Bryan Caplan  

Windbags and Modernity

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During my many recent hours at the neonatal ward, I've finished Gary Becker's A Treatise on the FamilyThe last chapter is the best, particularly his analysis of the decline of respect for the elderly:
Older persons are held in esteem in traditional societies because they have accumulated knowledge that is especially valuable to younger persons in stationary environments.  Knowledge is passed to younger generations through the family mainly via the culture inherited by children, nephews, and other younger relatives... Younger members tend to follow the same occupations and till the same land as their parents and other relatives because they acquire the specific knowledge of their elder relatives... The importance of family "schools" in traditional societies explains why peasant farms remain in the same family for many generations, and why families specialize in producing soldiers (samurai), clergymen (Brahmins), merchants (bazari), farmers (peasants), servants, and other workers... [references omitted]
So why have the kids these days lost respect for their elders?  Because most of the advice of their elders has ceased to be useful!
In modern societies markets facilitate trade and production, and dynamic economic environments rapidly change technologies, incomes, and opportunities.  The knowledge accumulated by older members is much less useful to younger members than in traditional societies because the young face a different economic milieu... The "certification" provided by families in traditional societies is provided today by schools and examinations.  Moreover, contracts and the possibility of repeat business reduce the need for prior certification...
The single best sentence in the book:
Since kinship is less important in modern societies, elder members and ancestors receive less respect and attention; they are less likely to be defended against criticism by others and more likely to be criticized in public or in the privacy of a psychiatrist's office.
All this reminds me of a cartoon on Robin Hanson's office door.  (I'm describing it from memory, so this isn't word-for-word).  In panel one, we see a kid playing videogames while his grandfather explains that, "During all my years, I've learned many valuable life lessons.  Would you like me to share them with you?"  In panel two, the kid (never looking up from his game) responds, "No."  In panel three, grandpa mutters, "I didn't think so."  If Becker's right, people in traditional societies wouldn't get the joke.  Do you think they would?
 

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Gene writes:

In my business there are many people who lament these facts, generally implying that the non-elders are at fault and that the non-elders ought to do something about it (though what exactly should be done is rarely specified). To me it seems clear, for the reasons described in Becker's book, that what's really called for is a rethinking on the part of the old people (and the middle-aged, on their way to elderhood) about how to better avoid marginalization.

PeterW writes:

In that case we would expect greater respect for the elderly by those in professions in which the rate of technical change is slow.

Weren't the elderly in traditional societies about 55 years old?

Unit writes:

By observing the elderly, the young learn an invaluable lesson, namely that their bodies will eventually deteriorate and that death is inevitable. I don't think that has changed much over the years.

Alan Crowe writes:

> So why have the kids these days lost respect for their elders?

I'm not yet fifty years old, so can I be the kid explaining a lack of respect for elders? I can remember my school days. We had word problems: if it takes 3 men 6 days to lay 40 yards of road how many days ...

We could have had handled more interesting drills. Let me give the whole of an example which you will recognise as preparation for Ricardo's Law of comparative advantage.
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Q. It takes Bill 3 hours to paint a plate and 7 hours to paint a vase. How long will it take him to fulfill an order for 5 plates and 5 vases?

A. 3 x 5 + 7 x 5 = 15 + 35 = 50 hours

Q. It takes Ted 2 hours to paint a plate and 3 hours to paint a vase. How long will it take him to fulfill an order for 5 plates and 5 vases.

A. 2 x 5 + 3 x 5 = 10 + 15 = 25 hours

Q. Suggest a division of labour so that the production of 10 plates and 10 vases may be accomplished with Bill working no more than 45 hours and Ted working no more than 24 hours. How much time does each man save with your schedule compared to the previous two answers?

A.

Bill can make 7 plates or 3 vases

Ted can make 3 plates or 2 vases.

adjusting to make comparison easy we consider that

Bill can make 14 plates or 6 vases

Ted can make 9 plates or 6 vases

Bill has the comparative advantage in plates and should make all ten taking 30 hours. That leaves 10 vases. If Ted does 8 that takes him 24 hours, leaving 2 more for Bill at 7 hours each.

Bill does 10 plates and 2 vases taking 30 + 14 = 44 hours

Ted does 8 vases taking 24 hours.

