Golden ages and incomplete stories

Jim Manzi and Paul Krugman pine for the good old days of their childhoods of the 1950s, when there was less consumerism and inequality and you could ride a bike all day without a helmet or adult supervision.  Here’s Manzi:

The safety and freedom that Krugman describe are rare now even for the wealthiest Americans – by age 9, I would typically leave the house on a Saturday morning on my bike, tell my parents I was “going out to play,” and not return until dinner; at age 10, would go down to the ocean to swim with friends without supervision all day; and at age 11 would play flashlight tag across dozens of yards for hours after dark. And the sense of equality was real, too. Some people definitely had bigger houses and more things than others, but our lives were remarkably similar. We all went to the same schools together, played on the same teams together, and watched the same TV shows. The idea of having, or being, “help” seemed like something from old movies about another time.

Megan McArdle and Alex Tabarrok take issue.  Megan:

Maybe it’s because I grew up later than either Manzi or Krugman; maybe it’s because I grew up in Manhattan; or maybe it’s because I’m a woman.  Whatever the reason, what I notice about their idyll is how dependent it was on women being home.  Home production looks very similar no matter who is doing it; one family may be having meatloaf, and another filet mignon, but the family meals still have the same basic rhythm of Mom in the kitchen for hours until the family comes to dinner.  Families only need one car because Mom, who doesn’t herself work, is available to drive Dad to work every morning before she heads to the grocery store.  And the kids can play unsupervised because, of course, in this neighborhood–in all neighborhoods–there is a network of constantly watching eyes.  Meanwhile, the poor people and minorities are somewhere comfortably distant, allowing young Paul and Jim to experience a world without want.


[T]he suburbs of the era were not created simply by the rise of the middle class.  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.  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.  It was a great world for kids.  But not everyone was so lucky.

I grew up in the ’80s, not the ’50s, but my experience was broadly similar to Manzi’s and Krugman’s (minus Manzi’s swimming in the ocean — I spent my childhood smack in the middle of Alberta).  Contra McArdle, both of my parents worked full-time while I was growing up, but I don’t remember that stopping me from spending long weekend afternoons tooling around the neighbourhood on my bike.

The small and obvious lesson I draw from this tiny set of anecdotes is that, mallcore bands notwithstanding, growing up as a white boy in suburbia is pretty fucking easy.  The house east of the one I grew up in was rented by a pair of First Nations families (in sequence, not in parallel).  I played with their kids just as easily as I did with anyone else who was roughly my age, and still I have no fucking clue what growing up was like for them.  Alex on equality:

[D]on’t mistake personal narrative for reality.  When Manzi says “we all went to the same schools together, played on the same teams together, and watched the same TV shows.” He isn’t talking about African Americans. And was the idea of having or being help, really “from a different time”? Again, not for African Americans. In 1950 more than 40% of African American women in the labor force were domestic servants.

And on risk:

I remember those idyllic summers of the 1970s earning a few extra dollars mowing lawns–80,000 amputated fingers, hands and mangled toes and feet every year back then and just 6,000 today. Would I even let my kid use a mower from the 1970s?  Disease mortality is also way down, from 36.6 per 100,000 in 1950 to 8.6 per 100,000 in 2005.  For good or for ill, parental fears have increased even as risks overall have fallen.

There is nothing wrong with a bit of personal nostalgia but when nostalgia is taken for reality it biases our thinking in counter-productive ways.

Here’s an idea for further exploration in its own blog post: if life’s so awesome now (and it is), why do we spend so much time whinging about how much it sucks compared to the Good Old Days?  Part of it, I suspect, is that dissatisfaction signals seriousness.  In much the same way that rock bands write songs about how awful and soul-killing it is to be rich and successful and beloved by millions, demagogues like Paul Krugman and Pat Buchanan write columns about the sybaritic degeneracy of modern society.  By whinging, they (intend to) signal that they’re hard-nosed realists who have the courage to face up to the Unpleasant Truths from which the complacent and ovine masses cringe.

But seriously, Krugman?  This?  Really?

The political and economic environment of my youth stands revealed as a paradise lost, an exceptional moment in our nation’s history[…]

You’re telling me that the America that elected Bull Connor was better than the America that elected Barack Obama?

Let’s call that an unfortunate lapse of memory rather than a deliberate comparison — but it illustrates rather well the problem of reasoning from nostalgia.


3 Responses to “Golden ages and incomplete stories”

  1. April 30, 2011 at 14:14


    “The positivity bias describes preferential recall for positive emotions and the fading affect bias describes greater fading of negative versus positive emotion over time. Such effects predict that older adults would remember childhood and youth more positively than later adulthood.”

  2. 2 ben
    May 2, 2011 at 11:33

    This reminds of another of Krugman’s claims, which went something like: when deciding which is the more reliable measure of living standards between countries, “the eyes have it”: the grand palaces and museums of Paris tell us living standards in France are higher than in the US than what the large gap in income per capita would suggest. Krugman taking his privileged childhood as proxy for America seems to me equally sensible.

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