2019 vs 1969

I was listening to a thoughtful podcast discussion yesterday between one of my favourite US commentators, Jonah Goldberg, and Marian Tupy of the Cato Institute (where he a responsible for the Human Progress website)    This morning I read a column by economist Noah Smith along very similar lines.   The bottom line: life just gets better and better (the podcast discussion was more wide-ranging, across history and across countries, and somewhat more reflective, while Smith’s –  much shorter – piece was comparing life in the US in the 1950s and now).

I’ve read numerous books and articles along similar lines: as just two examples, Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now and Matt Ridley’s  The Rational Optimist. I’ve even run some of these arguments myself in a New Zealand context, illustrating just how different material living standards are now relative to those 100 years ago.

You won’t get any disagreement from me to the proposition that a market-oriented economy is the best mechanism known to man –  although its innards, which bits matter most, still have elements of mystery –  for generating material prosperity.  You also won’t get any disagreement from me that some times/places in human history have been better than others (on almost any aspect conceivable).  Then again, there have been times and places worse –  sometimes materially so – than those that went before.   Any society in the midst of a civil war is almost inevitably in a particulary undesirable situation.   1970s Cambodia was almost certainly worse than, say, the colonial era, 1940s Germany worse than most times in German history (notwithstanding the fruits of material progress), and so on.

Material gains –  whether things, life expectancies, or whatever –  aren’t everything but they aren’t nothing either.   Even abstracting from the war going on at the time, I was sympathetic to the proposition that no amount of money would make any modern American change places with John D Rockefeller 100 years earlier (except of course that some things of value have no price). I don’t even suppose there are too many takers for 1969 Czechoslovakia (Tupy is of Slovak ancestry) over today’s Czech Republic or Slovakia (not even all those US millenials who answered a recent survey suggesting they had a favourable view of communism).

But some choices –  not ones actually open to us, of course, but thought experiments –  are much less clear-cut.   I got to reflecting on life in New Zealand 50 years ago and that now.

At a material level, even as a woeful underperformer on the productivity front (although yesterday’s release from SNZ suggests they may have found another 1-2 per cent of productivity –  level, not growth rate), real GDP per capita or per hour worked are significantly higher than they were 50 years ago.  But to what end is less clear.

Fifty years ago I lived in Kawerau, which was probably as prosperous a town, if new and a little raw, as could be found in the country –  fruit of the Think Big project of the 1950s.  (From all I’ve seen and read, life in Kawerau today is probably worse than it was then.)  But that isn’t really my comparison.   We didn’t have a great deal –  my father had just taken up a role as pastor of the local Baptist church –  but two of my uncles were partners, apparently reasonable successful, in professional practices in central Christchurch (one law, one accounting).   And if I contrast the lives they, and aunts and cousins, had then with the life my family lives now –  I was a well-paid public servant for decades, my wife now is a well-paid senior public servant –  it is hard to spot the nature of the substantial gains (which isn’t a complaint at all).  That is probably even more true if I contemplate the prospects for my children, given what successive governments have done to the housing market.

Perhaps it is something about my/our tastes, and I’m certainly not suggesting the average material standard of living is worse than it was, just that the gains don’t count for that much with me (unlike, say, the gains in the 50 or 100 years prior to that) –  mostly nice-to-haves rather than things which have me celebrating leaps and bounds in human progress.  Are the cars fancier?  Well, yes of course, but I’m not one of those who greatly values cars.  Is the internet nice to have?  Well, of course (and I’d not be writing this without it), but in what ways would we be substantially poorer without it (it offers an improvement on weekly news magazines and newspapers, but not that much of one most of the time)?  Mightn’t most parents prefer a world in which schools weren’t pervaded by smartphones and their distractions.   There is immense choice of eating out options I guess, but frankly I like to cook, as did my mother.  Again, perhaps it is a matter of tastes.   But the proposition of the evangelists of “progress” is that even the material gains are self-evident and (at least by implication) substantial.  I’m not disputing there are gains, but how much weight one might put on them is another matter.  For materialists, I guess quite a lot, unless diminishing marginal utility sets in for them as well.

