Living in the 70s – the BBC documentary Electric Dreams

I grew up in the 70s. But were they the ‘good old days’?

A BBC television documentary placed two parents and four children in their home with only the amenities available during each of the previous three decades (1970s, 1980s and 1990s) and recording their responses to technological change.

The programme follows the family’s adaption and reaction to being thrown back in time to a more technologically sparse period and how their pastimes and attitudes change in response to both landing in the early 1970s and coming up-to-date.

The episodes revealed the huge transformation that technological change has wrought on British family life over the past 40 years. The children have to cope when they swapped Facebook for black-and-white telly and vinyl records.

33⅓ LP vinyl record album

It was goodbye to their three game consoles, three DVD players, five mobile phones, six televisions and seven computers, not to mention their dishwasher, two washing machines and tumble dryer. The teenager had to do a pre-dawn paper boy run.

Filming occurred over the winter of 2009, which was particularly cold and snowy for England, a fact which figured into the story when the family had to endure cold nights early in the project. The lack of central heating was simulated for the 70s episode.

How much would you pay to go back to the 1970s or whenever you define as the good old days?

A way to grasp the conceptual difficulties of measuring changes in living standards and life expectancies across the decades is to step into Brad De Long’s time machine.

In this thought experiment, De Long asks how much you would want in additional income to agree to go back in time to a specific year. De Long was an economic historian examining the differences in American living standards since 1990.

De Long would have refused to go at all to 1900 unless he could at least have taken mid-20th century modern medicine with him. Otherwise, it would have meant dying from a childhood phenomena. I would have probably died from appendicitis if I was a teenager in 1900. Instead, I spent 10 days in hospital in the 1970s.

Why call my blog Utopia – you are standing in it?

Welcome to my blog.

My blog reflects where I came from and how I think the world works for better and for worse.

Yes, my background is as a trained economist, but this blog’s title is more to do with how the over-weaning conceit of youth was replaced by an increasingly unreliable memory, a bad back and the odd dose of wisdom.

My mum and dad grew up between the two world wars. Their and my upbringing seem to be light years apart in terms of quality of life.

Longer and healthier life expectancies are obvious. Less obvious are the day to day risks of crippling diseases.

My brother told me a story about how my father, who was a doctor, used to give my older brothers and sisters  the once-over with his eye each morning at breakfast looking for initial signs of polio and the other endemic childhood illnesses of the 1950s. These days, you show your age if you know of these endemic diseases. I was born a few years after mass immunisations of babies started. Was it just lucky me?

I am also old enough to remember when going to an airport was exciting because you were going somewhere. Devonport (in Tasmania) to Melbourne was a big trip when I was a kid. A luxury back then. Now airports are a boring wait that we must endure.

My sister traveled the world a lot. She started in about 1973 when an airfare from Sydney to London was $2,000. That was maybe a year’s income back then for her. For some reason, I kept note of that price. That airfare never increased despite 40 years of inflation.

I first visited Asia in 1993. Lived in Japan from 1995 to 1997.

Although of average height for an Australian, I was tall in Asia back then. Looking over the top of the crowd is really great. There were so few obese Japanese of any age that it really was a cause for comment when you saw one.

No more, no longer. Last time I visited Hong Kong, I was looking up at the young Chinese men serving behind the counters at McDonalds.  Each generation is head and shoulders taller than their parents in Asia.

When I first visited my parents-in-law in the Philippines, that part of Leyte had no sealed roads and no phones. The next time I visited, the road was being sealed and mobile reception was better if you had an arial on the roof. After a five year gap in visiting, not only was mobile reception good, there was cable TV if you wanted it. When I visited in 2012, there was wireless internet if you had outside arial. Last Christmas, we hot spotted off my sister-in-law’s mobile.

These revolutionary improvements in my life in a rich country and in lives in developing countries must have a cause.

This blog will champion the spread of capitalism and the rule of law as the cause of the flourishing of humanity in the 20th century and beyond.

I call this a utopia because it is the heaven on earth that led so many to fall for the siren call of socialism and progressive politics. They did not notice that they were already in paradise.

Joan Robinson noted in her 1942 book An Essay on Marxism that when the Communist Manifesto was published in 1848, its battle cry, which would have had some currency, was:

‘Rise up ye workers, rise up, for you have nothing to lose but your chains.’

The industrial revolution was still in its infancy in 1848.

Alas, 90 years later, Joan Robinson suggested that this battle cry at the barricades would have to be amended to:

‘Rise up ye workers, rise up, for you have nothing to lose but your suburban home and your motor car.’

This optimism was in the middle of a world war and after the Great Depression. (Joan Robinson was one of the first writers to take Marx seriously as an economist).

These days the battle tweet of the progressive Left would have to be:

‘Rise up ye workers, rise up, for you have nothing to lose but your iPad and your air miles’.

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