We have a curious relationship with the past. It’s often presumed that things were better then, despite abundant evidence to the contrary. And while no one but a tiny minority advocates a return to any pre-industrial point in human history, there has been a palpable longing for one recent period in history that’s lingered since before that period was even over.
Back in 1957, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan put the stamp on the Tory re-election to parliament with the slogan “You’ve never had it so good” – an only slightly debatable assertion that the postwar economic miracle had transformed the United Kingdom for the better. That the Tories managed to lay claim to an unprecedented economic windfall that would have happened no matter who occupied Downing Street after V-E Day was a fact easily ignored in the theatre of electoral politics.
Three years ago Donald Trump rode into the White House under the banner of another slogan, derided even as it was coined – unlike Macmillan’s boast, which would only come to haunt his party in subsequent years. Make America Great Again is probably the CHOOSE LIFE of this decade – a glimpse of which (stitched across a red baseball cap) will probably become visual shorthand for the last half of the 2010s.
It’s not hard to figure out just what America people voted to return to; it certainly wasn’t the double-knit earth tone malaise of the ‘70s or the social unrest that preceded it in the late ‘60s. For millennials it might be the 1980s – the last period of guilt-free economic optimism, at least in the memories of people who were too young to have to find a secure job or a place to live in a booming city back when Wham! had hits.
In the popular imagination, though, that time of greatness would be the 1950s, when families like my own managed to climb out of untold generations of rock-bottom working class wages and insecure living conditions, experienced before and after immigration. It’s easy to run a clip of an old TV commercial or an episode of Leave It To Beaverand deride the smug blandness of the era. But anyone who’s really studied the “Long ‘50s” – a period beginning in roughly 1948 and ending around the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the beginning of Beatlemania in 1963 – knows that it was a far more anxious, edgy cultural landscape than can be summed up in a commercial for Fluffo or Old Gold cigarettes.
I’m as guilty of ‘50s nostalgia as anyone else. Born in 1964, I had just enough of a whiff of the postwar economic boom to long for its return when I saw the effects of a wholly unprecedented economic phenomenon – stagflation – on the prices in our corner store, and sullenly resented my older siblings for getting to grow up in its gingham embrace.
The nostalgia is bipartisan, it seems. Social conservatives are frequently criticized for wanting to return to the family-friendly moral consensus that the world before the ‘60s is imagined to embody, while fiscal conservatives long for a time when budgets were balanced and public debt was a much smaller part of the GDP. (They’d have to rewind all the way back to the first decade of the 20thcentury to accomplish that; public debt was just 8.1 per cent of the GDP before World War I in the US. It was a shocking 78.4 per cent in the 1950s.)
But liberals are just as smitten with the halcyon days of the postwar boom. In his book The Great Stagnation, economist Tyler Cowen cites fellow economist Paul Krugman’s ‘50s nostalgia in The Conscience of a Liberal. “I can understand the sentiment,” Cowen writes, “since the 1950s brought a lot of growth, based on a lot of low-hanging fruit. Yet Krugman wants to mimic some very particular features of the 1950s: high marginal tax rates, high rates of unionization, and a relatively egalitarian distribution of income and wealth.”
By “low-hanging fruit,” Cowen refers to the variety of benefits brought to first world economies by the long and (mostly) steady rise in productivity and technological advancement that transformed society throughout the 20thcentury – fruit that he asserts we have almost fully harvested, resulting in economic stagnation that’s increasing social and political anxiety, with politicians amplifying divisions by promising solutions that a stagnant economy can’t possibly deliver.
Cowen continues: “The political debate proceeds in terms of tax cuts versus redistribution and the two sides can no longer hear each other. Where is the honest middle position? It is hard to win elections in the United States by announcing that the low-hanging fruit is gone, that real incomes will grow only slowly for some time, and that we cannot keep borrowing at our current pace. Only lies and exaggerations can promise voters and other citizens a much higher rate of real income growth, and so our politics has become increasingly full of…lies and exaggerations.”
This nostalgia is nothing new. Back during another time of political, social, and economic anxiety during the ‘30s and ‘40s, Americans fondly looked back to the world before world wars, and the traces are all over everything from old cartoons (Bugs Bunny was extremely fond of singing tunes that were hits on sheet music and piano rolls.) to movies likeLife With Fatherand Meet Me In St. Louis.
In a world that went from economic catastrophe to total war mobilization, there was solace in imagining a world of houses with gingerbread trim, of high collars and button boots and straw boaters, just as the technological revolution set in motion at the beginning of the 19thcentury was poised to unleash its full potential – for marvels and horrors – with the dawn of the 20th century.
Studying economic trends over the past century, it becomes clear how trends play out over decades. Low public debt in the first part of the 20thcentury made it possible for real wages to increase in subsequent decades, while high public debt in the ‘50s had to be paid for when the bill came due as the baby boom settled into adulthood.
Rare and mostly unrepeatable factors – the brief but nearly total desolation of Europe as an economic power multiplying America’s long-expected ascension to its zenith, combined with a postwar demographic bulge that would swell the ranks of much-needed consumers – are now understood to have mostly played out. The baby boom will make its mark on retirement financial planning, public health entitlements, real estate divestment, estate planning, and senior lifestyle marketing, much as it forever altered youth culture, fashion, music, and divorce law. It might not be possible to make adult incontinence diapers sexy, but you know that someone will give it a brave try.
After that, who knows? But it’s finally dawning on us that while we may never have had it so good, we probably can’t rely on lightning striking twice to make America – or any place – great again. After a century of wild technological progress, we still aren’t living in what was once imagined as a Space Age. My grandfather, who died in his 90s the year before I was born, would feel comfortable in my world: shirts still have buttons, and shiny mylar hasn’t replaced wool or cotton. Cars don’t fly, trains still travel on steel rails, planes rarely break the speed of sound and we have not encroached on Martian space with domed moon bases anywhere except in movies. He would sit in my living room on a sturdy, square-cornered couch and get served English tea in a mug made from china. To a man born in the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign, it would be more familiar than odd.
That is, until I showed him my cell phone, a piece of technology that even amazes me – someone who recalls replacing our wall phone with a Touch-Tone model. The technological innovations of our age doesn’t help span distance or require millions of people and herculean effort to mine, refine, manufacture, ship, install and maintain. Our grandparents traveled across oceans to find work or fight wars; our parents traveled for pleasure, and we can access all the information and experiences they collected without leaving the networked screen of our choice.
The credit crisis of the late 2000s (hopefully) taught (some of) us that we weren’t as rich as we thought we were. The myriad resources and distractions of digital technology will probably be needed solace as stagnant wages and overdue debt servicing make family budgets tighter. Thankfully there are millions of videos on YouTube to give us the vicarious experience of unboxing and traveling. For people set to experience economic austerity that would have been unimagined back when we talked about peace dividends, the virtual gifts we’ve given ourselves will be much needed relief.