September 15th, 2013

A Purple Straw Hat

_The Baby Bust_, edited by Fred R. Harris

Subtitled Who Will Do the Work? Who Will Pay the Taxes?

Published 2006 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Split into two parts, the first parts is made up of dense, demographic analyses of Japan and Europe (and not just northern or western Europe, either). While this portion is slow going, it is well done. The second part is four essays: a historical overview of demography in the United States, an argument against the myth that Social Security is something we need to worry about fiscally and in favor of spending more money on programs for children in poverty as a way to improve the long-term curve of development in the United States, a response to right-wing objections to immigration (especially illegal, but really any Hispanic immigration) around the time this was written/published and finally a straightforwardly Great Society argument in favor of full employment and a wide variety of strategies to improve opportunities for the poor, marginalized, etc.

There are problems with this book. The major obstacle to having more children in a rural context is the lack of economic opportunity. The major obstacle to having more children in an urban context is the expense of housing. The United States has not suffered as large a decline in fertility largely because women in general have been able to figure out ways to have the number of children that they want to have. In other countries, the lack of economic opportunity (re-entry into the workforce, living wages, adequate educational opportunities, etc.) and/or appropriate housing at an affordable price has resulted in large numbers of women delaying having children and/or having fewer than they might have had if their options had been better.

But that’s not the conclusion that any of the authors reach, because they are (a) all men and (b) myopically focused on the datasets that already exist and/or (c) politically attached to either incentive-style solutions (payments, either lump sum or over time) to encourage women to have more children without changing the global environment into which this child-rearing activity will occur or a belief that just pursuing a general purpose Clinton Or Earlier Democratic program will fix everything.

You could argue that this could have been worse, in that the authors could have descended into some hellish argument in favor of shoving mothers back out of work in favor of reinstating a family wage and/or getting rid of reproductive choices so women have more kids whether they want them or not. But I wouldn’t have bought _that_ book.

Next time, I won’t buy this book, either.

There are many interesting observations in this thin book, and occasionally a careful bit of analysis. But the real program with demography is that it attempts to figure out how to get women to have more babies, without actually involving them in the process. Which is only one step removed from straightforward oppression. One step is good; more would be better.

Policy makers have a nasty habit of thinking of jobs as a way to distribute resources (which they are), rather than as artifacts of people who have more useful and effective ideas about making shit people want to pay money for than time/energy/hands/etc. Jobs are both, in our hybrid society, but if we forget their side-effect nature and load them up with stuff designed to move resources around to people who need them, you can cause the people with the ideas to make different economic decisions that result in fewer jobs (more automation, for example, even when their is available labor). If make jobs, you run some other risks which are real but tend to sound like right wing talking points: you can wipe out market sectors by providing government subsidized competitors and that’s really bad if, for example, the government program is then eliminated and now no one is providing the service -- or if the government funded program, while “cheaper” to the paying customer, is not providing what the customer wanted and so forth. This should in no way be construed as an argument _against_ redistribution of resources to those in need, who can make excellent use of them, only an observation that there are a lot of really stupid programs out there and we could probably do better.

Especially if we listen to the customers, which in a demographic, encourage a higher TFR sense, would, presumably _include women_.

Don’t waste your time. I feel bad enough about this already. This is another in the read-or-release project, and I feel like I probably should have stopped after the 5th essay, but I was so close to the end I got sucked into the oh-just-finish-it meme.
A Purple Straw Hat

Not a Review: _Desire and Domestic Fiction_, Nancy Armstrong

Subtitled: A Political History of the Novel

I bought it used in 2007, because I kept running across references to it. I found it unreadable, and now I know why.

First, she spends a lot of time talking about Foucault, and mostly misconstruing him. So, Foucault is largely a waste of time -- but Foucault twisted around to talk about gender difference just seems pointless in addition to being a waste of time.

Second, she says odd things like this:

"There is a strong possibility that early educational theorists recommended Crusoe over Defoe's other works because they thought women were likely to learn to desire what Crusoe accomplished, a totally self-enclosed and functional domain where money did not really matter. It was no doubt because Crusoe was more female, according to the nineteenth century understanding of gender, than either Roxana or Moll that educators found his story more suitable reading for girls than for boys of an impressionable age."

