Half a Century

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the JFK assassination and I am quite happy to leave the obsession with Camelot and conspiracy to the media. The photographs from 1963 seem quite quaint, like they were plucked from another era. I was two years old then, growing up in a world of stay-at-home moms, fathers who wore hats and overcoats, and mandatory church attendance. This world no longer exists, and the photographs and film clips from November 22, 1963 led me to reflect a bit on how much the nation has changed in a brief half-century.

Obviously, the changes have been far more significant than what can be conveyed in a single post.   But here are a few observations of a policy geek backed with statistical indicators that might be of interest.

1. We are a far wealthier nation today than in 1963.

Indicator: Real per capita disposable personal income (2009 dollars):

 2. As a result of ongoing trade liberalization and innovations in communications and transportation, we are far more engaged in the international trade.

Indicator 1: Exports of goods and services as a percentage of GDP

Indictor 2: Imports of goods and services as a percentage of GDP

3. The poverty rate has fallen, but less than one might suspect (especially for children).

Indicator 1: Percentage of population below the poverty line

Indicator 2:Percentage of children in poverty

4. The federal government has expanded rather dramatically in the past half-century.

Indicator: federal outlays as percentage of GDP

4. Much of this expansion has been financed through debt

Indicator: Gross federal debt as percentage of GDP

5. The warfare state has contracted while the welfare state has expanded:

Indicator 1: Percentage of federal outlays, Department of Defense and military programs

Indicator 2: Percentage of federal outlays, Social Security Administration

Indicator 3: Federal outlays for health programs as a percentage of GDP

6. Government regulatory activities have increased dramatically:

Indicator 1: Number of pages, Federal Register

Indicator 2: Inflation-adjusted regulatory budgets (2005 dollars)

  • 1960: $2.865 billion
  • 2013: $50.456 billion
  • Source: Dudley and Warren, Regulators’ Budget (Table A-2)

7. Although the warfare state has contracted, the so-called prison industrial complex has expanded dramatically:

Indicator: U.S. Prison population

  • 1963: 217, 283  (incarceration rate: 114 per 100,000 U.S. residents)
  • 2012: 1.57 million  (incarceration rate: 480 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents)
  • Source: Justice Department, Bureau of Justice Statistics  (1963) (2012)

Undoubtedly, one could generate a far greater number of ways in which things have changed in the past 50 years. Social conservatives would draw attention to declining church attendance, the higher divorce rates, the percentage of children in female-headed households, and the number of abortions post Roe v Wade. Libertarians would point to the growth in individual liberty in some areas (gay marriage, civil unions, marijuana decriminalization) and its contraction in others (speech codes, growth of the surveillance state, greater intrusions into property rights). Those on the left would undoubtedly look to labor’s dwindling share of GDP, the collapse of unionization, and record postwar levels of inequality.

Regardless of one’s political orientation, there is little question that the last half-century has brought significant changes in most areas of life. On balance, is it a better world?


4 thoughts on “Half a Century

  1. Considering the overall increase in human welfare across almost every objective measure (particularly outside the United States,) I’d say things are better. On a governance level, more people in the world live under increasingly liberalized states (though there is still much room for improvement here.) Communications technology has given almost everyone a voice (for better and worse.) I think its great that so many toxic ideologies have been essentially been banished from polite society, and more people across the globe have access to basic freedoms than ever before. Not that everything is roses, but it looks to me as if we are living at time where humanity, overall, is doing better than it ever has before. With few exceptions, each period of history sees humanity doing better than the last. I’m very optimistic for the future and can’t wait to see what happens next.

  2. Funny, a few emails before I opened the one connected to this post, I was reading a Motley Fool article that mentioned that minimum wage (corrected for inflation) dropped from $10 in 1969 to $7.25 in 2012. And then I look at your indicator #1 and try to reconcile the two . . .

    1. Not difficult to reconcile, since the first indicator expresses the average real disposable income. If we are speaking of the dispersion of income, things have become more unequal in the last several decades. Some of this is a product of public policy (although I would assign greater importance to changes in tax policy than I would the minimum wage). There is no question that the minimum wage has not kept pace with inflation. At the same time, the Earned Income Tax Credit (or EITC) has expanded dramatically as a means of supplementing the income of those earning the minimum wage.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s