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The Politics of Nostalgia

[ 104 ] February 28, 2011 |

For obvious reasons, nostalgia is one of the two most important emotions fueling conservative politics. A wise man once observed that the past “was long ago and it was far away, and it was so much better than it is today” — and this almost universal human sentiment remains ripe for commercial and political manipulation. Still, the strategic use of nostalgia faces a practical problem whenever a society is much wealthier than it was a generation ago. One way of dealing with this awkward fact is to extol the virtues of a simpler time, in contrast to the decadent excesses of the present. This strategy has its limits however (As Jorge Luis Borges notes somewhere, “while it is true that money cannot buy happiness, the advantages of poverty have been greatly exaggerated.”).

Another approach is to make sure that as much as possible of the society’s increased wealth goes to a tiny fraction of its people. From the perspective of the right-wing ideologue, such a maneuver has two equally delightful aspects. First, it rewards society’s most virtuous citizens, that is, those who are already rich. Second, it encourages an inchoate longing for the past — always so useful for conservative political projects of every stripe –among the great bulk of the citizenry, since they will not be misled by the consideration that their own economic station in life has actually improved. Of course this latter strategy requires a deft touch among the powers that be, lest the ever-greedy masses notice that one particularly compelling reason to prefer the past to the present is that the gap between themselves and their social superiors has increased very much to their disadvantage.

There’s a standard narrative in contemporary American politics that goes something like this: After World War II, Europe and Japan lay in ruins, and the USA’s economy was in a historically unique position. As a consequence, the 1950s and 1960s represented a golden era of economic growth, during which America became an affluent society, far wealthier than any the world had yet seen. In addition, most of this period was a time of relative ideological consensus, as people got rich, bought houses and cars, and filled both with the plentiful children of the baby boom. With money falling from the skies, and with the advent of what are now called identity politics still in the future, government was for the most part seen as a positive force in American life. In particular, the belief that markets and businesses could be regulated efficiently, and that taxes could be used to further the common good, was widespread.

All this, the story goes, began to change in the mid-1960s, with the first major battles of what are now known as the culture wars. Ideological consensus fell apart, as bitter divisions appeared in American society regarding Vietnam, civil rights, feminism, the role of religion in public life, environmental regulation, and a host of similar issues. On the economic front, the cost of the Vietnam war and of the Great Society’s social programs would combine with the shock of skyrocketing energy prices to bring an end to the previous era of prosperity. Since then, America has struggled along, through business cycles whose upswings are not nearly as bountiful as those during the palmy days when tens of millions of baby boomers were born, while our periodic recessions are made more fractious by the increasingly partisan politics of a deeply divided culture. For a large portion of the voting public, government is now seen as the problem, rather than a solution to anything — and the biggest problem with our government(s) is that they give away increasingly scarce resources in a cash-strapped time to undeserving recipients of “welfare,” while hard-working ordinary Americans bear an ever-more onerous tax burden, in order to pay for this reckless spending spree.

Variations of this narrative have been uttered endlessly in the 40+ years since Richard Nixon so brilliantly exploited a particularly cynical version of it, which Ronald Reagan subsequently perfected. Here, for example, is a passage from a popular law school casebook, which attempts to explain why so-called “legal process” theories of statutory and constitutional interpretation developed in the 1950s and 1960s fell somewhat out of favor in subsequent decades (It’s worth noting that two of the case book’s three authors are political liberals. I don’t know the politics of the third author. I should also note that, in spite of the quoted passage, it’s a very good case book, and I’m only using this passage to illustrate the success a particular political narrative has had even among otherwise well-informed liberals):

[The years immediately after World War II represented] a period of relative consensus in America, rather sustained economic growth, and burgeoning optimism about government’s ability to foster economic growth by solving market failures and creating opportunities. After the mid-1960s, America was a different society, as consensus collapsed on fundamental issues of war, family, and citizenship; economic growth faltered and oil price shocks introduced stagflation; and government came to be perceived as problematic, often even as a drain on society’s productivity. These developments raised inevitable questions about [interpretive] methodology . . .

The authors go on to claim — correctly in my view — that interpretive methods which argue for sticking to the original “plain meaning” of legal texts are politically popular because such “textualist” versions of originalism give an appearance of objectivity to legal interpretation, and that this supposed objectivity is an attractive virtue, given the culturally and economically troubled conditions of contemporary American life:

Citizens [proponents of textualism argue] ought to be able to open up the statute books and find out what the law requires of them. Once law is understood by the cognoscenti as purposes, spirits, and collective intents, the citizenry might lose faith in the externality of law [and] the objectivity of legal reasoning . . . The changes in American society since the 1960s make an external vision of the rule of law even more important than before. In a society where so many values are open to contest, language may be the main thing we share in common. In a society where “the pie” is not expanding (the economy is stagnant) dividing the pie by an objective criterion becomes ever more critical.

