The best thing about the past is that things changed more rapidly
The original meme from "Culture Critic" is couched in terms of economics, but to me it reads more as nostalgia for female subservience.
Oh for the days of Father Knows Best, when a man was king of his castle.
Yeah, I grew up in fifties-land, and it was horrible, for women and for everyone except Father.
You may as well be nostalgic about the joys of being a white slave-owner in the antebellum south.
> This is downstream of material prosperity — mothers are less economically dependent than they used to be — but I think it’s probably not ideal for kids’ social and emotional development.
I think this an instance of a general trend that both conservatives and leftists want to deny: As we get richer, we want to purchase more independence and distance. Everyone wants to believe in some concept of community, people tied together in meaningful interdependence. Yet our revealed preference is that we mainly want to get away from each other.
Our desire for connectivity is likely largely based on the benefits, particularly being able to rely on others. No one is particularly excited about the costs; the obligations to support and accept others. Add in adverse selection, those who can contribute the most have least to gain, while those with greatest needs offer the least, and our illusion of community collapses.
In all this 1950s nostalgia, I think what's sometimes forgotten is how truly unique the situation was in which the U.S. found itself in the period from approx. 1945-1965: Europe and Asia had been devastated by World War II and were in economic shambles, leaving the U.S. as the world's sole major source of goods, foodstuffs, and capital investment (the Marshall Plan was excellent economic diplomacy, but it's also worth remembering how much it also benefited the U.S. as the money to rebuild Europe was often spent on American products). In this same time frame, investments in American infrastructure, electrification, and industrial capacity which had begun in the 1930s and accelerated during the war finally began to bear fruit, allowing the U.S. to grow its own domestic markets.
By the 1960s and 1970s this exceptional situation began to wear off, as the rest of the world was finally able to begin competing economically and the limits of the domestic market were reached. But not, it seems, before melting American brains into thinking that the incredible growth of the post-war era was normal and perpetually sustainable, rather than the result of a very specific economic and political moment in time.
There are a lot of rose tinted spectacles about the past. You will note the images in that 'what went wrong?' tweet were bright, shiny images supposedly of middle class life in the 50s. I'm sure that was real for some people in the 50s, but for the majority of people in America it would have no basis in reality. The images are akin to Soviet propaganda showing workers joyously engaged in honest toil, and modern people thinking it must have been awesome to work in a steel mill in the Urals in the 1950s.
With regards college, it's one thing to spend money on useful student amenities, and it's another to spend money on arguably less useful things like DEI consultants.
How many times have we heard the phrase: "We were poor back then, but we didn't know it." Often said by people when describing their childhood, or by long-married couples recounting their first years of marriage. And always with a note of romanticism and nostalgia for the halcyon days of youth. People love remembering when they were young.
The meme Matt used isn't nostalgia for a different time; it is just another way of saying "things are terrible, previous generations had it better and you are getting screwed". Today we are inundated with stories about the terrible state of our lives, our country, our climate, our planet. The relentless stream of negativity results in a message that is a gross distortion of reality. Social media connects while amplifying each outrage, injustice, and crisis in the pursuit of their one-more-click business models.
I love that Matt approaches issues through the lens of data and economics, and pushes back against a message of despair. But I think his analyses miss something profound that is happening primarily, though not exclusively, to the younger generations (the most connected, the most depressed) that goes beyond mere dollars.
Good piece, and a nice debunking of the meme. This claim I found hard to believe though:
'All the IT expenditures, for example, almost certainly have very little impact in terms of improving students’ education, but it’s also inconceivable that a college campus would just refuse to create and maintain on-campus internet access.'
Surely we're not making the claim here that 'internet access' has 'very little impact in terms of improving students' education'? It's just way easier to find information as a Higher Ed student than it used to be, even when I was a student less than 20 years ago. Even if you allow for some negative externalities in wasted time tweeting/online gaming etc, plus some harms from poor academic practice/plagiarism/getting ChatGPT to write the essay, you're still much better off having access to information at your fingertips. Just the benefit in buying fewer books and/or less fighting to get limited copies from the library is hugely beneficial.
What an absurd essay, claiming ciabatta produces widespread delight, let alone that such a subpar bread is anywhere near the same realm of awesomeness as wheeled luggage.
Great post! I love a good myth debunking. I think this actually sums up WHY I'm out of step with the right. I've complained here a lot of having views traditionally associated with the right (pro-free market, kinda hawkish, pro-family and religion) but just having nothing in common with 90% of Republicans I meet. This is why. I'm not nostalgic for the past. Technological change is going to be difficult to adjust to, but is a net good. Demographic change doesn't bother me (I'm young, it would be weird if it did). I accept that economic progress means that some people will lose their jobs sometimes. What I'm concerned about is having an economy dynamic enough that periods of unemployment are brief, not preserving every last job ad infinitum.
