One More Lost Generation

There are the late-night saloon songs, and the classic is Frank Sinatra singing “make it one for my baby, and one more for the road” of course. Dreams are dead. Nothing worked out. That’s how it goes. There’s not much to say. You just sit there. Even self-pity is pointless. Life is flat. You have another drink. And that this particular song is a classic – for a time everyone had a version – says much about what we really think. Americans are optimistic can-do folks. It will always work out. But we know better. Sinatra sang the anthem.

But there’s another one of these songs that’s pretty cool. When he was just a kid in Pittsburgh, Billy Strayhorn wrote Lush Life – the same sort of thing but with a twist – “A week in Paris will ease the bite of it. All I care is to smile in spite of it.”

Ah, that’s the ticket. If you finally understand the cold meaninglessness of life, and you’re going to lead the lush life in some small dive, that dive ought to be in Paris. And if you click on the link you’ll find leading a lush life in some small dive is even better with John Coltrane noodling along in the background. But it’s the same sort of thing. Life is marking time. Don’t expect more.

That seems to have become the general theme in the arts since that first big war, the one that started with an assassination in Sarajevo and ended in the trenches of northern France – decimating a generation of the best and brightest, for no particular reason, leaving Hemingway’s Jake Barnes, the wounded survivor, just marking time and not expecting anything. There was no point in expecting anything – you knew better. He was of the lost generation – everyone was.

But that generation was just the first of many. Let’s say you were in Paris on February 17, 1952 – and of course you weren’t (probably) – and let’s say you were there, quietly sipping cognac, alone, and listening to the radio.

And what’s this? Ah, an abridged version of a new play, live from the studio of the Club d’Essai de la Radio – the first performance of Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot – cool.

But Beckett himself didn’t turn up. He just sent a note that was read on-air:

I don’t know who Godot is. I don’t even know (above all don’t know) if he exists. And I don’t know if they believe in him or not – those two who are waiting for him. The other two who pass by towards the end of each of the two acts – that must be to break up the monotony. All I knew I showed. It’s not much, but it’s enough for me, by a wide margin. I’ll even say that I would have been satisfied with less. As for wanting to find in all that a broader, loftier meaning to carry away from the performance, along with the program and the Eskimo pie, I cannot see the point of it.

That about sums it up, doesn’t it? The full stage version opened on January 5, 1953, at the Théâtre de Babylone, and it was a hit. Or it hit a nerve. And like the saloon songs, it became a classic. Beckett, the Irishman who preferred Paris to sad and stagnant dead Ireland, did translate Godot back into English, and the play is famous now. Life is marking time. Don’t expect more.

Of course that sentiment seems un-American. We are the best people living in the best of times, which are getting better. But Sinatra is the most American of all American pop singers, and his signature song is about how everyone really does know better. He speaks for those who know that – so did Strayhorn and Beckett. Yes, this may the best of all possible worlds. But that’s the problem. That’s a scary thought. This is as good as it gets. Damn.

And now we have talk of another lost generation, at least if you move from music and literature to macroeconomics. It’s not that much of a leap. The sentiment is the same. That seems to be what Tyler Cowen is writing about in the New York Times. We live in a time of amazing innovations, but we’re really marking time:

My grandmother, who was born in 1905, spoke often about the immense changes she had seen, including the widespread adoption of electricity, the automobile, flush toilets, antibiotics and convenient household appliances. Since my birth in 1962, it seems to me, there have not been comparable improvements. … Compared with what my grandmother witnessed, the basic accouterments of life have remained broadly the same.

Things have become stagnant, and we’re just marking time:

The income numbers for Americans reflect this slowdown in growth. From 1947 to 1973 – a period of just 26 years – inflation-adjusted median income in the United States more than doubled. But in the 31 years from 1973 to 2004, it rose only 22 percent. And, over the last decade, it actually declined. …

Although America produces plenty of innovations, most are not geared toward significantly raising the average standard of living. It seems that we are coming up with ideas that benefit relatively small numbers of people, compared with the broad-based advances of earlier decades, when the modern world was put into place.

That would seem to make us a lost generation, although Cowen doesn’t use that term. But we are waiting for Godot, or something. It’s just that Godot is not here now, and all we can do is sit quietly:

Sooner or later, new technological revolutions will occur, perhaps in the biosciences, through genome sequencing, or in energy production, through viable solar power, for example. But these transformations won’t come overnight, and we’ll have to make do in the meantime. Instead of facing up to this scarcity, politicians promote tax cuts and income redistribution policies to benefit favored constituencies. Yet these are one-off adjustments and, over time, they cannot undo the slower rate of growth in average living standards.

What are we to do with that – ask Joe the bartender for another stiff one? So set ‘em up, Joe?

Cowen wonders about that:

It’s unclear whether Americans have the temperament to make a smooth transition to a more stagnant economy. After all, we’ve long thought of our country as the land of unlimited opportunity. In practice, this optimism has meant that we continue to increase government spending, whether or not we can afford it.

And he sees us sort of stumbling through this:

In the narrow sense, the solution to the stagnation of median income will not be a political one. And one of the hardest points to grasp about this quandary is that no one in particular is to blame. Scientific progress has never proceeded on an even, predictable basis, even though for part of the 20th century it seemed that it might.