(The second indented quote was added to the third edition of the casebook in 2001 and was retained in the 2007 edition.)

Now it so happens that the economic component of the standard narrative is completely wrong. Here are the facts (all the monetary figures have been adjusted for inflation):

From 1950 to 1970 real per capita GDP grew by 57.4%.

From 1970 to 1990 real per capita GDP grew by 54.2%. How many people are aware that the explosion of increased wealth America experienced between 1950 and 1970 was almost precisely replicated (from a far higher baseline) between 1970 and 1990?

Indeed, from 1990 to 2010, real per capita GDP grew by 30.1%. Even the financial calamity of the last few years — the worst since the Great Depression — has put only a moderate dent into the overall growth rate of the American economy.

In other words over the last 45 years, the American economy has continued to grow just as quickly as it had during the baby boom: real GDP actually tripled between 1970 and 2009, while per capita GDP more than doubled. America is now an immensely wealthier country that it was during the “golden age” of the mid-1960s. So where does the idea come from that the economy has, relatively speaking, stagnated over the last four decades? The answer is obvious when one looks at what has happened to median family income.

In the 1950s and 1960s median family income grew almost as quickly as per capita GDP. In 1950, the average American family had an income of $29,858. By 1965 that figure had grown to $47,764. Over the course of those two decades, every dollar of GDP growth produced an 81-cent increase in median family income. In that essentially socialistic sense, the baby boom era really was an economic golden age.

Now consider what has happened since: Real per capita GDP grew by 101.2% between 1970 and 2009, yet median family income in 2010 is estimated to have been a little over $50,000 — around 6% higher than it was four decades earlier. While the nation as a whole is trillions of real, inflation-adjusted dollars wealthier than it was 40 years ago, median family income has remained close to $50,000 for this entire time. (Here are the figures for median family income in five year increments, in 2010 dollars. 1965: $47,764, 1970: $48,332, 1975: $48,667, 1980: $46,839, 1985: $46,813, 1990: $50,050, 1995: $49,363, 2000: $53,817, 2005: $53,034, 2010: $50,500). If the relationship between the growth of real per capita GDP and median family income in the 1950s and 1960s had continued during the subsequent four decades, the average American household would be bringing in $85,000 in annual income — and very few families would have to get by on less than $40,000 per year.

Where then has all this almost unimaginable increase in national wealth gone? Consider that while in 1965 the 95th percentile of family income was approximately $105,000 — i.e., a little more than double the median — by 2010 it was $180,000. But the relative good fortune of the upper middle (or perhaps more realistically lower upper) class pales to nothing in comparison to what has happened in the economic stratosphere. Between 1979 and 2007, average after-tax incomes for the top 1 percent of households rose by 281 percent after adjusting for inflation — an increase of nearly one million dollars per household. Yet even this increase is trivial when placed against the bounty that has rained down on the true Lords of Capital. In 1980, the richest 0.01% of American households — roughly the 10,000 richest families — had an average annual income of $5.4 million (in 2006 dollars). A quarter century later, that figure had grown, in real, inflation-adjusted terms, by a factor of nearly six: to $29.6 million per year.

All of this, it should be unnecessary to point out, is a deliberate product of public policy. That income and wealth inequality should have grown so drastically in America over the past three decades isn’t a product of God’s will, or globalization, or the laws of economic thermodynamics — it’s a product of quite conscious decisions regarding, among other things, tax rates, the legal rights of labor unions, the role of money in politics, and a host of other choices that have led to almost all the nation’s economic growth being shuttled to the top of the social pyramid.

One of the dominant narratives of both the past generation and the contemporary political scene — that we can no longer “afford” the supposedly profligate spending of the baby boom era — ignores the fact that we as a nation are more than twice as wealthy, per person, as we were then. And the fact that the powers that be have determined almost all this vast increase in wealth should go, in exponential progression, to the top 1%, and .1% and .01% of the population, only emphasizes both the moral and economic perversity of claims that cuts in government spending should be borne primarily by our ever-shrinking middle class, and the ever-growing ranks of the poor.

Comments (104)

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  1. Snarki, child of Loki says:

    I’ve been feeling an intense nostalgia for that long-ago time when the average conservative could be termed “sane”.

    • DrDick says:

      I feel an intense nostalgia for the Eisenhower administration, with record high union membership a dynamically growing economy, whose benefits were broadly shared, and a 90% top marginal rate on individuals and 50% on corporations.

      • chris says:

        Eisenhower was the first name that came to my mind as a sane conservative, too. Nixon was a crook, Reagan was a race-baiter and closet Bircher and it’s all been downhill from there, but Ike is a Republican I can respect, even though we might disagree rather sharply on social issues. (Or not — he did integrate the military. Who knows how he would react to the culture wars of a generation later.)

