents were afraid to let you go to the swimming pool because there were ten new cases of polio in town. And I don’t want to go back to the days when neither I nor anyone I knew had ever eaten pizza or spaghetti or tacos or stir-fry or baklava or sushi.

    And I don’t want to go back to the days when Ma Bell had a monopoly on telephone service, and adult children could afford to call up their parents once a year to wish them a happy birthday. And the days when you could be a celebrity in your small town merely because you had been to Europe for a ten-day vacation (veterans didn’t count as celebrities, of course).

    And I wouldn’t want to go back to the good old days when even a low-speed auto accident would probably kill you because you would either be cut to pieces by the shattered windshield or impaled by the steering column or suffer massive head trauma when you were thrown own of the car (no seat belts, remember?).

    But most of all, I don’t want to go back to the days when I didn’t have a computer and when there was no internet.


    11 Aug 11 at 11:37 am

  2. There was some comment lately that the childhood home of a Fifties singer had been restored and opened to the public. All five family members slept in one bedroom, and a single chest of drawers sufficed for clothes. Each family member got one drawer.

    I sometimes pick up home plan books for small houses–only I have to buy the ones for vacation homes or cottages, because the small house plan books often contain only three or four as small as the house I grew up in–new about 1960. And we had the large floor plan in the addition–40X24. There families raising six or eight kids in the 36X24 homes.

    But when JFK was shot, they called Mrs. Fisher before sending us home, because among 60 students in my grade she was the only working mother.

    For the rest, yesterday’s comment will suffice.


    11 Aug 11 at 6:16 pm

  3. I was in high school in 1950. I remember the house as small but 3 bedrooms and separate living room and dining room.

    We certainly had a refrigerator with a freezer compartment but I don’t remember if we had a washing machine or dryer. We certainly did not have a dishwasher or air conditioner. And my mother worked.


    11 Aug 11 at 8:20 pm

  4. My mother never had a paying job outside the house after she married. But she was an excellent music teacher and supplemented the family income that way while living in the city or, later, after she and Dad sold the farm and retired to live in town. But otherwise she was the very person that Charlou described but with the additional load of milking the several cows until we were old enough to take that chore off her hands (when we were home from boarding school). She also helped with various other farm chores like helping round up the stock as needed, cooking for the shearing teams during the annual shearing and so on and so forth from dawn to midnight most nights.

    Life was very hard for women in those good old days, but no picnic for working men, either.


    11 Aug 11 at 9:32 pm

  5. I’m not sure whether to conclude from all this that increasing wealth is a good or a bad thing. Most people were probably reasonably happy back in the 50s. Most people are probably reasonably happy in the much richer 2011. But in the transition, although we’ve gotten lots more material goods and personal freedom, we’ve lost a certain amount of stability. And I wouldn’t have thought I’d grow up to be someone to say that somewhat wistfully, because I couldn’t wait to get out of my small hometown where the 50s lingered on into the 60s! And on the other hand, stability comes at the price of personal freedom. It’s like being free to play a game only if you follow the rules.

    Maybe all I can say is that all of these societal trends are intertwined, and I can’t untangle them!

    But really, there’s been a cultural shift, and it’s not always the obvious one. There’s a story in the Canadian headlines right now about an American/Canadian gay couple who married in Canada, then moved to the US where they settled down to care for the American’s disabled mother and to adopt a child. The Canadian went home for a visit and wasn’t allowed back in the US. This, in itself, isn’t particularly surprising, although it seems to have caught them off guard. I’m from a Canadian/American family and have a relative in a cross-border marriage WITHOUT the same sex aspect and WITH all the right paperwork to prove eligibility for entry to the US twice over, and I’ve heard all about risks of perfectly legal people not getting back in the US until they manage to get the paperwork they weren’t supposed to need to cross the border – which are in the US – and hoping and praying that they won’t lose their jobs before they get back in. And then there’s the children’s status…theoretically, in my relative’s case, they’re both dual citizens, but documentation to prove that only exists for one (why, I don’t know!)

    What startled me was the statement that it wasn’t right to have to choose between a mother and a spouse. Whether that was, in fact, necessary – some people do have commuter marriages, which are sometimes successful – I don’t understand the idea that anyone can expect to go through life without making a difficult moral choice between two duties! I’ve known people who didn’t visit dying relatives because they couldn’t afford the trip or because they had duties at home – caring for a sick relative, or holding down a job – that couldn’t be left. Every time someone decides to marry – or divorce! – they choose between or among duties.

    I think that one of the consequences of our wealthy life is that we no longer think in terms of duties, which may sometimes conflict. We think we can have it all – and if you can have it all, by definition, there can be no conflicting desires in which you have to make a difficult decision.


