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Posterity Lost: Progress, Ideology, and the Decline of the American Family by Richard T. Gill


"There is ruin and decay

In the House on the Hill:

They are all gone away,

There is nothing more to say."

--Edwin Arlington Robinson


Just when I was thinking the major differences between libertarians and neoconservatives are drugs, abortion, and foreign policies, along comes this book. A remarkably original work, Posterity Lost argues that Americans now rarely care about progress and the future, except in vacuous rhetoric. A fascinating section charts how recent changes--scale, choices, complexity, interdependence, specialization, increases in alternatives--affected families. As alternatives multiply, or appear to multiply, so does decision complexity and anxiety about bad choices.


But, he argues, this does not explain everything. It may, in fact, explain almost nothing. Another factor is ideology. Beliefs that progress is good, children are treasures, and the distant future is important waned. Ideology especially affected parents and children. Gambling, massive debts, binge drinking, promiscuous sex, therapeutic funerals, political fads all have something in common, a short-term mindset. Legal gambling revenues now exceed those of books, music, movies, and amusement parks combined. The short-term mindset cuts across generations. The percentage of households with children under 18 in 1990 was 34.6 percent, down from 48.4 percent in 1960. And the households that do have children have fewer children. Gill wonders if older Americans are so poor, why have they “abandoned the work force in such huge numbers.” The median age of retirement in 1998 was 62, down from 67 in 1950--while life expectancy keeps increasing. In nineteen forty-eight 89.5 percent of men 55 to 64 worked. By 1988, sixty-seven percent worked.


As a history lesson, and not as an irrelevant argument, Gill writes that throughout history nuclear families have been the norm. Social, economic, educational, and religious efforts centered around homes. Children were contributors rather than dependents. Even minor criminals were sentenced to serve as servants in homes. Within the last 150 years, three major changes occurred: First, labor moved away from the home. Second, outside institutions took over care and education. Third, a sentimental view of family life blossomed.


Gill offers a variety of one-sided social statistics that support few conclusions other than the conclusion that change occurred. Gill reports that "incomes per capita are five times higher" than a century ago, which does not mean much, except that medical science, thankfully, improved by heaps and individuals now have lots of techno-toys to distract and harm themselves. Millions of Americans would rather live in a cabin than Watts. Something is wrong with that five times statistic. If a median size, median income family in 1890 were transported to 1997 and given an inflation adjusted after tax income they should be able to live as they did in 1890. But this amount is at most $8,000 in 1997 dollars and the median size family in 1890 was around six. For six individuals to survive on $8,000 today, they would have to squat, live in tents, commute by foot, and eat animal feed (or moldy bread from a bakery thrift store). The median family in 1890 was poor, but not that poor. That statistic is worth about as much as the statistic that used to be thrown around about the world having enough nuclear weapons to kill everyone on the planet dozens of times. Well, yeah, if everyone is gathered together in and around big city football stadiums.


This work excels at analyzing changes in beliefs, but fails at prescriptions and social science. The author recommends welfare for married couples. (Every single parent loves coming home after a double-shift and seeing the welfare wife and husband next door watching Jerry Springer.) Gill prescribes a huge education subsidy for stay-at-home parents after their children grow up. This is a terrible idea because, first, most individuals, after raising children, do not want to spend several years in college, especially in the demanding majors that make college economically worthwhile. Second, for many individuals, college is largely a long, expensive screening institution, serving no overall benefit. We do not need sales clerks with business degrees. Correlation is not cause. There are dozens of factors that explain why college graduates earn more over their lifetimes than high school graduates and drop-outs. They include: work ethic, reliability, intelligence, literacy, social skills, competence in basic skills, physical attractiveness, and staying out of state custody. (Being in prison reduces lifetime income and a lower percentage of college types spend time in prison). Masons, truck drivers, and numerous other blue-collar workers earn more over their lifetimes than individuals with the less desirable college degrees. Third, only a fraction of stay-at-home parents would qualify for the careers--law, medicine, and engineering among others--that make college economically worthwhile. They would require huge amounts of remedial education because they would have forgotten almost everything from high school. What middle-aged adult wants to relearn algebra while surrounded by 20-year-olds taking differential equations? Or listen to mind numbing lectures on Peter Drucker, Malcolm X or Eric the Red? Fourth, businesses abhor hiring 46-year-old college graduates. You might as well paint loser on your forehead. Fifth, you can not build much wealth when starting your career in your 40s or 50s. Sixth, little evidence supports the moral superiority of stay-at-home parents. (Laura Schlessinger's fantasies do not count.)


Among the problems with "guaranteed income" for parents to stay home: The recipients exist at or near poverty unless they cheat or the government pays so much they are no longer near poverty. If the government pays their way out of poverty, then aggravation affect escalate. Most of the population will try to sign up, which will not happen because not enough money exists to pay for most of the population to live a middle-class lifestyle on the dole. With most of the population retired or on other handouts, those stuck with work can be manipulated to acquiesce for only so long.


One curious thing about neoconservatism: When it spends money, it flat-out wastes it. Prescriptions are the most important part of a policy book, yet authors throw out prescriptions that seem an afterthought. Libertarians, neoconservatives, and liberals share a trait: Careful benefit-harm analysis is taboo.


Much of this work is plain sloppy. Gill claims intolerance is the only thing the left won’t tolerate. Almost everyone has a long list of items they will not tolerate, no matter how arbitrary the list, whether abuse or lint on clothing. The lists merely change from person to person. On daycare and single parents, Gill resorts to one-sentence so-and-so has proven rhetoric.


Arguing for the wonders of supply-side tax cuts, he dutifully tells us that between 1980 and 1989 the "share of federal income tax paid by the top 20 percent by income group rose from 67.2 percent to 72.3 percent and that of the top 5 percent from 37.1 percent to 44.2 percent." But the percentage of federal income taxes paid by the rich increased because the incomes of the top one percent more than doubled over the past generation. When income doubles, and everything else is held constant, tax receipts approximately double--or they would if tax rates were not cut. Everyone should have such terrible problems. The tax cuts did not cause the increase in incomes and percentage of federal tax receipts. Technology, monetary policies, better management, weakened unions, and rich-first public policies, among many factors, caused the increases. Gill, of course, doesn't report the percentage of other taxes paid by the top five percent of the population, especially payroll taxes. For 74 percent of American families, payroll taxes are the largest taxes. Payroll taxes skyrocketed in the 1980s.


One difference between a family hating, family wrecking nation and a family loving, family wrecking nation is at least the family hating nation would be honest. Not recommended.

352p (H) 1999


Book review article by J.T. Fournier, last updated 7/29/09


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