  2. toondeef says:

    In my opinion as someone who looks in here every now and then to see an intelligent conversation, you guys would do better to not engage this Reality Check character. He’s not up to standards.

  3. Jon says:

    But, we can’t probably really afford our current fiscal path right now without massive cutting later. And it was REAGAN whom lied and said Dems are big spenders. Reality’s that we’re the party started by the Jefferson whom even did his own copying via gadget instead of paying for more clerk time, and has mostly spent less on our helpful benefits than the other party’s spent on its military patronage. Do you want to really want to choose your path from GOP lies?

    And, we can choose to spend SMARTLY instead of dumbly and corruptly, as we’ve done most of the time. Here are just two changes that’d save megabux:
    o shape our military around our MAD reality of small wars
    o Do Gates and Buffett really need Medicare and Social Security? Need test the biggest benefits.

    • Jon says:

      Whoopsie – I meant to say we’re spending dumber and more corruptly than historically usual now instead of the other way around. I think we have alot of room for good government services done more efficiently.

    • dave3544 says:

      Have you given any thought to what increasing the tax rate on those .001% might do for our deficits?

      If 10,000 or so families are “earning” $29,600,000 per year, it seems to me that we could take care of the deficit without too much bother to anyone else.

      Hell, yes, let’s cut the military, but let’s start fixing the problems at the top and not be shy about it. For the very most part, those 10,000 families haven’t “earned” anything in decades. They sit at the top of a pyramid of labor and take, take, take.

      Here’s nostalgia from Teddy in 1910:

      “No man should receive a dollar unless that dollar has been fairly earned. Every dollar received should represent a dollar’s worth of service rendered not gambling in stocks, but service rendered. The really big fortune, the swollen fortune, by the mere fact of its size, acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means. Therefore, I believe in a graduated income tax on big fortunes, and in another tax which is far more easily collected and far more effective, a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion, and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.”

      Or this from Abe:
      “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

      • dave3544 says:

        .01%. Sorry.

      • Jon says:

        Yeah, I agree, Dave. Reality says we should both increase taxes and cut spending to solve fiscal gaps, especially when taxes are modest, as they are, in fact. It’s pretty lame to me that Boehner and others of his generation of Republicans are so unreal. To me, the problem’s that they’re believing their own propaganda, sadly.

  4. fluffytuna says:

    And then there’s this Obama cat. No way he was ever going to be allowed in the front door of the White House in the beloved 50s. Nope, no way.

  5. Tom M says:

    I would argue that nostalgia doesn’t so much fuel conservative politics as that nostalgia is another angle or weapon seized on by conservatives to advance a broader agenda. Fear, of change as well as external “enemies”, also plays a significant role in fashioning the tactics necessary to implement that agenda.
    In the early and late 1950s the fear of Communism was a huge factor in the conservative agenda, not nostalgia and that fear is what led to Viet-Nam. You can see that played out everywhere along with the nuclear threat, particularly the non-existent missile threat, that Nixon and Kennedy played on in the early 1960s.
    Nostalgia is a weapon or a tactic not a strategy.

  6. Bart says:

    You say that “In 1950, the average American family had an income of $29,858.”

    Are you sure? In 1962, as a new college grad, my starting salary at the U.S. Labor Dept was around $4,500. My medium term goal was to make $10K per year. Maybe you are mixing median and average.

    Your figure must be misleadingly skewed by the very wealthy of 1950, a time when very few two-earner families existed.

  7. For obvious reasons, nostalgia is perhaps the single most important emotion fueling conservative politics.

    It allows them to create candy colored lies while giving the ol’ wink wink to str8 male Caucasian Christians.

    The. End.

  8. Brad Potts says:

    Good post.

    I will say that this government has spent the last century centralizing credit, production and distribution lines in order to allow government some control over the economy, and to promote technological and efficiency advances.

    My wife and I live off of my sole income and that puts us below the median. Yet, in our two bedroom apartment we have two up-to-date PCs, a 50″ HDTV and a 32″ HDTV, a PS3, a full compliment of appliances, and all hooked up to a high-speed in home network.

    The prices necessary to support such luxury at such a low income requires a high level of centralization of resource distribution and therefore a high level of income inequality, as mom and pop shops won’t do.

    Of course, I respond to this by being the anti-Rand libertarian and preaching the shire, but that isn’t acceptable to you folks either.

    • Malaclypse says:

      Need I point out that you took advantage of all that centralization by making those purchases? If you don’t like centralization, then home gardening, mom-and-pop-store purchases, and general life simplification are a lot better statement than libertarian politics.

      • Brad Potts says:

        Need I point out that you took advantage of all that centralization by making those purchases? If you don’t like centralization, then home gardening, mom-and-pop-store purchases, and general life simplification are a lot better statement than libertarian politics.

