I always cringe when economists compare our problems to completely different times in our history.
The most egregious one is saying we need to rebuild our middle class back to where it was in the 1950s and 1960s.
That's like hoping today's Cleveland Browns football team will be the second coming of the coach, Paul Brown, dynasty of that era. I doubt any team again will play in seven straight NFL title games.
If America were to have the kind of middle class it once had, the following would have to happen:
l A world war that wipes out the manufacturing capacity of every rival nation, while leaving the United States not only unscathed but buffed from years of a productivity level never seen before;
l Workers who were emerging from the most savage economic period they'd ever known, the Great Depression, and were willing to take any job available to support themselves and family;
l An energy and motivation that come not only from saving the world from one monstrous dictatorship, Nazism, but from the challenge of beating a new one, Communism.
The underlying theme is when you marry raging demand (rebuilding a devastated world) with burning desire to succeed (remembering what it's like to go to bed hungry), you'll get a middle class that can be compared to the Greatest Generation.
Outside of China, India and a few other emerging countries, it's hard to see the level of demand necessary to rebuild the middle class to anything approaching the post-war era.
The U.S. and Europe are drowning in a sea of debt that must be worked off, forgiven or simply destroyed before any meaningful rebound can occur. Pumping up our already unsustainable level of debt with more stimulus will delay the day of reckoning.
It's also hard to find the same intense desire to work that our parents and grandparents had. The desperation is gone, which in a way is a good thing; today's unemployed typically aren't starving, as they might have in the Depression.
To be sure, most of us still get out of bed every day, even if we stayed up late watching the big game, or have the sniffles or just plain don't feel like leaving a warm bed. But the memory of hunger pangs or wearing shoes with holes in them instills a special desire to make sure that never happens again.
No one wants to revisit the bleak days of the 1930s and 1940s, but unless we return to our roots of hard work and willingness to do what's right for future generations, we may get there anyway.