February 09, 2012


Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. By Eric Klinenberg. Penguin. $27.95.

The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know about How the Economy Works. By Timothy Taylor. Plume. $16.

     The numbers are compelling. In Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., more than 40% of all households consist of a single resident. In Manhattan, the cultural center of New York City, the percentage is 50%. In Stockholm, it is more than 60%. People living alone – sociologist Eric Klinenberg calls them singletons – make up 28% of all households in the United States. There are more female singletons than male, and they are concentrated in central cities – in contrast to half a century ago, when singletons made up less than 10% of U.S. households and included more male migrant workers in Western states than any other group. The analysis and implications of the numbers, though, are less clear, and those are the areas where Klinenberg focuses in Going Solo. Through a combination of statistics (the macro picture) and interviews with singletons (the micro view), he argues that living alone has significant positive meaning and benefits in every age range. Young professionals get their own apartments as a success indicator, and move into adulthood through living alone rather than by marrying early and having children. Middle-aged urban adults join the singles subculture, often after escaping bad relationships, and frequently “give back” to the community: people living alone are more likely than others to volunteer in civic groups. Elderly singletons retain their autonomy, dignity and independence instead of moving in with family members or friends. Klinenberg, a sociology professor at New York University, puts across his intriguing ideas well, although not always convincingly: he believes, for example, that the rise of singleton living has boosted the housing market, because singles account for about a third of home sales; but the vast majority of home buyers are families or at least couples, and there is little if any evidence that the increase in singles has led to a dramatic alteration in the types of homes being built or the favored locations for home-based (rather than apartment-based) life. Being in New York, Klinenberg has some situational bias; but New York City is scarcely the United States as a whole, and Manhattan is scarcely New York City as a whole (of the city’s five boroughs, it is the second-smallest in population and by far the most expensive). If some of Klinenberg’s particulars can be questioned, though, his macro view really cannot, being well-supported by nonjudgmental statistics. And some of the individual stories in Going Solo are telling, even if readers should not make the mistake of assuming that they are typical. For example, a writer and teacher named Helen, who is in her early 60s and has lived alone “for decades” in a Greenwich Village apartment, talks about the erroneous assumptions underlying her two marriages to two very different men, both of whom she divorced: “‘I was never more miserable in my life than when I was married,’” Helen says, and Klinenberg adds that in Helen’s view, “living alone stands in opposition to living falsely in a conventional but unhappy marriage.” All well and good, but scarcely guaranteed to be attitudinally typical or indicative of a major societal shift. “‘When you live alone, there’s no compromising,’” says another woman interviewed by Klinenberg, but an accumulation of such quotes may well make a reader think, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” That is, while many people clearly take to the singleton life and thrive in it, many others – including some interviewed in this book – seem, their overt words to the contrary, to be trying to adapt to a lifestyle that may be better than others they have tried but that still seems in some psychological ways (rather than sociological ones) to be empty. Of particular concern in Klinenberg’s analysis is his belief that modern technology so interconnects people that living alone can be restorative. But singletons, as well as couples, tend if anything to feel themselves more connected to the world through digital life than they actually are: digital involvement separates people from other people, no matter how many online “friends” one claims to have. Klinenberg is trenchant in his analysis of the growing trend toward single living (the “extraordinary rise” part of his book’s subtitle), but he is less convincing in his attempts to show how positive the singleton trend is for its members (the “surprising appeal” part).

     Klinenberg does note that there are significant economic effects of the singleton trend: a boost in business for urban bars and restaurants, for example. This statement is a bit facile, since it indicates that “happy alone” singletons are spending their money in venues where they try to connect with others. But certainly the rise of singletons is one factor among many affecting the U.S. economy. For an idea of what this and other factors do and how they interconnect, The Instant Economist is a top-notch basic guide (although it is not, as its back cover says, “the only economics book you will ever need”). Timothy Taylor, managing editor of the American Economics Association’s Journal of Economic Perspectives, does include a certain amount of jargon here (“goods with elastic supply have an elasticity of greater than 1,” while “goods with unitary elasticity of supply have an elasticity equal to 1”). But he goes out of his way to make the “dismal science” (so called by Thomas Carlyle) at least somewhat accessible and interesting. Thus, “the dramatist Oscar Wilde (1891) once defined a cynic as ‘a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.’ That’s also a good description of economists, who focus on the price of everything and the intrinsic value in use of nothing.” This is an important concept, one of many, because it shows how economists are highly analytical and at the same time divorced from the way people actually make economic decisions. People are not rational and statistically driven when they decide what to buy or not buy – a major emotional component is almost always present. But emotional components are not measurable and are therefore outside the sphere of economics. What economists do well, though, is bring objectivity to emotional subject matter: “Environmentalists sometimes see the free market as the enemy of a clean environment, but free markets are often not the worst enemies of the environment. In fact, low-income countries with weak markets often have environmental problems that are much worse than [those in] high-income, market-oriented countries. Countries that have tried to eliminate free market forces – such as China and the former Soviet Union – have had severe pollution problems.” It is in this sort of analysis that economists and The Instant Economist excel. Taylor deals in 36 chapters with just about every element of the modern U.S. economy, including subjects that make politicians – and many voters – decidedly uncomfortable: “Poverty and Welfare Programs,” “Inequality,” “The Unemployment-Inflation Trade-off,” “Fiscal Policy and Budget Deficits,” and “The Gains of International Trade,” among other matters. In the international-trade chapter, for example, he shows how trade between the United States and Mexico can benefit both countries even though the relationship may be considered one-sided, because in many areas the U.S. has “more educated workers; better and newer capital equipment; and a better infrastructure of communications, electricity, and transportation.” Taylor’s analysis is intellectually clear and convincing, but of course the emotional and political underpinnings of issues such as cross-border trade are frequently more powerful as driving forces than logical analysis. The Instant Economist will give readers an excellent introduction to numerous aspects of the U.S. economy and the forces that make it work; but one reason it cannot be “the only economics book you will ever need” is that the psychological elements of economic behavior are constantly distorting the rational ones that are foundational to economists’ way of thinking – and to understand those non-rational factors, readers will have to go elsewhere.

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