        I work on all of those things, although the mom-and-pop purchases are limited to diners and drug dealers for lack of options.

        But as you have said before, good options aren’t really on the table, and I’m not really into pointless sacrifice. Especially when I have to explain it to my wife.

  9. Hogan says:

    a high level of centralization of resource distribution and therefore a high level of income inequality

    I’m not seeing the “therefore” here. Other countries (including, you know, this one before about 1980) had the high level of centralization and much less income inequality.

  10. Alex says:

    The “but you couldn’t buy an iPhone in 1962!” argument is silly. Had wages kept pace with GDP, just imagine how much shiny you’d be able to afford!

  11. Brian says:

    Ferchissakes, the issue isn’t about standard of living, it is about the massive gains at the tippy top versus the relative stagnation of the rest. GDP per capita, productivity, all of these measures show the American work force has made huge gains in making Americaland wealthier, but compared to our Galtian overlords, has little in absolute and less than zero in relative terms to show for it. I work harder, and the Galtster makes MUCH more money. Yet our superiors are the ones crying “theft.”
    The “let them eat cake” attitude is still the same, but now it is OK because the cake has tastier frosting.
    Mmm, cake.

    • Brad P. says:

      I will put it this way:

      Every time you buy something, capital must be invested to produce it. The owners of capital WILL make a profit, cause the surest way to stall an economy is to make sure capital doesn’t bestow a profit when it is used. Furthermore, the scarcer capital is in comparison to consumption, the greater rate of profit the owners of capital will enjoy.

      So therefore, the more everyone buys within our current system, the more revenue the owners of capital will receive and the greater the margin.

      So it is about standards of living and it is about not being able to buy an Ipod in 1962. The changes that came about over the last century that have made something as seemingly superfluous as an Ipod ubiquitous, also leads to a small group of people being responsible for an entire nation worth of Ipod owners.

      If everyone owns an Ipad, the capital owners behind Apple are going to be loaded. That’s the way it is.

      • DocAmazing says:

        Actually, there are many ways to organize capital and investment, including cooperatives, state-run industries, and partnerships. Not all forms of investment or methods of organizing capital result in big profits for investors, yet they work.

        You of all people know that.

        • Brad Potts says:

          Actually, there are many ways to organize capital and investment, including cooperatives, state-run industries, and partnerships. Not all forms of investment or methods of organizing capital result in big profits for investors, yet they work.

          Absolutely. I tried to couch my statements so that they applied to our current system only.

      • MPAVictoria says:

        “f everyone owns an Ipad, the capital owners behind Apple are going to be loaded. That’s the way it is.”
        Yes but must they get ALL of the benefit from productivity gains? How about a deal? They get to keep 60% and the other 40% gets spread around to other income groups though a progressive tax structure, well funded social programs and increased government protection of workers’ right to unionize? Deal?

        • Brad Potts says:

          Deal?

          Between us, sure.

          But my point isn’t so much about distribution, as it is about the power held within the economy.

          If you have an Apple Corporation that can coordinate the communications, entertainment, and business IT of millions of people, you are going to have an Apple Corporation that can whip the shit out of us when it comes to petitioning the government.

          • Malaclypse says:

            If you have an Apple Corporation that can coordinate the communications, entertainment, and business IT of millions of people, you are going to have an Apple Corporation that can whip the shit out of us when it comes to petitioning the government.

            If only it were possible for some entity – a governing body, if you will, or government for short, to enact anti-Trust laws, so as to reign in this corporate power you are so rightly disturbed by.

            • Brad Potts says:

              If only it were possible for some entity – a governing body, if you will, or government for short, to enact anti-Trust laws, so as to reign in this corporate power you are so rightly disturbed by.

              If you can show me how to “reign in” corporate power in the first place, lets go for it.

              • Malaclypse says:

                If you can show me how to “reign in” corporate power in the first place, lets go for it.

                Well, there are these bodies of laws, which, you might note, libertarians are pretty consistently against.

                Proponents of the Chicago school of economics are generally suspicious (and critical) of government intervention in the economy, including anti-trust laws and competition policies.

                Free market economist Milton Friedman states that he initially agreed with the underlying principles of antitrust laws (breaking up monopolies and oligopolies and promoting more competition), but that he came to the conclusion that they do more harm than good.

                Alan Greenspan argues that the very existence of antitrust laws discourages businessmen from some activities that might be socially useful out of fear that their business actions will be determined illegal and dismantled by government. In his essay entitled Antitrust, he says: “No one will ever know what new products, processes, machines, and cost-saving mergers failed to come into existence, killed by the Sherman Act before they were born. No one can ever compute the price that all of us have paid for that Act which, by inducing less effective use of capital, has kept our standard of living lower than would otherwise have been possible.”

                Ayn Rand, the American philosopher, provides a moral argument against antitrust laws. She holds that these laws in principle criminalize any person engaged in making a business successful, and, thus, are gross violations of their individual expectations.

