Mark Schmitt, in a piece in New Republic, takes note of Paul Ryan’s Medicare proposal to make 1956 the dividing line between two Americas: “Those over 55 will continue to benefit from one of the triumphs of social insurance in the Great Society, while the rest of us will be on our own, with a coupon for private health insurance.”
As a 1956 baby and member of the graduating class of 1974, I stand right on that dividing line. And I was particularly struck by Schmitt’s description of 1974 as a pivot point in American social and economic history:
“Look at almost any historical chart of the American economy, and you see two sharp breaks in the 1970s. First, in 1974, household incomes, which had been rising since World War II, flattened. Real wages started to stagnate. The poverty rate stopped falling. Health insurance coverage stopped rising. Those trends have continued ever since.
Second, a little later in the decade, around the time today’s 55-year-olds graduated from college (if they did—fewer than 30 percent have a four-year degree), inequality began its sharp rise, and the share of national income going to the bottom 40 percent began to fall. Productivity and wages, which had tended to keep pace, began to diverge, meaning that workers began seeing little of the benefits of their own productivity gains. The number of jobs in manufacturing peaked and began to drop sharply. Defined benefit pensions, which provide a secure base of income in retirement, began to give way to 401(k)s and similar schemes that depend on the worker to save and the stock market to perform….
The Ryan plan, in other words, delivers to the older generation exactly what they’ve had all their lives—secure and predictable benefits—and to the next generation, more of what they’ve known—insecurity and risk. “
Personally, I’d take that analysis several steps further. I’d argue that our cultural expectations of the American Dream, our image of the international role played by the United States, our comprehension of how the economy is supposed to work, our understanding of the proper interplay among government, business and individual citizens — they’re all still predicated on the world that existed prior to 1974. As a culture, we haven’t really come to grips with the fact that those expectations and understandings are no longer valid, and haven’t been for a long time. Even Americans too young to have experienced that earlier world firsthand have absorbed the expectations it created among their parents and grandparents.
In fact, that chasm between outdated expectation and modern reality is driving a lot of the political ferment we now see. People sense that things aren’t as they’ve been taught they should be; they just don’t know why. And it’s not about Obama, any more than it was about George W. Bush or Bill Clinton. (The later Clinton years, in fact, can be seen in retrospect as the last gasp of the pre-’74 America, a period in which the old economic order seemed to reassert itself, if all too briefly.)
The transition is bigger than any president or party. Nobody caused it; nobody can stop it. At most we can try to deal with and adjust to it. Unfortunately, I don’t think the Democrats have come to grips with that reality at all — not in their rhetoric, and not in their policy. I think the Republicans have done so only to the extent of blaming it all on government, when in fact much more powerful forces are at work. Both parties are still stuck trying to convince voters that they have the secret to making things as they used to be, and neither has any hope of doing so.
– Jay Bookman