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The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away. —Psalms 90:10, King James Version
Most of the coverage of Japan’s aging population focuses on the current low birth rate and its implications for the future. In January, prime minister Fumio Kishida told legislators that the country is “on the brink of not being able to maintain social functions” because of its falling birth rate. “In thinking of the sustainability and inclusiveness of our nation’s economy and society, we place child-rearing support as our most important policy,” he said.
But even if the government succeeds in goosing the birth rate, the effects will be felt decades from now. Japan has an immediate problem that dates back to policies adopted in 1948. People over 75 now make up 15 percent of the population, and they don’t have a lot of kids to take care of them. Japan’s postwar baby boom lasted only about two years. By contrast, the U.S. experienced high birth rates from 1946 to 1964.
In 1948, the Diet passed the Eugenic Protection Law. It made abortions legal and cheap, about $10. “Critics assert that it is easier for a woman to avoid an unwanted child in this way than to have her tonsils removed,” The New York Times reported in 1964. “One result of the practice has been the virtual elimination of illegitimate births.”
The bill also promoted contraception, establishing “eugenic protection consultation offices” throughout the country. They provided marriage counseling and gave couples “guidance in adequate methods of contraception.” Local governments trained midwives and nurses to encourage family planning. Employers, unions, and nonprofits pushed the idea of smaller families and helped spread information about how to achieve them.
The Times reported:
At the Tokyo Steel Company plant at Kawasaki, near Tokyo, a pilot project was set up among families of the 20,0000 workers. Housewives were given the opportunity to receive family-planning guidance as an alternative to such other instruction courses as cookery or household economics. A leader met with groups of about 10 women and explained not only birth control techniques but ways in which family life would be improved if there were fewer children. Initially the labor union charged that the program was a plot by management to reduce the outlay for family allowances—wage supplements paid to workers according to the number of their children. But the women accepted the courses eagerly and as word spread, enrollment in family planning instruction rose to almost 100 per cent. The birth rate among company families dropped markedly, the rate of pregnancies and abortions declined and the number of those practicing contraception rose quickly by more than 25 per cent…. Since the eugenic program began, surveys have discovered that there has been not only an increasing acceptance of the idea of family limitation but a shift in the reasons given for it. In the immediate post war years simple economic factors were dominant. Now, in a more prosperous and competitive society in which education is the key to advancement, 43 per cent of mothers say that their chief purpose is to provide better education for a smaller number of children. Twenty-nine per cent mentioned safeguarding of the mother’s health and 9 per cent the desire for a more pleasant life, while only 12 percent mentioned financial strain. The result of the eugenic program has been that Japan’s birth rate has been cut in half.
Unlike China’s notorious One Child policy, the program wasn’t coercive. But it made smaller families a norm in Japan a generation earlier than in the U.S. The results are a preview of what American baby boomers will face as they get old.
For the first time in human history, large numbers of people are living to advanced ages. A life span of only “three score and ten” is a tragedy for us, not an expectation. (When the mother of my oldest friend died last year at 91, I recalled overhearing a conversation she’d had with my mother after she turned 35, which seemed impossibly old at the time. “Half a lifetime,” she’d said.) Seven percent of the U.S. population is now over 85. In 1950, the number was so low it shows up as zero percent in United Nations figures. The 14 percent of the population over 80 compares to 1 percent in 1950.1
These numbers will only grow in the coming decades. The oldest baby boomers turn 80 in 2026, the youngest in 2044.
Thanks to the baby boom, today’s very old Americans tend to have multiple children to take care of them. Even for those living on their own or in institutions, eldercare is time-consuming, emotionally draining, and often extremely expensive. There are forms to fill out, bills to pay, errands to run, and health care to arrange—not to mention emotional needs. It’s easier if, like my own parents, the very old have a diversified portfolio of kids, preferably including at least one medical professional, to take care of the things they can’t handle.2
The alternative is what Japan is experiencing: a rapidly growing population of very old people without much family support. In some cases, the unshared burden of taking care of parents simply becomes too much, especially when the parent is a difficult character. In others, middle-age children—including increasing numbers of men—are quitting their jobs to take care of their parents. At the extreme are “lonely deaths,” or kodokushi, when people die alone and go unnoticed for days. (In some cases, the deceased elderly person was not alone but living with a person with dementia.)