(This isn’t, of course, an original point, and is –  among other things –  something of a variation of the story US economist Robert Gordon tells, in suggesting that the real lifestlye-improving gains happened decades ago.)

Perhaps the gains in life expectancy for those born seem less arguable.  And I’m certainly not going to dispute that they are real.  But it brings us closer to the deeper questions about the purpose of life. And about which lives.  And what life.

As compared to 1969, New Zealand now legalises –  and has the taxpayer fund –  13000+ abortions a year, and this ability to have one’s own child put to death is deemed by our leaders some sort of basic human right, a matter of “health”.

As compared to 1969, our society grapples with disconcertingly high suicide rates, especially among some of our young people.

And, as compared to 1969, our system is on the brink of legalising assisted suicide.

In some parts of other Western societies, even adult life expectancies are falling, fruit of some mix of drugs, isolation, despair or whatever.

And for any Christian –  and Christianity has shaped the culture from which the bulk of our population comes for perhaps 1500 years –  this earthly life is just the foretaste, the preparation, for eternal life with God.  That doesn’t make life on earth unimportant –  far from it –  but creates a different perspective on the value one might attach to a few more years here.    Societies in which there is nothing more are also ones in which it is much harder to envisage a cause, a choice, worth dying for.

Why else might one legitimately be underwhelmed by what has become of the country since, say, 1969? I could list:

  • the rise of welfarism,
  • the normalisation of birth outside marriage,
  • the abandonment of any societal recognition of the importance of marriage as a bedrock institution of society.
  • the coarsening of our culture (each Saturday I’m still astonished that the Herald runs a column celebrating what were once vices, in some traditions even “deadly sins”,
  • easy and extensive access to pornography (flip side of the advantages of the internet), that degrades all those involved,
  • the normalisation –  nay celebration – of the vice of homosexual practice,
  • the current transgender mania,
  • the loss of any sense of a unifying day of rest.

And, at the heart of it, the decline in Christian faith and observance (there were never “golden days”, but everyone recognises the difference between then and now.  Every society has a “religion” of sorts –  the taboos and understanding by which societies operate and people interact –  and I find almost nothing appealing about modern New Zealand’s provisional replacements for Christianity.

I could go on and add that in 1969 our main political parties and their leaders were pretty clear about the nature of Communism and the evil represented by the regimes in the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China.  The Soviet Union has, mercifully, gone, but the evil represented by the PRC/CCP is as real as ever, and more threatening to us, since our “elites” have abandoned all sense of right and wrong where the PRC is concerned, pursuing (it seems) only money, whether through trade or party donations.

And there is the increasing power of the state, enabled by technology.  Surveillance, and coercive, states aren’t just a threat in China.

And so on and so forth.

Are there alternative perspectives?  Well, of course.  Perhaps as many as there are “religions” or world views.   Some will regard where we’ve got to in the last 50 years as a giant step forward.  For all the material and (often double-edged) technological advantages, personally I’d exchange 2019 New Zealand for 1969 New Zealand.  It isn’t a choice or an option, but to me what we’ve gained is small compensation –  not even really directly comparable –  to what we’ve lost.

22 thoughts on “2019 vs 1969

  1. Good article Michael, albeit I worked for Spark/Telecom/NZPost Office maintaining telephone exchanges in 1970. I wouldn’t like to go back to preventive maintenance on racks of uni-selectors again, or toll calls that were prohibitively expensive, or the reduced opportunity available to women as noted by Andrea Black, just to name a few negatives.

    I’m reading “My life among the Deathworks – Sacred Order / Social Order” by Philip Rieff at the moment. He deals with the existential issues you raise in your post very well.

    Rieff suggests that the Social Order has always been predicated upon the Sacred Order, and there have been broadly speaking three forms of sacred / social orders in human history. Pagan, Judeo/Christian, and now our present age which is an attempt to build a social order absent a foundational sacred order.

    Something that has never been achieved previously in history.

