I happen to be an expert on some of those changes, because I live in a house with a late-50s-vintage kitchen, never remodelled. The nonself-defrosting refrigerator, and the gas range with its open pilot lights, are pretty depressing (anyone know a good contractor?) — but when all is said and done it is still a pretty functional kitchen.
And of course back in 1918 nearly half of Americans still lived on farms, most without electricity and many without running water. By any reasonable standard, the change in how America lived between 1918 and 1957 was immensely greater than the change between 1957 and the present.
First, off one doesn’t want to confuse the gains of urbanization with innovation. Unless, the point is that once you have driven the percentage of farm workers to nearly zero, you can’t go in lower. Yes, lots of people gained from moving to the cities. That was big deal in thickening markets and offering people new opportunity. Something that was only replicated by our “Global Village” of the internet.
However, note that Krugman is lamenting Pre-50s innovation. Cowen is lamenting the innovation from the 50s through the 70s.
Could it be that you can’t imagine living without the standard you grew up with but don’t really have as much appreciation of the really new stuff.
My interest in this question is deepened by the fact that I can’t identify with what Krugman or Cowen are saying at all. At least not when it comes to kitchens. Cars might be another story.
I live in a circa 2007 kitchen. To my eyes my grandmother, who raised her kids in the post-war boom, might as well have been keeping chickens in the back and de-feathering them by hand – a suggestion she might have found only mildly unorthodox.
The quality of kitchen appliances is much better: KitchenAids, Le Creusets, 4-Quart Food Processors, emersion blenders, an array of Santokus and Full-tang Chef’s Knives are the basic accoutrements of the home gourmand rather than cherished heirlooms or technological impossibilities.
The structure kitchen itself is also vastly different. My grandmother’s sink was an insult, the dishwasher a joke. The oven, such as it is, was functional enough – but so would a wood stove oven – and the two cook about as evenly. More importantly, being in the Kitchen was a depressing affair.
Here is a 50s era show kitchen, and given the copper pan I am betting a nicer version.
Here is a modern flat-packed kitchen. That is, there is nothing custom or handmade here. Indeed, Ikea has a show kitchen similar to this.
All of that and here is the kicker – people cook far less. That is, the demand side of cooking innovation is lacking.
Indeed, I find it ironic that one could both lament the housing boom and related equity extraction as well as point to our poor kitchens as indicative of our poor living standards.
As Megan McArdle once said the millennial housing boom was about Americans plastering their kitchens with stainless steel and smart appliances as if we were expecting houseguests from Mars. Though, more truthfully, this remodeling impulse was overwhelmed by the number people who felt they wanted to come downstairs each morning to their own private Starbucks. The bistro-style was a favorite of kitchen remodelers.
But, again I say, the reason there wasn’t even more of this is that fewer people actually cook. That’s demand side.