Two Ages of Abundance

I promised that I’d do a post discussing one of the weaknesses of Brink Lindsay’s The Age of Abundance. In particular, it felt like it was really two separate books that were stitched together in one volume. Both halves were good, but they didn’t cohere as nicely as one might like. The first half of the book, which covers the 20th century up to about 1980, is a rich and colorful discussion of Americans social and cultural evolution. The second half of the book, which focuses on the last quarter-century or so, is more a technical economics discussion, focusing on the effects of globalization, changes in consumption and inequality, etc.

To pick just one example at random, the book mentions Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Prince, and Madonna. But there is no mention of, say, Nirvana, arguably the most popular band of the 1990s. Indeed, as far as I can recall, the book doesn’t mention any bands that became popular after about 1985.

I can think of several possible reasons for this. The most obvious is that Lindsey may simply be writing what he knows. As a youngish Baby Boomer, he was presumably paying more attention to pop music between about 1965 and 1985 than since then. Conversely, over the last couple of decades he’s been more immersed in debates about politics and economics, and so not surprisingly he focuses more on those aspects of recent debates.

The shift may also be a consequence of one of the trends Lindsey identifies in the book: the astonishing increase in the diversity of American culture. One could make a plausible case that Nirvana is to the early 1990s what the Beatles were to the mid-1960s. But at the same time, I think it’s clear that no band in the 1990s achieved the same level of fame. And indeed, it’s not clear that it was in the 1990s, or ever will be again, possible to reach that kind of stratospheric social success. The Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show drew an estimated 73 million viewers, about half the country. No television show today comes close to attracting half the country to view it.

Which means it might be impossible to write a cultural history of late-20th-century America as coherent as the one Lindsey writes about the cultural trends of the 50s and 60s. A cultural history of the 1990s would either come across as a laundry list (with separate sections for pop music, country, jazz, hip hop, gospel, R&B, metal, and dozens of smaller genres and sub-genres) or it would necessarily be selective, discussing whichever parts of the culture the author happens to be acquainted with.

A final possibility is that it’s not yet possible to write a definitive cultural history of the last couple of decades because we don’t have enough perspective to see which trends proved to be really important. The rise of evangelical Christianity began in the 1940s and 1950s, but a writer in 1970 might not have appreciated its significance, given that politicians didn’t start courting evangelical voters in earnest until Jimmy Carter ran as an evangelical in 1976. Similarly, the social movements that will shape popular culture in the next couple of decades are almost certainly in our midst today, but we won’t be able to identify them until they achieve the kind of success the evangelical movement did in the 70s and 80s. The more technical and tentative tenor of the second half of The Age of Abundance may reflect hesitation of Lindsey’s part to discuss cultural trends that are still in progress and may turn out very differently than anyone expects.

Personally, I found the first half more interesting than the second. I think that’s partly because the second half draws more on the work of libertarian thinkers whose work I’m already familiar with. It’s also because the best writing is often about good storytelling, and there are a lot more fun stories in the first half of the book. The whole thing is excellent, though, and I encourage you to check it out.