Elizabeth Warren is an outspoken Democratic Senator from Massachusetts formerly occupied teaching and researching commercial law and bankruptcy. In a 2007 lecture entitled The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class, Warren provided a detailed look at the newly dysfunctional reality of life for those who comprise the meat in America’s class sandwich. Today’s social, political and economic landscape reflects the trends she presciently identified which continue to bear their bitter fruit, that of a downward financial and aspirational spiral for families, for America, and in all likelihood for much of Western civilization.
Warren herself avoided any serious discussion of root causes, largely limiting her discussion to economic and class issues, but the interrelated impacts of feminism, no-fault (read male-fault) divorce and the steady move by women into the work force are obvious throughout her narrative.
The image of heavily indebted consumers racking up their credit cards with unpayable debt while splurging foolishly on iPads, Nikes and Cadillacs is a popular one, but inaccurate, according to Warren. Her research, using inflation-adjusted figures, compared costs for a traditional family (mom, dad, two kids) in 1971 to that same family in 2003.
Surprisingly, food, appliances, baby food, clothing, cigarettes, furniture and per-car expenses dropped, some by significant amounts, when considered as a proportion of household income. Electronics, dog food and liquor went up, but not significantly. The real increase in costs for families occurred in the five largest areas of consumer spending, items which are mandatory fixed costs for any family. These are housing (the McMansion effect was not a factor), health, child care, taxes (due to high marginal rates on the second income) and cars (costs per car decreased, but the number of cars per family increased out of necessity).
These fixed costs rose from 50% of household income in 1971 to 75% in 2003. The modern family also had much greater (almost double) income volatility due to greatly increased odds of job loss, catastrophically expensive health issues, and divorce.
With respect to bankruptcy and the subsequent slide into the lower class, a single male with no children was least likely to go belly up, followed closely by childless single females and married couples – all hover around the 7 per 1000 rate. When children were involved, married couples faced double that rate, while single moms bankrupted at a rate of 23 per 1000 (there weren’t enough single dads in her data to form a statistically valid sample). Fifty percent of bankrupts have endured two of the big three predictors (job loss, health issue, divorce), and 20% have experienced all three.
Warren also provides significant data which shows that the costs for parents of launching their own descendants into the middle class have increased significantly through erosion of the safety net and through the transfer of costs. For example, 12 years of taxpayer-funded schooling formerly was sufficient, while at present a college degree and pre-school are mandatory, meaning 1/3 of the necessary educational cost (for those aspiring to the middle class) is a new financial responsibility for parents. Ditto the health care system, which, in addition to shifting costs away from taxpayers onto immediate family, has also become a generator of reduced income.
It’s important to note that the greatest impacts of the above shifts have been on the traditional married two-parent two-child family. Other forms of the family and individuals have experienced these shifts as well, but to a lesser extent.
In his lecture on The Collapse of Complex Societies, Dr. Joseph Tainter describes the process whereby societies solve problems through complex solutions (because it works), until the point is reached where the cumulative expense of maintaining all extant solutions overwhelms the nation’s ability to pay for them. This mechanism includes the diminishing returns on research (i.e., the ability to devise and implement new solutions) which become prevalent as the low-hanging fruit is plucked, as well as the ever-increasing military costs and currency devaluations which accompany the need to maintain the empire and pay for more and more solutions.
Sevareid’s Law, which states that “the chief source of problems is solutions” encapsulates Tainter’s work in a pithy nutshell. Senator Warren’s research provides an inadvertent glimpse into this virtuous spiral – ‘solving’ the problems of feminists through female ‘empowerment’ and the break-down of the family has helped create greater problems which necessitate more complex and less effective solutions which in turn will create further problems and an outcry for yet more solutions. Such a cycle involves ever-escalating complexity and cost, and reiterates up to the point of societal break-down. The explosion of government ‘services’ such as VAWA, ObamaCare and SNAP, not to mention America’s military budget, currently provide classic examples, and there will undoubtedly be more to come.
Perhaps the most important comment offered by Dr. Tainter is that efforts to solve problems, while ultimately leading to destruction, often are ethical and desirable. He points out that the Roman Empire would have collapsed much sooner had its rulers (most notably Diocletian) not taken steps to create complex solutions. (An interesting aside here: the only examples of sustainable, stable societies seem to be prehistoric, so, is a sustainable complex society possible?)
In that sense, it is clear a genuine concern for the well-being of women and a desire to solve their problems, real or not, provided an impetus for some of the solutions currently in place, and will almost certainly profoundly influence the next cycle of solutions. It’s worth wondering what those solutions will be, but even more so to contemplate what problems they might bring.