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Tilting at Windmills

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November 2, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

BLING....Ezra Klein meditates on why the iPod generation (hey! another synonym for "20-somethings"!) doesn't seem to be politically motivated to do anything about economic insecurity:

My sense is that economic status has been cleaved free of economic security. So the sort of goods that signal affluence — iPods and iPhones and laptop computers and plasma televisions — are becoming much cheaper, more broadly accessible, and thus more widely owned. Lots of people, particularly young people, can thus claim economic status. The trappings of our wealth are all around us.

....Meanwhile, from where I sit, the American Dream is a pretty weak force. White picket fences aren't the culturally transmitted vision of prosperity. Electronics are. Awesome stuff is. We're seeking goods, not security. And we can buy goods. Which makes us feel prosperous. And if you feel prosperous, if you consider yourself affluent, you can't merge that self-conception with economic insecurity, and thus it's hard to consider yourself part of a coalition in need of economic reform, or more advantageous public policy. By offering status without security, folks lose the class discontent that would turn them into a constituency for the security. And so they don't get it.

Hmmm. I'm trying to figure out if I think there's something to this.

I guess I'm not sure that all the electronic doodads Ezra is talking about have really taken the place of a house in the suburbs. My guess is that they've mostly just taken the place of other doodads that used to signal status. Maybe it used to be whitewall tires or a leather briefcase or a European vacation (a status good that's long since become a commodity), and now it's an iPod or a DSL connection or an xBox. It's not that we have more non-house status markers than our parents and grandparents did, just that we have different ones.

But I'm not sure about that. Maybe we do have more. Or, more to the point, if the urban hipster crowd has flatly given up on the prospect of ever owning a home, maybe they simply have more money for doodads. After all, there's no point in socking away money for a down payment if you're never going to be able to use it. So why not spend that dough on a copy of Halo 3 instead?

But then....well, it turns out that home ownership is higher today than it was 30 or 50 years ago, subprime crisis or not. So homeownership is hardly a dying dream. Though it sure seems to be among young people living in cities, doesn't it?

I dunno. For now, I'm going to go with (a) we have different status doodads today, not more status doodads, and (b) yeah, housing in crowded urban centers is a problem.

Kevin Drum 12:58 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (40)

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I think it all has to do with the current position of the person in question. People are having children later and later. When you're in your 20's, economic security never even crosses your mind. You're just trying to keep up with the rest of your peers in the acquisition of the best and latest.

As people get older, and begin to settle down, then the question of economic security becomes important. If I'm not having a family until my mid 30's, I worry about it then, not right now (if I'm in my 20's - which I'm not).

If you're young, you have the rest of your life to worry about affording the trappings that usually come along with a family and being an adult. As adulthood gets pushed farther and farther out, so do concerns about economic security.

Posted by: Dave Buster on November 2, 2007 at 1:06 PM | PERMALINK

How much of this stuff is actually bought and paid for, as opposed to charged? It's easy to feel affluent if you don't look at your credit card statement.

Posted by: catfoodfork on November 2, 2007 at 1:07 PM | PERMALINK

It may also have something to do with the increasing delays in marriage and childbearing. Even if the 'ipod generation' are eventually going to be interested in the white picket fence in the 'burbs, they're just not at that stage in their 20s. They probably won't marry, if they do, until their early 30s, and they'll have kids in their mid- to late-30s.

Right now, they're in a relatively new (historically) and stretched-out kind of late adolescence/early adulthood that involves some of the trappings of independence (although many are actually subsidized by their parents still during this period), but not all... So I think Ezra may be right about what matters to them at this life stage, but he may not be recognizing that they won't necessarily always feel this way.

Posted by: Mary Garth on November 2, 2007 at 1:09 PM | PERMALINK

When was the last time the 20 somethings were politically motivated about anything?

Posted by: Bill Hicks on November 2, 2007 at 1:12 PM | PERMALINK

iPods are cheaper now?

Posted by: Don on November 2, 2007 at 1:13 PM | PERMALINK

I would also note that from a consumer good standpoint, people are much richer now than they were 30 or 40 years ago. Things are much more accessible and cheaper, so even if you don't have a lot of money, you can still buy them (credit plays a role in this as well). The things that cause economic security nowadays are things like access to healthcare and retirement, and to put it bluntly, most people don't really give a crap about this in their 20's. I also agree with what dave said about later parenthood playing into this.

In short, 20-somethings aren't that concerned because they don't feel economicaly insecure. Their lifestyles can absorb a lot of economic shock (you just buy PBR instead of Fat Tire and, if necessary, move home).