So, the _real_ reason you do _not_ want girls or really anyone impressionable of any age reading Moll Flanders is because Defoe makes having children with a series of lovers/husbands/half-brother and then abandoning them seem like the kind of thing an appealing, intelligent, charming woman would do and justifiably so. I defy you to find a reproductive population that thinks this is how to raise the kiddies, reading stuff like that. Which, I might add, I adore, while recognizing that Moll's morals are Pretty Bad and I say all this with a goofy smile on my face.

Here is another example, after she argues that Sunday schools provided enjoyable leisure time activity, not moral indoctrination of self-sacrifice and so forth. Fine, I guess you could argue that, but then she says this:

"Laqueur reasons that Sunday schools became an effective means of socialization not because they taught the necessity of self-sacrifice and respect for authority, but because they offered recreational programs that occupied many of the idle hours when people gathered in their customary fashion and when political plans might otherwise have been hatch."

Arguably, the Sunday schools were competing much more heavily with drinking as a pastime than political plotting. And yet liquor is nowhere mentioned.

For that matter, Armstrong, in her efforts to understand why novels by, for and about women arose at the point in history when they arose, fails to take into consideration things like, oh, I don't know, was there a market for mass fiction? If so, who had the money to purchase the books (or subscribe to the library or the magazine/newspaper)? Writing was going to be produced for people who had the money to buy access to the books AND time to consume the books (and marketable writing is always produced by those who love to consume that which they produce). Gentry and above women, basically, at the time of Austen, sliding down the class scale through the era of the Brontes, and Dickens. And it was going to have to be mostly family-friendly, given that it was all going to be shared 'round (in the case of the three volume Victorian novel especially). Obviously, non-family-friendly stuff existed, but the men hid their stash (just like ever), and boys tried to do likewise and when they got caught they got a lecture (a lecture reproduced over and over in the novels of the era in question!).

Here's how Armstrong describes "The Bury New Loom":

"The verses obviously celebrate an artisan household that by the early 1800s had come to be viewed as essentially hostile to the middle-class household and to the woman at its center. It was this form of sexuality that Shuttleworth made the figure and cause of the impoverishment and demoralization of the artisan class. It was also this form of sexuality that the factory sought to change by fixing workers within a totally individuated and functional space."

Er. What? On one level, the Bury New Loom is a really clever description of casual sex between a man and a woman in which the woman initiates and, when the man cooperates, she hopes for more, only he takes off and says hey, maybe someday if I come back this way again. On the one hand, probably fairly true to life then as now. On the other hand, a warning to men that if you entangle yourself with a woman she'll expect more AND a warning to women that if you hope to entangle a man, he may just take off on you (while recognizing, hey, fun!). This really isn't that far off from what middle class novels were pushing -- they just had worse or no meter, and a very dour outlook on life, which is what you would expect from the reformist minded Christian of the day.

However, to be fair, what really made Armstrong impossible for me to read was her analysis of _Pamela_. _Pamela_, as near as I have ever been able to tell, is one-handed reading with just enough veneer of piety to Get Away With It. Sort of like selling kits labeled Don't Do This, Whatever You Do, where if you do what you aren't supposed to do, you wind up with beer or gin or whatever, during Prohibition. You really have to be some kind of idiot not to understand what's going on here, but there are plenty of idiots around, apparently.

Anyway. Now that I am older, I recognize _a lot more_ of _Pamela_ as total power exchange, and I'm increasingly suspicious about whether Pamela is actually cisgendered. Armstrong's reading just feels surreal. And that's over and above the objections raised contemporaneously by Fielding, which Armstrong seems to think Miss the Point.


I'm going to Release Nancy Armstrong's heavily cited but rarely discussed in detail _Desire and Domestic Fiction_. It's great to talk about the intersection of middle class morality and novels, because, hey, _that's how middle class morality is developed_, you know, along with celebrity gossip in tabloids, type of thing. It's a pity that Armstrong found such an obscure approach, and that she remains so relentlessly ahistorical, but, literary criticism. This is what happens.

This is Not a Review because I didn't read the book start to finish.