I recently wrote about the difference between a job and work; between “useless toil and useful work.” And why do we work? When did we start to devalue leisure time? A hundred years ago people in the I.W.W. argued for more leisure rather than higher wages. Keynes talked about the ten hour week. So when were basic needs replaced by wants? Adam Curtis in “The Century of Self” speculates that it started in the 1920s with the rise of advertising. But the real push to go beyond needs seems to have occurred in the 1950s.
I just finished Bill Bryson’s memoir “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid” about growing up in Des Moines, Iowa in the 1950s and 1960s. Like all his books, it is filled with amazing detail, hilarious stories, and keen social commentary. For white folks in America things were pretty good in the 1950s. Bryson remarks that their basic needs were being met (although he thinks the toys of his childhood like Mr. Potato Head and the Slinky really sucked). But instead of being content they started living large. They went from not needing a car at all in cities with streetcars and rail service to buying two cars. They needed bigger refrigerators and more gadgets. “…televisions, room intercoms, gas grills, kitchen gadgets, snowblowers, you name it.” That meant they needed bigger places for all the new stuff. And so they worked more and women started working too. They were sold the idea of “careers” which were jobs where you could “get ahead”.
“Soon Millions of people were caught in a spiral in which they worked harder and harder to buy labor-saving devices that they wouldn’t have needed if they hadn’t been working so hard in the first place.
By the 1960s, the average American was producing twice as much as only fifteen years before. In theory at least, people could now afford to work a four-hour day, or two and -a-half-day week, or six-month year and still maintain a standard of living equivalent to that enjoyed by people in 1950 when life was already pretty good–and arguably, in terms of stress and distraction and sense of urgency, in many respects much better: Instead, and almost uniquely among developed nations, Americans took none of the productivity gains in additional leisure. We decided to work and buy and have instead.
Maybe the Tea Party types are right. It might be that the 1960s was where it started to go wrong. But not for the reasons they give such as promiscuous youth (the 1950s invented “teenagers”), communists, equality advocates, and social programs. It might be a dumb idea called “free market capitalism” which produced chains, conglomerates and super this and super that. Mom and Pop stores of Bryson’s youth were replaced with chains. Bishop’s Restaurant with its atomic toilets and little lights at each booth used to summon the waitress was replaced with a McDonald’s. A grocery store right downtown with a “Kiddie Corral” where moms deposited their kids who blissfully read comic books was replaced with suburban supermarkets like Safeway or Jewel or Albertson’s. Hotels were replaced with “Travel Lodges”.
Right Libertarians talk endlessly about individualism and small business. They rail against regulations for small business while holding firm to the idea that capitalism is just great if you just left it alone. But capitalism is rapacious. It’s about growth and not about making a living and then kicking back after work. They call the pursuit of happiness “earned success”. But that success is usually at the expense of someone else. It’s all about the big fish eating the little fish. Restaurants with individuals’ stamps on them were the joy of my childhood. Jardines with it’s cozy corners, Hamm’s Beer lights, and juicy pork chops and the hamburger shop that delivered your burgers and fries in a Lionel train were far more fun than Applebee’s or Long John Silver’s. A visit to the Sophie’s Old Fashioned for homemade ice cream made my Sunday. But those individual names like Jolly Jay’s Drive In, Bob’s Garage, Mickey’s Shoe Repair, and Ben’s Bakery were replaced in the early 1960s by chains and so each town became “Anytown U.S.A.”. Yes, indeed we could be just like folks in California or Florida. We could eat the same and dress the same. Odd way for individualists to act.
A lot of this had something to do with the car.
“The number of new cars bought by Americans went from just sixty-nine thousand in 1945 to more than five million four years later. By the mid-fifties Americans were buying eight million new cars a year (this in a nation of approximately forty million households).
They not only wanted to, they had to. Under President Eisenhower, America spent three-quarters of federal transportation dollars on building highways, and less than 1 percent on mass transit.
In the 1950s you got on a train and went to downtown Chicago to see “Ben Hur” at a very grand theater palace and then go for dessert at the Walnut Room at Marshall Field’s. Eventually the theaters would close and Marshall Fields would become Macys; Kroch’s and Brentano’s would become Barnes and Noble and Harry’s Hamburgers would become Wimpys. We moved farther away from work and spent more time alone in a car than riding on trains or streetcars.
I can see why Bill Bryson lives in Great Britain. They are quirky and prone to being big on rules and breaking them at the same time. The overall impression you get from reading Bryson’s memoir is that, for him, childhood was about having a safety zone where kids could then break every single rule that was laid out to them. It was their time to fly before being grounded by a “career”. It was about whooping and yelling, skipping school, and spitting from movie balconies before being consigned to square boxes called cubicles or offices.
So we got in our cars and drove ourselves harder and harder. We drove further and further from each other. We embraced sameness and lost our individuality. Explain to me what the difference is between the Soviet style of state regulated shoes and the Chinese Communist workers’ uniforms and our penchant for wearing Nikes and J. Crew? The market state and the communist state. It’s where we are going that is the problem. And it seems like we took a wrong turn somewhere.