Posted by: Doug-E-Fresh on November 2, 2007 at 1:14 PM | PERMALINK

Bill is right. 20-somethings have never been concerned about economic security have they? So this is pretty much a non-starter. There's no mortgage yet, the school loans haven't quite come due, and they're never sick so they haven't noticed they don't have health insurance. Their parents aren't old enough to need expensive care and they're still driving the car their parents got them for college. And they still don't think they'll ever have children. Wait until they're 28. Then we'll see how secure they feel.

Posted by: Don on November 2, 2007 at 1:16 PM | PERMALINK

So long as electronics don't melt down like mortgages, iPods will be safe, unlike picket fences.;~)

Posted by: Cynthia on November 2, 2007 at 1:20 PM | PERMALINK

Ezra will change his tune in about six years. He's what? 23? All of his friends will start getting married in about 2 years (after the first round starts graduating from law/medical school), and then the babies will start coming about 2 years after that. With the babies, his friends will move to houses in the 'burbs. The childless back in DC who can afford it will buy condos or townhomes. And then the hip, cool live-in-an-apartment-with-two-other-people-but-really-cool-stuff lifestyle looks pretty f'ing sad. Then you just look like a lonely thirtysomething who can't manage his money very well.

And I guess I completely disagree with the whole "housing in an urban centers is a problem" bit. It's true that your options are a bit limited in many cities -- the nicer parts in some cities are off limits unless you have a ton of money (or are willing to borrow it). And yes, in some big cities, the only way that you can get a house with actual land is to sacrifice commuting time or live in a less-than-desirable neighborhood. But that's true to some extent in virtually every city! Really, only the numbers change. And this doesn't even take into account the fact that if you are young, single and twentysomething, you really have a ton of options open as to where you can live. Don't like housing options in DC or LA? Move to Philadelphia or Sacremento. A lot of this housing whining sounds to me like "I HAVE to have exactly the job I want in exactly the city I want, and given my complete inflexibility with respect to those requirements, it's SO UNFAIR that I can't afford the EXACT HOUSE in the EXACT NEIGHBORHOOD I want." Spare me.

Posted by: Joe on November 2, 2007 at 1:22 PM | PERMALINK

I think Ezra is really reaching. Kids have never worried about any political issue except getting drafted for Vietnam.

Posted by: Gary Sugar on November 2, 2007 at 1:25 PM | PERMALINK

So called "signals" of status are just signals of wanting status.

Truly rich people didn't need whitewalls to signal that they were rich, they had vacation houses and BMW's for that.

Posted by: david in norcal on November 2, 2007 at 1:26 PM | PERMALINK

They're not the ipod generation -- they're the bling generation.

Ipods are just another form of bling.

Posted by: Disputo on November 2, 2007 at 1:27 PM | PERMALINK

Kids have never worried about any political issue except getting drafted for Vietnam.

Not true. They also worry about the right to skateboard on public property.

Posted by: Disputo on November 2, 2007 at 1:28 PM | PERMALINK

"After all, there's no point in socking away money for a down payment if you're never going to be able to use it. So why not spend that dough on a copy of Halo 3 instead?"


The flip side of this mindset is my brother and sister-in-law, the bigoted missionary evangelical teetotalling judgmental sadistic do-it-yourselfers who are proudly ignorant of books, music, art, or any culture outside eastern Pennsylvania.

For such people, life is not something to be enjoyed. It is something to be grimly endured only as prelude to the afterlife.

I'll take the iPod and apartment and keep enough savings for a rainy day.

Posted by: Matt on November 2, 2007 at 1:33 PM | PERMALINK

Is Ezra saying that the only thing keeping us from violent revolution is that the lower classes are experiencing cognitive dissonance?!?

We may be more fucked then I had thought. ;)

Posted by: Remus Shepherd on November 2, 2007 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK

Economic security is a bad term to use for middle class people in their 20s. If you are healthy, your parents are still working at half-decent jobs, and you don't have kids, then you have economic security. Even if you are out of work for a stretch, your bills will get paid and you'll have a roof over your head.

It's more interesting to look at quality of life issues--how much control do you have over your job, your work hours, the quality of housing you can afford, your ability to start building a down payment, your ability to buy new bling, etc.

Posted by: reino on November 2, 2007 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK

Whatever happened to wanting to change the world?

Posted by: Kenji on November 2, 2007 at 1:59 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, very few people in their 20s are all that concerned about financial security the way someone in his/her 40s is with, perhaps, a couple of kids and a mortgage.

They may be concerned with their income and somewhat concerned with job security, but unless they have massive student debt, what sort of financial obligations are the likely to have?