              • Brad Potts says:

                Well, there are these bodies of laws, which, you might note, libertarians are pretty consistently against.

                I should rephrase, when you can show that the government will hold corporate power to the rule of law that all of us abide by, then lets do it.

                Until then just remember that you have already declared the jobs provided by the owners of GM are necessary and guaranteed by the government.

                Who do you think holds the power in that relationship, the workers, or the employers who the government has declared untouchable by man and nature?

              • Malaclypse says:

                Until then just remember that you have already declared the jobs provided by the owners of GM are necessary and guaranteed by the government.

                Cite please, as I never said any such thing.

              • Brad P. says:

                Cite please, as I never said any such thing.

                I apologize. As far as I can remember, you never even really registered your opinion on that.

              • Malaclypse says:

                Thank you. FWIW, at the time, I was mildly opposed to the auto bailout, as I was pretty sure they would just fail later. The only argument I saw in favor was that if bankers got a bailout (which I completely opposed), then manufacturing deserved one as well. I now tentatively think I was wrong then, and the auto bailout seems to have worked in at least the medium term.

              • Brad P. says:

                Thank you. FWIW, at the time, I was mildly opposed to the auto bailout, as I was pretty sure they would just fail later. The only argument I saw in favor was that if bankers got a bailout (which I completely opposed), then manufacturing deserved one as well. I now tentatively think I was wrong then, and the auto bailout seems to have worked in at least the medium term.

                If I hadn’t completely lost faith in the government to exert authority in the future and sure that they have just given a big fat leech life support, I would agree with you.

                That’s obviously consistent with earlier disagreements we’ve had that I would rather not visit right now.

                After all we have worked our way up to mutual almost respect.

              • Hogan says:

                Aww. Hug it out, guys.

              • Malaclypse says:

                Aww. Hug it out, guys.

                Brad has, twice in two days, said he was wrong about something. This is why I keep saying he is not a troll, just someone generally wrong about most things. And I’ve got to give props to anyone on a comment thread admitting a mistake.

              • Hogan says:

                And I’ve got to give props to anyone on a comment thread admitting a mistake.

                Seconded.

          • Hogan says:

            1) Corporations are too powerful and need to be reined in.

            2) Any government powerful enough to rein in corporations is intolerable to free people, and wouldn’t do it anyway.

            3) ??

            • Holden Pattern says:

              Yeah, I was noticing that too. Apparently, if you get rid of “government”, concentrations of wealth and power just vanish. We’ve had it all wrong all this time — [ower doesn’t abhor a vacuum, it amors a vacuum.

              • Holden Pattern says:

                where “[ower” is of course “power”. Sigh.

              • Brad P. says:

                Apparently, if you get rid of “government”, concentrations of wealth and power just vanish.

                I never said that.

                In fact I think that cutting government indiscriminately would be an absolutely horrible policy, as we don’t have a sustainable free society.

                Getting rid of the structure of the state doesn’t get rid of the social institutions and biases it helped create.

            • Brad P. says:

              I would rephrase it:

              1. Our system places way too much importance upon corporations in distributing goods.

              2. No government could ever be powerful enough to challenge the entities by which it derives its power and authority.

              I have described my preferred plan: ripping out the privileges (our banking system is the start) afforded to corporations, private bootstrapping, civil disobedience, and I really have come to like Julian Assange’s approach.

              • Holden Pattern says:

                I am down with a lot of that, though I don’t think that representative governments necessarily derive their power from corporations. Leaving that aside, the place where it all falls down is where you then revert to the right-libertarian property fetish.

                It doesn’t much matter whether the local private despot is a corporation or a hereditary feudal lord, because without some form of representative government *of at least sufficient power to challenge the local despot*, you will have nothing but despotism wherever you turn. There’s a constant uneasy balance between representative government, private power, and civil society. Just saying that you would eliminate certain models of power centralization doesn’t mean that you eliminate that function.

              • Brad P. says:

                I am down with a lot of that, though I don’t think that representative governments necessarily derive their power from corporations.

                I don’t mean that representative governments necessarily derive their power from corporations, I just mean that ours does. I will freely admit that libertarians have supported policies that never should have been supported out of the context of greater libertarian reform. Most often, they tend to not realize that much of our regulatory structure is to confront the side effects of government policy. Libertarians too often come to the defense of business without recognizing the degree to which big business is favored by the government and in a position of power.

                But liberals and progressives need to recognize the other side of that, that the regulatory structures we have built and the programs of social welfare we now operate are separated from our representative democracy. We rarely have much say in the appointment of bureaucrats, and its even rarer for us to know what those bureaucrats are discussing.

                I understand the goal of these programs, but it seems that they operate more often as a disguise for business/government collusion than as a check on corporate behavior.

