Thursday, June 10, 2010

Microwave Sociology - Some History Helps

It should go without saying that anyone who owns a microwave oven cannot possibly be poor -- er, it should, and it just might, if not for two things. The first is that Robert J. Samuelson never tires of repeating it in his writings for influential newspapers and discount newsweeklies:
Although many poor live hand-to-mouth, they've participated in rising living standards. In 2005, 91 percent had microwaves, 79 percent air conditioning and 48 percent cellphones. [emphasis mine]
The second reason this tenet of microwave oven sociology should go without saying is that it is false, unless owning an item with a retail price of $50 counts as strong evidence that the owner is not poor. It might also interest Samuelson to know that cell phones are pretty inexpensive too. Jamelle Bouie has some further thoughts on the microwave - cell phone - air conditioning - wealth nexus over at Matt Yglesias's blog.

Too awed at the novelty of today's futuristic food-cooking technologies and miniaturized portable telephone machines to notice their prices, Samuelson reserves his most avid trembling for the prospect of a change to the official definition of poverty:
[T]he new definition has strange consequences. Suppose that all Americans doubled their incomes tomorrow, and suppose that their spending on food, clothing, housing and utilities also doubled. That would seem to signify less poverty -- but not by the new poverty measure. It wouldn't decline, because the poverty threshold would go up as spending went up. Many Americans would find this weird: People get richer but "poverty" stays stuck.
Well, since we're pulling counterfactual pricing scenarios out of our underwear, let's reach for the gold and say it all quadrupled! Now we're thought-experimenting!

I'm not sure what happens to the prices of everything else in this scenario, so it's unclear what to conclude from it. Do microwave ovens still cost $50-$60, or did they quadruple too -- ranging from $200-$240? Are cell phones still cheaper than land lines, and are they any less practical for people whose housing situation tends to be inconstant?

No matter how you dream it up, it all sounds like the thing Samuelson sometimes seems to despise more than poor people, namely, inflation, which he ever so sagely trembled over in June 2008, a couple of months before the housing collapse ballooned into the financial collapse:
Forget the housing collapse, the "credit crunch" and -- in isolation -- higher oil prices. The real economic menace may be resurgent inflation, which is the broad rise of most prices. To understand why, some history helps ... [inflation] also destabilized the economy, causing harsher recessions that culminated with 10.8 percent unemployment in 1982. We don't want to go there again ...
I can agree with one thing Samuelson said there: some history helps when we try to distinguish bullshit from helpful analysis.


Sheldon said...

Of course poor people have microwaves, how else are they supposed to cook the cheap crappy processed foods designed for microwave ovens that are pushed on them?

Dale said...

Sheldon, absolutely. Remove the microwaves from the poor, and the poor will eat the crappy mass-produced quasi-food raw, and that just sounds like a bad idea gone worse.