One of the more curious developments in the last couple of years has been the nostalgia for the 1950s economy from many progressives, especially Paul Krugman. They want to argue how much better off the middle class was back then, including how much more secure they supposedly were. In a terrific paper for Cato, Brink Lindsey effectively demolished that nostalgia with some actual data about the economy of the 1950s. Over at Cafe Hayek today, Don Boudreaux begins a series of trips through a 1956 Sears Catalog that involved calculating the hours of labor needed in 1956 and today to purchase more or less the same goods. Even ignoring the massive increases in quality from then until now, Don’s post today (and the future ones, I am quite sure, will yield similar results) shows that a low-cost women’s clothing ensemble is
56% 44% cheaper today in work hours than in 1956. Never has more stuff been available to more people more cheaply than today.
Don’s methodology along with the evidence in Brink’s paper should put an end to this nostalgic nonsense, but I doubt it.
However, here’s the irony: the progressives who are nostalgic about the economy of the 1950s are the very same ones who have (quite rightly!) criticized conservative nostalgia about the 1950s family. The 1950s family was no great shakes and certainly wasn’t anything more than the particular manifestation of a variety of historical processes, and was certainly not the Platonic Ideal of The Family. Progressives have pointed out all the ways in which the 1950s family was problematic and had some good laughs at the expense of the, in their view, silly conservative nostalgia about it.
Well folks, the worm has turned. You are now the ones engaging in nostalgia, only this time it’s silly liberal nostalgia about the economy rather than the family. And your nostalgia is just as factually challenged as is that of the right-wing nostalgia about the 1950s family. People like Don and Brink (and I will gladly join the party) need to keep on hammering these points home. And I will join the progressives in their criticisms of right-wing nostalgia about the 1950s family.
In the end, the classical liberal confidence in the ongoing progress of humanity, both economically and socio-culturally, and our willingness to approach the future without fear, is vindicated by the data. Those who peddle fear and stories of lost glory will, in the long run, lose out to those who understand that even in a less-than-perfectly-free world, human life keeps on getting better because innovation and creativity still find a way to get the job done.
Nostalgia is a dangerous basis for making policy, whether left or right.
(Cross-posted at Coordination Problem)