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« Do Technological Problems Require Only Technological Solutions? | Main | Jeff Sachs in 2012 -- From Critique of Libertarianism to Critique of Keynesianism »


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"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."

Steve, could you elaborate on this? I'm not sure which claims you are disputing that conservatives make about the nature of the family in the 1950s.

Nostalgia just isn't what it used to be.

"Nostalgia just isn't what it used to be."

But it will be, one day.

Krugman's main points are about income inequality which were not adequately addressed in Lindsey's paper. I'm pretty sure he's not arguing that the buying power of the average person has not increased since the 50s. Between the rise of globalization and information technology I think it is a safe assumption that most things have gotten relatively cheaper since then. No need to write a 30 page paper to prove that point.

Part of the point of the kind of calculations Don, Mark Perry, and I have done, at least in my view, is to show that even if income inequality has grown, the ability of the poor and middle class to consume has gained enormously. The policies that Krugman and others would have us adopt to address the supposed problem of income inequality would have the effect, in my view again, of reducing the consumption possibilities of the poor and middle class, offsetting any supposed gains from a more equal distribution of income.

Of course you might wish to see some of the new work arguing that the vast majority of the increase in income inequality is demographic due to a significant increase in the number of single person households. So the whole basis of PK's argument is misguided in the first place. That said, even if we grant him his argument....

ie the death of 1950s economics is the result of the death of the 2-partent '1950s' family among a large swath of the lower class ....

"the vast majority of the increase in income inequality is demographic due to a significant increase in the number of single person households"

How much would you pay to go back to 1950s and be better off?

A way to grasp the conceptual difficulties of measuring changes in living standards and life expectancies across the decades is to step into Brad De Long’s time machine.

In this thought experiment, DeLong asks how much you would want in additional income to agree to go back in time to a specific year. DeLong was an economic historian examining the differences in American living standards since 1900.

DeLong would have refused to go at all to 1900 unless he could have taken mid-20th century medicine with him. Otherwise it would have meant dying from a childhood phenomena.

A TV documentary placed two parents and four children in their home with only the amenities available during the 1970s, 1980s and the 1990s.

The children to give-up Facebook for a black-and-white telly and vinyl records.

Goodbye to three games consoles, three DVD players, five mobile phones, six televisions and seven computers, their dishwasher, two washing machines and a tumble dryer

Filming occurred over the winter of 2009, which was particularly cold and snowy for England. the family had to endure cold nights when the lack of central heating was simulated for the 70s episode.

Note I said "single PERSON" households, not single PARENT households. Part of that demographic shift is later marriage, not rising divorce rates. Divorce rates, as a matter of fact, have been on a slow decline since about 1980.

A practical question: What good purpose does spreading *nostalgia* serve? Are we supposed to bring about the past? Isn't time irreversible? Or are they taking Newtonian time literally?

Studying the past for lessons is valuable, but the emotion of nostalgia can be destructive.

This is all quite aside from the question about whether things were better then. I leave that to the experts on intergenerational utility comparisons.

PK nostalgia is about the relative positioning of bottom quintiles in income and wealth distribution and their rate of growth. No one denied we have better and cheaper stuff because of technology AS WELL AS no one can deny during 1950 - 60 people was much better off than fifty years later.

"The policies that Krugman and others would have us adopt to address the supposed problem of income inequality would have the effect, in my view again, of reducing the consumption possibilities of the poor and middle class, offsetting any supposed gains from a more equal distribution of income."

I broadly agree, but this is an empirical question and can't be addressed just saying at the time you needed to work more to buy the same stuff you buy today because the same hold true if we compare real wages during '50 with real wages of the early XX century. '50 - '60 were decades of great technology achievements, mass consumption and increasing welfare, so the "technology argument" alone is almost irrelevant to address PK "nostalgia".

OK, so Krugman can give me some of his money. Then we'll be both be better off.

(I would also accept one NY Times column a week.)


I agree with your conclusion that the creativity of humans is powerful, and things have gotten better not worse. We should not want to get in a time machine and go backward, since for most folks, that would mean a much shorter and more difficult life. Julian Simons made this point beautifully.

However, the very point of offering a counterpoint to the "nostalgic" crowd is that progress *is* potentially reversible, and the policies advocated by some have the potential to either slow down human progress or even reverse it. Some nations have indeed lurched backward at times as stupid policies finally overtook the engine of creativity and growth.

As we point out the marvels that have accompanied modern life, we should never cease to warn of the potential dangers of stupid policy and human social engineering. The good prophet warns that if folks do not mend their ways, to the devil they will go.

Steve, I'm seconding the question somebody else asked: Can you give me an example of the kind of thing you mean, about conservatives? I understand if one wants to say, "The 1950s weren't so hot if you were a black woman," but you are saying that family structure wasn't better in the 1950s than today? Is that because you don't think family structure matters, or because people stayed in abusive marriages, or...? I really don't understand what your argument is.

I miss those big cars with the tail fins. But our tax levels are back down to where they were then.

People who do not like modern western society can always migrate to a developing country, burn their passport and live like one of the locals.

My retired in-laws in the rural Philippines moved from their village having no sealed road access and no phones to cable TV access outside their door all inside ten years.

