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There really was a Golden Age*

Summary:
The claim that the mid-20th century represented an economic Golden Age of near-full employment and economic equality, compared to both earlier and later periods, commonly meets two kinds of critical responses. Over the fold, I respond. The first objection, which is addressed in the draft chapter I posted, is that the benefits of this period were largely confined to white men. Certainly, at the beginning of the Golden Age, the US and many other developed countries were characterised by legally institutionalised racism and sexism. Blacks in much of the US were denied the right to vote, and subject to many other kinds of legal and social discrimination. The same was true of indigenous people in many countries including Australia, and of the treatment of colonial subjects of

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The claim that the mid-20th century represented an economic Golden Age of near-full employment and economic equality, compared to both earlier and later periods, commonly meets two kinds of critical responses. Over the fold, I respond.


The first objection, which is addressed in the draft chapter I posted, is that the benefits of this period were largely confined to white men. Certainly, at the beginning of the Golden Age, the US and many other developed countries were characterised by legally institutionalised racism and sexism. Blacks in much of the US were denied the right to vote, and subject to many other kinds of legal and social discrimination. The same was true of indigenous people in many countries including Australia, and of the treatment of colonial subjects of the European empires. Women were subject to a range of discrimination, including lower wages, exclusion from a range of jobs and much more.


But the Golden Age saw all of these forms of discrimination challenged, and a great many were abolished. US examples include desegregation of the armed forces under Truman, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 along with legal decisions including Brown vs Board of Education 1964, Loving vs Virginia 1967, Reed vs Reed 1971 and Roe vs Wade 1973. The Equal Rights Amendment was on the edge of ratification by the early 1970s


Since the end of the Golden Age in the early 1970s, progress towards racial and gender equality has been glacial at best, and in some cases, has gone into reverse. The Voting Rights Act has been gutted, Roe v Wade has been chipped away and the Equal Rights Amendment blocked, or at least stalled.


To sum up on this point, there’s nothing to suggest the economic benefits of the Golden Age came through reliance on structures of racial and gender discrimination. On the contrary, those benefits created an environment where resistance to greater social equality was more easily overcome than it is today.


The second argument is that standards of living for most people are higher than they were in the 1950s and 1960s. Because of technological progress, standards of living have generally improved over time, even in periods (like the past 40 years or so) when most of the benefits have accrued to those at the top of the income distribution, and even when unemployment is high.


This is broadly true. In describing the mid-20th century as a Golden Age in economic terms, I am saying that relative the productive possibilities available with given technology, the economy generated a higher standard of living for the majority of people than before or since. As far as policy is concerned, this is the relevant criterion. If we could recreate the economic conditions of the Golden Age, the Internet and other technological innovations of the past 50 years would not disappear. Rather, the benefits generated by these innovations would be more widely shared.

John Quiggin
He is an Australian economist, a Professor and an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland, and a former member of the Board of the Climate Change Authority of the Australian Government.

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