(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Great Depression

“The basic underlying problem does not entail misbehavior or incompetence but rather stems from the nature of the provision of labor-intensive services”*…

Agatha Christie with her daughter Rosalind in 1924 [source]

Why is it that stuff– clothing, electronics, toys– keep getting cheaper, while services– healthcare, education, child care– continue to rise on price?

Agatha Christie’s autobiography, published posthumously in 1977, provides a fascinating window into the economic life of middle-class Britons a century ago. The year was 1919, the Great War had just ended, and Christie’s husband Archie had just been demobilized as an officer in the British military.

The couple’s annual income was around around £700 ($50,000 in today’s dollars)—£500 ($36,000) from his salary and another £200 ($14,000) in passive income.

hey rented a fourth-floor walk-up apartment in London with four bedrooms, two sitting rooms, and a “nice outlook on green.” The rent was £90 for a year ($530 per month in today’s dollars). To keep it tidy, they hired a live-in maid for £36 ($2,600) per year, which Christie described as “an enormous sum in those days.”

The couple was expecting their first child, a girl, and they hired a nurse to look after her. Still, Christie didn’t consider herself wealthy.

“Looking back, it seems to me extraordinary that we should have contemplated having both a nurse and a servant,” Christie wrote. “But they were considered essentials of life in those days, and were the last things we would have thought of dispensing with. To have committed the extravagance of a car, for instance, would never have entered our minds. Only the rich had cars.”…

By modern standards, these numbers seem totally out of whack. An American family today with a household income of $50,000 might have one or even two cars. But they definitely wouldn’t have a live-in maid or nanny. Even if it were legal today to offer someone a job that paid $2,600 per year, nobody would take it.

The price shifts Christie observed during her lifetime continued to widen after her death…

As you can see, cars aren’t the only things that get cheaper over time. In the last 30 years, clothing, children’s toys, and televisions have all gotten steadily cheaper as well—as have lots of other products not on the chart.

It’s one of the most important economic mysteries of the modern world. While the material things in life are cheaper than ever, labor-intensive services are getting more and more expensive. Middle-class Americans today have little trouble affording a car, but they struggle to afford a spot in day care. Only the rich have nannies.

Who is to blame? Some paint the government as the villain, blaming excessive regulations and poorly targeted subsidies. They aren’t entirely wrong. But the main cause is something more fundamental—and not actually sinister at all.

Back in the 1960s, the economist William Baumol observed that it took exactly as much labor to play a string quartet in 1965 as it did in 1865—in economics jargon, violinists hadn’t gotten any more productive. Yet the wages of a professional violinist in 1965 were a lot higher than in 1865.

The basic reason for this is that workers in other industries were getting more productive, and that gave musicians bargaining power. If an orchestra didn’t pay musicians in line with economy-wide norms, it would constantly lose talent as its musicians decided to become plumbers or accountants instead. So over time, the incomes of professional musicians have risen.

Today economists call this phenomenon “Baumol’s cost disease,” and they see it as one of the most important forces driving the price trends in my chart above. I think it’s unfortunate that this bit of economics jargon is framed in negative terms. From my perspective as a parent, it might be a bummer that child care costs are rising. But my daughter’s nanny probably doesn’t see it that way—the Baumol effect means her income goes up…

A thoughtful consideration of a counterintuitive phenomenon: “Why Agatha Christie could afford a maid and a nanny but not a car,” from Timothy B. Lee (@binarybits) in Full Stack Economics (@fullstackecon).

From Baumol himself…

Briefly, the book’s central arguments are these:

1. Rapid productivity growth in the modern economy has led to cost trends that divide its output into two sectors, which I call “the stagnant sector” and “the progressive sector.” In this book, productivity growth is defined as a labor-saving change in a production process so that the output supplied by an hour of labor increases, presumably significantly (Chapter 2).

2. Over time, the goods and services supplied by the stagnant sector will grow increasingly unaffordable relative to those supplied by the progressive sector. The rapidly increasing cost of a hospital stay and rising college tuition fees are prime examples of persistently rising costs in two key stagnant-sector services, health care and education (Chapters 2 and 3).

3. Despite their ever increasing costs, stagnant-sector services will never become unaffordable to society. This is because the economy’s constantly growing productivity simultaneously increases the community’s overall purchasing power and makes for ever improving overall living standards (Chapter 4).

4. The other side of the coin is the increasing affordability and the declining relative costs of the products of the progressive sector, including some products we may wish were less affordable and therefore less prevalent, such as weapons of all kinds, automobiles, and other mass-manufactured products that contribute to environmental pollution (Chapter 5).