When I was in Japan in 1995, each generation was head and shoulders taller than the last. The 2010 generation of Japanese are the first to have obesity issues.

I am no longer tall when I visit Asia. It was nice to be tall.


Both of the points you raise are part of my argument: the 50s weren't so hot for lots of categories of people and there were a good number of marriages in the 50s that ranged from miserable to abusive.

The subsequent liberalization of divorce laws were, in my view, a net gain in human well-being. Yes, children of divorce do a bit worse on average than children of intact marriages. However: 1) there's some pretty good evidence the what hurts kids is conflict, rather than divorce per se. A civil divorce is better for kids than a conflict-ridden marriage. 2) Of course kids matter, but if we want to talk about whether liberal divorce laws are good, we need to account for the adults as well. The slightly lower average outcomes for kids might well be worth the gains for adults who get out of miserable to abusive marriages.

As for whether family structure matters.... cet. par., I think children are raised best in a two-parent household (though the gender of the parents doesn't matter that much). But ceteris is rarely paribus, and we know that other family structures/forms are perfectly capable of raising children into productive, civil adult members of society. The law should neither subsidize nor prohibit/penalize the other kinds of family forms people might wish to explore, and the ability to explore them is a gain in freedom and, in a good number of cases, functionality, if one considers the realistic "as compared to what?" question.

As a good Hayekian (and Ostromite!), I am much more concerned about the function of families than I am with the form, and I think that a multiplicity of forms can be functional, just as a variety of particular forms of property can perform the functions we want of property rights.

And yes, policy has played a role in making families less functional and in subsidizing family forms that tend to be less functional. But longer term trends have counteracted that and enabled people to form the kinds of families they want, which is often the most important way to ensure their functionality. Being trapped in a miserable marriage or having children languish in foster care while same-sex couples who would be great parents face legal barriers to adopting them are not recipes for helping young people become productive, civil adults.

Dr. Margo Thorning is Senior Vice President and Chief Economist with the American Council for Capital Formation. In this clip recorded before the presidential election, Dr. Thorning discusses why it is more difficult today to get congressional compromise than it was many years ago.

Illegitimacy, teen motherhood, and kids without fathers is the 800 lb gorilla in the living room, Steve.

I don't think anyone is talking about upper middle class divorce or same sex marriage.

What people have been talking about since Moynihan in the 1960s is the ever growing illegitimacy rate and the endless children born into communities of poverty with teen mothers and no fathers, high crime and low graduation rates and low employment rates.

When folks talk about the economic effects of the end of "the 1950s family" -- where the end of the "1950s" family has oomph that matters is among the lower classes.

All these other matters are fun to talk about, but in terms of numbers, they don't add up to anything worth spending much time on.

The economically successful are largely coming from 2 parent families.

The economically pathological largely are largely coming from teen mothers without fathers.

That's the economic data I keep seeing.

These side issues are fun, but are besides the point in terms of the inequality matter at hand.

Krugman and other socialists fixate on the inequality figures of the 1950's, but fail to consider if that rate was sustainable. According to Fogel in "Escape from Premature Death and Hunger" the GINI coefficient fell from the 90's to about 30 in 1900.

It has risen and fallen since then. The low was obtained in the 50's, but at what cost? The 50's gave us the 60's and 70's. What might seem idyllic was actually the seeds of destruction.

Homes headed by a single mother and immigration are the fasting growing segments of poverty in the US. Socialists refuse to consider that inequality can grow from the bottom as well as from the top.


The low for the Gini was not at all in the 50s, when inequality was noticeably higher than later, albeit lower than it is today. The lowpoint for the US Gini coefficient was reached in the mid-1970s.

Barkley, you're right. My memory failed me.

"As a good Hayekian (and Ostromite!), I am much more concerned about the function of families than I am with the form, and I think that a multiplicity of forms can be functional"

...But very longstanding tradition and moral rules think not, and that is Hayekian too.

Morals are those rules which repress unlimited individual freedom, and Hayek argues that while they cannot always be rationalized, they may nonetheless be necessary for the very survival of a group and the maintanence of an orderly evolution of its form.

As I try to teach my four-year old: If you follow the rules, there is a great deal of personal liberty, and we *all* get along together. If you break the rules, then you might loose your liberty, and we will all be cross.

At the very least, I suspect that an even more Hayekian approach views the family issue with extreme caution, and while indeed we may legitimately question whether or not certain voluntary groups should recieve more humane treatment under the law, one should be extremely reticent to rely on R^2 coefficients to argue that many longstanding tacit rules of family life should be toppled with glee and cheering.

But then I just revealed why I am a Burke/Smith/Ferguson/Hume classical liberal, and simply not *as* liberal as you.

P.S. As much as I admire your scholarship, and agree with you on almost all economics, we part company on this one. Your view is simply too liberal, and your arguments do not seem to carry enough Hayekian humility, while indeed they seem to me to border on outright Benthamite utilitarianism (check the last sentence in the second paragraph of your response to Bob Murphy).

There is much in Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments which indirectly relates to some of the issues, and perhaps I will incorporate some of Smith's ideas into a more coherent comment at some point, and try to show how they relate.

Very sorry to post a dissenting comment becasue I largely agree with your point about the danger of nostalgia!

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