Bill saves 6 hours and Ted saves 1 hour.
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Two folk theorems are being slapped down here. First is the naive conservation law that it is the same amount of work no matter how you share it around. Second is the idea that since Bill is slower than Ted on both tasks, Ted can only help Bill if he is altruistic and willing to do more work of the work.

We are coming up to the two hundredth anniversary of Ricardo's Law, but it will come and go and the kind of drill I post above will fail to make it into the K-12 curriculum. The elderly don't know this stuff and they don't know that they don't know it. They have lived all their long lives in capitalist countries but have been sufficiently incurious never to learn why they don't bake their own bread. They have not even reached the point of saying "Why did I have to blunder across this as an adult, I should have been taught it in school."

I try to imagine the angry young man, wanting to join an anti-globalisation protest, being talked out of it by his wise old grandfather. Ricardo's Law of comparative advantage predates steam trains. It is canal era wisdom. It helped repeal the corn laws. It ought to be part of ancestral wisdom by now, but somehow it isn't. We face tough questions about where old people get their wisdom from. Is it handed down from their parents or is it handed up from when their children come home from University bearing ancestral wisdom from its actual repository?

John Markley writes:

Andrew M Garland,

Not necessarily. Relatively few people in the 1st World today die young, so our average lifespan isn't too far off from reflecting the age at which people actually die. Premodern societies had a huge mortality rate among children, which pulls down the average. Thus, the mean lifespan wasn't necessarily that close to the length of most actual lives- if the "average person" died in their 30s, say, that would often actually reflect lots of people dying when only a few months or years old, balanced out by lots of people making it to fairly venerable ages. (One of the least appreciated yet most profound ways life has been improved by greater wealth and technology- the great majority of people in modern societies will never have to experience the death of their own child.)

Steve Sailer writes:

I think Becker's insight is getting outdated. In lots of prominent professions, such as baseball, Hollywood, and politics, you are seeing more scions of famous names of the past reaching the heights than in the past. See "In Praise of Nepotism" by Adam Bellow (son of Saul Bellow) for details.

Joe Cushing writes:

Andrew,

All the years we keep hearing about life expectancy growing over the years has mislead people into thinking people used to die when they were 30 then 40 then 50 now 80. This has never been the case. Science is close but to date has done nothing to extend the natural lifespan of people. All it has done is cure things that would prevent people from living out their full lives. People have always lived to be 80. Life expectancy is an average. If half the world died at age 5 and the other half lived to be 80, we would say the life expectancy is 42.5 but that would not be a very good picture of how long people live.

I wonder what the life expectancy for people in America was 200 years ago, given that they lived to be 15. I bet it was more than 55.

Admiral writes:

Dear Mr. Sailer:

That hardly seems to invalidate any of Becker's argument. You list baseball, Hollywood, and politics -- there would be a very obvious reason why this is true for the second one: Hollywood is less insulated from market pressures for the hires of "scion" names.

In politics, this is hardly more true today than it ever was before. In Europe for hundreds of years, important public positions have descended almost exclusively by heredity. Japan has always, and continues to judging by the new PM's father, worked this way. The U.S. is little different... we have had our share of the Adams, MacArthur, Roosevelt, and Harrison families at the highest levels.

As for baseball, if true, it would seem to help your thesis. But it seems more than likely we just don't know given its relatively young age. However, given time, we might suggest if this occurs that children with athlete parents have a better chance of making it into the pros, making large salaries based on partially hereditary advantages as well as training and culture advantages.

The overall point for the vast majority of professions holds. Of course other factors may interfere and insulate decisions from market efficiency. He never denied that.

lemmy caution writes:

David Hackett Fischer's excellent book "albion's seed" discusses the differing levels of respect for elders in early america. For example, Puritan's had high levels of respect for elders while the scots-irish had relatively little respect for the elderly. And, it wasn't because the scots-irish had a more dynamic economy than the puritans either. The scots-irish were just kind of douche-bags.

Traditional societies that have little respect for the elderly are associated with impulsive behavior and a lack of cooperation and trust. Not exactly a hothouse for capitalism.

Unsuprisingly, the move to modernity is going to happen more often in societies with a high level of respect for elders to begin with. The decline in respect for the elderly may be partly because of the rise of pensions and other ways for "low discount rate" societies to prepare for the future.

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