3/23/2011 8:41

Leaping From Inadequate Analysis Into Unfounded Speculation

Many of my observations seem to concern themselves with the advantages of recognizing the uncertainties of our understanding of life. This comment is also about Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. I really don't know why I never read The Jungle previously; it was mentioned throughout school but never required of me, although I regularly expected it to be included in some class. From the comments I heard in those days, I expected the book to be about the meat packing industry at the start of the 20th century. To be sure, meat packing is the setting for a large portion of the story but the subject of the story is the abuse of working people and the potential cure to be found in the coming socialist revolution.

The publisher's comments note that by the time of Sinclair's death his analysis and prescription seemed to date from another era.

Many changes during the 20th century alleviated the plight of people living and working in the capitalist societies (and socialist thought contributed to the changes which actually were made). But the socialist speakers in Sinclair's book do not appear prophetic. They sound just as deluded as everyone else, if rather more benign.

A single example will demonstrate how foolish it was for the socialists to leap from an inadequate analysis of economics and society at the time into wildly speculative predictions for how life would change in the future. The example comes from the pontifications of Sinclair's Swedish socialist, a former professor of philosophy who evinced a deep certainty about how the world worked. His example was washing dishes.

In the Swede's analysis, dishwashing is drudge work and one of the burdens holding down the working family. He supposed that the average household is 5 people and that washing dishes took up at least half an hour of hard work every day, wearing down the women who were, thus, less able to contribute to human progress. The Swede's solution was to form communes, for in each of these communities there would be a machine to peform the drudgery of washing the dishes.

Sinclair's Swedish socialist professor could not foresee what really happened. He did not imagine that these dish washing machines would become available to working families and would be found in nearly every household. That change implies both a remarkable advance in technology and what to the Swede would have seemed (absent a socialist revolution) a highly improbable reform in income distribution and status of the working families.

The decline in average family size might have been just as astounding to him. Nor would this character be able to anticipate the revolution in food processing which provides varied and nutritious meals without significant cooking -- indeed, many families go days without more than heating prepared food. Both of these changes dramatically reduce the cost of washing dishes. Then there are the dramatic advances in detergent engineering to consider.

The choice of washing dishes as an example was surprisingly astute: It is commonplace, simple to understand, and yet touches a wide range of social and economic considerations from wage rates to chemical engineering. But the analysis of dishwashing was simplistic and the prescriptive solution was pedestrian. What western society actually did to ameliorate the drudgery of washing the family dishes was more imaginative, more far reaching, and more successful than the solutions proposed by the socialist activitists in The Jungle.