Posted by: CJ | July 10, 2010

Things I Wonder…

I spend a lot of time wondering about things. Here are some that have been bothering me a lot in the past few months. In no particular order.

1. The bubonic plague decimated Europe in the mid-14th century. But the loss of life lead to increased wages and quality of living for those who survived. At least, as I understand it. The period of 1950-1970 was one of the highest growth and prosperous times for all levels of society in the history of the US, Canada, and western Europe. How much of that can be traced to loss of life from WWI and WWII?

(Part of the reason I wonder this is from reading economists. Some are convinced that the institutional structures of the time should be given a lot of credit for the growth. I’m not sure I’m convinced. I think a lot of factors were at play. And one of them was probably increasing productivity combined with a lower population.)

2. How much of growing inequality in America is caused by college? College is, to some extent, used as a sorting mechanism between more able and less able potential workers. The academics are less important than signaling you have the middle-class background to value education, hard work, doing what you’re told, and the ability to follow through for 4 years. That’s the obvious source of inequality. Another less obvious, or at least less commented on, source is that college graduates tend to marry college graduates. They tend to mostly interact with college graduates, creating various networking effects. These surely combine to make greater inequality, over time. Don’t they? But by how much?

3. If growing technology is reducing the demand for labor, then why would we raise the retirement age? I know that people are starting to live long enough that various social programs are getting prohibitively expensive…but imagine the drop in wages of making people work longer as fewer workers are needed. I’m unconvinced that raising the retirement age would make anything better. For similar reasons, I wonder if increasing amounts of formal education being required is just another way to keep people out of the labor force for longer.



  1. 1. Yes. Now consider this: how have women entering the non-traditionally female job market impacted the overall economy? Same basic thing–and remember that I’m speaking as someone who’s always been the major breadwinner and identifies as a feminist. But having a sizable percentage of the female population vying for jobs that could be held by males—huge impact, and the elephant in many economist’s rooms. Imagine the impact if families only had one person in the paid work force–and that doesn’t just mean many more paying jobs for men; it means more volunteers for schools, possibly healthier eating for families, more people to spend time with their kids–probably a “lower” standard of living if defined in material terms, but in quality of life? And if society penalized being a single adult in some way, which is honestly easy enough to do, then the impact increases even more.

    2. Yes, college has always been a sorting mechanism; that is probably a more important function than the actual degrees/education, And now, the Master’s level is almost a more important sorting hat than the bachelors level.

    3. Retirement age is not being considered carefully in its totality; the focus is on the cost of paying their benefits. The other part of that nutcracker is that older workers are often marginalized at work, and in many professions have little job security and are not appreciated for their experience; the young, shiny-new (and often cheaper) workers are front and center. There’s a tsunami of older people who are unemployed, underemployed, or physically trying to stay abreast of a job that really is too demanding–even teaching a full day, day in, day out, becomes daunting after a certain point.

  2. 1. I want to agree with your basic point, but I wish I’d seen more data about how exactly women entering the workforce changed things.a

    I’m not sure I follow on 2. How would a master’s level degree be a more important sorting hat than the bachelor’s? Because of growing credential requirements, never getting some sort of Master’s is becoming more of a long-term liability. But that seems like a longer-ish term thing, when a lot of sorting has already been done. Can you explain more?

    3. I’m sure that’s true. But it’s not something I have much experience with, so I’m kinda clueless about the exact nuts and bolts of how it would work. And part of me wonders how much of that is primarily due to 1) not drinking whatever kool-aid someone is serving, and 2) not keeping up with technology and getting grumpy and stubborn about the assumption that they not only should start but should have been keeping up from the beginning.

    But the physically demanding part is a tension I’ve seen multiple places. The country is run and regulated by people who prioritize a certain level of physical fitness and have relatively non-taxing jos, either emotionally or physically. And that’s even more true of the punditocracy and various opinion movers and shakers. This seems to make them both unsympathetic and pretty clueless about the issue.

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