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When Did America Give Up on Progress?

Research & Commentary
April 04, 2012

by Salvatore Babones

Once upon a time, America was always getting better.  It was never perfect, but it was always improving itself.  The ideal — and usually the reality too — was progress.

Not any more, not in a long time.  Yes, there are more and more toys for the wealthy and well-living.  We have ever more computers, ever more smartphones, ever more predator drones.   But progress?  Progress ended sometime in the mid-1970s.

Of course, it all depends what you mean by progress.  What I mean by progress is that ordinary people live better and better lives.  They have to worry less and less about random catastrophes like losing a job or a limb.  They work less and less hard.

Progress means that things get better, not just for a few at the top, but for everybody.  Not just for the mythical “middle class” but for the poor as well.  Progress means that even people in prisons should live more humane lives than they did in past years.

It’s not popular today to stand up for the poor, the homeless, the addicted, or the imprisoned.  But progress means progress for everyone.  There’s no such thing as progress for a few.  Only a society can become more civilized, not an individual person.

[pullquote]When Dolly Parton sang “9 to 5” she meant 9:00 am to 5:00 pm with one hour off for lunch, not 8:00 am to 6:00 pm with half an hour off for lunch.[/pullquote]

We used to have progress.  It was such a constant in America that we expected it, even demanded it.  Between 1870 and 1970 the typical workweek in America dropped from 60 hours a week to 35.

When Dolly Parton sang “9 to 5” she meant 9:00 am to 5:00 pm with one hour off for lunch, not 8:00 am to 6:00 pm with half an hour off for lunch.

Over those same 100 years, the typical American annual wage (adjusted for inflation) increased by a factor of 10.

Since 1970 median wages have gone down while working hours have gone up.  It’s like progress was thrown into reverse.  People — ordinary people — now work more hours for less money than they did forty years ago.

It’s not like the economy stopped growing.  Between the 1870s and the 1970s the US economy grew on average about 2% per year.  Since the 1970s the US economy has grown on average . . . about 2% per year.

The growth is there.  It’s just that for forty years all the growth has gone to the wealthy and well-off.  Not a cent has gone to the average American.  Not a cent has gone to the poor.

Forty years is a long time.  For those of you who can remember the 1970s, imagine how much better average Americans lived in the 1970s than in the 1930s.  Imagine how much better equipped prisons were in the 1970s than in the 1930s.  Imagine the improvement in attitudes toward drug addiction.  Imagine how much improvement there was in support for the poor and homeless.

Now imagine in 1975 being told “this is as good as it gets” and that the next forty years would bring no further improvement, period.

America doesn’t have to be the harsh, bullying, bigoted, violent, and vitriolic place it is today.  It wasn’t always such a place.  American used to be the sort of place that got better and better every year.  America used to have a heart.  But it’s hard to imagine the pendulum swinging back.  How sad.

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