Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Costs of Economic Productivity

One is less help for strangers:
Independent field experiments in 23 large cities around the world measured three types of spontaneous, nonemergency helping: alerting a pedestrian who dropped a pen, offering help to a pedestrian with a hurt leg trying to reach a pile of dropped magazines, and assisting a blind person cross the street. The results indicated that a city’s helping rate was relatively stable across the three measures, suggesting that helping of strangers is a cross-culturally meaningful characteristic of a place; large cross-cultural variation in helping emerged, ranging from an overall rate of 93% in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to 40% in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia. Overall helping across cultures was inversely related to a country’s economic productivity
This could be a result of the increased opportunity cost of time that comes with economic growth. It could also be the increased autonomy. Individual independence not only leads to to less empathy for strangers, but also the break down of the traditional family:
It means it's more technically feasible for men and women to live alone. That alone has reduced the marriage rate and increased the divorce rate. It also means wives have had the time to enter the workforce. That's led to more affairs - as men and women meet more often away from their spouses eyes at the workplace. And in giving women an income outside marriage, it's increased their ability to divorce their hubbies.

This, though, is not the only way in which divorce has risen, and marriage fallen, because women no longer need a meal ticket. One feature of economic growth is a decline in relative demand for physical strength and increased demand for intellectual or social skills. This too has led to increased numbers of women workers - and the more skilled among them are not marrying and having children.

A third mechanism is creative destruction. Economic growth is - in the long-run - often fastest where job destruction rates are high, as this frees up resources for more productive uses. But job loss leads to more divorce (pdf), not least because it signals to people that their spouse is no longer the meal ticket they thought.

Also, economic growth is associated (the causality goes both ways) with social and geographical mobility. This means people are less likely to meet like-minded others. That means less chance of marriage, and possibly more chance of bad marriages that don't last.
I don't believe these outweigh the huge benefits of economic growth (long life, better health, increased minority/women's rights, more leisure, etc), but helpful nonetheless.

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