Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

Nathan Lewis discusses American affluenza:

Minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, or about $14,500 per year for a full time 40-hour-per-week load (could be multiple jobs). Often, localities have a higher minimum wage than the Federal minimum. It is not a lot. But, it should also be enough. It should be more than enough. We still live in one of the most materially abundant societies the world has ever seen. You can get a lot for $15,000.

Most of the best things in our civilization are actually free, or nearly so. Public libraries, public parks, beaches, museums, the Internet, and so forth provide most of the best our civilization has to offer. Even a genuinely poor person can afford a $75-per-year membership to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which is a really fine museum. I’ve always found it interesting that you never see anyone there who is plainly of a lower income, although they are abundant on the subway you ride to get to the museum. (Indeed, there are some low-income neighborhoods that are an easy walk from the museum.)

Even on minimum wage, you can afford things that even kings didn’t have a few centuries ago. Electric lights. Refrigerators. Hot and cold running water, and modern sewage systems. Indoor flush toilets. Hot showers. Weekly trash removal.

Orange juice. And pepper!

Even a cellphone, if perhaps a prepaid one. They used to call cellphones “carphones,” because they were so big you needed a car to carry it around. That was only 20 years ago.

You can get a decent notebook computer for $450, brand new. If it lasts for a typical four years, that is only $112 per year.


Many other material things you can get for free, or nearly so. I often contribute to a church charity nearby called Magic Closet. A few hours per week, you can bring anything you like there, and donate it to charity. You can also take whatever is there, for free. No limit. Flat out free. It is like Goodwill or Salvation Army with no money in between. Just give it away for free and get it for free. I think it’s a great way to interact with your neighbors, and also to clear unused stuff from your house and get it in the hands of someone who can make use of it.

You can get clothing and housewares of all sorts there, certainly enough for the basics of modern living. It is even pretty good quality. I know because I drop off a lot of stuff there myself (it seems to build up continuously), and the stuff I’m dropping off isn’t junk.

You can even get big-ticket items like furniture, for free or nearly so, if you ask around. Pretty much everyone has a thirty-year-old sofa in the garage, which is still in good usable condition. If you ask nicely, they will probably give it to you.

I once gave away a piano. It ended up with some Chinese people from Brooklyn.

You would think it is the best possible time to be poor, particularly since the advent of things like Craigslist or eBay, where you can get things for much cheaper than new, or sometimes for free.

On top of this, we have various government services, like Medicaid, available to the lowest incomes. For free.

Twelve years of public schooling — for free!

So, what’s the problem?

There are a number of problems, but one problem is the same problem we have throughout American society today. Affluenza. It is really not so much a question of needless luxuries, but rather that the “basic American lifestyle” is too expensive.

There are plenty of people in the U.S., making very little money, but who are quite prosperous in their way. Mostly these are immigrants. They haven’t been raised in American society, and don’t have American expectations or American ways of doing things.

They don’t own automobiles, because, where they are from, nobody owns an automobile. They probably don’t even know how to drive. (My wife, whose father owned a Honda dealership, did not drive on a public road until after age 30.) They ride bikes. When they need to travel farther, or carry loads, they share vehicles or hire one from another person much like themselves.

They will often pile into a typical suburban house, with a family (or four working men) in each bedroom. There might be twenty people in a house. On a per-person basis, it is pretty cheap, because they can split the electric or heating bill twenty ways.

Heck, I did that in college. It was actually pretty fun.

They cook for themselves, with simple nutritious food based on rice, beans, basic vegetables and so forth. It costs almost nothing. It takes labor, but one woman can easily cook for many, which is what people do and what they have always done, where they come from, and indeed in all places throughout history. If they are going outside the house, they bring some food with them. (Often, in food service jobs, you can get food for free anyway.)

