Bourgeois III: Values in real-life

Today, there is a rising commercialization, a commodification of the character traits of the bourgeois. This in turn is leading toward a worldview in which bourgeois behavior is a “privilege,” instead of simply being an expectation of a civilized society. As part of such a change, the bourgeois, the real middle-class as exemplified by a set of genuine values and behaviors, not just income or the terrible Marxist clichés from authors such as Christina Stead (The Man Who Loved Children), have moved from being the group of idealized role-models to being portrayed as a slightly deviant clique. Now, words such as “censorious,” “sanctimonious,” “privileged [again],” “hectoring,” and “judgmental” are routinely thrown around concerning those of bourgeois persuasion by pundits and the commentariat on both sides of the political aisle.  

In 1960, psychologist Dr. Walter Mischel led the famous (or infamous depending on social leanings) marshmallow experiment. A young child, observed by researchers and parent(s), was left alone in a room deliberately devoid of stimulation outside of a candy marshmallow. The researcher who took the child into the room would tell the child he/she could eat the marshmallow but would promise a gift of two marshmallows if upon the adult’s return two minutes later, the original piece of candy was uneaten. Needless to say, once the researcher left the room, the majority of children promptly ate the thing. 

Mischel checked on them when they were teenagers and then located a smaller segment when they were almost 50 – those who had displayed deferred gratification had more successful lives than those who had gobbled the first marshmallow. Starting in 1990, when Mischel published the results of both the original test and the teenage checkup and revealed that those with self-control had achieved higher SAT scores and therefore received admission into the best universities, his work came under fire from the social justice coterie. The reason was that the results were an indictment of the difference in the parenting style of the majority, i.e. the single marshmallow gobblers, and the disciplined minority. In a logical world, the results should be cause for celebration because the two-marshmallow children came neither from a racially homogenous group nor from elite backgrounds, though the fact that the majority had one professional parent has formed a large part of “but the experiment is socially discriminatory” argument. 

The crux of the rejection is the evidence that the two-marshmallow children entered the experiment room having already learned self-control from their parents, while the candy wolfers had not. In an attempt to debunk Mischel’s study, a group of psychological researchers redid the experiment, publishing the results in 2018, with a larger sample and a thorough study of the home environments of the subjects. Instead discrediting Mischel, the second study upheld the macro principles of his work; those who did best on the “new and improved” version were children who came from homes with large numbers of books and had very attentive, responsive parents. In other words, two-marshmallow children came from a different type of family than was, or is, standard. Crucially, the study found that the culturally impoverished, those with money and possibly advanced degrees but no books, did not do significantly better than those from financial poverty, with both groups producing marshmallow snatchers. On an interesting side note on the book divide, parental attention did not seem to make much of a difference, though it is possible that this is because the book-readers were also the better parents – the language is a little ambiguous on this point. 

The Atlantic, for example, more or less gloated that Mischel and co.’s unconscious snobbishness had finally been unmasked to the world:

There’s plenty of other research that sheds further light on the class dimension of the marshmallow test. The Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan and the Princeton behavioral scientist Eldar Shafir wrote a book in 2013, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, that detailed how poverty can lead people to opt for short-term rather than long-term rewards; the state of not having enough can change the way people think about what’s available now. In other words, a second marshmallow seems irrelevant when a child has reason to believe that the first one might vanish. [….]

These findings point to the idea that poorer parents try to indulge their kids when they can, while more-affluent parents tend to make their kids wait for bigger rewards. Hair dye and sweet treats might seem frivolous, but purchases like these are often the only indulgences poor families can afford. And for poor children, indulging in a small bit of joy today can make life feel more bearable, especially when there’s no guarantee of more joy tomorrow.

It is important to note that Mischel’s critics completely distorted his findings. At no point did he claim one group was superior to the other in any sense. Nor, did he claim, as is often misrepresented, that “character was everything.” These were all things impugned to him by opponents. All he did was prove that patience and self-restraint at age five (the approximate age of his subjects) tended to translate into disciplined, high-achieving high school students.[1]

The real rub of the marshmallow test is that it forced recognition of the fact that different child-rearing methods convey value sets, and that these values can be a determining factor in success or failure. They have the potential to translate into material, cultural, and social capital, or to reveal the lack of these things to the world. To make things worse, from a social justice standpoint, the experiments appear to demonstrate that values of the upper echelons are better because they have consistently produced the same results. 

