Back in 2006, when he was writing The Conscience of a Liberal, Krugman found himself searching for a way to describe his own political Eden, his vision of America before the Fall. He knew the moment that he wanted to describe: the fifties and early sixties, when prosperity was not only broad but broadly shared. Wells, looking over a draft, thought his account was too numerical, too cold. She suggested that he describe his own childhood, in the middle-class suburb of Merrick, Long Island. And so Krugman began writing with an almost choking nostalgia, the sort of feeling that he usually despises: “The political and economic environment of my youth stands revealed as a paradise lost, an exceptional moment in our nation’s history …”
Krugman remembers Merrick in these terms, as a place that provoked in him “amazingly little alienation.” “All the mothers waiting to pick up the fathers at the train station in the evening,” he says, remembering. “You were in an area where there were a lot of quiet streets, and it was possible to take bike rides all over Long Island. We used to ride up to Sagamore Hill, the old Teddy Roosevelt estate.” The Krugmans lived in a less lush part of Merrick, full of small ranch houses each containing the promise of social ascent. “I remember there was often a typical conversational thing about how well the plumbers—basically the unionized blue-collar occupations—were doing, as opposed to white-collar middle managers like my father.”
This Edenic Merrick has long since evaporated, giving way to something more socially distended and bizarre. (Amy Fisher, for instance, attended Krugman’s high school.) Would he prefer Merrick in the sixties to his current life? “Knowing that I am in fact me, this is a much better society for me to live in. And not because of the money but because it’s more open, more tolerant,” Krugman says. The food, he says, musing, is “a lot better.” You can get really good coffee just about anywhere.
But talking about Merrick prompts Krugman to think about how that moment might have been extended. “Suppose an alternative history in which big-box stores, Wal-Mart and others, were unionized,” he says. “You could easily imagine that you could have a large number of service-sector workers who were, if not like autoworkers, like manufacturing-sector union workers in the golden age of private-sector unions.” He thinks for another minute. It might not have been Utopia, he says, but it could have been France. But now these possibilities seem further away than ever. Part of the basic loneliness of economic study is that you are always looking back, at data sets that are already completed. And so you realize your vision of a perfect society just as it disappears from view.