How the Middle Class is Doing – Applying the Perspective of the Right to the Soviet Union in the 1930s

Its been pointed out time and again that the real incomes of the middle class have not exactly done that well in the past few decades. Among the counter-arguments provided by the right is the notion technology is improving and people can now buy stuff they couldn’t a bit more than a decade ago. As Megan McArdle puts it, this improvement in the technology the middle class can buy provides “something of a challenge to the notion that middle class incomes have gone nowhere for the last ten years.”

Oh really? Well, all of that reminds me of a little story. In December of 1921, the Soviet Government approved the GOELRO plan, the prototype of Soviet Five Year plans. The USSR was in shambles, but the plan was ambitious… to electrify large chunks of the country and catapult it out of 17th, or maybe 18th century where it was mired. By the mid 1930s things had changed dramatically and “the country ranked second in Europe and third globally in terms of electricity output.”

So… there’s a ten year period of explosive growth, at the end of which a huge number of people who ten years earlier probably had never even heard of electricity had it in their lives. Does anyone think that’s a smaller change in technology than what the American middle class has seen in the past decade or so? And are we to conclude this is a sign that life was good for most citizens of the USSR? Because frankly, that’s not an assumption I’m willing to make. But I don’t see how its any different than saying that because the average American today has a cellphone that is more compact, has better reception, and has more features than whatever Bill Gates was carrying around with him ten years ago, we have to conclude that the American middle class is rockin’ and rollin’ right about now.