Hedonic substitution and the myth of poor conservatives being middle class

Hedonic substitution in economics is buying ground beef instead of steak, or the Pinto instead of the Lambourghini.  People also engage in hedonic substitution.  It’s a hallmark of the conservative worldview.

Living in low quality housing, with one car in a car-centric society, eating a meatless or low protein diet, and yet all the while asserting that you’re middle class.  Homeschooling is often another hedonic substitution.  One hour once a week “co-op” is suddenly equivalent to 15k/kid/year private classical school and will definitely give you the same results.

It’s about telling people who have to substitute cheaper versions that they aren’t substituting at all but instead getting something for nothing because they’re just so smart and middle class.  And also not distinguishing between the people who can choose something else and thus aren’t operating on such tight margins.  The oft-cited (and mostly historical rather than current) statistics of children homeschooled by mere high school graduate mothers leave out how many of their fathers were engineers and STEM types.

While the median household income for married couples with under-18 kids is about six figures and has been even adjusted for inflation for decades, it’s still a median and a bunch of married folks with kids will end up on the low half of that median.  And instead of them being respectably poor or working class, they’re instead endlessly encouraged to engage in elaborate substitutes that cannot give the same result or benefit, but which would be superior if they weren’t being used as substitutes for something more expensive in time and/or money.

This approach also lets the higher-earning households avoid awkward social obligations and relationship building that used to be present even in individualist America out of a combination of ingrained habit and necessity.

Economic defensiveness isn’t a good look

There are plenty more, but they all boil down to “Cheaping out is better because it makes me feel better about not having moneys.”

Needless to say, this is not as compelling an argument as people think.  I don’t think people who make these arguments about cheapness being superior parenting are conscious of the implication, but I can assure them, that’s what average people are thinking.  They are thinking “defensive about being POOOOOOOOORRRRRRRRRRR”.  They are not thinking such people (disproportionately conservatives) are brilliant geniuses for not spending money on their beloved children.

A while back I looked up food stamp data and found that (proxied) conservative families were avoiding meat so they could avoid food stamp use, while non-conservative families were getting food stamps so they could have meat regularly.  Yeah, people don’t think you’re superior or better or wiser for avoiding access to high-quality protein out of ego-defense issues.  Tangentially, the lethargy that low protein causes probably makes having a larger family easier in fairly obvious ways, but that’s just a side effect.

Why the working poor don’t just save up for a car while eating beans and rice

Conservatives are notorious, and rightly so, for generally dismissing the working poor as “low time-preference” or “unwilling to do what it takes to get out of poverty”.  This comes in the form of ridiculous statements very similar to the title of this post.  

The working poor can’t save up enough for a reliable car while taking very unreliable public transit, which is all that’s available in most parts of America.  A reliable car, in my experience in both high and low COL areas, costs about $2500 in cash.  That is the lowest reasonable amount to guarantee a low maintenance, sub 100k mile car that is reliable for someone with little mechanical knack.  Most working poor can save about $200 per month on paychecks from two part-time jobs totalling $1500-2000 per month.  This means it would take about a year to save up enough to get that reliable car.

Problem is, I just noted the public transit they have to use to get to work isn’t reliable.  So what happens is that many working poor hold multiple jobs concurrently, constantly swapping in a new part-time job to replace the one they lost not due to “bad attitude” or any of the other loving, Christian terms conservatives throw around, but due to being late one too many times when public transit is flaky.  They mostly can’t get full-time jobs for this reason, and part-time jobs vary in tolerating the episodic lateness of public transit, often kicking the worker to the curb after a few months.  Well, if you can’t even reliably make that $1500-2000 a month because you’re always hustling for a new second or third job, you can’t save the $200/month consistently either.

Further, because of the commute logistics, it’s very difficult to even manage crockpot cooking with the scheduling flux and transportation instability.  So the working poor eat a lot of quick food even when they have cooking skills because it’s safer and more consistent.

Conservatives should spend more time thinking through the situations people are actually in when making bootstrap arguments.  No, every working poor person is not some brave single mother of three working nine jobs.  But many are single adults working two or three jobs as often as they can take a bus to them and struggling to have more than a few hundred dollars put by because without saner transit solutions, it’s extremely difficult to get to a financial level that permits them to purchase a reliable enough car to get more stable part-time or be eligible for full-time jobs with better prospects.  And no, it’s not easier to lug 100 pounds of beans and rice home and crockpot them up.  That is a favorite of conservatives, the imaginary poor person who easily can carry a 50lb sack of beans and a 50lb sack of rice home via public transit.

A great many conservatives have a veil of sweet amnesia over the frankly better circumstances they had if they were once working poor and this leads them to create all sorts of bizarre and mean motives for the working poor remaining so when the reality is often quite ordinary.  Reality is biased, just not in a conservative or liberal direction.