Americans may not have been better off in the 1950s, but they made more progress

In this morning’s New York Times, David Brooks, citing a new book by Steven Pinker, claims that there’s been more economic good news in America lately than has been appreciated.

Brooks (or Pinker) sets up a bit of a strawman by claiming that a “smothering orthodoxy” of economic observers have been wrongly idealizing the 1950s. In fact it isn’t the 1950s per se that gets idealized, in the tracts I’ve read; it’s the progress that the American economy made following World War II, which abruptly stopped in about 1973. And if you kick the tires on some of the numbers in Brooks’s article, this “pessimistic” assessment holds its own.

Brooks writes, for example, that “Between 1979 and 2014, . . . the percentage of poor Americans dropped to 20 percent from 24 percent.” I don’t have Pinker’s book, so I’m not sure what the underlying source for this claim is, but it is contradicted by the US Census, which reports that in 1979, the percentage of Americans living in poverty was 11.7 and by 2016 had risen to 12.7. By the word “poor,” therefore, Brooks and Pinker must mean something other than “living in poverty.” For a fuller picture, here’s a quick graph I made, using the Census’s data, of the proportion of Americans living in poverty between 1959 and 2016:

Source: Table 2, Poverty Status of People by Family Relationship, Race, and Hispanic Origin, U.S. Census Bureau

It seems to me that the natural inference to be made from this graph is that the Great Society programs of the 1950s and 1960s did an amazing job of combating poverty, but that progress has stagnated since the early 1970s—which happens to be the “gloomy” (as Brooks terms it) consensus among most economists studying such problems, however hopelessly conformist and noncounterintuitive that consensus may be.

Again relying on Pinker, Brooks writes that “we should not be nostalgic for the economy of the 1950s” because at that time “A third of American children lived in poverty.” The US Census numbers do confirm that in 1959, 27.3 percent of Americans under the age of eighteen were living in poverty. However, by 1969, that proportion had fallen to 14.0 percent, rising again to 22.3 percent in 1983 (hi, Reagan!), after which it dithered for decades. It was at 18.0 percent in 2016. Which sounds to me, again, as if the Great Society accomplished wonders, and as if no serious progress, and in fact some retrenchment, occurred after that. Here’s a graph of American children living in poverty, 1959 to 2016:

American children living in poverty, 1959 to 2016

Source: Table 3, Poverty Status of People, by Age, Race, and Hispanic Origin, U.S. Census Bureau

Brooks writes that “Sixty percent of seniors had incomes below $1,000 a year” in the 1950s. Again, I’m not sure what the underlying source for his claim is, but a flat number like that isn’t all that telling. Once more then, this time with feeling, here’s a graph of the percentage of American seniors living in poverty over the years. (I’ve combined it with the same percentages charted just above for all Americans and for American children):

Americans living in poverty, 1959 to 2016: all, children, and seniors

Source: Table 3, Poverty Status of People, by Age, Race, and Hispanic Origin, U.S. Census Bureau. (Note: There are no data for seniors between 1960 and 1965.)

America has done better by its seniors than it has by its children or by its citizens generally (hi, Social Security!), but still, what the shape of the green line here tells me is that the yeoman’s work of ending poverty among seniors was done before 1973, and that further progress has only been incremental (and in the past twenty years, negligible).

Bonus round: Brooks, channelling Pinker, also claims we shouldn’t look back fondly to the 1950s because back then “only half the population had any savings in the bank at all.” Again, I don’t know the source of this claim, but unless we know how much was in those savings account, the statistic probably doesn’t reveal much except changes in banking habits. More suggestive, I think, are the data that Edward N. Wolff has assembled about the median wealth of US households. Here is a hasty chart I made from some of Wolff’s data:

Sources: Edward N. Wolff, “Household Wealth Trends in the United States, 1962-2013: What Happened over the Great Recession?” NBER Working Paper No. 20733, December 2014, and “Has Middle Class Wealth Recovered?” presentation at the ASSA Meetings, January 6, 2018. (Note: In his 2018 presentation, Wolff gave his numbers in 2016 dollars, so I divided his 2016 number by 1.03 to put it into 2013 dollars in the graph here.)

