Looking back on a golden age

Like Roger Chittum, the maker of this video, I feel lucky to have been born when I was (1936).  During my adult years, the United States came as close as it ever has to a society with prosperity for all—a society in which almost any able-bodied person who wanted to work could find a job at decent pay, and those unable to work did not suffer absolute destitution. We had better economic growth during the 30 years following World War Two than we have had since, and the economic prosperity was more widely shared than it has been since.

I am particularly fortunate because I was born in a window that made me too young to be drafted for the Korean Conflict, and too old for the Vietnam Conflict.  I did my active military service in 1956-1958, a time of peace when military service was a good experience.

The foundation of this golden was the high-wage, full-employment economy, which made everything else possible.   I believe in having a social safety net, but it is no substitute for good jobs at a fair wage.

I have an acquaintance, now a respected academic, who told me that when he was young and had time on his hands, he would go to an employment center and get a one-day job at something like unloading trucks.  He would get some good exercise and have some extra money in his pocket.

This was not “American exceptionalism,” although the United States led the way.  All the advanced industrial nations, from Britain, France and Sweden to Germany and Japan enjoyed a greater prosperity in the 30 years following World War Two than ever before.  Now we Americans leading the way down, but others also are on the way down, although some of them are resisting the decline better than we Americans are.

To be sure, not everybody shared in the golden-age prosperity.  Michael Harrington’s The Other America listed groups of Americans who were left behind—African-Americans, migrant farm laborers, the unskilled and illiterate, old people on fixed incomes, urban hillbillies and so on—but he was fundamentally optimistic about poverty in America.  All that was needed, Harrington wrote (he was a democratic socialist, by the way), was to bring the poor into the mainstream of American prosperity.  That is very different from today, when 90 percent of the population is either falling behind or running as fast as they can just to keep up.

American prosperity smoothed the way for the success of the civil rights movement led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.   It was easier for white Americans to accept equal rights for all when a growing economy made it possible to allow equal opportunity for black Americans without sacrifice by whites.

Dr. King’s vision was that every person be treated as an individual and not as a member of a group.  I think the increasing emphasis on group rights since his death is in part due to increasing economic adversity.  When opportunities are scarce, it is natural for people to organize to make sure their group gets their share.  I think the drive for Black Studies, Gender Studies and Queer Studies on college campuses is partly an attempt to give job security to certain individuals who otherwise might not get it.  Still, the United States has (more or less, by and large) remained faithful to Dr. King’s dream, despite economic adversity.  That is something to be proud of.

The prosperity of the golden age tempted American leaders into an over-confidence that crashed.  President Lyndon Johnson apparently thought that the United States could simultaneously (1) enact a civil rights program that gave black American citizens not only full citizenship rights but equal opportunity, (2) wage a “war on poverty, (3) wage an actual war in Vietnam and (4) win the space race to the moon, while continuing to (5) maintain a global network of bases and military alliances and (6) maintain mass prosperity here at home.

The prosperity of the golden age made possible both the achievements and excesses of the student radicals.  To them, the fact of prosperity made poverty, racial discrimination and other manifest injustices all the more intolerable, and also made it possible to devote time to protesting against them.   Many of the college students in the 1950s and 1960s were concerned about leading meaningful lives.   Many of the college students of today consider themselves lucky if they can get jobs in their fields.

The United States and other advanced countries face problems that didn’t exist in 1945-1975.  The age of cheap oil is over.  Low-wage countries such as China and India are important global competitors.  Global climate change is catching up with us, no matter how much some of us want to deny it.  But I think a lot of our problems are self-inflicted.  We can have a better world if we work together to bring it about.

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