Science should be encouraged with subsidies for basic research, as well as private charity, educational reform, a business culture geared toward commercializing inventions, and greater public appreciation for the scientific endeavor. A lighter legal and regulatory hand could ease the path of future innovations.

Nonetheless, advancing discovery is not a goal to be reached by the mere application of will. Precisely because there is no obvious villain and no simple fix, and many complex factors behind success, science as a general topic doesn’t play a big role in American political discourse. When it comes to understanding our macroeconomic predicament, we often seem to be missing the point.

And thus he maintains that the political problem will be in learning to live within our means:

Because neither major party seems to support a plausible path to fiscal balance, or to acknowledge how little control politicians actually have over future income growth, we unscientifically keep living in an age of denial.

Yep, Jake Barnes mutters to Brett Ashley, when she says everything will be fine, really – “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” And two generations later those two guys are sitting in the emptiness, waiting for Godot. It’s just one lost generation after another.

But if you want to get technical about this there’s the economist Mark Thoma with this:

The uneven technological progress described above seems to provide a good reason for the government to be the agent of intertemporal transfers from the booming times to the times that are stagnating. In essence, this is just a business cycle with a long and uncertain periodicity, so the same types of stability arguments apply (particularly since “Scientific progress has never proceeded on an even, predictable basis,” i.e. being alive during a boom time is mostly due to luck, not an individual’s superior skill). Thus, while the argument above is that we are at a low point of the cycle, therefore the government should be less active, I think there is just as strong or stronger argument on the other side, i.e. that this is when government needs to become more active (both in terms of promoting innovation and in terms of smoothing the income variation due to uneven growth in productivity). The difference between us, perhaps, is that Tyler sees the technological plateau as permanent, or at least very long-lived (though he does say that sooner or later technological advances will come). I do not. I see the plateau – if it exists at all – as part of a longer up and down cycle.

Got that? Yes, the words are all gnarly. But the thought is clear. Things will get better. They always do. We can ease some pain while we wait.

But even Thoma knows he’s blowing smoke:

Okay, that’s not the strongest argument ever made, so one more quick response: More importantly, I also can’t resist wondering whose incomes are stagnating and why. The economy will continue to grow. Yes, we’ve had a recent recession. But GDP has not and will not be stagnant over a longer time frame. Productivity increases will still drive economic growth. The question is how that growth will be shared.

The stagnation of income for typical (median) households in recent decades has little to do with stagnating productivity – productivity has still been rising. It has much more to do with how the gains from rising productivity have been divided up. This is yet another reason why complaints about active government and “income redistribution policies to benefit favored constituencies” ring hollow. When you leave out that a mal-distribution of income already exists, i.e. when your implicit underlying assumption is that the people who did get the growth over the last few decades deserved every penny of it (despite bubbles giving false gains to people at the top, and many other problems), of course you’ll oppose redistributive policies. But I tend to think that the gains were not distributed according to changes in productivity – labor did not get its share – and government intervention to correct that is appropriate.

Damn – another economist calls for income redistribution. What will Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, or Glenn Beck, say to that?

But we have a lost generation, once again. And Paul Krugman is thinking about that and reminding us he once used the example of kitchens:

Better yet, think about how a typical middle-class family lives today – compared with 40 years ago – and compare those changes with the progress that took place over the previous 40 years.

I happen to be an expert on some of those changes, because I live in a house with a late-50s-vintage kitchen, never remodeled. The non-self-defrosting refrigerator, and the gas range with its open pilot lights, are pretty depressing (anyone know a good contractor?) – but when all is said and done it is still a pretty functional kitchen. The 1957 owners didn’t have a microwave, and we have gone from black and white broadcasts of Sid Caesar to off-color humor on The Comedy Channel, but basically they lived pretty much the way we do.

Now turn the clock back another 39 years, to 1918 – and you are in a world in which a horse-drawn wagon delivered blocks of ice to your icebox, a world not only without TV but without mass media of any kind (regularly scheduled radio entertainment began only in 1920). And of course back in 1918 nearly half of Americans still lived on farms, most without electricity and many without running water. By any reasonable standard, the change in how America lived between 1918 and 1957 was immensely greater than the change between 1957 and the present.

In short, things are getting better. They always get better. But they seem to get better very slowly these days, and no longer in big ways. And now Krugman adds this:

Now, you can overstate this case; medical innovations, in particular, have made a huge difference to some peoples’ lives, mine included (I have a form of arthritis that would have crippled me in the 1950s, and in fact almost did 20 years ago until it was properly diagnosed, but barely affects my life now thanks to modern anti-inflammatories.) But the general sense that the future isn’t what it used to be seems right.

