Political Economy

Would today’s captains of industry be happier in a 1950s-style world?

Andrew Gelman Sep 6 '13

In a post about “rich whiners,” Matthew Yglesias argues that what richies really want is respect. Yglesias writes:

I think rich businessmen would be happier if we could go back to 1950s-style, more egalitarian distribution of pre-tax income. The richest people around would still be the richest people around, and as the richest people around they would live in the nicest houses and drive the nicest cars and send their kids to the best schools and in other respects capture the vast majority of the concrete gains of being rich. But they’d also have a much better chance of gaining the kind of respect as civic and national leaders that they crave. They want to be seen as the “job creators” and the heroes of the economy, not the greedy exploiters of the masses. But in order to have heroes of the economy, you need a broadly happy story about the economy—one where living standards are rising across the board and prosperity is broadly shared.

This is an appealing argument but I’m skeptical. My impression is that, back in the 1950s, the culture heroes included sports starts, authors, broadcast and movie stars, etc. Some politicians and union leaders too, and various others. But nowadays, lots of rich people are heroes of one sort or another: Steve Jobs, those guys at Google, various gossip about tech billionaires, Donald Trump. Even the supervillians at Goldman Sachs get some respect—it’s kinda cool to be a supervillian. There’s the Forbes list of billionaires. Not to mention Michael Bloomberg and Mitt Romney. And it’s not just cos these rich guys have done cool things like Google maps. Warren Buffett is a hero too, mostly from doing a very good job at accumulating money.

If you’re superrich and your goal is to be viewed as a hero, I’d say that the current era from the mid-90s through now has been a good time to do it. They call this the New Gilded Age for a reason. In contrast, I have the sense that the 1950s was a great time to get respect for local rich guys: the owner of the local factory, the proprietor of the local newspaper, etc. Back then, if you were running a moderate-sized business, you could be a real big shot.

I’m not quite sure how this could be studied more systematically but maybe it’s worth looking in to.