The excuse-seeking used by The Atlantic author, such as hair dye and sweets, is recognizable to anyone who has read George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier because the logic’s template is his chapter on the dietary habits of the northern English working-class in the 1930s. What isn’t shown is Orwell’s own honesty. While he gave his subjects a pass on spending eight pounds[2] on sugar, as the only affordable indulgence, he excoriated them for spending on tinned corn beef and dried milk when fresh meat and dairy was both readily available and were much, much cheaper. For him, it was one of the little ironies in the social fabric that the middle-class, who preferred fresh products, lived cheaper and better than the working-class, whom he suspected bought canned meat and desiccated milk out of some misplaced notion that this was what the middle-class ate exactly because cans and boxes were more expensive.     

In his book The Wealth of Humans: Work and Its Absence in the Twenty-First Century, journalist-economist Ryan Avent wrote on the subject of social capital:

Wealth has always been sociable. The long process of cultural development that eventually yielded the industrial revolution was in many ways the process by which humanity learned ever better ways of structuring society in order to foster the emergence of complex economic activity. Wealth creation in rich economies is nurtured by a complex system of legal institutions (such as property rights and the courts that uphold them), economic networks (such as fast and efficient transportation and access to scientific communities and capital markets) and culture (such as conceptions of the ‘good life’, respect for the law, and the status accorded to those who work hard and become rich). No individual can take credit for this system; it was built and is maintained by society.

Avent is absolutely correct, especially in terms of this as the essence of a capitalist society. To return to the marshmallow test and its subjects, if one divides society into snatchers and waiters and then looks at Avent’s behavioral traits, such as “respect for the law,” or values – “property rights” – one immediately sees that one of the two groups is going to fare much better than the other. This is not because one group is inherently superior to the other; no, the difference is that one group received the value system, and therefore social capital, necessary to function acceptably in a capitalist system. The other did not. 

Training the values to be functional in a capitalist system has nothing to do with society at large, and everything to do with the family. That said, society does play a role in terms of upholding bourgeois values, but modern American society has, as previously indicated, not only disincentivized such values but has come to stigmatize them as unacceptable. Up next: examples of the bourgeois family!  


[1]Officially, he has not directly published the results of his check up with the available subjects at age 49; however, the APA report, hyperlinked above, indicates that the two-marshmallow children honored their potential and became successful, fulfilled adults. 

[2]He either observed that they spent eight pounds money, or that they bought eight pounds in weight; he was not clear in his wording.

Immigration Into the United States (Part 3)

Substituting Immigrant Labor for Native Workers: A Mental Experiment

Although the area where I live is not representative of the US in general, it’s exemplary in important respects. What happens here often happens later, elsewhere in the country, in attenuated form. Santa Cruz, California is separated from Silicon Valley by a chain of hills that takes 25 minutes to cross at the right time of a good day, and up to 90 minutes at other times. On my side of the hills is a rich agricultural zone, probably the main vegetable and strawberries garden of America, plus some resort areas and several well-respected schools of higher education. I taught in an MBA program in Silicon Valley, on the other side of the hills, for 25 years. I have been the owner of needy houses in Santa Cruz for just as long, and thus a habitual user of various kinds of labor. On both sides of the hills, high-tech industries and high-margin industrial agriculture powerfully attract immigrants – although, mostly, somewhat different kinds of immigrants.

The claim that immigrants of all kinds take work from citizens is a constant background noise in my area. In general (only in general; it happens) I am skeptical of the notion that immigrants directly take jobs from the native-born, or that they threaten to do so. This is based on my parochial, local, but not insignificant experience. Employers on both sides of my hills have been complaining of a labor shortage for seven or eight years. Booming Silicon Valley employers require more engineers, more software writers, but also more of a little bit of everything, because industrial growth generates demand for all kinds of ancillary services, including dish washing. There was not a sufficient rush of diversely qualified labor while the unemployment rate was fairly high, right after 2008. It’s unlikely to happen now that it’s ultra-low (September 2018).

Big farmers on my side of the hills regularly lament their inability to pick crops in the field in timely fashion because of a perennial dearth of the requisite kind of labor. Many think that the requisite kind of labor has to be cheap. In fact one habitual user of farm labor declares publicly that he pays $26 an hour on average. This would mean, of course, that some of his laborers earn more than three times the federal minimum wage.(This is embarrassing but I cant find the reference for this item. It’s from a recent article – 2018 -. I am 95% certain that it’s from the Wall Street Journal. I looked at the article carefully when I came across it and assessed it as trustworthy.) This figure would add up to about $50,000  annual for a full time farm worker. The Economic Policy Institute only assigns a yearly full time wage of $35,000 in 2015. (“Farm worker wages in California: Large gap between full-time equivalent and actual earnings.” Posted March 21, 2017 by Philip Martin and Daniel Costa.) That’s for the best paid farm workers, those in vegetable growing and picking. Assuming a 5% rise in wages yearly because of labor scarcity, still leave farm workers much below that $50,000 figure. I read locally that the labor shortage is so acute that some farmers switch to crops not especially suited to the climate or to their skill-set but that are less labor-intensive. The lament has not lessened in several years, although there is an abundant supply of potential labor nearby, in the form of college students.