    If we accept his premise then it’s unsurprising that we should be witnessing a breakdown in social order if there is no longer a sacred order to sustain it. Nietzsche foresaw this day, stating that if God is dead, then man is also dead. Absent any existential moral order, all that remains is a will to power, absent absolute truth, all that remains is subjective spin.

    The surprising thing is that we attempted this in the 20th century, where the sacred was replaced by the gulag. The PRC continues in this tradition even today. When our Minister of Justice has plans to “combat misinformation” in election year by monitoring websites, social media, and presumably engaging in enforcement (else why bother), then the wheels of totalitarianism are slowly beginning to turn ever so gradually in our own country.

    So yes, while there have been some wonderful achievements in the reduction of poverty, improvements in medical science, and technology generally, but without the scared to inform our culture we have the witness of history to foreshadow how this will end.

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  2. An interesting topic. The one certainty is the music was better in ’69.
    There are regular surveys asking people if they are happy; for men over the decades not much changed but women are now more unhappy despite many obvious improvements to their lot. This may be related to human psychology – we want freedom meaning freedom to choose between a small range of options; when the range of options increases we become disturbed by the excess of freedom. A supermarket manager told me that more than 6 makes of jam left the customer confused.
    Starting at poverty economic growth makes us happier until it reaches a cut off point or plateau, then we become no happier and begin to experience FOMO. Our economic growth involves ever faster consumption of finite resources so some of us fear ill-defined disasters ahead.

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    • Not too sure why there is an age old concern of finite resources. Man’s resources are only as finite as his/her imagination. Advancements in science and technology has shifted what is finite again and again over the last recorded 5000 years of human history. Although latest indications gobekli tepi excavations indicate that human history stretches towards a much much older horizon in the tens of thousands.

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      • You and I and all our readers are the descendents of those who found new resources. But many civilisations have died out as their resources disappearred. For example Easter Island after they cut down their last trees; see other examples in Jarad Diamonds ‘Collapse’. When young we had nuclear winter as our potential calamity. There are now many more with my pick being the combination of AI and social credit software, it seems to be an inevitable brave new world for my grandchildren.

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      • I think it is already proven that after a major calamity, the survivors would reestablish somewhere else where resources are lush and abundant. That is the survival instint of man is to development the technologies to be able to survive ie sailboats or catamarans to cross the oceans. You would find architecture, statutes and unique building signatures repeating in different parts of the world.

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  3. As someone a little younger than you Michael, I grew up on a farm east of Dannevirke in the 1970’s and 1980’s. My father spent all his capital developing the farm so we had a house with no wallpaper on the walls, just scrim, no carpets. And in winter, you could scrape the ice off the inside of the windows with your finger nails.

    In winter I was constantly sick with colds, flu and asthma and it was horrible being curled up in a cold bed with a Luke-warm hot water bottle.

    Hand-me down clothes, bland food, almost no entertainment (a black and white TV with two channels), no music… it was a basic existence that I’m guessing was much closer to my parents upbringing in the 40s and 50s than my son’s today.

    I for one wouldn’t chance places for all the tea in China and my son has absolutely no idea what it was like back then…

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    • Peter, I must say your description of growing up took me back to my own childhood. I had the same experience in rural Canterbury in the 50’s and 60’s. Our farm house was old at the time, made with pit sawn timber, and the southerly winds blew through the scrim lining the timber walls. It was freezing in winter just as you described. But that’s how our neighbours lived as well. It was normal.

      There is a lot to be said for those ‘modern’ inventions, double glazing and underfloor heating.

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      • I must count myself lucky that my dad was the Factory Industrial Engineer for British Rothmans of Pall Mall which sent him into former British Imperial countries like Egypt, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Malaysia, Singapore and London sourcing tobacco products and factory equipment. I spent my childhood in the various clubhouses with swimming pools, squash and tennis courts and meals served by the local waiters. Rothmans of Pall Mall also had executive holiday bachs in the cool mountains and the beaches for our school holidays and in the weekends we went to the local Formula car races sponsored by Rothmans.. Surprisingly this infrastructure was still very much available for Rothmans of Pall Mall executives even after WW11. Those younger days I lived in 6 bedroom mansions with servants.