                Leaving that aside, the place where it all falls down is where you then revert to the right-libertarian property fetish.

                I actually don’t have a property fetish. I don’t buy into homestead rights and what not. But I do think capital ownership in private hands can be a good thing.

                It doesn’t much matter whether the local private despot is a corporation or a hereditary feudal lord, because without some form of representative government *of at least sufficient power to challenge the local despot*, you will have nothing but despotism wherever you turn. There’s a constant uneasy balance between representative government, private power, and civil society. Just saying that you would eliminate certain models of power centralization doesn’t mean that you eliminate that function.

                I agree with that, I just see big centralized government like we have in the US to be too large to be representative.

                I believe progressive programs are in part responsible for that. (Although I will admit that libertarians have not been particularly effective either)

                I just wish progressives and libertarians weren’t so antagonistic towards each other. It seems like it would not be very difficult for each side to find common elements of the state which they would like to slash and agree on which social programs are truly productive.

              • chris says:

                I just wish progressives and libertarians weren’t so antagonistic towards each other.

                The subject has been discussed before. Usually the leading cause of the disagreement is identified as (many) libertarians’ decision to support the Republican Party through thick and thin, even though it is not only clearly the more corrupt of the two, but opposed to many libertarian principles. This creates the perception that libertarians talk a good game on civil liberties and dialing down the War on Some Drugs etc., but when the rubber hits the road they’re willing to throw all that overboard; the thing they REALLY care about is lower taxes.

                Lower taxes, of course, interfere with progressive programs aimed at helping the poor (who, by definition, can’t fund their own programs, and private charity is the original free-rider dilemma and historically has always proved inadequate).

              • Brad P. says:

                The subject has been discussed before. Usually the leading cause of the disagreement is identified as (many) libertarians’ decision to support the Republican Party through thick and thin, even though it is not only clearly the more corrupt of the two, but opposed to many libertarian principles. This creates the perception that libertarians talk a good game on civil liberties and dialing down the War on Some Drugs etc., but when the rubber hits the road they’re willing to throw all that overboard; the thing they REALLY care about is lower taxes.

                This is both changing with changing age demographics and true of libertarian perspectives of progressives and the democratic party.

                Younger libertarians tend to be of the Ron Paul type that is currently antagonistic to the Republican establishment.

                And to the libertarian types that go to Reason, progressives seem to be far more worried about winning partisan battles and preserving their slice of the establishment/government pie than substantial political change.

      • chris says:

        Furthermore, the scarcer capital is in comparison to consumption, the greater rate of profit the owners of capital will enjoy.

        Labor vs. capital is a distraction — the real story of the last 30 years is the explosive growth of the compensation of *management*. Management has played both ends against the middle so successfully that returns to capital AND wages are stagnant by comparison, something that should be impossible in a well-functioning economy with rising productivity.

        The story of the last 30 years has been one principal-agent problem (in business) meeting another (in government) and deciding that they could scratch each others’ backs (with campaign contributions and corporate welfare plus lack of oversight of corporate governance, respectively). While eating the lunches of the worker, the taxpayer, AND the non-insider investor (and sometimes the customer, too).

      • Malaclypse says:

        If everyone owns an Ipad, the capital owners behind Apple are going to be loaded. That’s the way it is.

        We might, you know, tax capital. I know this is heresy, and yet, somehow, other countries that tax capital higher have Ipads as well. They even have better broadband access for those Ipads.

        • Hogan says:

          Ooh! Ooh! I know this one! Something something innovation something.

        • Murc says:

          The rebuttal I usually see to that one is that other countries are vampiring off the U.S, Mal; that they let us do the ‘innovating’ and ‘inventing’ and then copy us in their socialist distopias without needing to properly compensate their own Galtian heroes. Start a conversation about drug (medical drugs) development sometime and I guarantee you will see that line of reasoning.

          • Malaclypse says:

            I worked for a pharma company once. Trust me, I have heard it.

          • Brad Potts says:

            Hoping to avoid turning this into an ideological argument, as I would like to see the US more like Europe on the issue, but I pulled this from Wiki, for what its worth:

            * The research-based pharmaceutical industry is a key asset of the European economy representing about 19.2% of global business R&D investments and about 3.5% of the total EU manufactured exports.

            * Since the early 1990s, the research-based pharmaceutical industry in Europe has been losing competitiveness with respect to its main competitors, in particular the US. Data for 2007 and preliminary figures for 2008 confirm the vulnerability of Europe’s research-based pharmaceutical industry. Benchmarking and performance indicators show Europe’s relative lack of attractiveness for pharmaceutical R&D investments.

            * Between 1990 and 2008, R&D investment in United States grew 5.6 times whilst in Europe it only grew 3.5 times. The latest study (Tufts University, Centre for the Study of Drug Development) released in 2007 estimated the average cost of researching and developing a new chemical or biological entity at € 1,059 million. Among 5,000-10,000 compounds investigated, only 1 will effectively reach the market as a medicine after 10–12 years of intensive R&D.