Now, I am not saying that sharing a bedroom with three other men in a boarding house is as nice as having a 2500sf suburban house of your own. Did I say that? I didn’t say that. But, if you have a low income, it is not a bad solution, and indeed is perhaps not a bad way to live in any case. It depends mostly on the other people. Not everyone is badly behaved. Military people live in more materially austere conditions than this, but they are generally well-behaved, and it goes well enough. Immigrants usually know how to live with each other and behave themselves. Many American poor do not.

Do you remember the TV series M*A*S*H? It was about a team of battle surgeons in the Korean war. They lived in dirt-floor tents, a few miles from the front lines. On cots. Shared. It was OK. After the war was over, they probably remembered it as one of the most interesting times of their lives.

Of course, one of the problems is that people are badly behaved. This is a problem, but it is not really a problem of income. It is a problem that we attempt to solve with income — moving to a neighborhood with better-behaved people, which costs more money.


  1. Ross says:

    One Carrington-level solar flare, the resultant destruction of the electric grid and the ensuing human cannibalism should resolve these minor quibbles.

    Merry Christmas.

  2. Toddy Cat says:

    There’s certainly an element of truth to this, but I also get a hint of Tyler Cowan-ism in all of this; that Americans should stop trying to attain a traditional middle-class lifestyle, and just shut up and learn to love Third-World style coolie status. Screw that. There’s nothing wrong with the American working class that sane protectionist and immigration policies wouldn’t solve — and it will happen; count on it. Americans living four to a room will suddenly discover that the manifold benefits of free trade and diversity have been somewhat oversold…

    By the way, I wonder how many guys Nathan Lewis shares his bedroom with?

  3. David Foster says:

    Yes, even if you are poor, things that are made in factories and can be transported in freight containers are remarkably affordable — TVs, microwaves, air conditioners, etc. Housing, less so, and education, much less than the “twelve years of free public schooling” line would suggest. If you want your kids to actually learn something and not be in physical danger at school, then you’d better either (a) be able to pay for private school, or (b) be able to afford to move to a neighborhood with “good” public schools, or (c) be very lucky in the public schools in your neighborhood.

  4. Lurnr says:

    David Foster: Option (c) would be to homeschool your kids, either yourself, or — like people like Newton’s parents did — hire tutors.

  5. David Foster says:

    People living at the edge of poverty are unlikely to have either the skills or the time to homeschool their kids, and are very unlikely to be able to afford tutors at a sufficient level to compensate for the failure of the public school where the kids are for many hours a day.

    The point is that it is largely the failures and bad policies of the public sector that are responsible for the worst features of poverty and the suppression of social mobility.

  6. Tatyana says:

    Mr. Lewis engages in “what’s good for me is bad for thee” fallacy. I don’t think he would like to share his room with 3 other men and I wonder what his wife would say to proposition of her “easily” cooking food all day for all these various strangers. What he does not want to acknowledge is that immigrants only agree to live in these conditions temporarily, while they are saving enough money to leave those wonderful communal kitchens and start living their average American life — otherwise why would they come here?

    Two Soviet writers, Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, traveling coast to coast in US in 1935, wrote in their book: “every last bum or hobo [like this one hitchhiker we gave a ride to Flagstaff] hopes in his soul to become a millionaire. American upbringing is a scary thing!”

  7. Alex J. says:

    One might live like this for a while in order to raise capital to live better. Ergo, you don’t need much in the way of welfare.

  8. Sam says:

    Toddy Cat says,”…There’s nothing wrong with the American working class that sane protectionist and immigration policies wouldn’t solve — and it will happen; count on it…”

    Jon Corzine of MF Global stole $1.6 billion of his customers’ money, and no one did anything about it. On 9/11 building #7 fell for 108 feet at the acceleration rate of a dropped rock, completely impossible event for fires to accomplish, and no one did anything about it. In the banking collapse caused by the bankers they were paid $800 billion, and then the fed lent out, we know of, $16 Trillion for nothing, and no one did anything about it. I guess they will just do whatever they damn well please.

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