Sunday, August 14, 2016

Commodification again—a response to Diane Coyle

In a very nice post published today Diane Coyle, commenting on my blog on Commodification (published yesterday) takes me to task for the following sentence:

“The most obvious case is commodification of activities that used to be conducted within extended families and then, as we became richer and more individualistic within  nuclear families. Cooking has now become out-sourced and families often do not eat meals together. Cleaning and child-rearing have become more commercialized than before or ever.”

I should have added a number of other activities: fixing the roof, doing kids’ homework, car repairs, gardening, and this quintessential US activity of raking the leaves.

It would have been, perhaps clearer, that I did not have in mind only activities predominantly done by women but also by men.

Now two points remain to be explained.

Was this increased commodification? Unambiguously, yes. It is simply a definitional issue. Activities that were conducted within families and went uncompensated entered the sphere of the market:  helping kids with their homework got outsourced to a tutor, cooking meals went to McDonald's. So that part is purely factual and definitional.

The second, more difficult, part is, does it represent an improvement (however you want to think of an “improvement” )? I would say in most instances, “yes”. When I was a little boy, my mother had to wash my fathers’ shirts in a back-bending and back-breaking position running them over by soap and water in a bath-tub. Was this fun? No. It was both hard and humiliating. Was the washing machine, and later ability to outsource the cleaning of shirts to a professional cleaner, a great progress? Unambiguously, yes. In addition, as Diane mentions, it enabled women to lead professional lives which they could not if they had to spend entire days cooking and washing. (This is by the way, why I also agree with Robert Gordon that the inventions of the 1930s-1950s had a much more dramatic effect on our lives than the current IT inventions.)

But the great material progress and great improvements in welfare (mainly for women who used to do most of these thankless tasks) created also trade-offs in some cases. Families today eat fewer meals together, not only because they are busier, but because cooking has been outsourced, to the MacDonald’s for the poorer households or to Cosi for the richer or to fancy restaurants for those in the top 1%. (Moreover, these meals are taken by individual household member one by one,, “I go to the MacDonald’s at 1 pm, you at 2 pm”). There is greater marketization, greater specialization and probably greater output (certainly greater recorded output), but we do lose something in not having a place and time when family gets together.

The same can be said for the outsourcing of help to children with their homework. In the past it used to be, and was often ridiculed in theatre plays, that only rich families would hire a multitude of tutors to help their kids get good grades. This has spread, as societies have grown richer, along a large part of the income distribution, sometimes to ridiculous extent (not only homework, but SAP preparation classes and special life coaches for teenagers). When a teenager used to have a problem, it was dealt by parents, or at most by a teacher. Now, the teachers ask parents to hire professional help so both the parents and the teachers wash their hands of the problem. The issue has become “institutionalized” and “commodified”. All these things weaken personal links and replace them with purchased services.

There are many similar examples.

There was recently a graph circulated on Twitter showing the percentage of kids aged 25  living with parents in various countries in Europe. Predictably, the percentage was the lowest in rich, Nordic countries. This simply confirms people’s general preference to be left alone and become individualistic as they get richer and can afford it. They are obviously happier living alone than with their  parents. I was too. But I cannot overlook the fact that it yet further diminishes personal ties. If you live alone, thousands of miles from your parents, you are unlikely to display the same empathy when your father gets sick as if you lived together. (Now when many people live together and the space is very limited  perhaps you may wish for your father to die quickly because you would have an extra room for yourself, but I think it is a rather extreme example).

To make it very clear, I wanted to make two following points. On a pure factual side, I do not think there is a serious argument disputing that as societies get richer, the sphere of commodification extends. (I saw that first hand when I worked on African household surveys where a number of activities that are routinely monetized in rich economies had to have their values imputed in Africa, for otherwise we would grossly underestimate consumption of people in many African countries.)

Second, while in many cases, greater commodification has made our lives better and responds to a definite choice of people, it has also in many cases weakened personal ties and in some cases made us more callous because our knowledge that any pesky little problem can be solved by throwing money at it made us less concerned about our neighbors and family.  

Therefore, as we live increasingly in a commodified environment where interactions (and I relate this to my points on the gig economy and flexibilization of labor) become one-off deals, I  see a shrinking space where we can exercise “nice” cooperative behavior. As we end up all becoming just “agents”  in one-off deals, there would be zero place for niceness. Now, that would be both a Utopia of wealth and Dystopia of personal relations.  

PS. On a personal note, when I moved to New York almost three years ago I discovered a very liberating, but also somewhat disconcerting, thing: if you have enough money and a wireless connection, you can dispense with real people. (This was liberating because I hardly knew anybody in New York; it was disappointing because I realized that I do not need to make much effort to meet anyone).  Now, this ambivalent freedom was made possible by technology (wireless) and higher income, and perhaps my overall happiness increased. But I am aware that, if I look at inter-personal relations, it has not been a gain.

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