On the other hand, Matthew Kahn, a professor out here at UCLA, says you can’t really measure any of this:

Innovation is sharply reducing the quality adjusted prices of all sorts of major goods we consume in markets. This raises our real incomes. Local pollution has sharply improved in the U.S. This raises our real “hedonic” income. In 1962, the Internet, the Smart Phone and Facebook would have been expensive to use. These new products have generated a huge amount of consumer surplus. Let’s see a smart young IO economist quantify that! Yes, new cereals and mini-vans generate consumer surplus but I want an estimate of Facebook’s value added. …

What is the right market test of progress? We need a time machine and we need to know how much you would need to be paid to get in it to live your life in the past (while knowing that you won’t know who will win the Super Bowl in 2010, I can’t let you change the course of history). In symmetric fashion, for people like Tyler’s grandmother born in 1905 – how much would she be willing to pay to have been born in 1962 versus 1905?

I believe that my son (born in 2001) will have a better life than my solid (1966) life. Expected Innovation is a major piece of my optimism.

But he also knows he is an outlier. He knows many who seem to know that our next generations will not have a better life than ours.

And that leads to Tyler Cowen, who started all this, responding to charges of pessimism – he knows “our current technological plateau won’t last forever.” But he still doesn’t like the numbers. A generation is being lost.

And Matthew Yglesias sees it this way:

I more often get this from the other direction where people mistake my agreement with the assertion that 2000-2010 was about the best decade ever for humanity with undue complacency about the problems of the world. But the fact of the matter is that it can both be true that rapid catch-up growth in large population poor countries is a huge step forward for human welfare, and also true that developed countries in general and the United States of America in particular, seem to have run aground to an extent. Indeed, even though it’s not rational for people in rich countries to feel threatened or upset about catching-up happening abroad, it’s also very natural. We would probably feel better about the slow rate of growth in the US over the past 10 years if it had nonetheless been the fastest growth in the world. But, plainly, it wasn’t.

We are the lost generation. But large population poor countries never got lost in the first place. Start from near zero and the only way you can go is up.

But we’re in an odd place, and Yglesias wonders about the jobs of the future for us:

One of the big things that people talk about and agonize over is the idea of “the jobs of the future.” The presumption is that many of the things that today are made by Americans will be made by robots or Chinese people tomorrow. Hence fewer people will have jobs making those things and will instead have some other kind of jobs.

So people talk about “the jobs of the future” – but they may be a bit too excited about those jobs:

This is all correct so far as it goes. But the analysis then tends to assume that future jobs are going to be futuristic jobs, which I think is pretty misleading. Of course in the future some people will have futuristic jobs. But a lot of what’s going to happen is that we’ll just have more employment in already-extant banal fields that’s just aren’t amenable to being done by Chinese people or robots. After all “the future” in this sense is a richer world. Right now, some people work as personal trainers. If people were richer, more people would hire personal trainers, and your personal trainer can’t live in Shenzhen so this is one of “the jobs of the future.” We’ll have more cops and security guards. As people get richer, they eat at fancier places where service is more labor-intensive so we’ll have more sommeliers and waiters. Not only will there be more old people in the future, but the richer old people of tomorrow will be better cared-for and have more caretakers of various kinds per capita. People will go on more frequent and more ambitious vacations with all the extra commerce that implies.

I suppose standing in front of the US Congress and saying “imagine the extra stuff your family would do if it were 15 percent richer; now imagine some more people providing those services – that’s how we’ll win the future.” But sometimes the truth is a little boring.

Well, people also said that about the Beckett play – a little boring.

But Yglesias followed up on this:

Most of the jobs of the future are likely to be pretty banal – think of categories of service sector work that people do today, and imagine a higher proportion of the population being engaged in them.

One response to this vision of the future is to deride it as saying that I’m trying to “convince those without that their future lies as the body-servants of those with.” But of course the whole essence of all economic transactions is that you’re doing things for other people. Farmers are growing food for non-farmers. Carpenters are building houses for people to live in, and auto workers are building cars for the middle class to drive. Performing a “service” for someone else in exchange for money is no different from building something for someone else in exchange for money or from growing some food for someone else in exchange for money. But I think we have a cultural hang-up around the idea that there’s something inherently servile in the idea of service sector work. That it lacks the dignity that comes with manufacturing employment on an assembly line.

But while it’s of course true that the very worst service sector jobs are in fact bad jobs to have, there’s no reason to see this as being the case generally. We tend to acknowledge this by dignifying a certain sub-set of service sector work that requires advanced degrees as “professions” rather than “services.”

Yes, that is what they say of lawyers and doctors and architects, and teachers (when they’re not calling them fools and losers and greedy scum) – but Yglesias points to the tale of a woman who’s pursuing her dream of becoming a Lindy Hop instructor – really. And he adds this:

I wish her well and don’t think there’s anything service or demeaning about sharing expertise in swing dancing with paying customers. And that’s the point – if a smaller number of people are able to produce a larger number of material goods, then “jobs of the future” will come in the form of more people doing this kind of thing, sharing their (labor intensive) skills and passions with interested members of the public in exchange for money.

And that’s not so bad. Will Americans have the temperament to make a smooth transition to a more stagnant economy? Maybe so – but others will be in denial, or perpetually angry. And some will be in a dark bar in Jersey, doing that Sinatra thing. So set ‘em up, Joe. It’s a lost generation thing.

It’s like this.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in American Optimism, Economic Issues, End of the American Dream, Lush Life and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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