5. The declining affordability of stagnant-sector products makes them politically contentious and a source of disquiet for average citizens. But paradoxically, it is the developments in the progressive sector that pose the greater threat to the general welfare by stimulating such threatening problems as terrorism and climate change. This book will argue that some of the gravest threats to humanity’s future stem from the falling costs of these products, rather than from the rising costs of services like health care and education (Chapter 5).

The central purpose of this book is to explain why the costs of some labor-intensive services—notably health care and education—increase at persistently above-average rates. As long as productivity continues to increase, these cost increases will persist. But even more important, as the economist Joan Robinson rightly pointed out so many years ago, as productivity grows, so too will our ability to pay for all of these ever more expensive services.

William J. Baumol, from the Introduction to The Cost Disease: Why Computers Get Cheaper and Health Care Doesn’t

* William J. Baumol

###

As we interrogate inflation, we might recall that it was in this date in 1933 that United Artists released the animated short “Three Little Pigs,” part of the Silly Symphonies series produced by Walt Disney (though some film historians give the date as May 25). A hit, it won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. In 1994 a poll of 1,000 animators voted it #11 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of all time.

Its song, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” written by Frank Churchill, was a huge hit and was often used as an anthem during the Great Depression.

“When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”*…

Staying yesterday’s agribusiness theme: George Monbiot on the extraordinary challenges facing the world’s food system…

For the past few years, scientists have been frantically sounding an alarm that governments refuse to hear: the global food system is beginning to look like the global financial system in the run-up to 2008.

While financial collapse would have been devastating to human welfare, food system collapse doesn’t bear thinking about. Yet the evidence that something is going badly wrong has been escalating rapidly. The current surge in food prices looks like the latest sign of systemic instability.

Many people assume that the food crisis was caused by a combination of the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine. While these are important factors, they aggravate an underlying problem. For years, it looked as if hunger was heading for extinction. The number of undernourished people fell from 811 million in 2005 to 607 million in 2014. But in 2015, the trend began to turn. Hunger has been rising ever since: to 650 million in 2019, and back to 811 million in 2020. This year is likely to be much worse.

Now brace yourself for the really bad news: this has happened at a time of great abundance. Global food production has been rising steadily for more than half a century, comfortably beating population growth. Last year, the global wheat harvest was bigger than ever. Astoundingly, the number of undernourished people began to rise just as world food prices began to fall. In 2014, when fewer people were hungry than at any time since, the global food price index stood at 115 points. In 2015, it fell to 93, and remained below 100 until 2021.

Only in the past two years has it surged. The rise in food prices is now a major driver of inflation, which reached 9% in the UK last month. [Current estimates are that it will be 9% in the U.S. as well.] Food is becoming unaffordable even to many people in rich nations. The impact in poorer countries is much worse.

So what has been going on?…

Spoiler alert: massive food producers hold too much power – and regulators scarcely understand what is happening. Sound familiar? “The banks collapsed in 2008 – and our food system is about to do the same,” from @GeorgeMonbiot in @guardian. Eminently worth reading in full.

Then iris out and consider how agricultural land is used: “Half of the world’s habitable land is used for agriculture.”

… and consider the balance between agriculture aimed at producing food directly and agriculture aimed at producing feed and fuel: “Redefining agricultural yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare.”

Hélder Câmara

###

As we secure sustenance, we might send carefully-observed birthday greetings to Dorothea Lange; she was born on this date in 1885. A photographer and photojournalist, she is best known for her Depression-era work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA). Lange’s photographs influenced the development of documentary photography and humanized the consequences of the Great Depression.

Lange’s iconic 1936 photograph of Florence Owens Thompson, Migrant Mother [source]
Lange in 1936 [source]

“The real alchemy consists in being able to turn gold back again into something else; and that’s the secret that most of your friends have lost.”*…

16th century alchemical equipment, and 21st century reconception of Luria’s 16th century Sephirotic array by Naomi Teplow.

About a decade ago, the formidable Lawrence Weschler was a visiting scholar at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, where he conceived a concept for an exhibit that, sadly, never materialized. Happily, he has shared the design in his wonderful newsletter, Wondercabinet

Lead into Gold:

Proposal for a little jewel-box exhibit

surveying the Age-Old Quest

To Wrest Something from Nothing,

from the Philosopher’s Stone

through Subprime Loans

The boutique-sized (four-room) show would be called “Lead into Gold” and would track the alchemical passion—from its prehistory in the memory palaces of late antiquity through the Middle Ages

(those elaborate mnemonic techniques whereby monks and clerks stored astonishing amounts of details in their minds by placing them in ever-expanding imaginary structures, forebears, as it were, to the physical wondercabinets of the later medieval period—a sampling of manuscripts depicting the technique would grace a sort of foyer to the exhibition),

into its high classic phase (the show’s first long room) with alchemy as pre-chemistry (with maguses actually trying, that is, to turn physical lead into physical gold, all the beakers and flasks and retorts, etc.) to one side, and astrology as pre-astronomy (the whole deliriously marvelous sixteenth-into-seventeenth centuries) to the other, and Isaac Newton serving as a key leitmotif figure through the entire show (though starting out here), recast no longer in his role as the first of the moderns so much as “the Last of the Sumerians” (as an astonished John Maynard Keynes dubbed him, upon stumbling on a cache of thousands of pages of his Cambridge forebear’s detailed alchemical notes, not just from his early years before the Principia, but from throughout his entire life!).