    12 Aug 11 at 8:17 am

  6. I want to talk a little about loss of stability in society.

    In the Smithsonian (I forget just which museum) there is a very large spiral staircase. On the outer wall, as one goes up, there are three parallel lines. One shows the date, the other shows the estimated human population of the world, and the third shows epochal events.

    Epochal events are those discoveries/inventions that have changed society in very significant ways. The ability to use fire, the development of agriculture, the domestication of farm animals, the invention of the wheel, the development of a written language, the invention of a printing press with moveable type–these are all epochal events.

    It is not as easy to determine what events are epochal events while while one is living through them because what people think are epochal events may or may not have great significance to society as a whole, even though the even would qualify if one were only talking about European/North American society.

    The internal combustion engine and electrical power obviously qualify. The radio might qualify, but who knows if television does, and the airplane probably doesn’t because the percentage of the world’s population that has flown or will fly on an airplane remains small. The computer/internet undoubtedly does, because it is changing the way the world stores and retrieves information and allowing people even in primitive village or in closed societies to have access to vast amounts of knowledge.

    Now then, here comes the really interesting part, which is the time between epochal events. A friend of a friend of mine, while walking up that staircase in the Smithsonian, got to wondering about the time between epochal events. He multiplied the estimated population of the world by the years between epochal events, and came up with the man-years between events.

    And to his surprise, he discovered that the man-years between epochal events was pretty much a constant. That means as the population of the world increases, we can expect the epochal events to come closer and closer together. We can now expect an epochal event to occur at least three times in our lifetime, and the time interval is shortening even more for our children and grandchildren.

    This means that for our children’s and grandchildren’s generations, stability in a changing world is going to be even harder to achieve.

    One of the things I have learned while doing genealogy is the way counties have changed. A state might have started out with, say, only three counties, and as the population increased, those original counties were split into more counties. Since most states store their important records (marriage records, death records, deeds, probate records, etc.) by county, one needs to know which county a person lived in. I once came across a man who had lived in five different counties, and had never moved once.

    This is what life will be like for our children and grandchildren. No matter how hard they try to achieve stability, the ground they stand on will be changing out from under them. We can look at the past and see how short sighted our ancestors were in not recognizing epochal events, or in fighting against epochal events. But we cannot predict what epochal events are going to do to society in the future.


    12 Aug 11 at 10:04 am

  7. I just had to comment on Charlou’s uncertainty regarding flight as an epochal event.

    Ask any army that’s had to fight a war since WW I what it’s like being on the short end (so to speak) of the air power balance. Air power can’t by itself win a war (or we’d have smashed the Taliban a long time ago), but you sure can’t win a major war since 1918 without it.

    And of course the impact of flight goes far beyond that, whether any individual ever flies or not. Odds are with me that no one reading this has ever worked or traveled on an ocean freighter of any kind – but it would be almost impossible for anyone reading this to not be touched possibly hundreds of times a day by products that exist only because of ocean shipping.

    Even while “only a few” may ever fly, who’s flying and to where and who they have contact with, or can maintain contact with, also matters. It might be harder to point at physical things in the environment that depend directly on air shipping, but the cultural/information flow enabled by international flight is, I think, pretty much indisputable.

    Other than that, I agree with what she wrote.


    12 Aug 11 at 1:36 pm

  8. It is not that flight is unimportant, it just may not be important enough. It could be that the development of machine guns was more important, or perhaps the invention of cartridges. It’s only looking back from a hundred or two hundred years that one can say at which points society changed in a major way.

    Talking about ocean freighters, the steam engine, which I would call an epochal event, not only allowed railroads to carry people and freight, but it also allowed ships to cross the oceans of the world without sail. In many respects, the steam engine was far more important than the internal combustion engine. It could even be that the internal combustion engine is a passing phase that will be replaced in the future by other modes of transportation.

    The chronograph, which allowed people to know where they where when they were sailing the ocean, was extremely important, as is the GPS now. But do these two inventions rise to the level of epochal events? Or are communication satellites important enough to be considered epochal events?

    Are the development of vaccines and antibiotics epochal events? Or was the epochal event the discovery that infectious diseases are caused by bacteria and viruses?