And if an iPod-er does have a lot of student debt, it's more likely to be someone in their late 20s who went straight into an MBA program or law school. And if that's the case, if you don't walk into a high five-figure income if not low six-figure with an MBA or law degree, you've wasted your money (unless you are wanting to be a public defender, then bless you).

Posted by: JeffII on November 2, 2007 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

Rather than traditional home ownership, I think a Harley and a couple of swastika tattoos are the way to go.

Posted by: Luther on November 2, 2007 at 2:02 PM | PERMALINK

When you are twenty-something you have 50 years of work and fun to look forward too. Enough explanation.

Add to that the great deal they get on social security, at the expense of the very old, thinks to "Cadillac" Ted Kennedy.

Posted by: Matt on November 2, 2007 at 2:09 PM | PERMALINK

It's not so much the quality of life as it is the "quality" of the products. I recently went looking at new cars and ALL of them had power windows, many of them had dual environment zones inside the car and quite a few had heated seats and a dvd player in the back. Ipods replace the Walkman. An old time push mower is almost as much as a has powered one. It seems to me many of these items have always been owned by the younger single or early family aged crowd, just now it's almost impossible to find a tv under 36" that isn't also flat screen.

Posted by: Fred F. on November 2, 2007 at 2:31 PM | PERMALINK

I think Ezra's wrong. The purchase of goods IS an attempt to buy security, but one doomed to failure.

Chinese electronics, in other words, are the new opiate of the masses.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on November 2, 2007 at 2:44 PM | PERMALINK

I remember a British author who wrote about how society manufactures cheap knock-offs of expensive things, so that the lower classes can buy them and fool themselves into feeling they were more prosperous than they are, taking some of the pressure off of their desires to actually make things better?

Posted by: jim on November 2, 2007 at 2:44 PM | PERMALINK

So the sort of goods that signal affluence — iPods and iPhones and laptop computers and plasma televisions

Maybe I'm off base, but consumer goods that can be bought outright for a few hundred bucks, or on credit for much less than that per month, hardly strike me as signaling affluence. Unless by affluence someone means having a credit card, these days.

Posted by: RSA on November 2, 2007 at 2:47 PM | PERMALINK

As several here have already noted, when you're 25, electronic trappings trump the white picket fence. Fast-forward to age 35 and beyond, and you'll see a different set of signifiers in play, though.

Posted by: lux on November 2, 2007 at 3:01 PM | PERMALINK

"socking away money for a down payment".
Excuse me, but since when did one need a down payment to buy a house?
This used to be required and may be now, but for the last 10 years (the time you are talking about) there was no need for such silly things as down payments for houses.

Posted by: David on November 2, 2007 at 4:31 PM | PERMALINK

"you've got give them a dollar and take two..."

Posted by: omeros on November 2, 2007 at 4:34 PM | PERMALINK

It doesn't seem to me like having the toys elevates the economic status, not even fake economic status. Most people in the game could tell you to the dime the current price of these things, and so they aren't very impressive until we're talking about heavy gold and old world crafts- same as ever was.

But there is a pursuit of status here. I think it's changed to a hipness. Others have said it better- it's about knowing which thing is the hip thing to have. Price can be involved, but sometimes it's about how cheaply you can have something, not how expensive it is.

It's like, if I don't have the money for the really excellent bling, then I'll go after this other stuff, these cheaper trinket-y things that I can afford.

Either that or we're all Poland now.

Posted by: Cougarhutch on November 2, 2007 at 4:57 PM | PERMALINK
But then....well, it turns out that home ownership is higher today than it was 30 or 50 years ago, subprime crisis or not. So homeownership is hardly a dying dream. Though it sure seems to be among young people living in cities, doesn't it?

Do you mean that young people in major cities used to own homes more than they do now? Or that the urban lifestyle becoming more attractive (because of either substantive or cultural changes) such that young urban non-homeowners don't dream of moving out and settling in the suburbs, but have urban aspirations and accept the possibly dimmer prospects of home ownership as part of that?

Posted by: cmdicely on November 2, 2007 at 5:16 PM | PERMALINK

But then....well, it turns out that home ownership is higher today than it was 30 or 50 years ago, subprime crisis or not

True, but several reports have come out saying subprime loans have been soley responsible for the rise in home ownership in the last 5-10 years, and when the current housing bust is over, home ownership will be lower than it was 10 years ago.

Posted by: Andy on November 2, 2007 at 5:48 PM | PERMALINK

Ezra hates his generation.

Posted by: MNPundit on November 2, 2007 at 6:33 PM | PERMALINK

doesn't seem to be politically motivated to do anything about economic insecurity:

Then why does Ron Paul attract so many college students to his rallies then?

