Jim Manzi in National Review and Megan McArdle in the Atlantic were struck by my nostalgic quote yesterday from Paul Krugman about his idyllic upbringing in a (pre-integration, pre-immigration, all-white) middle-class suburb.
My motivation in writing about political economy is, in some ways, much like Krugman's. But rather than seeing that moment as primarily the product of policies like unionization, entitlements and high taxes, as is Krugman's view, I believe that it was primarily the product of circumstance. We had just won a global war, and had limited competition; we had a huge wave of immigration, followed by a multi-decade pause; oil was incredibly cheap; a backlog of technical developments had yet to be exploited and scaled up, and so forth. We can't go back there, at least not exactly.
Which of the above is not like the others because it's an extremely explicit public policy choice?
Right, immigration policy! Three points for Gryffindor!
Their existence, in the way that Manzi and Krugman remember, was also completely dependent on other forms of inequality: of the ability to move away from social problems, which is harder now; of generations of women whose sole destiny was the kitchen. Â This produced a world in which most homes were, from the point of view of kids, basically the same: all of them contained a mom who spent most of her time cleaning the place or feeding its occupants, and the size and contents were naturally limited to the amount of stuff that Mom was personally willing to care for. Â It was a great world for kids. Â But not everyone was so lucky.
In some ways, that might be backwards. When I was growing up in the San Fernando Valley in the 1960s, my mother did lots of volunteer work for charities because raising me, an only child of rational and agreeable temperament, didn't take much of her time, especially after we got our first dryer (mid-1960s) and dishwasher (late 1960s). I entertained myself at the local park and library, and she didn't need to chauffeur me to a whole bunch of high-end after-school resume-fillers so that I could get into college. Instead, UCLA was always wide open to me. Plus, traffic was lighter, so I rode my bike everywhere.
If she had lived in Tiger Mother era, I suspect my mother would have enthusiastically Tiger Mothered me. But it was the era of the Pussycat Mother, so she didn't. For example, I played league baseball at the local park for seven seasons, from age 8 to 14. Neither of my parents ever attended a single one of my games, saying it would put too much pressure on me. Since I mostly struck out and dropped fly balls, that was A-OK with me. (Did I ever mention the time I got picked off first? With two outs in the bottom of the final inning with our team down by a run and the bases loaded? I didn't? Good.)
Today, both parents are supposed to arrive 45 minutes before the baseball game. Otherwise, as we all know from watching Steven Spielberg's Hook, your son's life will be ruined.
Today, to afford a house in that same neighborhood, both parents very likely will have to work. And unless they can navigate the complex application processes to get into the small number of exclusive public school programs, people who live in that neighborhood will also pay to send their kids to private school (the number of Jewish private schools, both Orthodox and Reform, in the neighborhood has skyrocketed as Jews, who were ideologically committed back then to sending their kids to public schools have since either got religion or moved to Portland). And to get into UCLA, the kids will have to be chauffeured to intensive after-school tutoring and activities. So, today, mom will have to work 40 hours per week for pay and may still have more mom-jobs to do with the kids than my bridge-playing mother had a generation ago.
(Also, in terms of actually helping people in need of charitable work, we've had this huge swing over the last generation from the charitable work being done by middle-class middle-aged women to their adolescent children trying to look good on college applications. Which demographic do you think was more productive at actually helping people who need help?)
What I notice among wives whose husbands make, say, $400k or higher, is that many of them will quit their professional careers to chauffeur their kids to their packed schedules, especially to manage them on the track to a top college. I've dubbed this the Winner Class.
The really giant change over the last 45 years was in my wife's dense neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago, Austin, where her father was a classical musician and union leader and her mother a teacher also raising four children. It was an urban idyll. When she was a first grader, she and her third grader sister walked a mile to school. After school, the huge number of kids in the neighborhood played together on the sidewalks until dark. Her father took the El to his job playing in the orchestra of the Chicago Lyric Opera or leading picketers against Opera management. (He played the most blue-collar of classical instruments, the tuba.) Up through 1966, it was a Matthew Yglesias dream of urbanism.
Suddenly, in 1967, things began changing. My inlaws, being dedicated liberal Democrats and union leaders, stuck it out through 1970. But when their kids got mugged on their street for the third time, they finally sold out, long after the other members of their local liberal group of homeowners had sold out, even though they had all promised each other to make this experiment in urban change work by never selling. They lost half their life savings, and didn't have indoor plumbing for their first two years on the farm they bought 63 miles from the opera house. My father-in-law, although he later was elected to three three-year terms as the leader of the Chicago Federation of Musicians union, never voted Democrat again.
Today, as in parts of Detroit, grass grows wild over the spots where many of her neighborhood's three-flats and apartment buildings once stood.
It must be the fault of Republicans!