    One of the things good science fiction writers do is look ahead in their imaginations and try to come up with a future that has changed in basic ways. Sometimes they are right, sometimes they are wrong. Robert Heinlein, in one of his early books, THE ROLLING STONES, had people going to Mars and the moon in space ships that relied on manual calculations rather than on computers for navigation. Likewise H. Beam Piper, in one of his short stories written in the 1950s, had someone iin the distant future still using a slip-stick (slide rule). He also had everyone in the future smoking cigarettes all the time, even in public places, which strikes a discordant note every time I read it. A lot of Piper’s works (mostly short stories but some novella) are available as free e-books. I especially recommend “Little Fuzzies,” which is a science fiction classic. Basically it’s a story that tries to figure out where the line is between really intelligent animals and sapient beings. It is NOT a space opera.


    12 Aug 11 at 3:25 pm

  9. It sounds like the definition of ‘epochal events’ is too loose to allow us to base mathematical calculations on them. I’d definitely say airplanes qualify – quite aside from their importance in war, they’ve provided an enormous increase in the speed of communication (especially in the early days) and the ease and the lack of permanence in migration. Oh, I know some of our ancestors sailed back and forth across the Atlantic in tiny ships many times, but it’s a lot easier – and even affordable, relatively speaking, to do it in an airplane.

    And we don’t know exact dates. The steam engine wasn’t created on a certain date. Most influential ideas and inventions seem to have been developed over a lengthy period well before the Famous Person worked on them, and then were implemented after that period.

    I was thinking more of social stability, though, based on common convictions about the proper way of living. In the 50s, that kept a lot of women at home and a lot of marriages intact. Nowadays, a lack of such common convictions produces a lot more personal freedom, but reduces the degree to which one person can depend on another – an elderly parent on care from an adult child, for example.


    12 Aug 11 at 7:11 pm

  10. The spinoffs from flight over the last hundred years or so are almost immeasurable and certainly epochal in my opinion. Just as burgeoning trade by sea encouraged developments in ship-building technology and navigation techniques, so also did flight. Those satellites up there relaying our communications would not be there but for the technology flow on from the work of old Orville and Wilbur and the other early aviation pioneers.

    Certainly, it was the defence needs that drove the pace of the development, but the major beneficiaries have been ordinary citizens in their every day lives.

    I’d certainly want to see the discovery of penicillin featured on any list of epochal developments, just as I would the discovery of DDT despite the problems associated with its early abuse.


    12 Aug 11 at 7:45 pm

  11. Frankly, just thinking about the effect of all the inventions and discoveries in the last 200 years makes me want to live another hundred years to see what’s coming.

    And then I think about how Congress and brokerage houses are screwing up the economy, and I’m not sorry that my life expectancy does not extend even for two more decades.


    12 Aug 11 at 8:58 pm

  12. I’d be very hesitant about an accelerating pace of epochal events. Recent history is frequently more event-filled than older history. Get yourself a 20 or 30 year old guide to TV, movies or books and see how many revolutionary things have slipped away silently, no longer remembered. I’ve got a nice history set of about eight volumes ending before the First World War. Ancient history has changed quite a bit since then, of course–but a surprising number of recent events which were important then don’t make the cut today. (Of course a number of things we wouldn’t think of leaving out didn’t seem important at the time. Heinlein used to say that things already invented would revolutionize society–but we didn’t know which ones yet.) Anyway, maybe not everything we think of as epochal would be on a spiral staircase of 2500. Social history too seems to proceed at a variable pace.

    Piper. The Fuzzy novels are on my shelves. (Do not touch the imitations.) But don’t neglect the great Piper short stories: “He Walked Around the Horses” “Omnilingual” and “A Slave Is A Slave.” I think Guttenberg can provide all three.


    12 Aug 11 at 9:40 pm

  13. Also, we change our opinions over time as to the importance of various people and therefore the influence of their work. This applies not only to writers like Shakespeare, where changes might be put down to differences in cultural preferences and literary taste, but to scientist and their predecessors. As I think I mentioned, I’m slowly reading some Barzun – a library book to read over breakfast and another of his books on the Kindle to carry around – and in one of them, he gives a lengthy discussion of evolution, natural selection and Darwin. Darwin, who I had always thought was certainly the prime, maybe even sole, mover in the development of an extremely important theory. It appears that people I’d heard of only as examples of Those Who Got it All Wrong, and some I’d never heard of at all had essentially the same ideas earlier. So does the Evolution Epic date from Darwin, or earlier, or move back and forth depending on who the current intelligentsia thinks had the biggest impact?


    13 Aug 11 at 7:53 am

  14. ??? But the kindle works so well over breakfast. It lies flat all on its own, and is less vulnerable to stray drops of grape juice. Real books are for the recliner and the bed.
    BOURGEOIS VIRTUES may wind up being a real book, though. Those whole-page diagrams shrink to annoyingly small print.
    (I still miss fold-out maps and map pockets.)


    13 Aug 11 at 8:59 am

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