Was the typical American household in the middle of the economy wealthier in the 1950s? Full disclosure, the 1950s aren’t on this chart, so there’s no saying. But pace Brooks and Pinker, the “gloomy refrain” about the American economy—the reason observers feel pessimistic—isn’t that the economy has gotten worse since the 1950s, but that in about 1973 it stopped improving the lives of average Americans. And that seems to me to be confirmed by the blue line here: the middle-of-the-road American household made steady progress in wealth during the golden age, but the last few decades took it on a bubble-and-burst ride that left it no richer than it was in the late 1970s.


Tariffs are the new picket lines

Update: I now think that the caveats in the final paragraph of this blog post outweigh the points that I was trying to make in the post itself, and I’m going to try to explain in a new post.

A month and a half ago, during a wide-ranging email conversation with a friend about the kinds of madness and extremism that are at large this election season, I admitted that “I have been daydreaming about writing a long blog post about all the ways in which upper middle class liberals are blind to the hatred of them, and to the reasonable motivations for that hatred, experienced by people outside their class.”

I never did write that blog post, in part because my friend and I continued our conversation, and I put most of my ideas into one of my later emails to him. I offer the email here, as a fragment, because even though the issues remain current, I don’t seem to have the stomach to polish it up into even a proper blog post. The only change I’ve made to my original email is to add links to document some of the claims.

To follow the thread of the argument, all you really need to know is that my friend had suggested, in an earlier email, that the economic power of the highly educated was resented nowadays almost as if it were a kind of sorcery.

My reply:

I don’t think that what the symbolic class has done is in fact as mysterious to the working class as you’re describing. I think it’s pretty simple, actually: the symbolic class enriched itself by shipping offshore the manufacturing jobs that used to employ the working class here in America, thereby increasing profits for companies whose stocks the symbolic class owns, rendering cheaper the goods that the symbolic class still has the money to buy, and rewarding themselves with high salaries in recognition of their improvement of their employers’ bottom lines.

Piketty claimed that contra classic economics, the progress of capitalism has been widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. The only rebuttal of Piketty that persuaded me was one that pointed out that although he’s right, empirically speaking, about what has happened in America and Western Europe, he’s wrong about what’s happening on a global scale. In other words, globally, the classic economic model remains valid: overall, financial inequality is diminishing with time. But what that means, on the ground, is that wealth in the BRIC nations is increasing at the expense of the wealth of the poor and middle classes in America and Western Europe. Globally the normal distribution of wealth still obtains, but in order for wealth to find its natural level, now that most of the dikes and dams that used to isolate the nations have fallen, the Chinese worker has to be paid more than he has been, and the American worker less.

I dissent from your idea that this looks like sorcery. In fact, I think everyone pretty much knows what’s been going on. Or rather, I think many working-class people know what’s going on, though perhaps some of the woolly-minded symbolic elite have preferred to look away. Classical economics claims that free trade always improves everyone’s lives, and that if some manufacturing jobs are lost to a low-wage competitor, new jobs will take their place. But lately there’s been some economic evidence of what everyone already knows: those jobs are service jobs, lower in prestige and status and pay than the manufacturing jobs that have been lost.

The elite have responded to their own perfidy in two ways: the brutal and cynical among them choose to see themselves as supermen, above the communal morality that restrains the herd. The more thoughtful of the elite believe that the shift they have helped to engineer, and that they have profited from at the expense of less-privileged fellow-citizens, was inevitable, because of globalization, but have the decency to feel that they do owe something to the peons they have dispossessed of their livelihood. And so they support expanding and strengthening the welfare state. Thus all the millionaires at Goldman Sachs and McKinsey who donate to Clinton. They feel a bit guilty, but the dispossession of the American working class was going to happen even if they themselves didn’t have a hand in it, and all they can really do is offer a bit of compensation in the way of affordable housing and pre-K programs. What these liberal elites don’t realize, or would prefer not to realize, is that their condescension is even more roundly hated by the people they have harmed than the brutal, openly avowed selfishness of their fellow expropriators. The displaced worker is upset about his loss of dignity, and he’d rather that his enemy reveled in the theft than patronized his victim with “concern.”

