Many supporters of Donald Trump have expressed nostalgia for the 1950s, when large companies, strong unions and international competition that had been bombed flat guaranteed well-paid blue-collar jobs. Yet the current situation looks nothing like the 1950s. With robots, genetic engineering, self-driving vehicles, serious emerging market competition and debt defaults on the horizon, we are entering a new economic age, not yet christened, in which both jobs and policymaking are more uncertain than ever before. To me, the new age looks like Britain’s 1820s.
Economic policymaking in the 1950s was nice and easy. You knew who the major players were, and they told you what they wanted. Since What was Good for General Motors was Good for America that settled the question of what policy should be. Top rates of income tax could be kept high, because there was no point allowing the bureaucrats who rose to the top of large companies to enjoy Sultan-like lifestyles, or to encourage too much corporate jockeying for position, which created uncertainty.
Nobody made huge amounts of money after-tax, which meant there was no entrepreneurial capital to start new businesses, but what did you need new businesses for – we already had plenty of splendid businesses! If an innovation could improve the economy, Bell Labs or some other large company could be relied on to provide it, after conducting extensive tests as to what American consumers might want. As for corporate management, it knew to give way to union demands for better pay and pensions, because that kept the motor of America running, albeit at the cost of a little inflation.
As we now know, this business model was hopelessly unworkable in the long run, because it relied on the largest U.S. companies being hugely ahead of all international competition, and therefore able to pay their workers whatever they pleased. It was already developing weaknesses by 1960, the costs of the Vietnam War further reduced its competitiveness and the crisis of the early 1970s was its death-knell. After 1980, when the U.S. economy once again became competitive, many features of the comfortable 1950s system were abandoned. Certainly today, there is no question of going back to such a halcyon era. The 1950s, as a business, economic and social model, are thus useless. We should avoid that era’s key features rather than seeking to copy them.