Y'all are obviously really smart economists

...but I really don't know what to say to this.

I'm interested in diversity. My doctorate is in ecology (well, Zoology), a field that's pretty much devoted to studying diversity in non-human organisms. I guess members of my field are decent at dealing with species and other non-human diversities.

What never ceases to floor me is how astonishingly bad we are, all people are, at discussing diversity in human systems. Maybe it's a Platonic thing. Maybe it's linguistic.

In any case, I see humans privileging certain characteristics, making unstated assumptions about the objects of their discourse. "Men" have genitals shaped like so, and sleep with and eat food made by "women", who have genitals shaped more like so. And of course, everybody is white.

Feminists are among the folks who have generally fought against this privileging of characteristics. When privilege does exist, the theory is that the very least one can do is to own the privilege, to acknowledge that variation exists, that one's state is not the default. We try to live with, accept, and even celebrate diversity.

In some of my environmental studies classes, I make students do group exercises in estimation. How much garbage do we generate? How much bottled water do we drink? In part, this is to get students comfortable with math and uncertainty. However, there's another element at play.

A bright student might ask 'what do you mean by 'we?' If students are stumped, I may ask them to start by figuring out how much garbage an "average" person generates.

But who, precisely is an average person? Once students ask themselves that, things unravel pretty quickly. Garbage isn't merely a function of individual households multiplied by millions. Garbage is a product of a complicated society, a system with all sorts of diversity; a family of four is not an aircraft factory. You might not have the money and/or desire to buy bottled water.

This brings me back to the article I linked to above. What caught my eye was the tagline for the article: "The difference between viewing housing as a luxury good or as a staple is the subject of a debate about the recovery."

Is housing a luxury good or a staple? Well. That's certainly an odd question. Perhaps this is another semantic issue. I see housing as a necessity (or "staple"). At the same time, there is housing that's luxurious. Thus, housing is a luxury and/or staple.

For housing, luxury:staple :: square:rhombus

If you actually read the article, the tagline makes a certain amount of sense. Economists are essentially arguing about whether people will spend more on housing as (if?) incomes rise.

Which people are we talking about?

This, in a nutshell, is a concern. We're talking about some sort of combined index of household economies (and housing) for the US as a whole. Maybe we're dealing with medians (or quartiles!), maybe we're dealing with means. In the end, we're taking a snapshot of everyone, but it ends up being a picture of nobody. It's like this 1993 Time magazine cover: it's not entirely clear what the point is or what it really represents. It's computer generated, though, so we know it's.... something.

I'm not going to sit here an argue against data and statistics. For one thing, my students would totally call my bluff on that one. What I will argue is that statistics are but one more lens with which to view society. When it comes time to make policy (and when is it not time to make policy?), it's important to remember the diversity in the system, just as it is to remember the connections in the system.

Clearly, housing is not a luxury good for all people. Clearly, those people for whom housing is a luxury are interacting with those from whom it is not. Society is not the sum of its parts. Precisely who are we talking about when we speak of the future of the housing market?

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