Every now and then I read a reflection about growing up in circumstances that today would be considered poor. We had no idea we were poor, the reflection typically goes. We had no idea our house was small or our clothes hand-me-downs. We were just kids, living the life.
I was watching a documentary recently about life in late Stone Age Britain, some 12,000 years ago. An artist depicted a family huddled around a fire in a small dwelling composed of sticks, mud and thatch. Those kids, too, had no idea they were poor. They were on the cutting edge. Protection from the rain, a fire to keep warm. What else could there be? They weren’t wishing for wifi.
Perception is interesting. Like everyone else in the western world during the second half of the last century I was raised in a mixed economy — part free enterprise capitalism, part government sector. The difference between the United Kingdom, where I was raised, and the United States, where I have spent my adult life, was a difference of degree, not kind.
In the United Kingdom the list toward the government sector was much more pronounced than here. After 1945 the British government took ownership or control of the coal, health, electricity, telephone, rail, transportation, gas, iron, steel and housing industries. The major television channel, the British Broadcasting Corporation, was (and is) state owned. This remained pretty much in place through the early 1980s.
Our immediate neighborhood life, on the other hand, was colored by mom-and-pop free enterprise — corner grocery stores, hardware stores, butchers and bakers.
It sort of worked. We did O.K. Life was good.
But, unlike that Stone Age child, I knew things were better elsewhere.
About 1963, for example, the first person in our neighborhood got a refrigerator. Though a smallish appliance, it was a wonder of the world to us kids who lined up at Mrs. Baldwin’s door to beg ice cubes. In the United States, by contrast, 85 percent of American households owned a refrigerator as far back as 1944. By 1959, 13 per cent of British homes had one, compared to 96 percent in the United States.
Few working-class families owned cars. We rode buses. Then there were things called TV “remotes” and backyard barbecues, the space age and flavors of ice cream vastly beyond our standard chocolate and vanilla — all over there in some Shangri-La called “America.”
The higher quality of life in a culture that leans toward capitalist free enterprise, as in the United States, rather than toward government control, as in the United Kingdom, became enviably clear. The former leaned toward opportunity, the latter to security. From that, everything else flowed.
So, go ahead, you American youngsters so enamored of “socialism” that you just booed former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper’s rejection of your new fad.
It’ll be O.K., in a mediocre sort of way.
You’ll get by.
If “getting by” is what you think America should be about.