The Economics of Yore

Mark Thoma gives us some of the old economic nostalgia:

There was also a difference in the employee-employer relationship, at least as I observed it growing up in a working class family (my dad worked at a parts counter at a tractor store at that time). There seemed to be an understanding that workers had families to raise. Somehow, my parents - a worker at a parts counter and a peach factory worker - owned a house in a decent neighborhood and while it was tough some months, we had health care through my dad's job and most of the middle class trappings (even if we did get a color TV much later than the neighbors). He didn't work at a great big place or anything, probably ten to twenty employees total, but they still had health care, etc. It's hard to imagine two workers my parents age (in their later 20s) working at those jobs and being able to afford those things today.

Now like all liberals these days, I agree with the broad spirit of this message. From 1947 to 1973 or so, economic gains were broadly distributed. During the past 25 years, however, economic gains have gone disproportionately to a small elite. We should change that. Etc. Wages rates and social welfare aside, however, it's worth thinking a bit about the "cost" side of the economics of yore. I learned recently, for example, that "The Levitt ranch measured 32' by 25' and came in five different models," i.e., the house was only 800 square feet, and it would actually be illegal to build an apartment that small in my neighborhood. Meanwhile, part of a neighborhood being "decent" means that it's safe from crime, and despite the crime drop of the 1990s, the violent crime index of 2005 was more than twice as high as in 1965.

In short, there are factors beyond wages that are conspiring to make middle class homeownership more difficult than before.