The show would then branch off in two directions, in a sort of Y configuration. To one side:

1) The Golden Path, which is to say the growing conviction among maguses and their progeny during the later early-modern period that the point was allegorical, an inducement to soul-work, in which one was called upon to try to refine the leaden parts of oneself into ever more perfect golden forms, hence Faustus and Prospero through Jung, with those magi Leibniz and Newton riffing off Kabbalistic meditations on Infinity and stumbling instead onto the infinitesimal as they invent the Calculus, in turn eventually opening out (by way of Blake) onto all those Sixties versions, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, etc., which set the stage for the Whole Earth Catalog and all those kid-maguses working in their garages (developing both hardware and software: fashioning the Calculus into material reality) and presently the Web itself (latter day version of those original memory palaces from back in the show’s foyer, writ large);

while, branching off to the other side, we would have:

2) The Leaden Path, in which moneychangers and presently bankers decided to cut to the chase, for, after all, who needed lead and who needed gold and for god’s sake who needed a more perfect soul when you could simply turn any old crap into money (!)—thus, for example, the South Sea Bubble, in which Newton lost the equivalent of a million dollars (whereupon he declared that he could understand the transit of stars but not the madness of men), tulipomania, etc., and thence onward to Freud (rather than Jung) and his conception of “filthy lucre” and George Soros (with his book, The Alchemy of Finance), with the Calculus showing up again across ever more elaborate permutations, leading on through Ponzi and Gecko (by way of Ayn Rand and Alan “The Wizard” Greenspan) to the whole derivatives bubble/tumor, as adumbrated in part by my own main man, the money artist JSG Boggs, and then on past that to the purest mechanism ever conceived for generating fast money out of crap: meth labs (which deploy exactly but exactly the same equipment as the original alchemists, beakers and flasks and retorts, to accomplish the literal-leaden version of what they were after, the turning of filth into lucre).

And I appended a xerox of that napkin sketch:

Eminently worth reading– and enjoying–in full. “The age-old human quest to turn nothing into something.”

* Edith Wharton

###

As we appreciate the abiding attraction of alchemy, we might recall that it was on this date in 1933 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the act creating the Tennessee Valley Authority. A feature of the New Deal, the TVA was created to provide navigation, flood control, electricity generation, fertilizer manufacturing, regional planning, and economic development to the Tennessee Valley, a region (all of Tennessee, portions of Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky, and small areas of Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia) which was particularly hard hit by the Great Depression relative to the rest of the nation. While owned by the federal government, TVA receives no taxpayer funding and operates similar to a private for-profit company.

The TVA has been criticized for its use of eminent domain, which resulted in the displacement of over 125,000 Tennessee Valley residents for the agency’s infrastructure projects. But on balance the TVA has been documented as a success in its efforts to modernize the Tennessee Valley and helping to recruit new employment opportunities to the region.

FDR signing the TVA Act [source]

“All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”*…

Of the 270,000 photographs commissioned by the US Farm Security Administration to document the Great Depression more than a third were “killed.” As we wrestle with the stories we’re being told, an update of an earlier post

From his office at the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington, D.C., Roy Stryker saw, time and again, the reality of the Great Depression, and the poverty and desperation gripping America’s rural communities. As head of the Information Division and manager of the FSA’s photo-documentary project, his job was to hire and brief photographers, and then select images they captured for distribution and publication. His eye helped shape the way we view the Great Depression, even today.

Professionally, Stryker was known for two things: preserving thousands of photographs from being destroyed for political reasons, and for “killing” lots of photos himself. Negatives he liked were selected to be printed. Those he didn’t—ones that didn’t fit the narrative and perspective of the FSA at the time, perhaps—were met with the business end of hole punch, which left gaping black voids in place of hog’s bellysindustrial landscapes, and the faces of farmworkers.

