All posts filed under: Economics

Warehouse Work in an Age of Contagion

As regular readers of Quillette will know, I work at a warehouse in West Sacramento, California, where every workday I toil in close quarters with dozens of other employees. In the days before the advent of the novel coronavirus pandemic, that wasn’t a problem. Now, however, it’s a little bit frightening. Last week, along with all other members of the company’s workforce, I received an email informing me that a supplier of surgical masks for all warehouse workers hasn’t yet been found. In the meantime, employees are improvising. People are covering their faces with bandanas, like stagecoach bandits in the Old West. Others are wearing ski masks, like contemporary bank robbers. Some wear scarves around their faces, even though the weather is fairly warm now. And some have even managed to procure actual facemasks. But most of the employees, like me, work uncovered. Although we are encouraged to stay six feet away from each other at all times, that isn’t really practical. We’re all hauling bags and packages out of narrow aisles and it isn’t …

The Case for Economic Hibernation during the COVID-19 Lockdowns

The extreme social distancing measures required to arrest the spread of COVID-19, especially the lockdown and isolation, are presenting economic policymakers with an unfamiliar challenge. The economic slowdown, caused by the need to employ extreme social distancing and isolation measures, has nothing to do with underlying issues in the local or global economy. Businesses are closing and people are losing their jobs, not because of a natural decline in demand for their services, nor due to a new technology that has made their job obsolete, nor a bubble whose time has come to burst. People still want to travel abroad, purchase clothes, go to the hairdresser, and sit with friends for coffee. The underlying demand in the global economy remains unchanged. This means that the extreme social distancing and isolation measures are sending distorted signals into the economy of a supposedly precipitous fall in demand for numerous products and services. In reality, demand for these products and services remains the same, but simply cannot be realised as a result of the enforced isolation. These distorted …

The Coming Age of Dispersion

As of this writing, the long-term effects of the coronavirus pandemic remain uncertain. But one possible consequence is an acceleration of the end of the megacity era. In its place, we may now be witnessing the outlines of a new, and necessary, dispersion of population, not only in the wide open spaces of North America and Australia, but even in the megacities of the developing world. Much of this has been driven by high housing prices and growing social disorder in our core cities, as well as the steady rise of online commerce and remote working, now the fastest growing means of “commuting” in the United States. Pandemics naturally thrive in large multicultural cities, where people live “cheek by jowl” and travel to and from other countries is a fact of international tourism and commerce. Europe’s rapidly advancing infection rate is, to some extent, the product of its weak border controls, one of the EU’s greatest accomplishments. Across the continent, cities have become the primary centers of infection. Half of all COVID-19 cases in Spain, …

No, COVID-19 Is Not a ‘Disaster for Feminism’

I wasn’t especially surprised to find an essay in the Atlantic calling the COVID-19 pandemic a “disaster for feminism.” But I am disappointed. It seems that the author, Helen Lewis, undervalues “women’s work” simply because it is unpaid labour. But to undervalue unpaid labour is to reaffirm corporate ideas of what constitutes valuable work. The denigration of home economics has always been a blind spot within feminism, which often champions traditionally male markers of professional and corporate success as success itself, rather than celebrating the un-corporatized nature of traditional female work. To repeat, I am not surprised by this anti-female logic at this late date, but I still find it disappointing. There are, of course, good reasons why feminists fought to emancipate women from the home. Economic independence transformed societies, economies, and the individual lives of many women, and allowed them to pursue intellectual, creative, professional fulfillment they had hitherto been denied. However, the kind of professional and capitalistic contemporary feminism (of which Lewis is apparently an adherent) seems to require the denigration of home …

The Two Middle Classes

Politicians across the Western world like to speak fondly of the “middle class” as if it is one large constituency with common interests and aspirations. But, as Karl Marx observed, the middle class has always been divided by sources of wealth and worldview. Today, it is split into two distinct, and often opposing, middle classes. First there is the yeomanry or the traditional middle class, which consists of small business owners, minor landowners, craftspeople, and artisans, or what we would define historically as the bourgeoisie, or the old French Third Estate, deeply embedded in the private economy. The other middle class, now in ascendency, is the clerisy, a group that makes its living largely in quasi-public institutions, notably universities, media, the non-profit world, and the upper bureaucracy. Standing between the oligarchs, who now own as much as 50 percent of the world’s assets, and the growing population of propertyless serfs, the traditional middle class increasingly struggles for survival against those with the greatest access to capital and political power. The power of this modern-day equivalent …

Is Democracy Compatible with Extreme Inequality?