Is this rational on the part of the dispossessed worker? No. Rationally considered, his best option is to take whatever handouts he can get from the upper-bourgeois managerial class. But it sticks in his craw. He doesn’t want to be the “good” object of charity. He wants to be what he once was: the ambivalently regarded, somewhat menacing worker who was an independent source of economic value. He’d rather, if need be, be “bad,” in fact. Trump is offering to give this worker back his independence and dignity. He’s salted the offer with a bit of crypto-white grievance, which is what the elite liberals have focused on, but I think Trump’s main appeal is the (phantasmatic) restoration of dignity and place in society. Unions have been delegitimized, politically, in America, but Trump’s vow to restore tariffs has the appeal of making America’s national borders serve as a kind of massive proxy union. Tariffs become the new picket lines, as it were.

Postscript: A few corrections and for-the-recordses. Trump’s winking invocations of racism and political violence are of course dangerous and increasingly seem a central part of him. The trade wars he threatens to wage wouldn’t achieve what the unions of the early twentieth century achieved, and are instead likely to do great harm. It may well be, moreover, that the elite symbolic class was correct and that globalization couldn’t have been delayed, let alone dodged. A sign of the inevitability: offshoring is now happening even to white-collar jobs. And finally, confusingly, despite a dispossession of the white working class that has spiked deaths among them by suicide, alcoholism, and drug abuse, American manufacturing is at an all-time high, if measured in dollars rather than employees—thanks to robots.

A retrospective glance

The New Yorker, as you may have heard, has redesigned its website, and is making all articles published since 2007 free, for the summer, in hopes of addicting you as a reader. Once you’re hooked, they’ll winch up the drawbridge, and you’ll have to pay, pay, pay. But for the moment let’s not think about either the metaphor I just mixed or its consequences, shall we?

A self-publicist’s work is never done, and it seemed to behoove me to take advantage of the occasion. So I googled myself. It turns out that I’ve been writing for the New Yorker since 2005 and that ten articles of mine have appeared in the print magazine over the years. All seem to be on the free side of the paywall as of this writing (though a glitch appears to have put several of the early articles almost entirely into italics). Enjoy!

“Rail-Splitting,” 7 November 2005: Was Lincoln depressed? Was he a team player?
“The Terror Last Time,” 13 March 2006: How much evidence did you need to hang a terrorist in 1887?
“Surveillance Society,” 11 September 2006: In the 1930s, a group of British intellectuals tried to record the texture of everyday life
“Bad Precedent,” 29 January 2007: Andrew Jackson declares martial law
“There She Blew,” 23 July 2007: The history of whaling
“Twilight of the Books,” 24 December 2007: This is your brain on reading
“There Was Blood,” 19 January 2009: A fossil-fueled massacre
“Bootylicious,” 7 September 2009: The economics of piracy
“It Happened One Decade,” 21 September 2009: The books and movies that buoyed America during the Great Depression
“Tea and Antipathy,” 20 December 2010: Was the Tea Party such a good idea the first time around?
Unfortunate Events, 22 October 2012: What was the War of 1812 even about?
“Four Legs Good,” 28 October 2013: Jack London goes to the dogs
“The Red and the Scarlet,” 30 June 2014: Where the pursuit of experience took Stephen Crane

“Necessary Errors” goes on sale

My novel Necessary Errors goes on sale today. Norman Rush has called it “very well put together, polished, dry but tender, ferociously observed,” and Christine Pivovar has written that “Reading the novel feels like meeting up with friends.”

Please visit your local bookstore and consider buying a copy, or consider ordering one online from McNally Jackson, Barnes & Noble, or another retailer (more links in the right sidebar and here!).

And if you’re in Brooklyn, please come to Brooklyn’s Book Court tomorrow, Wednesday, at 7pm for the launch, featuring a reading by me and special guest stars Christine Smallwood, Seth Colter Walls, Mark Krotov, and Alice Gregory.

Awful truths

Two interviews with me went online today. At the Daily Beast, I explain, among other things, why trading on a scholarly reputation in the real world is like trying to spend poker chips at the grocery store. And in a joint interview conducted by Jane Hu for Pacific Standard, Choire Sicha and I talk about defamiliarization, lost time, and how to use pagers to let your friends know which bar you’ll be at.