As a childless baby boomer, I’m afraid I don’t have a good solution.3
But we’ve been warned.
1 Using ChatGPT, I got a bunch of potentially useful data on the percentage of various national populations over 80 from 1920 to the present. But I can’t be sure the AI isn’t making stuff up and by the time I find the numbers on the cited sources I haven’t saved any time. ChatGPT has an enormous advantage at rummaging through databases but that isn’t any good if I can’t trust it. And it looks like it was wrong.
2 I live a continent away from my parents. My very capable brother who lives in the same town has taken on day-to-day responsibilities. Another brother, who lives across the state and visits several times a month, is an M.D. and talks with medical staff. I mostly handle finances, which can be done at a distance.
3 No, I don’t regret not having kids. You’re reading my work because I didn’t.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on May 04, 2023 • Comments
This post went out to subscribers to my Substack newsletter on February 16. Check out all the posts, including ones from the archives not reposted here, and subscribe here.
Earlier this week I had dinner with a small group of MIT professors from a variety of scientific disciplines. Among other topics, they shared their concerns about threats to the culture of free inquiry and the intellectual playfulness and audacity on which it depends. Whatever the form of threat—and they vary—these scientists worry that the institute is letting its concern for protecting its brand and pleasing government funders trump its dedication to scientific inquiry. In response, I recalled this talk I gave at a FIRE conference in, I believe, 2017. I’ve long thought I’d expand it into a “real article,” backed by more research, but never have. Until that day comes, I’m posting it here. (For more on FIRE, now the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, visit their website here.)
I am speaking this afternoon (Thursday, February 16) at Brown. Details here.
Two stories to start, one about academic ethics and intellectual safety, and the other about how strange an American university seems to a foreigner.
First story: When I was a senior in college, I took a graduate class in Elizabethan drama. When we got to the final paper, I had a big problem. The Christopher Marlowe plays that I found most interesting were already the subject of my senior thesis. I wasn’t inspired by the Shakespeare comedies that made up most of the other good stuff in the course and, while I liked Richard II, I had nothing interesting to say about it. The only play I found thought-provoking enough for a paper was The Merchant of Venice. That presented another problem: The professor had written a whole book about it. To make matters worse, I disagreed with his thesis, and even though it wasn’t exactly what I set out to write, once I’d read his book that disagreement inevitably became the subject of my paper.
I wasn’t trying to be obnoxious. I just didn’t have anything to say about the other plays.1
There are two problems with writing a paper disagreeing with your professor’s book. The first is that he has spent years, not weeks, thinking about the subject. He’s the expert and you are not. He will find every flaw in your argument and you won’t find every flaw in his. Plus he has a whole book to make his case and you have only a few pages. The second, of course, is that he could get mad and give you a bad grade just for disagreeing with him.
I worried a little about the first but not at all about the second.
Legally, the professor was free to give me whatever grade he believed appropriate. But I knew he would grade me fairly because I could count on his ethics as a teacher and scholar. I knew that his classroom was an intellectually safe place—not a comfortable place, not an undemanding place, but a place where I was free to disagree without punishment merely for dissenting. We would all put our feelings aside and make—and respond to—the best arguments we could.
“This puts me in a difficult position,” he wrote on my paper, before going on to comment on its substance. I had indeed put him in a difficult position, and he did still disagree, but he and his criticisms were reasonable and fair. He gave me an A-.