Local housing rents are high; the cost of living is also high; tuition keeps increasing. Most of the farm work that goes begging requires little more than a basic work ethic and good health. Yet the thousands of college students in nearby Santa Cruz and Monterey compete for a handful of low-paying barista positions rather than going for far more lucrative seasonal farm work. (I must say that my perverse heart is waiting for a real-life experiment in which farmers explicitly bid up dormant student picking talent: I would like to find out how high the remunerations offered can go without eliciting a response.) The cliché that there is some work that Americans reared in a soft society won’t do, is not completely absurd, it seems to me. The lack of exposure to hard physical labor of most Americans who have been students in the past ten years may play a role, possibly a preponderant role. And yes, I admit that at $60 an hour, for example, growers would probably find all the local unskilled labor they wanted. Yet, I doubt that this is what commentators mean when they complain about immigrants taking work from the native-born.

And, of course, I have to notice that very high wages paid for the production of ordinary goods corresponds to a pay cut for everyone. Nevertheless I do believe that in agriculture the pay cut would probably amount to little, in most cases. Take local strawberries retailing at $2.00/lb. Suppose field labor accounts for a full ten per cent of this retail cost. If this labor cost goes up by 100% net, the same strawberries will retail at about $2.25, at most. It seems to me that’s probably not enough to affect sales much. Farmers would have to agree among themselves to raise wages and prices which may be illegal or of dubious legality.

The Hidden Cost of Cheap Labor: Missed Mechanization

Somehow, one of the hidden costs of the importation of inexpensive labor seldom comes up in discussions of immigration. Inexpensive labor is often an invisible substitute for mechanization. As discussions amplified in 2017-2018 about a national $15 an hour minimum wage, the media produced numerous examples of employers of inexpensive labor, such as fast food restaurants, quickly increasing their reliance on robots. In those media stories, the causality was seldom well established, but it stands to reason that the relative scarcity or dearness of labor is a spur to mechanization. Conversely, the routine availability of inexpensive labor must prevent decision-makers from adopting new tools of automation, and inhibit inventors from creating others.

This relationship is demonstrated in one kind of farming after another. The European Union is a live laboratory in this respect. As the EU’s heavy fringe benefits, including its high social insurance costs, were imposed on new member countries, cheap labor turned correspondingly expensive, and mechanical ingenuity was quickly unleashed. French grape growers who swore for 200 years that their precious wine grape demands the incomparable dexterity of the human hand found themselves happily riding newly invented vine cultivating machines.

Faced with the same compensation hardships, Greek olive growers relinquished manual picking for crude tree shaking machines designed to drop the fruit onto a tarp spread on the ground. Turns out, there is actually an effective olive tree shaking device that is also deft enough to avoid endangering trees that are sometimes a hundred years old. Mechanical agricultural inventions notably now move from the Old World to the New, a historically rare pattern that tests the notion of labor substitution. As labor becomes quickly more expensive in the European Union, its farmers mechanize, while American farmers slumber in the comfort of an abundance of reasonably priced labor from Latin America. In the eighties, I helped a French fruit-drying entrepreneur sell his trailerable, self-contained, stainless steel, gleaming modern machine to California plum processors still relying on a 19th century, fixed, brick, drying tunnel. It was like standing next to a state of the art sports car while chatting with a hay wagon. As expected, much of the superiority of the French machine resided in its labor efficiency that was several times better than that of the old-fashioned brick tunnels.

A Localized Cost: Schooling Expenditures

As we saw, the first qualification to the thesis that immigration enhances economic growth is that it is simply a form of population growth. It does enhance growth, but this sounds almost trivial (except to draw attention to the fact that the native-born are not taking on the vigorous job of increasing the population). The second qualification is a little more complex. A positive effect of immigration on the overall (national) economy does not exclude negative localized effects. The GDP, a national quantity, rises but some local school districts, for instance, are fiscally overwhelmed by the influx of immigrant children. The economic benefits associated with population growth through immigration may be mostly diffuse, even imperceptible, but the localized costs of immigration are obvious and often dramatically painful. The schooling of immigrant children is a good example of a painful localized cost that gives immigration a bad name.

