The Stump

The Nostalgia Throwdown, Ctd.

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Two days ago, I noted the element of nostalgia for the post-World War II era  in President Obama's State of the Union address and its precursor, his much-hyped speech last month in Kansas. In his call for restoring the public investment and middle-class stability of those years, I wrote, Obama seeks to "demonstrate that more broadly shared prosperity, with higher marginal tax rates, is not incompatible with strong economic growth, and is in fact inextricably linked with it. It reminds voters that basic economic fairness is not some European import, but is embedded in our own not-so-distant past."

Well, turns out I was not the only one to notice Obama's postwar evocations. Megan McArdle did, too, and she not surprisingly had a harsher reading of it.

Surely Obama's economic advisors have not told him that they know how to replicate the growth of the 1950s--and if they did, surely the last three years have given the lie to this belief.

I think the speech made it even clearer that other speeches have that the president's vision of the world is a lightly updated 1950s technocracy without the social conservatism, and with solar panels instead of rocket ships.  Government and labor and business working in tightly controlled concert, with nice people like Obama at the reins--all the inventions coming out of massive government or corporate labs, and all the resulting products built by a heavily unionized workforce that knows no worry about the future.

There are obviously a lot of problems with this vision.  The first is that this is not what the fifties and sixties were actually like--the government and corporate labs sat on a lot of inventions until upstart companies developed them, and the union goodies that we now think of as typical were actually won pretty late in the game (the contracts that eventually killed GM were written in the early 1970s).

And to the extent that the fifties and sixties were actually like this, we should remember, as Max Boot points out, that this was not actually the day of the little guy.  Big institutions actually had a great deal more power than they do now; it was just distributed somewhat differently--you had to worry less about big developers slapping a high-rise next to your single-family neighborhood, and a whole lot more about Robert Moses deciding he wanted to run a freeway through the spot where your house happened to be.

The military model of society--employed by both Obama, and a whole lot of 1950s good government types--was actually a kind of creepy way to live.  As Boot says, "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."  If you want the 1950s except without the rigid conformity and the McCarthyism, then you fundamentally misunderstand what made the 1950s tick.

Finally, there's the fact that the 1950s ended in the 1970s.  In the 1950s, American products were envied all over the world; by 1980, they were a joke.  This is not some radical disconnect; it is the beginning and end of the same process.  The technocratic American institutions became sclerotic agents of inertia.  Bosses whose pay was capped poured their energy into building personal empires instead of personal fortunes.  Unions like the UAW began making demands on their companies so heavy that even the UAW president who had negotiated these amazing pay increases began to fear that his members had lost their minds.

This, I would argue, is taking things a few steps too far. Just because Obama, and plenty of other liberals, seek to restore some of the basic economic fairness that existed in the '50s and '60s does not mean they are seeking a wholesale return to a model of more than a half century past. You can have higher tax rates on the wealthy without bringing Organization Man back from the dead, and you can have more public investment without the ghost of Robert Moses throwing an expressway through your neighborhood. As for McArdle's labor canard -- plenty of economists have in fact found a correlation between the recent rise in inequality and the decline in unions, but regardless of that, Obama himself is so intent on bringing back that element of the postwar economic model that he barely mentioned unions in his speech. Again, I would argue that Obama's aim in evoking the early postwar years is far more basic than McArdle imagines. He quite simply wants to remind voters that prosperity was once more broadly shared -- and reinvested -- in this country and that the economy was stronger for that sharing and reinvestment. For him to dwell on that aspect of postwar American life without addressing segregated lunch counters or repressed moms is no different than Republicans evoking the family stability of those years without taking into account the economic conditions that accompanied it.

As it happens, Jack Shafer noted the latter this week, writing in a typically pithy column about the Republican presidential candidates' tendency to "build their own little Dementiavilles, cherry-picking what they consider the best of the 1950s as they call for the return of cheap energy, U.S. industrial and military hegemony, a more business-friendly economy, and respect for authority. The Republican campaign ad imagery and its language of 'renewal,' popular since the Age of Reagan, concentrates on tree-lined streets and carefree kids riding their bikes, church socials, pickup baseball games, sunny days, and smiling snowmen."

But Republicans have of course been up to this sort of thing for years. What's striking now is for Obama, the ultimate contemporary man, whose very election as president was supposed to represent the forward march of progress, to be doing his own harkening back to the golden years. And while it's always worth noting the selectivity inherent in such evocations, it's going overboard for McArdle to read too much into his basic point: we did a better job of parceling out the pie back then, and you know what, that didn't cause the pie to shrink. Far from it.

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