            * There is rapid growth in the research environment in emerging economies such as China and India. The current tendency to close R&D sites in Europe and to open new sites in Asia will show dramatic effects to maintain the pharmaceutical discovery expertise in the EU.

            * The United States still dominates the biopharmaceutical field, accounting for the three quarters of the world’s biotechnology revenues and R&D spending.

            * In 2007 North America accounted for 45.9% of world pharmaceutical sales against 31.1% for Europe. According to IMS Health data, 66% of sales of new medicines launched during the period 2004-2008 were generated on the US market, compared with 26% on the European market.

            America leads the world in medical technology, pharmaceuticals, and specialized care because it subsidizes capital investments to a greater degree than Europe.

        • Brad Potts says:

          Good luck with that. You have been getting your ass kicked on that issue by corporate lackeys for decades now.

      • Murc says:

        If everyone owns an Ipad, the capital owners behind Apple are going to be loaded. That’s the way it is.

        And you know what, they should become loaded.

        Know who else should become loaded? The engineers who figured out how to fit the iPad into a case that was deemed acceptably slim, the coders who wrote the OS behind it, and, yes, the people on the assembly line who are cranking out hundreds of iPads a day, EVEN IF those people are brown and live in another country. Everyone who busted their ass to create, bring to market, and sell the iPads that ‘everyone’ owns deserves a taste.

        Furthermore, while productivity gains should result in a dividend for the investor class, they should not result ONLY in a dividend for the investor class. If increased efficiency means that one man now does the work of two, I have genuine moral problems with the ENTIRE difference being pocketed at the top rather than being re-invested back into the one guy who is now generating a lot more profit per man-hour for you. HE deserves a cut as well.

  12. Davis says:

    Maybe that’s the way it was, but it’s not the way it is. Paul’s thesis is about the income disparity growing over the last twenty years being due to deliberate policies: taxes, unions, and especially anti-trust. Golden parachutes, ill-advised mergers that line the pockets of senior executives and investment bankers, ridiculous executive compensation, etc. These trends did not exist in the 50s.

    • Brad Potts says:

      That is largely because we have given them the power to do whatever they want.

      This is especially true with banks. We made it so they were uncompetitive and made money based upon their brand, rather than anything productive they were doing. Now we absolutely depend on them, and they will be damned if they have to actually improve their productivity and service.

  13. Jim in Missoula says:

    The quoted ‘wise man’ was Meatloaf in ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’.

  14. [...] be misled by the idea that the economy has stagnated over the last four decades. It hasn’t. In other words over the last 45 years, the American economy has continued to grow just as quickly [...]

  15. [...] extent to which “the Left” in America now means something like “people who think massive increases in wealth inequality are actually undesirable.” Share and [...]

  16. [...] Lawyers, Guns and Money (LGM) tells us how nostalgia for a time that never was feeds conservative myth making. [...]

  17. Well if you’re moaning about nostalgia you might not wanna post articles about how working people saw their wages rise but – gasp – competition was stifled.

    Comprehensive regulation of the financial sector restricted competition in capital markets too.

    Now I’m nostalgic for the 50′s and I wasn’t born then.

  18. L2P says:

    Wow. The first sentence of this post literally says “nostalgia [fuels] conservative politics,” and your takeaway is that liberals are nostalgic for the 50′s. That’s some mighty fine reasoning there, bucko.

    Reread Paul’s post. It’s an attack on conservative nostalgia for the 50′s because that is, essentially, nostalgia for liberal economic policies that limit inequality and equalize wealth gains.

    But thanks for playing.

  19. DocAmazing says:

    Would you rather live with a lower debt burden? Would you rather live in a time when your kids could actually go to the college of their choice, without having to sell themselves into indentured servitude? Would you rather live when a family could easily make it on the income of one adult member rather than two or several?

  20. GeoX says:

    Sure, we may not be able to afford college or food or healthcare, but hey–there’s lots o’ cheap plastic crap! Who WOULDN’T take a trade-off like that?

  21. It takes an unimaginative person to imagine that dreams of a now-gone economic regime are the same thing as wanting to live in the era in which that regime existed.

  22. BJN says:

    Are you implying that Ronald Reagan invented the internet? Doesn’t that sort of thing tend to get Democratic politicians mocked for eternity?

  23. DocAmazing says:

    You could easily make it on the income of one person today–if you want to restrict yourself to a ’50s standard of living. Very easily, and have money to spare.

    You obviously haven’t paid rent or mortgage lately, nor purchased gasoline nor heated a home. The price of all of those things is considerably higher in both absolute and relative terms.

    In short, you’re full of shit, but that comes as no surprise…

  24. DrDick says:

    I do, having grown up then, and Doc is right and you, as usual, are full of shit.

