2013-06-17

The Good Old Days were not so good



The other day my dad sent me an email that reminisces about how good, and simple, and inexpensive things were when he was a boy in 1955. Some of the list is sentimental and cute, harkening back to an idyllic age that people remember as children (precisely because they were children and were not aware of the complexities and contradictions of adult life). But much of the list is politically charged in a "let's turn back the clock" kind of way.

So, I sent my dad back an email that said this:


That is an interesting list. But a bit of it is apocryphal. I spotted some of it on my own, which led me to Snopes.com where they noticed a few more:

http://www.snopes.com/inboxer/trivia/1955comments.asp

What I thought was really interesting was the amnesia about the wartime and cold-war income tax rates (and this is one of the ones I spotted on my own):

"Thank goodness I won't live to see the day when the Government takes half our income in taxes."

1955 was an era when we had the second highest income tax rate in the history of the country... Just below the WWII tax rate.

Wikipedia has a nice chart that shows the data here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Income_tax_in_the_United_States#History_of_top_rates

The highest tax rates were 1944-1946, in which the lowest rate was 23% and highest rate was 91%.

From 1946 to 1964, the tax rates were a touch lower, with a low rate of 20% and a high of still 91%.

In 1964 (under a democrat!) the tax rates were substantially diminished to low 16% and high of 77%.

Reagan got the high rate to its lowest point in 1988 with a top tax rate of 28%.

And overall it looks like the lowest rates have been shared by George W Bush and Barack Obama at 10% low and 35% high, until this year when the top rate jacked up to nearly 40%.

I'm not a big fan of "good old days" types of sentimentality or "turn back the clock" movements, because I think we forget how miserable the good old days were, and why people rebelled against them and changed them in the first place. The 1950's featured some of the highest rates of alcoholism and domestic abuse sociologists have studied. That decade led directly to the 1960's Race Riots, Hippie Rebellion, and a constant threat of Nuclear Annihilation.

Already by the 1950's a distinctive Anglo-American rebellion against cultural norms was crystalizing in people like Jack Kerouac, Beat Poets, and Biker Gangs (some of the most infamous of which were started by WWII vets suffering from what we now identify as PTSD). In fact, in 1950 American Sociologist David Riesman identified much of the malaise that was affecting post WWII anglo culture in his book "The Lonely Crowd" (a great read that still applies in important ways... essentially the malaise of a people blessed with immense material resources, but lacking a purpose or mission to use those resources for). So it turns out the "Good Old Days" weren't so good even when they were happening.

I love my 1984 volkswagen Rabbit GTI which I drove in high school. In my mind it is "my favorite car" ever. But, if I am honest, even if it was in pristine condition it would not be near as good of a car as what I own now, and I would not want to go back to it.

I don't want to live in 1955 or 1974 or 1992 or even 2000. I prefer now. I  don't believe in golden ages, whether in the past, present or future. But in general the present is better than the past, and the future is better still.

Martin Luther King Jr. adapted a phrase that has been attributed to many, but usually to him. It goes like this: "The bow of history is long, but it bends toward justice." Looking at history from a broad perspective, I think this is true.

With that said, my general advice is to be jaded and skeptical toward all historical claims, past, present, and future. Things are rarely as good or as bad as people claim.
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