Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Who misses the 1950s now?

For most of my life, the 1960s have loomed large in the political life of the country. If you loved the 1960s, you were probably a liberal who loved the Civil Rights movement, feminism, Medicare—all the things that made the era perhaps the last great moments of center-left ascendancy in the United States. And if you hated the 1960s,  you probably missed the simpler times of the 1950s, when "Ozzie and Harriet" and Ward Cleaver ruled the airwaves, and life was orderly and a little more moral.

Somewhere in the last few years, though, the script has flipped. Liberals have come to embrace the relative economic egalitarianism of America in the 1950s—blacks and women notably excepted—while conservative Republicans seem to view Dwight Eisenhower as an accomodationist who too easily surrendered to the welfare state designs of his Democratic predecessors.

I'm not sure where all this started to change. Paul Krugman's "The Conscience of a Liberal" certainly celebrated the 1950s to a degree I hadn't often seen in liberal writings before. And Max Boot comes along today to offer the conservative critique:
From our standpoint today, there are some good aspects of the 1950s–the hard work, the sense of common purpose–but also much that we would reject, especially the pervasive racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, and other social attitudes–not to mention the pervasive drinking, smoking, and other bad habits. America today is far more individualistic and far more meritocratic with far less tolerance for rank prejudice and far less willingness to blindly follow the orders of rigid bureaucracies. 
On the whole this is a positive development–it is what has made possible the dynamism of an information age economy symbolized by Apple’s staggering earnings. We would all be poorer–literally–if we went back to more of a top-down command economy, which is what Obama seems to be pining for. Indeed per capita income in 1950 was $1,500 (which, adjusted for inflation, works out to around $10,000 today) compared with almost $40,000 today.
I think the "per capita" statistic is slightly misleading: The distribution of income is much more unequal today than it was in 1950—the critique that liberals have been making—so the "average" per capita American isn't necessary a typical American. The median household income in the United States—half of all households made more, half made less—was $3,319 in 1950, or about $31,000 in today's dollars. The median household income in 2010 was  $49,445. Taking these statistics and the ones Boot cites, America is roughly four times richer today than it was in 1950—but the middle American household isn't even twice as rich, in real dollar terms. (UPDATE: And that doesn't really address the fact that the middle American household probably has two incomes these days, whereas the 1950 household probably had one earner.) You may not see that as an actual problem (richer is still richer!) but it lies at the heart of the critique that liberals make of post-1980 politics and income inequality.

In any case, Boot says, "the 'Mad Men' world is not one most of us would like to live in today. It was, after all, a world where big institutions–whether big government, big media, big business or big unions–had far more power than they do today." Maybe I misunderstand, but it seems that conservatism once defended the role of big institutions in society as helping bring order and cohesiveness to the national community. What's changed (in part) since the 1950s, it seems, is that conservatism has taken a libertarian turn that rejects and attacks all of Boot's "bigs," with the seeming exception of big business.

Anyway, it's an interesting transition. The Weekly Standard likes to (frequently) depict liberals as cartoonish, aging hippies on its cover, but maybe it would be more accurate these days to stick a pipe in Ward Cleaver's mouth and a union card in his front pocket.

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