Monday, September 17, 2012

The economics of the home

In my previous post I was talking a lot about the cultural aspects of the home: sex, marriage, children, family, the decisions we make about these things as if they were made in a vacuum.  However, economics plays into all that a heck of a lot.  We often don't make decisions based on our values -- we make decisions based on whether we can afford them.

Unfortunately economics is not my area of expertise.  I found myself frustrated with Radical Homemakers, because it obviously isn't the author's area of expertise either.  Sure, she discussed it for half the book -- but she never got past describing our economy to explaining why it's like that.  The trouble is that no one really knows why it's like that -- all we have our theories.  So all I have, personally, are a lot of questions.

1.  Is it possible for a family to live on one income?  Silly question, I know, considering we do so already.  But is this sustainable?  Will it continue to be possible?  You can cut expenses like food, luxuries, even housing costs, but what about insurance for the whole family?  Don't you need two jobs to insure everyone?  In our particular situation, John's insurance will accept him and any number of kids for a reasonable price, but add a spouse and it's another $500 a month.  That's like another mortgage.

Our solution has been to buy private insurance for me, but prices are predicted to go up across the board for the next few years, and it's uncertain how sustainable this option is going to be for us.  I'm thinking maybe a catastrophic plan is the best for me, but I don't know anything about that.  Do any of you?

2.  Is there room for more than one kind of lifestyle in our economy?  I've often wondered this.  I mean, a generation ago all the women decided to enter the workforce.  That meant double the employees, and wouldn't that mean wages would go down, and thus every household needs two incomes now?  (John says no; the reason every household "needs" two incomes now is because of inflation due to abandoning the gold standard.  I am no expert.)  Or take childcare.  If most women want to work outside the home, the government should ensure copious maternity leave and affordable childcare are available, right?  But the money for that comes out of everyone's taxes.  So those families that don't use those benefits will end up paying more in taxes and getting nothing for it.  Is there a fair way to make sure that working moms have what they need, and stay-at-home moms aren't penalized for providing their own childcare?  (Or do we just have to deal with it, as we already do if we homeschool and still pay school tax?)  Conversely, if nothing is done for working moms, is it really okay for them to have nothing but their saved vacation days to give birth on, so that they are sometimes forced to go back to work within days after having a baby?  How can single moms cope with childcare costs while raising enough money to feed their kids?

3.  How is the economy to survive if people don't get and stay married?  Think about last post.  I mentioned an article that showed married moms were richer than single moms, and their kids had more opportunities.  The suggestion was made that the government should make up what is lacking in single-parent families, by providing subsidized childcare and other programs.  This is all well and good as long as there are plenty of wealthier, married families paying plenty of taxes.  But what happens as more and more of the population relies on these programs to get by, and no one's paying in?  And yet, what can anybody do about it?  We can't force anyone to get married.

4.  For a bigger jump, what about our food system?  I've been told over and over again that mega-farms are the only feasible way to feed the nation.  And yet that seems absolutely counter-intuitive to me.  What is sustainable about the way they do business?  Lots of money spent on GMO seed, chemical fertilizers, massive tractors -- the bigger the farm, the greater the overhead, so a profit isn't necessarily easier to come by if you scale up.  Shipping costs increase, of course, if you have to grow everything in California or the Midwest.  Wouldn't the smart thing to do be to replace expensive chemical inputs (and oil to power the machines) with human labor, helping employ people across the country and not just in cities?  Or is farm work something Americans just don't do ... because of the minimum wage, or pride, or some other reason?

Could we feed America on smaller farms?  Is there any way to reverse the flight from farms to the city?  Once 90% of Americans farmed; today the number is about 1%.  Could we bump it up to 10% and still efficiently feed everyone?  Is the idea that we could all at least know where our food comes from, an impossible dream?  Or do 10% of people just not want to farm because it sounds like too much work?

What do you think?


some guy on the street said...

1) That's totally insane, to be given reasonable insurance for arbitrarily-many children (whose children are they, anyway?) and not for their mother! What's wrong with the world!?

2) Theoretically, double the employees should mean double the production, but demand would only "double" for things the family wasn't already buying: that is, not a whole lot of stuff; not food, nor clothing. For some luxuries, possibly, but I'm really not sure.

It's probably closer to being 1.6 times the formal employees, because some women still take time off for maternity-related things, and some men find themselves displaced by women in their jobs...

I don't think the lack of a currency/commodity standard is the problem; but there should be some standard, to be sure. But, no, inflation isn't why personal incomes are small compared to family demands: this is because employers do not value labour (nor families) as they used to; and this may well be because the supply of formal labour is larger than the demand for it, relative to what families there are. There are probably other issues.

3) It's hopeless. Not as in the economy will eventually grind to a halt, but more in the sense that it will only become more and more clear that this is a worthless measure of a nation's well-being.

4) Ah! Mega-farming means use of labour-multipliers, like huge combine-harvesters and industrialized food processing. There's another interplay between non-valuing of human labour and available supply of human labour; in this case, it's an example of the labour-saving device making the particular remaining human job on the one hand easier, on the other hand much more wretched.