Kudos to Matt for acknowledging that there ARE some things that are getting worse. To me, a lot of these problems have something in common. Fentanyl, porn, fast food addiction, and general hopelessness are all diseases of affluence. These are the problems we get when we've mostly eliminated extreme poverty (except for a few places like Indian Reservations which do still have crushing 1950s poverty or worse). It reminds me of the Louis CK bit "everything's awesome and nobody's happy." People not bringing kids in to the world because it's such a dystopia? This is the greatest time to be alive in human history! We're bored! That's our challenge. Not very difficult to find a purpose when you're staving off starvation or fighting in a war. In a time of peace and prosperity we have to find a different place to channel our energy. This is where I'm also out of step with the left. I get thinking 2023 is terrible if you're a conservative, I don't get it if you're a progressive who is concerned with stuff like gay rights. That is unquestionably better now.
Final point on two income families. I remember Blake Masters last fall ran an ad about how you should be able to raise a family on one income again. That would be nice! The problem is that this analysis is totally backwards. For instance, if you could make $100,000/year as a Starbucks barista (holding all else equal), one income could in fact raise a family. Problem: at $100,000/year, the other spouse would want to work at Starbucks too and hire a sitter to watch the kids. It's only at extremely LOW wages that only one partner works because at $5/hour, it's a better use of time for one spouse to be doing housework.
Rant over, appreciated the post.
Edit: here's the bit:
Ok, BUT, I can not afford to buy the home I grew up in. My parents bought it in 1989 for about 300K and today it costs about a million. My parents were able to afford this despite having 4 children to pay for. Today, at the same age, only one of those four children could afford to buy that house.
Maybe I just suck, but this fact makes me feel like some things have gotten harder/worse despite how cool my iPhone is. That house was really cool too and definitely better than the one I live in now.
I don’t know I own one of these early 60s vintage houses. As rents skyrocketed we bought one at super low interest rates.
For two people, 4 pets and soon to be a foster kid just some modernization is fucking enormous. I’ve lived in one bedrooms and Asian city studios my whole life and I feel lonely in my office. To the point I bought a steam deck so my wife and I can be in the same room more.
We have one car, it’s fine—her office is like 10-20 minutes away from my work.
It would have been better in my view to expand equality. I wish there were just loads of small old houses available for less, and less need for automobiles. I think you could have gotten a lot more traditional social norms without the coercion and bullying if we’d socialized people differently.
Not related to the content of this piece, but here's my pet peeve- this 'Culture Critic' guy knew that his meme was incredibly dumb (there seem to be a lot of these right wing populist memes about the 50s). He *wants* attention. He *wants* people quote-tweeting and dunking. It's dumb on purpose to make you click! Kind of like Richard Hanania cranking out takes on Ukrainian fertility or whatever, these people have absolutely no shame- they're happy for the overwhelming negative attention, so long as they get a few more followers or Substack subscribers or whatever. By thousands of people on Twitter quoting his meme and dunking on it, you're giving this guy *exactly what he wants*.
Please, for the love of God, if you want to dunk on terrible takes- take a screenshot of the tweet, upload the jpg and use that. Don't drive traffic to a Twitter clickbait dude. This has been my public service announcement for the day (gets off soapbox)
Another thing that makes these comparisons confusing is that they always depict a married white couple with a job and older kids. But that is not the median earners is our society, for many reasons. If you consider today, the median family income in that demographic is over 100k, they almost all own houses, etc etc.
Part of this is the nature of the statistics -- it's easy to assume that the "normal" family earns the "normal" income but this is not true at all. And part of it is an age effect. If you compare your income at 25 (the age of annoying Twitter critics) to your parents income when you were 15 (an age when their income was probably clear to their kids), that will skew things substantially.
the thing that comes to mind to me is that a lot of people simply never sat down and talked to their grandparents about the material conditions of their lives
Not just more rapid growth, but much more widely shared gains, I’m pretty sure. Correct?
On the housing point, it also seems like there are far fewer 1950s-sized homes than there used to be, and the ones that are still around are in the inner ring suburbs of expensive cities. Most new single family home construction seems to be larger homes targeted at people who are +40 years old. So there just aren’t enough starter homes that a young middle class family can afford in many cities.
The "nostalgia economics" meme seems to be serving here mainly as a rhetorical device to punch through one of the most difficult obstacles anyone wanting to change the status quo faces: the unwillingness, or in many cases actual inability, of people to imagine that it's possible to choose a different, better way of organizing resources in our society.
Calling on recognizable imagery and ways of living from the not-too-distant past makes an image of alternative way of organizing society that's more accessible, and hence more believable, to many people.
It has a lot of downsides, though, including that it's a more limited stock of possibilities than writing on a clean slate. And when you start basing your imagined future on sepia or technicolor images of an imagined past, it's predictable that people will start bringing other parts of the past that you never meant to to be brought forward and don't want.