Second story: In 2005, someone at The Atlantic had the idea of sending the French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy around the United States in imitation of Tocqueville. One of his stops was Dallas, where I was living at the time, and I was his host for much of a day. At one point, we drove past Southern Methodist University, where my husband was teaching. BHL was puzzled by the idea that SMU would employ a Jewish atheist even for a secular subject like business strategy. “Why would the Methodists do that?” he asked.
The American university is a strange institution. First of all, it isn’t just one thing. There are nearly 5,000 institutions of higher education in this very large country. When we talk about “the American university,” we’re really discussing an ideal type: a place that combines teaching, research, personal development, career preparation, and social life.
That ideal evolved through the combination of three quite different models.
The earliest American colleges were devoted to civic and religious character development. They emphasized liberal arts, training future ministers and giving the Wall Street or law school-bound children of the wealthy a classical education. They also included that weird American institution, college sports, to inculcate self-discipline, leadership, and teamwork.
As the country grew, this model of higher education spread beyond the upper class. Many Christian denominations founded liberal-arts colleges, including schools for women. They believed that higher education improved individual character, made for better parents, and prepared Americans for citizenship.
The second wave of colleges were practical institutions, exemplified by the land-grant colleges that were funded by federal land sales in the mid-19th century. They trained farmers, engineers, and teachers. They also offered extension classes for local citizens who weren’t enrolled as students. They did research on things like crop rotation and hybrid corn. Unlike the private, character-building schools, they were largely government-supported and promised benefits to the citizenry at large, not just their student bodies.
The third model was a German import: the research university, devoted first and foremost to pushing the frontiers of knowledge and only secondarily to training students. Undergraduate education in particular was an afterthought. Johns Hopkins and the University of Chicago were early examples. While the practical colleges were rooted in the needs of their locales and the character-development schools were sectarian or clubby, research universities were cosmopolitan. They belonged to a worldwide community of scholars. The concept of academic freedom emerged from the research university.
1 In the classes I’ve taught at Chapman University, we’ve always had to develop prompts for student papers—something I don’t remember having either in high school or college. Here’s the final assignment for “Ambition and the Meanings of Success”:
Formulate a thesis inspired by one of the following topics. You may focus on a single work or draw on multiple sources to develop a broader pattern.
Your thesis must be something that could be wrong—that someone could against as well as for—not a factual statement. Saying, for instance, that Jiro’s success comes from constantly trying to improve his sushi is not a thesis. It is something the movie tells us is true. A good thesis will often answer the question why or it will establish a pattern out of disparate examples.
You may rely entirely on material we’ve covered in class or, after discussion with the professors, delve into other examples. If you would like to explore another topic, you may do so with permission. In all of the following, the questions are simply examples of avenues you might explore. There are many other possibilities.
Ambition over time: Most of the ambitious people we’ve discussed are in the early stages of pursuing their ambitions. There are three exceptions: Jiro, Norma Desmond, and Tennyson’s Ulysses. What are the challenges of aging for an ambitious person? How does ambition change with time? As a young person, what might you learn about ambition from someone significantly older?
Friends and partners: Few ambitious people succeed alone—or even try to. We’ve seen examples of productive partnerships and also of conflicts. In some cases, ambitious individuals collaborate as equals. In others, one person is clearly the lead and another, voluntarily or not, the supporter. We've looked at evidence that friendships with wealthier people can lead to upward economic mobility. Why might that be? When does collaboration succeed? When does it break down? What challenges does ambition pose to interpersonal relationships? How can those relationships further ambition? What might explain the connection between friendship and upward mobility?
Transcendent ambitions: Ambition often includes goals that go beyond fame or money. What are the pitfalls of “big” or “noble” ambitions? What are the advantages? If two people pursue the same ambitions in the same way but for different reasons, one transcendent and one mundane, should we evaluate their actions differently?
Finding your place: “Finding your place in the world” is usually a metaphor, but pursuing one’s ambitions often requires literally moving to a new location or environment. What kinds of places foster success? What does it mean for an ambitious person to find their place?
