“The Age of Abundance” by Brink Lindsey

How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture

If I had paid attention to the subtitle I might not have bought the book. I am glad that I did; it has kept my close attention on subjects that seldom interest me. After reading the book I came across a short book, or long paper by Lindsey on Krugman’s perspectives which I take as an economic appendix to “Age of Abundance”, covering the same time and territory.

An interesting NY Times Review

I am surprised at this text beginning on page 44:

This sounds too much as if Lindsey were positing some central planner who was charged with deciding whether to allow such collaboration within the nation. Indeed signing contracts was and is generally concomitant with a great deal of trust. The penalties in the contract seldom suffice to offset default. This trust, however, is highly distributed. I think the U.S. (and today a number of other countries) has a remarkably large degree of such trust and that it is indeed critical to our prosperity. There seems to be a Necker cube problem here; now I can read the quotation as agreeing with me.

Shortly thereafter:

Archeologists report long distance trading thousands of years ago. Perhaps this was between rare individuals from different tribes. Bernstein recounts early trading which was often highly negative sum because of destructive competition by those seeking monopoly. This destruction was not, however, conflict between the trading parties.

On page 68 I hear the notion in many quotes that business began to pay workers more because they would become consumers which the business needed. I don’t buy that. First it suffers from the commons problem. The degree to which one company pays more does not much benefit that company. I shall continue to assume that there was competition for workers—a scarcity. Also higher wages reduced turnover for the company that provided higher wages. Higher wages (paid by other companies) provided business with customers and thus enabled higher wages, but that is just part of the conventional explanation of higher living standards due to increased productivity.

In short I don’t believe that the fall of “Cultural resistance to granting workers higher pay and shorter hours” was in the causal loop leading to greater pay and prosperity.

I enjoy the cultural history provided by Lindsey and I think it was real, but I view it as an epiphenomenon. I see no economics effects not more simply explained as raw competition together with natural responses to increased productivity. The epiphenomenon made us feel better about ourselves.

Having finished the first three (long) chapters, I must say that Lindsey writes well. He holds my attention on subjects that I have seldom found interesting. His analysys of the beat generation culminating in Marcuse is convincing; I lived thru that era and largely ignored it. His description coheres with what I recall. I read a bit of Marcuse at the time and could make neither head nor tale of it. I understand Lindsey’s description. I am repelled but I am not sure that Lindsey is.

Page 156: I am enjoying his descriptive text, but occasionally I see a bald assertion that Lindsey seems to think is obvious, but which I doubt.

The only connection that comes to my mind is that the demolishing of scarcity means that society need no longer be productive. Perhaps Lindsey means this.

Perhaps some proponents thought that our complex evolved economy would be magically and quickly replaced by some new mode of production that would feel better. If so this needs to be noted, if not, then what on earth were they thinking?

Over the next two pages Lindsey tries to make some sense of contemporary statements of economic goals. I think he concludes they were incoherent.

Page 164: After an extreme quotation Lindsey says:

OK. I no long doubt Lindsey’s sanity; he was just giving them their run.

Page 178: I have now finished chapter 4 and am satisfied with the book. He closes on a note that suggests that culture is not everything—a point that I would push. Economics has its own logic that limits options, even in the age of Abundance.

Page 202: In chapter 5 Lindsey recounts the drop in church membership and the concomitant rise of fringe elements such as belief in UFOs. Lindsey seems to suggest that these are mutually disjoint sets. I had always, and still do expect that more church goers believe in UFO that non church goers.

Page 205 quote:

Well there were quite a few who continued to wear suits. There were others of us, even not in suits, who formed liaisons with counterparts of other organizations and acted as if we were wearing suits. There was a general understanding that the age of Aquarius was about but not within the building. Trust was not much impaired in those days.

I have finished chapter five. Lindsey describes well his view of American culture and how it got that way. His descriptions of the culture do not always preclude other mechanisms and I find many of his views at most plausible. He makes many plausible connections that are novel to me.

Page 273 quote:

Lindsey takes this as a desirable tendency. So do I, but there is a problem: If the new activity is more valuable than the old, why did the person have to wait until the old was automated to switch to the new? It sounds to me like the value of the manual labor was depressed by automation and the person had to find the next best (lower value) thing to do. There are diverse concepts of value and we are flirting here with paradox.

Page 274: Here we have some interesting economic numbers: