The Good Old Days

By Megan McArdle

Jim Manzi and Paul Krugman are both nostalgic for childhoods that seemed safer, more egalitarian, less consumption-driven than the world today:

The safety and freedom that Krugman describe are rare now even for the wealthiest Americans - by age 9, I would typically leave the house on a Saturday morning on my bike, tell my parents I was "going out to play," and not return until dinner; at age 10, would go down to the ocean to swim with friends without supervision all day; and at age 11 would play flashlight tag across dozens of yards for hours after dark. And the sense of equality was real, too. Some people definitely had bigger houses and more things than others, but our lives were remarkably similar. We all went to the same schools together, played on the same teams together, and watched the same TV shows. The idea of having, or being, "help" seemed like something from old movies about another time.

Almost anybody who experienced it this way (and of course, not everybody did), intuitively wants something like it for his own children. The tragedy, in my view, is that, though we all thought of this as the baseline of normality, this really was an exceptional moment in our nation's history.

My motivation in writing about political economy is, in some ways, much like Krugman's. But rather than seeing that moment as primarily the product of policies like unionization, entitlements and high taxes, as is Krugman's view, I believe that it was primarily the product of circumstance. We had just won a global war, and had limited competition; we had a huge wave of immigration, followed by a multi-decade pause; oil was incredibly cheap; a backlog of technical developments had yet to be exploited and scaled up, and so forth. We can't go back there, at least not exactly.

Maybe it's because I grew up later than either Manzi or Krugman; maybe it's because I grew up in Manhattan; or maybe it's because I'm a woman.  Whatever the reason, what I notice about their idyll is how dependent it was on women being home.  Home production looks very similar no matter who is doing it; one family may be having meatloaf, and another filet mignon, but the family meals still have the same basic rhythm of Mom in the kitchen for hours until the family comes to dinner.  Families only need one car because Mom, who doesn't herself work, is available to drive Dad to work every morning before she heads to the grocery store.  And the kids can play unsupervised because, of course, in this neighborhood--in all neighborhoods--there is a network of constantly watching eyes.  Meanwhile, the poor people and minorities are somewhere comfortably distant, allowing young Paul and Jim to experience a world without want. I can tell you where all the inequality and fear and crime was; it was in the neighborhood where I grew up, and the neighborhoods elsewhere in the city that were much poorer and more dangerous.


I don't mean to sneer; I'm sure it was idyllic.  And the income gains of the 1950s and 1960s were real.  But the suburbs of the era were not created simply by the rise of the middle class.  Their existence, in the way that Manzi and Krugman remember, was also completely dependent on other forms of inequality: of the ability to move away from social problems, which is harder now; of generations of women whose sole destiny was the kitchen.  This produced a world in which most homes were, from the point of view of kids, basically the same: all of them contained a mom who spent most of her time cleaning the place or feeding its occupants, and the size and contents were naturally limited to the amount of stuff that Mom was personally willing to care for.  It was a great world for kids.  But not everyone was so lucky.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/04/the-good-old-days/238056/