Is America Going to Be the Flintstones or the Jetsons?
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Algol
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America could be flying high with The Jetsons. But instead, we're stuck hoofing it with The Flintstones.
Back in 1966, TIME magazine published an article that looked ahead toward the future, and discussed what the rises of technology and automation would mean for working-class Americans.
From the time of George Washington until the presidency of Ronald Reagan, with a few blips for wars, as American workers became more productive, their wages went up or their working hours went down, or both.
We went from sixty-hour work weeks and poverty wages in the early 19th century, to the fifty-hour work week at the turn of the 20th century with better wages, to solidly middle-class wages and a forty-hour work week by the 1950's.
Whether it was the steam revolution of the early 19th century, the industrial revolution of the late 19th century, or the machine revolution of the early 20th century, as workers were able to make more things — and more profits for their companies — with fewer hours, they shared in the prosperity that was produced by their increased productivity.
So, TIME magazine simply assumed that from 1966 to the year 2000, as computer and advanced mechanization made American workers more productive, that their wages would go up and their work week would go down.
The article concluded that, "By 2000, the machines will be producing so much that everyone in the U.S. will, in effect, be independently wealthy. With government benefits, even nonworking families will have, by one estimate, an annual income of $30,000-$40,000. How to use leisure meaningfully will be a major problem."
That $30,000-$40,000 by the way is more like $215,000 - $288,000 in today's dollars!
And it wasn't just TIME magazine predicting such a luxurious future for America.
Back in the 1960s, it was a common belief that the rise of technology and automation would mean increased productivity in America, which in turn would mean more money and fewer hours worked for American workers.
After all, it had always been that way in America.
The rationale behind that belief was pretty simple.
With increased technology, companies would be able to produce more and be more efficient on a per worker basis.
Revenues would soar, and profits would be passed along to those workers, who'd be making more and working fewer hours.
Back in 1966, everyone thought that by the year 2000, America would be "The Leisure Society."
They thought that our biggest worries would be how to use all of our time off, where to go on our many vacations, and what sort of intellectual and artistic pursuits the middle-class would choose to explore in the 21st century.
But that logic all hinged on the top marginal income tax rate remaining at 70 percent, where it was in 1966.
After CEO's had earned their first million or two, they started hitting that top tax bracket, and simply stopped taking more pay.
After all, who wants to pay 70 percent income tax?
This is why, for about 50 years, CEO's earned about 30 times what their average workers earned.
That high income tax rate thus encouraged CEO's to keep money in their businesses, invest in new technology, pay their workers more, and hire new workers so their businesses could expand.
As businesses became more profitable thanks to investments in automation and technology, workers saw more of those profits, and increasing standards of living and more leisure time.
And TIME magazine, in 1966, assumed that that trend would continue right through to the beginning of the 21st century.