Saturday, April 30, 2011

About those free range little Krugmans and Manzis

There's an irony in Jim Manzi's moment of communion with Paul Krugman over Krugman's nostalgia for early-60s suburbia:
The safety and freedom that Krugman describe are rare now even for the wealthiest Americans – by age 9, I would typically leave the house on a Saturday morning on my bike, tell my parents I was “going out to play,” and not return until dinner; at age 10, would go down to the ocean to swim with friends without supervision all day; and at age 11 would play flashlight tag across dozens of yards for hours after dark.

Here's the thing: leaving aside demographic changes in Krugman's native Merrick, NY, most American suburbs today are very safe places. The murder rate nationally in 2009 was 5.4 per 100,000 people, vs. 5.1 in 1960. Violent crime rates nationally were at lower in 2009 than at any point since 1973. It's true that the 2009 violent crime rate remained  two and a half times that of 1960, but most of that crime was concentrated in poor inner city neighborhoods (and increased reporting of rape probably accounts for some of the difference over time). I doubt that most little Manzis or Krugmans living on suburban streets today are at significantly more risk of being crime victims than their grandparents were in 1960.

What's changed is parents' perception of risk -- and tolerance for it. Perhaps the crime-ridden 1980s changed the culture, or perhaps increased affluence (we'll get to that...) inevitably makes parents more risk averse, or perhaps we're just all made permanently jittery by too much information, or maybe our dual-action superparenting ethic renders us incapable of leaving them kids alone. As Megan McArdle points out, too, back then, neighborhoods full of stay-at-home moms increased the sense of on-the block safety.   In any case, as parents we've gone collectively insane. As Lenore Skenazy has documented, parents in many suburbs won't let their kids walk two blocks to school:
Those of us who remember using our own legs for transit now run the risk of sounding Abe Lincolnesque. Today, only about one in 10 kids walks to school, says Lauren Marchetti, director of the National Center for Safe Routes to School.

The shift is so profound that the language itself has changed. "Arrival" and "dismissal" have become "drop-off" and "pick-up" because an adult is almost always involved—even when it doesn't make sense.

"When we first moved to town we found a house three blocks from the school," says Annie Anderson, a mom in Corpus Christi, Texas. "The day before school started a lady knocked on my door and asked if I'd like to join the carpool."

"Carpool to where?" Ms. Anderson asked. "She proceeded to explain that not only would I pick up her kid and others every morning of my assigned week, but I would need to pick up their 'carpool seats' before Monday and pass them to the next parent on Friday."
I'm afraid the economists can't help us with this problem.

Another odd thing about the nostalgia-bonding is its evocation of a lost era in which, as  Benjamin Wallace-Wells put in the Krugman profile that triggered Manzi's response, "prosperity was not only broad but broadly shared." More broadly shared, yes  -- we have had a serious problem with rising inequality since the 1970s. And yes, that inequality is at the core of Krugman's political agenda, and rightly so -- he claims that the data shows, contrary to what one often reads, that the relentlessly widening wealth gap is due more to policy choices than to global competition or automation.

But through the roseate haze, let's acknowledge at least in passing that in 1960, per capita GDP was 36% of what it was in 2008; half the workforce did not have a high school diploma and only 10% had a 4-year college degree; and the poverty rate for those 65 and over was 35% (Stephen J. Rose, Rebound, p. 86).

That is not by any means to minimize the problem that Krugman places at the center of his writing for the general public -- which is that, as Wallace-Wells notes,  "From 1979 to 2004, the income of the richest one percent of Americans grew by 176 percent, that of the richest one fifth of the country by 69 percent, and that of everyone else by less than 25 percent. "   That rising concentration of wealth causes all manner of social and political ills -- arguably, as monied interests push the GOP ever further to the right and so drag the Democrats with them, we are losing our capacity to use the democratic process to foster broad-based shared prosperity.

But let's not slosh the baby in too much bathetic eyewater. There is more "prosperity" now in the U.S. for almost everyone, no matter what their income decile, than there was in 1960 for comparably situated people. And not too much more danger to life and limb, except for the unfortunates at the bottom of the pyramid.

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