Idealizing the rural poor: American Heritage Edition

In a recent NYT article, Robert Shiller makes the case for indexing state-funded pensions to state GDP. This is a really sensible idea, but his framing device rubs me the wrong way:

NOT so very long ago, most Americans lived on farms, with three generations under one roof: grandparents, parents and children.

Farming was — and still is — a risky undertaking. Sometimes, you have good weather and abundant crops, sometimes bad weather and meager crops. How did our forebears manage their risks, which were as significant for them as the booms and busts of our 21st-century economy are to us?

In good times, all three generations consumed a lot. In bad times, all three consumed less. The risks were spread among the extended family. This is risk management at its most basic level. It is called sharing.

This is a perfectly good example of sharing the costs of aggregate volatility (although he makes that link poorly, waiting until the ). But that’s not why he chose it. Shiller repeatedly references “the old-time farm” to take advantage of Americans’ incorrect perception that things were “better” and “simpler” back in the old days. We commonly take a similar (and similarly incorrect) view of contemporary rural poverty around the world: witness the bullcrap-tacular email forward about the Mexican Fisherman and the American CEO.

I object to this kind of rhetoric because it feeds all sorts of misguided advocacy and political action. For example, people often campaign to ban so-called sweatshops because they do not realize how much worse the outside option is.

Hat tip on the Shiller piece: Ben Meiselman


About Jason Kerwin
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