2 You might assume, as some conservatives do, that the “practical” model of higher education as job training is compatible with the consumerist impulse. But it is even more threatened by it. Keeping students happy erodes the demand to master material, leading to less course content and more generous grading. (Talk to anyone who has taught MBAs for more than a decade and you’ll get an earful.) When practical credentials are at stake, the consumerist model is especially corrosive.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on May 04, 2023 • Comments
This post went out to subscribers to my Substack newsletter on February 3. Check out all the posts, including ones from the archives not reposted here, and subscribe here.
This is a speech I gave at the Atlas Network’s annual conference in 2012. They asked me to give an after-dinner keynote and I agreed, on the condition that I could talk about whatever I wanted to. The Atlas Network is an international organization of free-market policy-oriented think tanks. So the topic was, as the talk acknowledges, a departure. I’ve resurrected it because the popularity of my WSJ article on shopping and equality has me thinking about possible books and, given funding, perhaps even a [Your Name Here] Center for the Study of Commerce and Culture to take up these and other questions.
Now that you’ve had a good conference learning about taxation, regulation, and monetary policy, I want to talk about something really important.
Specifically, two big questions:
Why do people buy things?
Not why do they buy things instead of producing them personally, but why do they buy the specific things they buy. And particularly...
Why do people buy things they “don’t need”?
Americans, at least, buy so many things that The Container Store does a good business selling us things to put them in.
Why do people buy things they “don’t need”?
Through most of human history, that wasn’t a question that came up very often, at least not when you were talking about the general public. It still puzzles people who think about it. It’s a hard question.
But scholars get paid to think about hard questions, and they’ve come up with some explanations.
It’s a fetish.
This is from Marx and Freud and their various offspring. Take your pick. The word “fetish” takes on slightly different meanings depending on the theorist. But it’s definitely derogatory. Primitive, superstitious, and perverted.
The basic point is that the consumer is tricked by an outward appearance and manipulative marketing into ignoring the real “use value” of the product that comes from the legitimate values of material and labor that go into producing it.
Anything subjective—anything about you rather than the way the thing was produced — is an illusion.
Consumers buy things they don’t need because they are hypnotized.
People buy things they don’t need because they’re dupes.
This is the theory that most cultural-studies scholars start with. It’s what they teach their students. This sort of theory is even what students enrolled in the Branding master’s program at the School of Visual Arts (where I teach a short seminar) are assigned, not because the program is some kind of Marxian indoctrination program—to the contrary, it’s professional training for people who’ll work in ad agencies and marketing departments—but because those are the books available to tell the story of consumer culture.
Poor girls could become shop clerks instead of servants. They could go shopping themselves and forge careers as buyers and even store detectives.
Middle-class ladies could get out of the house into a new and respectable public sphere. They could meet friends for conversation in department-store tea rooms.
Magazines supported by ads for cosmetics and fashion could argue in favor of women’s rights and give readers new images of female achievement.
Businesses that wanted to sell things to women had to pay attention to what they wanted. That meant goods and services, but it also meant the environments, institutions, and behaviors that surrounded those things.
The consumer society made women public and independent in new and powerful ways—not through politics, at least not at first, but through the marketplace.
Feminist scholars study these subjects, in the past and in the present. And, believe it or not, they don’t start with the assumption that people—that women—buy because they’re hypnotized. They respect consumers, because they respect women. And that’s a good start.
But the serious study of consumer culture should not be left to the feminists, as valuable as their work may be. For one thing, they aren’t too interested in the other half of the population. Men do buy things, and their experiences are important too. Plus, a lot of these feminist scholars tend in a socialist direction.
We need other voices, asking other questions.
Let me make it clear that I am not arguing for libertarian fables. The last thing the public discussion of culture and consumption needs is more ideological nonsense.
