Michael Walden is a Carolinas treasure, the “Stan Musial” of North Carolina political economy. He has been at NC State since 1978, when he was a freshly minted economics PhD (from Cornell). That’s more than 40 years, in an era when many people move around (I have had five jobs, in four states). Like Stan “The Man” of the St. Louis Cardinals, Walden spent his whole career with one organization, and devoted himself to learning that system and the nuances of that place.

He has been prolific, and has made important contributions to both the general scholarly literature and to the understanding of the political economy of the state. I’ve been on a number of panels with him, before several different organizations, and Walden is always scrupulous about being fair and non-political, sticking only to interpretations of the facts. He is careful to give his opinion only about likely predictions rather than saying whether an action of the governor or General Assembly is good or bad. It’s the classic contingent economics advice: “If you want Y, you should do X. If you want Z, you should do W. But it’s up to you.” (If you infer that perhaps I am not so scrupulous in this regard, you would be correct.)
This new book, Re-Launch, reveals a bit more of Walden’s philosophical commitments, about what is right and wrong with current policies, and with the direction society is taking. The subtitle (“How Families Can be Renewed and the American Dream Revived in the New Independent Lifestyle of the Post-Pandemic Economy”) takes the eighteenth-century approach giving a summary of what the goals are. The goals are bringing back families and the American Dream, the mediating effect is the New Independent Lifestyle, and the relevant policies are those that take the new context and restore those once-central goals.

Of course, if you don’t share the notion that Families, and the American Dream, are good things, then this book is likely not for you. I do share those goals, so I found the book interesting and useful. The claim is that families were under severe stress even before the pandemic, wracked by problems with finding affordable childcare in a household that has two partners working outside the home, or just for single parents trying to do it all. There are also problems with affordable housing, saving for college for the kids, and the increasing distances and costs of commuting for those who lack the income to live near the city job centers that house most employment.

It comes down to constraints on money, and time. These are fungible, of course, for those who have a lot of money, since one can hire a live-in babysitter and live close to work, or even work remotely (most remote work is being done by the top portions of the income and educational distribution). If parents can’t live close, can’t afford a nanny, and have service jobs that are not amenable to remote work, the constraint on time affects moms’ and dads’ ability to be moms and dads, and there is just not much they can do about that. As Walden puts it, “something has to give” (p. 2).

Walden is not as skeptical of state “remedies” as I am, but he does seem to accept the maxim that things are rarely so bad that misguided government action can’t make things much worse. But in this case he perceives that we stand at a point of such disruptive change that it is worth trying to revive families and the American dream as we adapt to the changes forced on the economy and the political system by the pandemic. He sees the “relaunch” of the family as the key variable, because with effective and functional two-adult families, “the American Dream of fulfilling aspirations and dreams will be restored” (p. 5).

The development of this argument is first to inventory the status of the American family before the pandemic (tl;dr: it wasn’t good). Then Walden moves to the source of his optimism, the technological changes and infrastructure that can enable both remote work and distance education. The hope is that once these two factors begin to operate at scale, the monetary demands of living close to high-paying jobs and good schools will be at least partly relaxed, enabling families to reallocate the new surplus toward being families, and spending time together. In the limit, Walden has hopes for “the death of distance” (p. 7), reducing road congestion, cutting fossil fuel emissions, and eliminating long bus rides to bad schools for both urban and rural children.

The book highlights (Chapters 3 – 7) what Walden sees as the technological innovations that will relax the time/money constraint that currently traps middle class families. Remote working, and convenient delivery of sophisticated goods and services in rural and suburban areas, and the ability to offer high quality education through broadband internet connections will make the delivery of all these things cheaper, and once we get it right, better. (And, yes, we don’t have it “right” yet, as the recent experience of remote education during COVID illustrates.)

I think Walden is too optimistic about his claim that these changes can also “save the planet” (p. 7). Carbon emissions from U.S. passenger vehicles make up only 2.5% of greenhouse gasses produced worldwide, and the book is looking mostly at the U.S. To achieve this saving, it would take more than remote working and Amazon deliveries (at this point, in fossil-fuel powered trucks); it would take the outlawing of all gasoline cars, which is simply not going to happen anytime soon.

The book concludes by noting how the recent changes in technology and the effects in reducing transaction costs in working, learning, and doing commerce are qualitatively different from the incremental changes that happened before. (I have tried to make this case with some of my own work, including 2018, Tomorrow 3.0: Transaction Costs and the Sharing Economy, Cambridge University Press) The innovation of Walden’s work is that he foresees at least the possibility that the changes will work through improving the situation for families, a thesis I had not seen before. Since his diagnosis of America’s problems (plausibly) identifies the harmful effects on families as being a big part of the challenge, his solutions focusing on ensuring that families benefit disproportionately make a lot of sense. The “new independent lifestyle” Walden identifies will result from reversing the traditional approach, from delivering families to the things they need toward delivering needed things to the families, who are then free to make choices based on what is good for the family, and the children. It’s a small difference semantically, but it could make an enormous difference for the future of the American Dream.

Michael C. Munger
Duke University
COVID-19Culture and SocietyFamilyHealth and Healthcare
Other Independent Review articles by Michael C. Munger
Summer 2024 Secret Government: The Pathologies of Publicity
Spring 2024 Following Their Leaders: Political Preferences and Public Policy
Spring 2024 The Origins and Evolution of Consumer Capitalism; Crack-Up Capitalism
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