August 14, 2008


What's the Matter With Thomas Frank? (CHRISTOPHER WILLCOX | August 12, 2008, NY Sun)

The author, who created a minor sensation with his best-selling "What's the Matter With Kansas?" is a trained historian with a pronounced affinity for the Frankfurt School and its neo-Marxist "critical theory" approach to culture and politics. But he writes like a muckraking journalist, and the average reader would have no idea whatsoever that down-to-earth Tom Frank from Mission Hills, Kan., has such a distinguished, if slightly exotic, intellectual pedigree.

Mr. Frank's point about contemporary conservative politics is straightforward and dogmatic: It lives and breathes to support American plutocracy. The so-called Reagan coalition — including traditional Republicans, Cold Warrior liberals, social conservatives, libertarians, and Carterphobes — was and is merely a carefully calculated narrative designed to win elections:

In America, conservatism has always been an expression of business. Absorbing this fact is a condition to understanding the movement; it is anterior to everything else conservatism has been over the years. To try to understand conservatism without taking into account its grounding in business thought — to depict it as, say, the political style of an unusually pious nation or an extreme dedication to the principle of freedom — is like setting off to war with maps of the wrong country.

That Mr. Frank is setting off to war is an understatement. It would be hard to imagine a more scorched-earth approach to political science. Conservatives are not only wrongheaded, he tells us, but evil manipulators of those poor proles in Kansas who refuse to vote their own economic interests because they insist on honoring their personal values.

The problem for Mr. Frank is that even if we were to suppose that the sole interest of the GOP was to improve business/economic conditions, we'd have to note that it has succeeded and, thereby, benefitted Kansans massively, How Are We Doing? (W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm, July/August 2008, The American)
Income and wages are often used as gauges of progress, but consumption is the best measure of rising living standards. Products that began as luxuries only the rich could afford in time came within the means of just about all U.S. households (Fig. 1). In previous generations, telephones, cars, electricity, household appliances, and televisions made life better for the average American. In our times it has been computers, cell phones, Internet access, VCR/ DVD players, digital cameras, and more.

All segments of society have shared in the material progress. Over the past two decades, ownership of cars, color televisions, and household appliances has risen among poor households (Fig. 2). A quarter of poor households have computers. Two in five own their homes. For many goods, ownership rates are higher for today’s poor households than for the general population of the early 1970s.

As Americans know, today’s rising food and energy prices are crimping household budgets. But there are other ways to understand the relative size of the rise of food and energy costs. For example, in terms of time worked at the average pay rate, the real cost of a 12-item basket of basic foods has hardly budged. And while the work-time price of gasoline doubled in recent years, a gallon of gasoline still goes for less than 11 minutes of work (Fig. 3). At 20 miles per gallon, an hour of work will get you 110 miles down the road; at 30 mpg, you can go 165 miles.

When it comes to how hard we have to work for food and fuel, we still face far lower burdens than our grandparents did. Living standards rise on the ability to use productive resources to churn out more goods and services—that is, to advance productivity. As the economy has become more productive decade by decade, Americans have reaped the gains, first and foremost by consuming more.

There’s more to the good life than goods and services, however, and we’ve taken some of our added productivity in other ways. We’ve gained more leisure time, improved our working conditions, enhanced safety and security, and added variety to our choice set. All of these benefits become increasingly important as we climb up the income ladder.

The lament-filled anecdotes about long hours and low pay just don’t stand up to the test of hard data. Real total compensation—wages plus fringe benefits, both adjusted for inflation—has been rising steadily for several generations (Fig. 4). Over time, the fringes have become a larger share of the rewards for work, dampening the statistics on wage increases. At the same time, we’re spending less time at work. An average workweek has fallen from 39.8 hours in 1950 to 36.9 hours in 1973 to 33.8 hours today.

Fig 8- Safer at Work and Home-final.jpgNot all those hours are spent on actual work. Human resources experts estimate that 1.6 hours a day go to non-work activities; employees themselves say it’s more than two hours. What are workers doing? Most of them are using the Internet for personal business or socializing with coworkers (Fig. 5). It’s no coincidence that the busiest times for online auctions come during the hours when most Americans are supposed to be hard at work (Fig. 6).

We’re not only working less on the job. We’re also taking less time for household chores. Since 1950, the annual hours devoted to work at home has fallen from 1,544 to 1,278. Working less means we have more time for ourselves. The hustle and bustle of everyday life conceals the fact that a typical American has more free time than ever.

As it turns out, those Kansans haven't been hoodwinked at all. If we look at the effect of their vote only through the lens of economic self-interest we find that they've utilized their franchise quite sensibly.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 14, 2008 6:34 AM
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