        These days I live in an old rickety ex state property in NZ sigh. How the mighty has fallen.

        Liked by 1 person

    • And yet your description doesn’t sound so different from typical Herald accounts of life in poor corners of NZ today, often complemented with unstable relationships and violence (albeit with more TV channels and smartphones).

      Liked by 1 person

    • …what it was like back then’..for you Peter? Are you saying your dad had no choice but to plough all his capital into the farm? Or was he uncaring of the privations his family was experiencing? Life in the 70s & 80s was pretty good for many here. ‘No music’ infers no radio?

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  4. Michael, you are absolutely right. The problem is that being right doesn’t change anything. We need an intelligent strategy to do that.

    We have the wisdom and restraint to find the way to carry our enemies and our friends forward and avoid repeating the excesses of the past 50 years. The question is, will we use it?

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  5. Just looking at World Bank data since 1990, NZ GDP has risen substantially since then from around $12k to $40k.

    That’s quite a shift. I take your point about the problems we’ve accumulated since 1969. But considering the usual concern you show about stagnating productivity, falling behind nations we were once comparable with, etc, it is surprising you haven’t given the considerable rise in GDP a bit more weight.

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    • Much of that GDP gain is more population. But real GDP per hour worked is up around 75% since 1970.

      On your second para, I guess there are two dimensions to an answer.

      The first is that my focus on NZ’s failed productivity performance is in a context where we have done so much worse than other developed countries. Had we all done similarly, the arguments would be different (probably something global/structural going on, and not then the lure of other more successful countries that has led so many of our own people to leave).

      The second is that, on my analysis, the productivity gains we have given up would have been relatively straightforward to have responded to, in ways that would have improved our economy without worsening some of those other social/religious dimensions I wrote about.

      I guess the final one is that I’m articulating my own personal judgement, that society would have been better off with the mix of econ/social indicators and outcomes of 1969 (esp against a backdrop of rest of world as 1969). That reflects my view of truth, and my own subjective weighting on various items. For those championing a different view of truth, the bottom line would be different. Were I an atheist, I might celebrate the last 50 years as some triumph of enlightenment (while still perhaps lamenting the NZ productivity failure).

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      • With lamb prices escalating due to disease in Argentina, China and drought in Australia perhaps we can see increased productivity when we bring our lamb numbers back up from currently 30 million to 70 million. Our view of productivity has usually been quite different from other nations. When they refer to increased productivity they are talking about more automated factories. When we talk about productivity we talk about increasing our sheep or cow numbers which makes us more an outlier for comparative purposes.

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  6. If Christianity is in decline then other creeds are seeking to fill the gap. Environmentalism has a strong religious aspect to it with its reversion to a primitive animism. The Government’s clean water proposals are built around ‘putting the needs of the river (or water) first)– humans come a distant second – and we have a new scientific priesthood who claim to be river whispers who can tell us what the river truely wants. I am distinctly nervous that the local rivers will communicate that they don’t like being flushed with human waste and we will have to go back to the outside hole in the ground. In my view the widespread adoption of flush toilets is one of the biggest positive changes in the last 100 years.

    On temperature when i was a student in a grotty Aro valley flat we didn’t bother with a heater. I only recalled feeling cold on a couple of occassions. The human body does adapt. When we did feel cold it never occurred to us to buy a heater and run it.

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  7. I’m glad homosexuality is legal. I observed a couple of boys in my class at high school and decided no way were they putting something on. nature made them like that.
    One thing that is better (in some ways) is the demise of unions. Good jobs for working people were based on who you know and family got in first..
    There is nothing good about infill housing. Sometimes it is successful but often it is just a mathematical solution and families are growing up without a yard.
    Diversity is the inverse of social cohesion and (according to Local Government NZ) moving from a neighbourhood of high to low social cohesion is as bad as taking up smoking. We shouldn’t need internet and cell phones as we get older, they are expensive, but we do because (if) we don’t have reliable neighbours.
    The media today are mouthpieces for multiculturalism – selling a product that isn’t obviously beneficial.

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