Internal domestic migrations would also cause local problems, but the effect would usually be of a different magnitude. Today, the bulk of immigrant children often (not always) bring significant special educational needs with them that are rarely found among domestic migrants. First, they may not know English; in fact, most don’t, although there are bright exceptions. Second, foreign immigrants may come from the poorest, most rural parts of poor countries, with inferior schools. (That is certainly the case for Mexican immigrants, the largest group in recent years.) Both conditions, ignorance of English and the family’s low educational status on arrival, require expensive remedial measures, the cost of which is borne largely by local taxing entities.

To make matters worse, the usual academic remedies often just don’t work. The public schools may be so utterly unable to teach immigrant children anything in a foreign language – English – that the standards for all children degrade and local Anglo children fall drastically behind, in reading comprehension, for example. Over several years, the cumulative deficiency can force some Anglo parent to switch their children to private schools. Native-born parents who are college graduates, or even merely high school graduates, often don’t accept with equanimity the news that their children are two or three grades behind in any subject. They frequently become bitter and, why not? If they complain, they are frequently charged with racism. (It happened to my brown-skinned wife.) Those who make the move to private school end up with both high local taxes and the need to pay tuition for their children, all as an indirect but obvious financial burden of immigration. Note again that this burden is borne by local families, with little help from those who make immigration decisions, at the federal level.

There are perhaps two reasons why the poor educational status of some, or many, immigrants is seldom discussed. First, the bulk of the host population may not be clearly aware of the educational backwardness of the immigrants. They may vaguely think of Mexico, for example, as 40 or 50 years behind the US educationally; yet the commonness of illiteracy in remote Mexican villages puts them more than 100 years behind the US in this respect. (Nevertheless, I have much respect – based on personal experience – for Mexican public education as delivered in small and medium-size towns.) When it comes to the many immigrant children from Asia, school authorities appear even more at sea. They don’t know what to make of the fact that a middle-class Chinese boy of 12 may not seem to be able to explain what he can and cannot read.

The second cause of timidity regarding the educational status of new immigrants is, of course, far-reaching political correctness. To say, “Luis can’t read English” passes for racist in many quarters, although it’s obvious that Luis actually can’t read English, or any language (See below). Discussion is further discouraged by the fact that in some areas, such as mine, immigration includes both broad categories of low educational achievers and of exceptionally high achievers, both farm hands and engineers with superior training. The existence of the latter grants verisimilitude to charges of prejudice regarding the former.

Here are anecdotes about the low level of preparedness of some immigrants. On two occasions widely separated in time, I had prolonged interaction with Mexican immigrants I had hired to help me work on my houses. I had opportunities to judge each of them to be intelligent, practical-minded, full of initiative, and flexible–real finds, in other words. Both times, I discovered fortuitously that they were illiterate in Spanish. I left them simple written instructions in that language, and none of the required work was done by the time I checked, although some other necessary work I had not explicitly requested had been performed.

The men were thus not shirking; they just did not know what I wanted done. (No, don’t blame my Spanish. It’s very good. I can read anything in that language except a chemistry textbook. I also write it with ease. After all, it’s just another debased Latin, like my native tongue, French.) Of course, this is a story about a tiny sample, hardly a sample at all. Yet the two episodes took place ten years apart, and I suspect they illustrate a common condition among Mexico-born men in my area. (I refer to immigrants, not to Mexicans in generals. The large and growing Mexican middle class seldom wanders across the border without a solid job and a gringo salary. I also know some of its members.) My illiterate journeymen’s children would be difficult and expensive to educate, even if they, the children, knew English well. There is just not much book learning in their households and it’s not likely to be well respected there.

In my otherwise bookstore-rich and library-rich area, books in Spanish were nearly impossible to find for twenty years. I think there is almost no demand for such articles. What little demand there is appears to be for Spanish translations of American books with television ties. This is more evidence of the low literacy status of Mexican immigrants in the area. (see footnote 4)

It’s also true that immigrants’ children who are truly bilingual may be an asset to the local economy as well as to the national economy. In my observation as a college professor, that’s a tiny number, and their usefulness can only be a long-term proposition.  It’s a tiny number because knowing a language well requires reading and, I think, writing. There are few opportunities (few, not none) for native Spanish speakers to learn to read and write, in addition to their normal schooling in English. So called “bilingual education” in public schools does not seem to do the job. I base my judgment on the tiny number of readers and writers of Spanish I encountered in local colleges where you would expect them to congregate.

