Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Family History and the Great Stagnation

Allow me to vent about this:
Think, for a moment, about the stories that your family likes to tell about itself. They are probably miniature versions of the American story, with progress as the central theme.

Maybe your great-grandparents arrived here as striving immigrants, and you now talk about how proud they would be. Maybe you’re the first college graduate or doctor in the family, and your parents brag about you. . . .

These stories aren’t about only your family. They are also stories of tribal pride — about Italians, Irish, African-Americans, Jews, Asians, Latinos and others — that make people feel part of something larger.

When progress is the norm, it feeds on itself. People can trust that their own sacrifices will usually pay off. They can endure hard times without becoming cynical and can be generous toward others.

Now, imagine a different reality: one in which your family — or whole community — had known scant progress for decades.
What about all the people who don't have to imagine this because it is true? My family tree, which I can follow back to the 17th century along several lines, includes all sorts of people. The Bedells must have started out as minor estate officials (that's what the name means) but by the time I have knowledge of them they were mostly doctors and lawyers and Anglican churchmen, along with some planters and trans-Atlantic merchants. We have been middle class ever since; my grandfather Bedell was a successful psychiatrist. Yes, my ancestors all migrated to America at some point, but most of them were doing pretty well within a decade or two.

As for tribal pride, my children are English-Scottish-Irish-Norwegian-Swedish-German-Polish, half-Protestant half-Catholic. Northern European mutts, I like to say. Most of my friends also have mixed ancestry of both nationality and class. I have a friend who is descended from Ninian Beall, one of the grandest planters of colonial Maryland and the owner of vast swathes of the DC suburbs where she grew up in an ordinary house on a tiny plot.

Think how many people claim to be descended from the English royal family -- not much upward mobility in those family trees.

I am not going through this for reasons of pure pedantry, but because I think how you imagine the course of history matters. If you really believe that every generation is supposed to be richer and higher class than the one before, then you will inevitably be disappointed by life. Because that's not how it works. The world has seen extraordinary economic growth over the past 250 years, but that growth has always been uneven. There have always been places "left behind," places where the overall increase in prosperity did not reach. Southern Italy during the late nineteenth century. Austerity Britain after World War II.  At an extreme, Ireland during the potato famine.

The American west is full of ghost towns, places where an economy rose up around mining or logging or stock raising and then vanished when the ore played out, the trees were cut, or the railroad went some other way.

Growth has also been uneven in time. There have been many severe depressions in the course of the great growth spurt, the worst one coming in 1929-1939, which sent output falling by 40% and did not really end until the world mobilized for war.

So, yes, much of America has seen economic stagnation over the past 16 years, and middle class wages have been rising only slowly for 40. But there is nothing new about such stagnation. There is nothing new about the disappearance of whole industries and whole categories of work, nothing new about cities shrinking as their industries die. In the past, rapid growth has always resumed eventually, although not necessarily in the places that saw it before. Whether that will happen in the future I do not know and neither does anybody else. Certainly the rapidly evolving technologies of genetic manipulation and artificial intelligence will lead to big economic changes, however those changes end up impacting the average person.

We are, fortunately, a resilient species, capable of enduring great hardship. I wish our economy were more fair, with the profits of new technology distributed more evenly across people and regions. Our government should be working to make that happen. But there is no magic wand that can restore prosperity to coal country, or bring back high-wage manufacturing jobs. The moving finger of economic progress writes and moves on, destroying industries as it creates new ones and devastating regions as it enriches others. Instead of pining for greatness, and blaming its loss on people who happened to arrive in North America a few decades after our own ancestors, we should be struggling for more fairness and more kindness. Those are the things that will make our world better, and the things that will sustain us through really hard times, if they come.

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