Larry Summers's Perspective and Mine
By David Henderson
I’m presently working my way through, and enjoying, Robert J. Gordon’s magnum opus, The Rise and Fall of American Growth. I’m reviewing it for Regulation and already, just 30 pages in, I’m seeing some problems.
Arnold Kling highlighted a paragraph of Larry Summers’s review of Gordon’s book and has an excellent and nuanced discussion. It’s short, so I will simply recommend Arnold’s post rather than selectively quoting from it.
I do, though, want to highlight the same paragraph that Arnold highlighted and make a different point.
But whereas my grandmother would have been at sea if returned to her girlhood home, I would miss relatively little if suddenly placed in the home I grew up in. It takes longer and is less comfortable to fly from Boston to Washington or London than it was 40 years ago. There are more highways now but much more traffic congestion as well. Life expectancy has continued to increase, though at about half the pace it did during my grandmother’s day. But the most important transformation–child death being an extraordinary event–had already happened by the time I was born.
That is striking and I’m not challenging Larry’s memory–he’s 4 years younger than me and his memory is probably better than mine.
But my story about the home I grew up in is very different. I’ll leave out the first home I grew up in, from 1950 to 1960, and from age 0 to 9. In that one, we didn’t have running water until I was about 7.
But even the home I grew up in from 1960 to 1967, in Carman, Manitoba, was so different from what I have now. Part of it is that I’m substantially wealthier than my father was, even at his peak wealth. (He reached his peak wealth sometime in retirement, which was after my mother died in 1969.)
But I don’t think that’s the main story. Here are some things I would miss, and I’ll contrast now with what we had in 1967, the last year I lived in that house. Virtually everything we have now we could have even if my wife’s and my wealth were 1/3 of what it is.
1. TV. We had a black and white 23-inch TV, that got 3 English channels and one French channel, the latter of which I never watched. We now have a smart flat-screen 42-inch TV with thousands of options.
2. Washing machine. We had an old-fashioned one with a ringer. No dryer. We now have both an automatic washer and an automatic dryer.
3. Dishwasher. Didn’t have one. Have one.
4. Bathroom. One then versus two now. And the “shower” then was a hose that you hooked up to the bathtub faucet.
5. Phone. One black phone and, of course, no answering machine. Long-distance calls were so expensive as to be essentially irrelevant. Our family made, at most, 10 long-distance calls per year. Now: Smart phones plus landline.
6. Microwave. Didn’t have one. Have one.
7. Smart phone. You know the story.
8. Computer. You know that story too.
9. Food. Very limited fresh vegetables in winter. Not so now.
10. Music. Back then, one turntable and a collection of 40 popular albums and about 30 classical records, plus collection of about 100 45’s, which I still have. Now, it’s hard to know how to count. I want to play David Bowie and Bing Crosby singing “The Little Drummer Boy: and I go on line, find it, and click.