Back in 2006, when he was writing The Conscience of a Liberal, Krugman found himself searching for a way to describe his own political Eden, his vision of America before the Fall. He knew the moment that he wanted to describe: the fifties and early sixties, when prosperity was not only broad but broadly shared. Wells, looking over a draft, thought his account was too numerical, too cold. She suggested that he describe his own childhood, in the middle-class suburb of Merrick, Long Island. And so Krugman began writing with an almost choking nostalgia, the sort of feeling that he usually despises: “The political and economic environment of my youth stands revealed as a paradise lost, an exceptional moment in our nation’s history …”
Krugman remembers Merrick in these terms, as a place that provoked in him “amazingly little alienation.” “All the mothers waiting to pick up the fathers at the train station in the evening,” he says, remembering. “You were in an area where there were a lot of quiet streets, and it was possible to take bike rides all over Long Island. We used to ride up to Sagamore Hill, the old Teddy Roosevelt estate.” The Krugmans lived in a less lush part of Merrick, full of small ranch houses each containing the promise of social ascent. “I remember there was often a typical conversational thing about how well the plumbers—basically the unionized blue-collar occupations—were doing, as opposed to white-collar middle managers like my father.”
I’m somewhat younger than Krugman, but as they say, the future arrives unevenly. I grew up in a small town with an experience not unlike this. I’m very sympathetic to Krugman’s choking nostalgia. It’s difficult to convey the almost unbearable sweetness of this kind of American childhood to anybody who didn’t live it.
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.
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.
This difference in diagnosis leads me to radically different views about what we should do now.