In 1935, the Resettlement Administration (RA) was established as part of the New Deal to provide relief, recovery, and reform to rural areas. The FSA, created in 1937, was its spiritual successor. The FSA’s duties included, but were not limited to, operating camps for victims of the Dust Bowl, setting up homestead communities, and providing education to more than 400,000 migrant families. Communicating about its efforts was also part of its mandate…

Stryker sought out photographers, among them Dorothea LangeGordon Parks, and Arthur Rothstein, and made their images readily available to the press. Given the lack of new photography and art being produced during the Great Depression, the photos regularly appeared in magazines such as LIFE and Look. He also had them displayed at the 1936 Democratic National Convention, the 1936 World’s Fair, the Museum of Modern Art, and other prominent venues. The publication of a series of early photographs, including Lange’s Migrant Mother, proved instrumental in pushing the federal government to provide emergency aid to migrant workers in California.

In the effort to represent the FSA and Roosevelt’s signature domestic achievement in a positive light, the chosen photos captured how the idealistic views of farm life were being tainted by poverty, and how the FSA programs were helping farmers reclaim their dignity. Common elements were decrepit housing conditions, the lack of food and clean water, and harsh work environments.

It was government propaganda, and there were certainly some within the government (both supporters and detractors) who saw it that way, and more who considered both the FSA and its photography project as communist and un-American. In a 1972 Interview, Stryker admits to having felt political pressure from the Department of Agriculture to portray the effectiveness of the New Deal. “Go to hell,” was his response. His photographers “were warned repeatedly not to manipulate their subjects in order to get more dramatic images, and their pictures were almost always printed without cropping or retouching.”

But there is a way to manipulate the story being told without altering the images themselves—the process of photo editing, of choosing which images to highlight and which to discard…

The fascinating story of one man’s (materially successful) effort to galvanize social and political opinion: “How a Hole Punch Shaped Public Perception of the Great Depression.”

See also “The Kept and the Killed.”

And for an equally-fascinating consideration of how emerging new visual technologies might similarly be used to sway sentiment, read Fred Turner‘s “The Politics of Virtual Reality.”

* Richard Avedon

###

As we contemplate cuts, we might recall that it was on this date in 1940 that the first Social Security check– for $22.54– was issued to Ida May Fuller.

The Social Security Program had been created in 1935, with qualification for eligibility (covered earnings) beginning in 1937. So Ms. Fuller, a teacher-turned legal-secretary, had been accumulating credit for three years. She lived to 100 years old and collected a total of $22,888.

source

“Books are a uniquely portable magic”*…

 

librarian

A “Pack Horse Librarian” returning for a new supply of books

 

The Pack Horse Library initiative, which sent librarians deep into Appalachia, was one of the New Deal’s most unique plans. The project, as implemented by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), distributed reading material to the people who lived in the craggy, 10,000-square-mile portion of eastern Kentucky. The state already trailed its neighbors in electricity and highways. And during the Depression, food, education and economic opportunity were even scarcer for Appalachians.

They also lacked books: In 1930, up to 31 percent of people in eastern Kentucky couldn’t read. Residents wanted to learn, notes historian Donald C. Boyd. Coal and railroads, poised to industrialize eastern Kentucky, loomed large in the minds of many Appalachians who were ready to take part in the hoped prosperity that would bring. “Workers viewed the sudden economic changes as a threat to their survival and literacy as a means of escape from a vicious economic trap,” writes Boyd.

This presented a challenge: In 1935, Kentucky only circulated one book per capita compared to the American Library Association standard of five to ten, writes historian Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer,. It was “a distressing picture of library conditions and needs in Kentucky,” wrote Lena Nofcier, who chaired library services for the Kentucky Congress of Parents and Teachers at the time…

Unlike many New Deal projects, the packhorse plan required help from locals. “Libraries” were housed any in facility that would step up, from churches to post offices. Librarians manned these outposts, giving books to carriers who then climbed aboard their mules or horses, panniers loaded with books, and headed into the hills. They took their job as seriously as mail carriers and crossed streams in wintry conditions, feet frozen in the stirrups.

Carriers rode out at least twice a month, with each route covering 100 to 120 miles a week…

A New Deal program brought books to Kentuckians living in the most remote areas: “Horse-Riding Librarians Were the Great Depression’s Bookmobiles.”

* Stephen King, On Writing

###

As we check it out, we might send shocking birthday greetings to the enfant terrible of French letters, Arthur Rimbaud; he was born on this date in 1854.  In his adolescence and early adulthood (he wrote his final work when he was 21), and with his buddy, Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud was a leader of the Decadent Movement; fueled by absinthe and hashish, he succeeded in shocking a literary establishment that was nonetheless awed by his visionary verse, which influenced modern literature and arts, inspired a number of important musicians, and prefigured Surrealism.

All known literature is written in the language of common sense—except Rimbaud’s   – Paul Valéry

 source

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 20, 2019 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: