Suppose a new industry centered on a new habit — workers going to kiosks to have their teeth brushed on their daily way to and from work — emerged in our country. Say 100 million workers stopped by these kiosks, sat in dental-like chairs while teeth cleaners gave them a five minute invigorating brush-down on enamel and gums.
Clearly, hundreds of thousands of new jobs would be created. At a modest $2 per cleaning, over $200 million dollars would be generated each weekday, not including purchases of teeth-cleaning accessories. This amounts to $4 billion a month or $48 billion a year. Such economic activity would increase the nation’s gross national product, decrease the unemployment rate and demonstrate once again how the commercialization of family functions once filled by family households can expand an economy.
Sounds outlandish? Recall again. Over the past forty years, as the number of two-income families increased to make ends meet (not to buy Mercedes & Gucci shoes), more and more household functions, once performed freely, became available for a price in the marketplace. This meant that the second-income earner was selling 40 hours a week in return for income, but spending out a sizable portion of that income, known as job-related expenses (JREs), because of not having the time or place to perform these family functions.
In her recent little noticed book, TWO INCOMES AND STILL BROKE?, home economist, Linda Kelley, details some of these JREs that many families who, while not usually calculating how much they keep from how much they make, nonetheless feel hardpressed to keep up with their bills even with their second-income.
These JREs include the obvious: another car, another auto insurance policy, garage repairs, child care, eating out, greater clothing expenses, tutors, baby-sitters, and a host of timesaver expenses from housecleaning to disposable diapers to lawn maintenance and simple repair services formerly done by the
Then there are the numerous guilt-trip expenditures that add up over a year. Not enough time with junior? Well buy him that $70 nintendo video or a pair of $410 Air Jordans. Home entertainment is replaced by the far more expensive and violent corporate entertainment for children.
Less time with the children who then fall into the wrong neighborhood crowd, hyper act up, or get the wrong ideas from unsupervised television? Well, spend money on counselors, visit the family pediatrician and get a ritalin prescription.
The pressure and stress have qualitative costs along with the dollar costs. Less time to, plan, less time to comparison shop or hunt for bargains. More valium bills. Less quality of life.
One of the booming areas of our economy is selling convenience; and that often means marketing services that replace family functions. People will pay more and more for less and less significant conveniences because they don’t have the time. They are commuting to work and coming home exhausted. The household was and could still be a tremendous producer — from family gardens to efficient and renewable energy, from teaching to playing, from repairing to making things from clothes to paintings to handicrafts, from wisdom to judgment, from conversations to humor.
We need more family-oriented economic yardsticks. When President Clinton went to the G7 conference of leading industrial nations in Denver last month, he bragged and boasted to other nations about the U.S. economy, hinting not so subtly that these countries had much to learn from our economic prowess.
When I read this, I imagined the Prime Minister of the Netherlands coming up to Bill Clinton and saying: “Mr. President, in you robust economy, you have 25% child poverty, the industrial world’s largest per capita homicide rate. You are the world’s leading debtor, register the world’s largest consumer debt and consumer bankruptcies, the highest infant mortality and health uninsured rate and the greatest disparity of wealth and income between the rich and the rest, among all western industrial nations. You have declining real wages for 4 of every five workers. Are we missing something in the midst of all those economic statistics you have given us?”
Unfortunately, Bill Clinton was not asked to speak about who benefits and who loses in our growth economy. The 2% child poverty rate in the Netherlands might have sobered his propensity to disseminate aggregate instead of distributional economic data.
Our economic yardsticks are too narrow and too self-serving to the rich and powerful. Moreover, when any become embarrassing, they undergo revisionism, as is now happening to over 20 years of chronic and large trade deficits with other countries. Imports exceeding exports used to mean job loss and debt. Now trade deficits are considered by the Clintonites and Wall Streeters as reflecting a robust amount of national economic demand that our own producers simply cannot meet.
Always be alert to the yardsticks by which “progress” is measured. For those who define and control our yardsticks will control how we view ourselves as a nation.