700 at Iowa State, 2,500 at Michigan, another 700 today at Clemson.

Why does Ron Paul have so many youtube.com viewers, myspace and facebook pages, why does he have so many chpaters at college campuses if every younger was apathetic?

Looks like a few people need to take their heads out of their collective rears and see what's going on out there.

Posted by: Sean Scallon on November 2, 2007 at 6:48 PM | PERMALINK

This is just another example of the apparent "teen-aging" of this country's culture. Formerly, teenagers wanted to act "adult", now it's just the reverse. These twenty-somethings are simply acting like any normal teen-ager; if their friends have some new toy, then they just have to have it too!

Posted by: Doug on November 2, 2007 at 7:31 PM | PERMALINK

Economic insecurity is endemic to the human condition in monetary societies. I agree that most people in their 20s don't think about it much, but that doesn't mean they don't generally just expect security later, like most kids do. There's a point in everyone's life where we realize that nothing's guaranteed; how much fear comes with that depends on much, but it just is, for everyone.

Posted by: Urban Pink on November 2, 2007 at 7:38 PM | PERMALINK

How can they think they're doing OK if they can't afford good housing, medical insurance/care, tuition, etc? - no matter how much stuff they have. I don't want to think today's young people are that stupid, unaware, or whatever.

Posted by: Neil B. on November 2, 2007 at 7:45 PM | PERMALINK

With the recent decline of the dollar against the Euro, maybe that European trip is moving back into the status category.

But I agree, all these gadgets are devices cooked up by those really in charge to give the rest of us the illusion that we have some degree of control while still being absolutely powerless to affect the course of events.
You know, things like the "Remember personal info?" doohickey on this comment page

Posted by: MikeN on November 2, 2007 at 11:29 PM | PERMALINK

Ronald Reagan said government was not your friend.
George Bush has made government your enemy.

However, there is clearly a need for some government.

Without government life is like walking down the street and buying an apple from a street vendor, but then being robbed by a mugger. The free trade with a willing vendor is great, but the mugging causes you to lose it all.

With some government life is like walking down the street and buying an apple from a street vendor and then walking on with a dangerous looking buy behind you -- but he's not going to mug you because there's a copy walking along asking how the game went last night.

We had free trade and it went well up until the 1920s (the "Roaring Twenties"), but it crashed because there wasn't enough government oversight and restraint on market manipulators. We had terrible food shortages because the farms were failing during the "Dust Bowl", but regulation brought more stable prices and farming is great. We had painted toys which had lead in them, but government regulation saw the danger of that and made it illegal (just as we're getting similar toys now from the highly unregulated Chinese trade).

Since the FDR era we've experienced tremendous growth and a great life. It's not because Republicans shrank government, balanced budgets and removed regulations. No, it's because they had the good sense to continue to use some regulation.

The main reason people don't complain about the Bush economy is that with regard to the fundamentals of our economy he hasn't really changed anything from the previous years. Our main problem with deficits stems in large part from the wars. But, the foundation of our economy has been pretty good.

Where Bush is failing, as a Republican with strong Libertarian or even Anarchist tendencies, is in easing restrictions in areas not everybody immediately feels or notices. For example, allowing higher levels of mercury in the water, reducing air pollution standards, reducing non-monopolistic media rules, not regulating mortgage lending and 'bundling for sale' practices and anything to do with world trade. I'm certain I'm overlooking some important things, but these stand out.

This relaxing of regulations will hurt us, but Bush may be long gone before some people connect his actions to their problems. People who follow things very closely WILL know who caused the problems.

Republicans often refer to the Democrats wanting a 'Nanny State'. There is a tendency to use power wantonly to regulate everything in sight. That's true. To do that is certainly as ridiculous as not regulating anything. How one finds the golden mean is the question.

I believe the Republicans showed a terrible moral sense when they said 'government is the enemy' and that we have to keep some percentage of people unemployed for the economy to work right. They originally said 6%, but I don't know their recent view on that. How can you trust people to run the government when they believe it is the enemy and how can you trust people who believe you maybe need to be unemployed for 275 million other people to live well? They are wrong!

Democrats believe in governing and have shown in many ways they can get results that last.

I don't believe we should default to republican economic policies and only 'go Democratic' when things turn bad. That's silly. It was Democratic policies which made things work well in the first place.

Shouldn't the default be Democratic until you have an administration which is proven to be failing?

Government isn't THE solution. It's a tool and has to be used wisely. Republicans have shown in recent years they don't believe in it and have been abusing it badly.

It's time to go Democratic.

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