Few Anglos perceive advanced bilingualism as an asset; I am guessing, (guessing) that it’s because they see it associated with individuals of low socioeconomic status. Nevertheless, it’s useful, obviously, for lowly jobs catering in part to a non-English speaking public. My daughter tells me that it’s impossible to get a job as a medical receptionist in my area if you don’t know English and Spanish. As for well-paid occupations, I have never heard this asset mentioned except, ironically, in connection with the Border Patrol. I don’t doubt that it’s also sometimes put to use in the diplomatic service, and in the armed forces. But bilingual children of immigrants have to compete there with recent immigrants who know English well.

Other Locally Borne Social Costs of Immigration

I have pointed out that schooling, though heavily affected by national immigration policies, is financed locally. Here is a roundup of other largely locally financed services:  various  social services for the poor, (“welfare,” “public assistance”), health care, jail and prison resources (some of which are funded by the Federal Government). When evaluating the cost of these resources as allocated to immigrants, it seems to me that a reasonable  baseline is to assume that immigrants consume such resources in quantities appropriate to their sex, age distribution, economic and educational levels, and marital status. In the US, men commit more crimes than women, especially violent crimes; women are more likely to be in charge of children than men and thus in need of help to maintain them; the poor commit more crime overall than the rich, except perhaps, white collar crime. The semi-literate are also less likely than the better educated to engage in white-collar crime. Married men commit fewer serious crimes than do single men.

Loud voices on the right proclaim that immigrants go on welfare and have dealings with the judicial system more frequently than do the native born.

Adopting the baseline I propose, even if only mentally, slows down the tendency to stigmatize immigrants, including unconsciously. Imagine (made up figures) that the median age of American men is 38 while the median age of a certain group of immigrants is 23. If you observe a crime rate among the latter 25 %  above the rate for native-born Americans, you may have discovered nothing about the immigrant group propensity toward crime, just that they are young. The use of such a baseline does not exclude the possibility of making policy inferences from the social costs of various immigrant groups based on their collective economic, age, and marital status characteristics, like this: We don’t need to import young men from Central America who are just about certain to increase the frequency and the gravity of crimes in our country.


Footnotes

4  I allow myself to be a bit of a bully on matters of bilingualism because the bulk of native-born Americans – who remain proudly monolingual – carry a ton of absurd ideas in their minds about the ease of language learning. Listen to me because I am able to do everything I know how to do in two languages, and because I am able to operate very well in a third –  Spanish – while I read yet two others. (Most are related languages, of course, different varieties of bad Latin.) Naturally also, like all Frenchmen, I know a little German too, just in case. Just kidding! Read my shocking essay on language learning: “Foreign Languages and Self–Delusion in America.”

Simple economics I wish more people understood

Economics comes from the Greek “οίκος,” meaning “household” and “νęμoμαι,” meaning “manage.” Therefore, in its more basic sense, economy means literally “rule of the house.” It applies to the way one manages the resources one has in their house.

Everyone has access to limited resources. It doesn’t matter if you are rich, poor, or middle class. Even the richest person on Earth has limited resources. Our day has only 24 hours. We only have one body. This body starts to decay very early in our lives. Even with modern medicine, we don’t get to live much more than 100 years.

The key of economics is how well we manage our limited resources. We need to make the best with the little we are given.

For most of human history, we were very poor. We had access to very limited resources, and we were not particularly good at managing them. We became much better in managing resources in the last few centuries. Today we can do much more with much less.

Value is a subjective thing. One thing has value when you think this thing has value. You may value something that I don’t.

We use money to exchange value. Money in and of itself can have no value at all. It doesn’t matter. The key of money is its ability to transmit information: I value this and I don’t value that.

Of course, many things can’t be valued in money. At least for most people. But it doesn’t change the fact that money is a very intelligent way to attribute value to things.

The economy cannot be managed centrally by a government agency. We have access to limited resources. Only we, individually, can judge which resources are more necessary for us in a given moment. Our needs can change suddenly, without notice. You can be saving money for years to buy a house, only to discover you will have to spend this money on a medical treatment. It’s sad. It’s even tragic. But it is true. If the economy is managed centrally, you have to transmit information to this central authority that your plans have changed. But if we have a great number of people changing plans every day, then this central authority will inevitably be loaded. The best judge of how to manage your resources is yourself.

We can become really rich as a society if we attribute responsibility for each person on how we manage our resources. If each one of us manages their resources to the best of their knowledge and abilities, we will have the best resource management possible. We will make the best of the limited resources we have.

Economics has a lot to do with ecology. They share the Greek “οίκος” which, again, means “household.” This planet is our house. The best way to take care of our house is to distribute individual responsibility over individual management of individual pieces of this Earth. No one can possess the whole Earth. But we can take care of tiny pieces we are given responsibility over.