You might get the idea that I'm in favour of a partial "labour theory of value," here; this isn't quite right: I'm a firm advocate of the value of labour, without at the same time pretending this is one thing. The labourer's wage should be accounted part of the cost of a thing; if it's value in the market doesn't cover that, then it probably wasn't worth making it. So, all those smartphone things, e.g.: what are they really worth?

The Sojourner said...

I am no economist either, but I am horrified that John's insurance doesn't cover a spouse. I don't think that's at all a nationwide thing, by the way.

(I have insurance through my *father's* employer until I'm 26, as does my husband. The trouble is that you can't put a baby on insurance by itself, so if we have a baby before my husband turns 26 he'd have to go off his dad's insurance and get a separate plan with him and the hypothetical baby. [I could go off my dad's insurance, but as you no doubt know, maternity riders are EXPENSIVE.] That's not really relevant at all, but I felt like I should gripe a little too.)

Sheila said...

Sojourner, my husband's insurance does cover spouses. It's just that the "employee contribution" for spouses is over $250 per two-week pay period.

You're right, of course, s.g.o.t.s. We insist, in this particular country (and I suspect in yours too), of having lots of consumer goods and having them cheap. We also insist on a minimum wage. The only solution is to have these cheap goods made in other countries by people who DON'T earn a minimum wage. It's all very well to outsource the making of some things to a place where costs -- including cost of living for employees -- is lower. But in some cases what we're really supporting, with our constant buying of so much STUFF, is actual slavery, or deplorable working conditions. Things we'd never tolerate here in our "civilized" world, but are willing to take advantage of so long as we don't have to see it.

Yet another argument for *making* more and *buying* less of the things we need. Wouldn't it be better, if the price is too high, to go without?

momsomniac said...

I only have input to the mega-farm issue. Could the answer be as easy as everyone with land growing food?

some guy on the street said...

There are zoning issues, and the Health-n-Safety people, on the one hand; and it should be affordable to make sure the soil you choose to farm on isn't going to poison you if you start eating off it, on the other hand; anywhere slightly urban, or downwind or downhill of or previously industry, the latter would be a genuine concern. I think that's why they invented hydroponics...

Enbrethiliel said...


My friend Bob would say that John is right about why wages haven't been going up, while you are right about why two incomes have become "necessary." If the average household has more money, then business can afford to raise their prices. But if the US had stuck to the gold standard, that market scenario at least wouldn't be the huge problem it is for one-income families now.

As for the single mother question, I'm reminded of the Jessica Shairer article you linked in your previous post. I recall a discussion of it on another forum in which someone remarked that if a single mother can't find a husband and can't rely on the government, then the simplest solution for her would be to move in with one or two other single mothers. Then they would have the benefits of their shared income and maybe even someone at home with the kids full time! It's hardly ideal, but I personally prefer keeping the government out of a family issue.

Finally, any question about food always reminds me of Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food. He said that we moderns have the mindset that food should be "cheap, quick and easy"--and that it is so wrong that we are hurting ourselves. The food that is the cheapest to make (and to transport and to store) and the quickest and easiest to prepare is often also the least healthy food there is. But it takes much more work and much more resources to produce good food, and there just isn't enough market demand to make it feasible for farmers to provide it.

Sheila said...

Momsomniac, I'm with you. For most people with a patch of soil, there's no reason not to grow food. You know what the biggest crop in the US is? Lawn. What a waste of arable land. (And water, and fossil fuels, and time.)

In the cases where there are obstacles, I would favor pretty much anything that would overcome that. Sadly none of our land -- not my front yard, and certainly not the average megafarm -- is absolutely pure of chemicals. Bust most of our yards are as clean as farmland, and with a little effort we can make sure they're cleaner. I'm glad to live near the top of a hill for that one! Laws banning gardening are an abomination and should be struck from the books immediately. No nuance there. There is no use for such stupid laws. And I feel the same about laws banning backyard chickens or goats.

The biggest obstacle to home gardening, though, is the fact that so many people don't have yards at all. Things can be done -- community gardening, for instance. But sadly my dream of everyone moving out of the big cities and living on healthy homesteads in the boonies is not shared by everyone. Some people PREFER to live in highrises. I think they are crazy, but I'm sure they think the same of me.

Enbrethiliel, that is a great idea about the single moms. It's like polygamy without the husband. ;) I mean, I have often had a vague wish to be polygamist just so I could have a couple more women around the house sharing the load. (What stops me is that I could not possibly share my husband. Also that he has no interest, NONE, in being a polygamist. He'd rather be single forever. One woman is more than enough for him.)

Where was I? Single moms. Yes, and I wonder why more women don't do this? It would make life a lot easier.

Oh, and I love Michael Pollan. Real food takes a lot more work (and money) than fake food. But no wonder -- it actually has value. I do think there's a growing number of people catching onto this ... and the more people demand real food, the easier it will be to find.

momsomniac said...

Anti-gardening laws? That's crazy.

If there were no chemicals, there'd be nothing! Sorry, I couldn't resist - I know you mean pesticides, herbicides, phthalates (from plastics) and polyaromatic hydrocarbons (from exhaust) - not oxygen, water, and the carbon that makes up humasn and trees. As you said, most yards are about as free of those as anywhere else.

My main barier to growing food is that I work too darn much. It's a crazy cycle to work to pay for food and shelter when less work could mean growing my own food. But I'm certainly not the only person caught in that cycle.

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