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville took a 10-month trip to the United States to study the American penal system. In the resulting book—Democracy in America—he singled out one noteworthy feature: “Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions.” Although he ignored the fact of slavery, his reference to economic equality among white Americans was, at the time, accurate. According to economic historians Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson, the share of national income going to the top one percent was less than 10 percent. Today, the share of national income going to the top one percent has doubled, while median wages have remained largely stagnant. In the last 40 years, CEO wages have grown nearly 100 times the rate of wages for average workers. The popularity of left-wing candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders—both with significant redistributive policies at the core of their platform—reflects the moral concerns many have about high levels of income inequality. But no moral case for economic …

The Growth Dilemma

More is more and more is also different ~Benjamin Friedman, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, 2005 For much of the last 70 years, economic growth has lifted the quality of life in Europe, North America, and East Asia, providing social stability after the violent disruptions of World War II. Today, however, many of the world’s most influential leaders, even in the United States, reject the very notion that societies should improve material wealth and boost incomes given what they believe are more important environmental or social equity concerns. This sharp break from the past is occurring as growth in Europe, Japan, and the United States has fallen to half or less of what it was just a generation ago, and while fertility rates are at levels not seen since the medieval era. This promises to create a tsunami of retired people whose retirements can only be addressed by economic growth. The combination of reduced real income, green-driven rises in energy and housing costs, and growing concern about pensions has sparked a new wave of …

Economic Inequality—Populism’s Rallying Cry

A nation will not survive morally or economically when so few have so much, while so many have so little. We need a tax system… which reduces the obscene degree of wealth inequality in America. ~Bernie Sanders [A]ffluent married people, the ones making virtually all the decisions in our society, are doing pretty much nothing to help the people below them… Rich people are happy to fight malaria in Congo. But working to raise men’s wages in Dayton or Detroit? That’s crazy. This is negligence on a massive scale. ~Tucker Carlson Populists on both the Left and Right have a narrative to push. According to this narrative, when economic inequality rises, the middle class suffers and the American dream dissipates. When the government combats inequality, conversely, the middle class rises and the American dream prospers. Let us call this the inequality fable. It is a tale the Left has been telling for over a century, though patriotic Americans on both sides of the aisle have been rallying around it with passionate intensity since the Great …

How Bitcoin Can Protect Free Speech in the Digital Age

Think about what happens when you buy a newspaper at a local cafe with cash. The shopkeeper takes your paper money, and gives you the item. They don’t know your name, address, phone number, email, or what you bought yesterday. They are not collecting any data about you. Until now, this level of financial privacy was perfectly normal. Today, cash is disappearing. In the UK, just 42 percent of transactions are still performed using cash. In America, it’s down to 32 percent. In Sweden, 20 percent. And in South Korea, only 14 percent. In some urban areas—for example, Stockholm or Beijing—electronic and touchless payments are virtually everywhere. In an increasingly cashless world, citizens are losing their privacy and, by extension, their civil liberties. When you buy a subscription to a political magazine like this one, you almost certainly do so with a credit card or through a platform like PayPal. These payment processors collect data about you that can be sold, leaked, hacked, or handed over to a curious government. When you make an electronic …

How to Tackle the Unfolding Research Crisis

Research [is] a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education. ~Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Scholarly research is in crisis, and four issues highlight its dimensions. The first is that important disciplines such as physics, economics, psychology, medicine, and geology are unable to explain over 90 percent of what we see: dark matter dominates their theoretical understanding. In cosmology, 95 percent of the night sky is made up of dark matter and dark energy which are undetectable and inexplicable. Some 90 percent of human decisions are made autonomously by our sub-conscious, and even conscious decisions often emerge from a black box and have little support. The causes and natural history of important illnesses—including heart disease, cancer, obesity, and mental illness—are largely unknown for individuals. The second dimension of the research crisis is that systems which are critical to humankind—especially climate, demography, asset prices, and natural disasters—are minimally predictable. The best example of misguided theory can be seen in the conduct of organisations. Although a high …