  25. DocAmazing says:

    Housing costs are up thirty- to one hundredfold since the 1950s.

    Fuel costs are up twenty- to fortyfold since the 1950s.

    Wages and salaries are up less than tenfold.

    As I said, you’re full of shit.

  26. DocAmazing says:

    Absolute numbers, not relative ones. The peak of US post-high-school education is well behind us.

  27. Ben says:

    That article won’t wash. Even were all the things in there 100% accurate, it wouldn’t preclude anything Campos wrote from being true.

    Additionally, it only talks about factors affecting inequality b/t the ’40s and ’70s compared to today. None of the factors Lindsey talks about can explain the massive rise in income inequality of the past 20 or even 10 years, while Campos’ factors can.

    Why are libertarians always such vehement defenders of income inequality? Brink Lindsey and Will Wilkinson write as if the larger income inequality becomes, the more their paycheck increases.

  28. DrDick says:

    Well, there is also the McCarthy hearings & red baiting.

  29. DrDick says:

    Some of us actually lived through that era. There are a lot of things I would not bring back, but much of the aggressively progressive economic policies I would.

  30. rm says:

    I think the rhetorical term for that is “equivocation.” The Internet Polite term is “shifting the goalposts.” The Vulgar Internets term is “full of shit.”

  31. David Nieporent says:

    It takes an unimaginative person to imagine that dreams of a now-gone economic regime are the same thing as wanting to live in the era in which that regime existed.

    So when libertarians say we want a freer economic system, it doesn’t mean that we want to go back to pre-1930s America? Great! Can you please tell that to your fellow unimaginative liberals, though?

  32. KC45s says:

    And Jim Crow.

  33. DocAmazing says:

    I don’t know where you live, but housing prices rose steadily all through the 1980s in California.

    A 92% marginal tax rate and a heavily unionized workforce will bring us to the post-petroleum era. The price of oil–driven up mostly by speculation, by the way, which would be treated by increased taxes–is unlikely to improve much as supplies of oil have decreased since the 1950s–and the most promising alternatives are mostly being developed at public expense.

  34. Hann1bal says:

    Well, judging by the Randroids, who tend to function as a subset of libertarians, I’m going to guess that they think that they’re obviously so talented and amazing that they’ll always be the ones giving the shaft, not getting it.

  35. Holden Pattern says:

    If the wealthy are really rolling in it, they’ll leave bigger tips on the nightstands of people like Lindsey and Wilkinson. So their income really does depend on it.

  36. atheist says:

    Why are libertarians always such vehement defenders of income inequality?

    Part of the libertarian religion is absolute faith that you’re one of the elect.

  37. Finnegan says:

    “Would you rather live in a time when your kids could actually go to the college of their choice, without having to sell themselves into indentured servitude?”

    I’m not sure that being upper middle class can be described as a period of time.

  38. David Nieporent says:

    Would you rather live with a lower debt burden? Would you rather live in a time when your kids could actually go to the college of their choice, without having to sell themselves into indentured servitude?

    Average college debt for those who graduate with debt is about $20K. This is not exactly Dickensian. It’s bizarre to suggest that for a good where the benefit inheres almost directly to the student, that the cost should not be borne primarily by that student.

    Would you rather live when a family could easily make it on the income of one adult member rather than two or several?

    So women should stay home and take care of the house rather than working?

  39. Davis says:

    Housing prices outpaced inflation in the 70s, too.

  40. DocAmazing says:

    No, but a period when Pell grants were for meaningful fractions of tuition and state colleges were appropriately subsidized was a period of time.

  41. Malaclypse says:

    Average college debt for those who graduate with debt is about $20K.

    Mean, not median, was 23,200 in 2009, and expected to be 30K by the end of 2011.

    So women should stay home and take care of the house rather than working?

    Where did he imply the gender of the non-working parent? I am sorry that you simply assumed, and will not speculate why you made that assumption.

  42. Jeremiah Meyer-O'Day says:

    I don’t recall anyone specifying the gender of the stay-at-home parent, or even that the pair necessarily should consist of persons of different genders. I would in fact argue that given the opportunity, many fathers would opt to be stay-at-home parents.

  43. DrDick says:

    I thought it meant you wanted to go back to the 1890s.

  44. DocAmazing says:

    Heck, to juge from his other posts, I’d have guessed the 1850s.

  45. Malaclypse says:

    I assumed Icelandic Free State

  46. So when libertarians say we want a freer economic system, it doesn’t mean that we want to go back to pre-1930s America?

    I always point to Somalia, but sure, what the heck, I’ll give you that. Unless the libertarian wants to specify their golden age of course.

  47. Nik says:

    Which, if we’ve been paying attention in class, we’d remember was primarily economic in effect, and pretty much by design.

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