Wednesday, October 21, 2015
Lessons Learned from the 1950s
Recently I've been reading some history about the 1950s, including the exhaustive book The Fifties by Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam. We lived in a different world back then, when we were kids and cars had fins, men went off to work, women stayed home, and children were not chided not for texting too much but for watching too much TV.
Nevertheless, I couldn't help but notice some of the themes running through that decade more than a half century ago are still relevant in 2015 . . .
For example, today we're all encouraged to "to our own thing" and "follow our bliss." But Halberstam reminds us about Alfred Kinsey, an entomologist who transformed himself into a sex researcher. He was criticized by conservatives and liberals alike, until he was forced to give up his teaching job and lost financial support for his research from the Rockefeller Foundation. Through it all Kinsey believed he was doing something important and he kept on conducting his studies.
He lived in Bloomington, Ind., where he tended his garden, helped raise his children and was married to the same woman for over 30 years. Ultimately his work was recognized. The Kinsey Reports were bestselling books, and despite some later criticism of his methods, his work won him high regard among many in the scientific community. The lesson? You must believe in yourself before others will believe in you.
Back in the 1950s entrepreneurs like William Levitt, Kemmons Wilson and Ray Kroc all made their fortunes, sometimes in the face of critics who berated them, because they felt confident betting on the future of America. Today Jeff Bezos and Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg are doing the same thing. It's just that instead of building houses, motels and hamburger stands, the new entrepreneurs are building out the internet -- but they're still plenty optimistic about the future of the American consumer.
Today we hear both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, as well as half the American public, complain about media bias. But media bias is nothing new. The 1950s saw the usual East coast liberal bias in the voice of Edward R. Murrow on CBS and from the pages of the New York Times.
But, according to David Halberstam, Time magazine under Henry Luce was the unofficial mouthpiece of the Republican party, and flagrant media bias came from the Chicago Tribune under publisher Robert McCormick. The newspaper was the FOX news of its day, opposing the New Deal, pushing post-war isolationism, supporting the anticommunism of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Also, as TV took over from print, people began to realize that news in the media was becoming less about actual news, and more about its entertainment value -- a trend that continues today, ad absurdum.
Also, the 1950s remind us that fighting over politics is as American as apple pie. In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public school violated the 14th Amendment. Thus began the long, contentious and sometimes violent march toward desegregation. The idea of feminism was being born, and the Beat generation foretold the anti-establishment movement of the 1960s.
Meanwhile, in what might have been a precursor to Vietnam, America was pulled into the Korean war, with some people even advocating the use of atomic weapons, until Gen. MacArthur was fired and an uneasy stalemate was reached that continues to this day. The Cold War was gathering urgency, and Joseph McCarthy tore the nation apart with his accusations of communist activities in government and the arts. All this makes our current battles over health care, gun control, Afghanistan and the Middle East seem like just another, rather mild chapter in the ongoing American debate about policies and politics.
And finally, in the 1950s, with people fleeing to the suburbs, it did not pay to invest in inner-city real estate, nor was it profitable to buy stock in railroads, steel or textiles. The "next big thing" at the time -- the investments that were to make money -- were in packaged goods companies that sold products to the parents of the Baby Boomers; in car companies that rolled out new models every year; in office product companies like Xerox and IBM.
Similarly, today you don't want to invest in declining industries like automobiles, chemicals, media, or old-line department stores like Sears or J.C. Penny. You're better off focusing on the future, in the form of technology and the internet -- or perhaps betting on those same Baby Boomers by investing in finance, insurance and health care, or in inner city real estate as their hipster kids move back into the city.
The French have a phrase for it, don't they? Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.