Human behavior, including market behavior, is complex, and it includes wrongdoing and mistakes. If you look honestly at why people buy what they buy, you’ll find some things you won’t like. And you’ll find some things that are just strange.
If we are correct, however, that freedom is good and that free markets are part of that good, taking shopping seriously will only enhance our understanding of why that is so.
There are three reasons people who support free markets should care about consumption in particular and the intersection of commerce and culture more generally—why it’s not enough to pay attention only to politics and policy.
The first is political.
By discrediting nearly every purchase decision, the fetish/status explanations undercut the legitimacy of nearly all market transactions and, thus, the legitimacy of markets as a whole.
On a practical policy note, if you can’t explain why people’s decisions about buying shoes make sense, you’ll never be able to explain why they should be allowed to decide about really complicated goods like health care or education.
You’ll never be able to explain why this or that “unnecessary” purchase shouldn’t be banned, regulated, or taxed—or why taxing away people’s unnecessary income is a bad idea.
Thinking about why people buy what they buy means thinking about the origins and nature of economic value, which is critical to thinking about and defending markets. It’s great to celebrate and defend entrepreneurship and production, but neither works without customers. And we are all customers.
That brings us to the second reason, which is practical.
If you’re a business person, you need to understand why people buy whatever it is you’re selling. What value are you creating? Is it simply utilitarian? Or is there more to it than that? And, if so, what?
The final reason, the one I really care about, is intellectual.
Understanding how the world actually works, what the past was really like, how human beings actually think and act is valuable in and of itself.
Knowledge is good.
That may have been a joke slogan in Animal House but it’s the truth.
And knowledge has practical consequences: What we know determines how we understand ourselves and our society. And how we understand ourselves and our society determines what actions we take, individually and collectively.
So I hope that while you’re thinking about how to promote freedom and improve policy, you will devote at least a little attention to the questions of why people buy what they buy and how markets evolve to serve not just practical but intangible needs and wants. Document what you see in your country and share it with the world—and with the future.
I would like to end with a story from Linda Scott, a [now-emerita] marketing professor at Oxford’s Said School and one of those feminist scholars I mentioned earlier—but not a socialist. She wrote an excellent book called Fresh Lipstickabout feminism and consumer culture in 19th and 20th-century America, and now she works on projects in developing countries.1
One of the projects she has studied is the CARE Bangladesh Rural Sales Programme, which helps women, mostly widows, sell a wide range of products—food, seeds, toiletries, medicine—door-to-door to other women in rural Bangladesh. The program provides distribution both for products from multinational companies like Unilever and for locally produced goods.
These female peddlers bring the chance to shop to rural women who, following local custom, never leave their homes. The successful ones, like Asma and Jasmeen, understand what their customers want beyond mere survival. Asma, for instance, sells “everything they need to take care of their bodies.” And she sells beautiful saris, blouses, and petticoats.
One of the most remarkable things about the program is that it has changed the colors of saris women wear. Before, men bought for their wives and mothers, and most saris were blues and greens. Now women buy for themselves, and they choose reds and pinks. “Imagine,” writes Scott, “the articulation of control that comes from having to wear someone else’s choice of clothes–and the small but very important liberation that comes from choosing your own.”
Anyone who has ever been on one side of a parent-child struggle over clothing knows what she’s talking about. The chance to choose our own clothes is one of the first freedoms we crave as children. It is one of the freedoms we hold dearest and take for granted most often. The freedom to choose our own clothes isn’t made possible merely by the absence of a legally mandated dress code. An economic revolution first had to happen to allow us to buy clothes we “don’t need.” To understand the liberating power of markets, we have to understand culture as well as politics, and consumption as well as production. We have to take shopping seriously.
1The information in the book is fantastic. The tone is angrier than would be most persuasive, reflecting the author’s infuriation at the narrow historical narrative and patronizing attitudes of some of her fellow feminists.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on May 04, 2023 • Comments