1965, as I had occasion to note in my book American Tragedy, was a pivotal year in American life. In retrospect it marked both the peak and the end of the postwar consensus, as well as the end of the last inflation-free economic expansion for a long time. The top tax rates were just starting to come down, although they were still, I believe, about twice as high as they are now. As Paul Krugman likes to point out, this was one of the peak moments for economic justice in the
Having turned 18 that year myself and begun my own adult life as a consumer, I have many specific memories of what things cost in those days, but I have often wondered what costs less and what costs more, relative to the total price level. According to the official consumer price index, it costs $645 today to buy what $100 bought in those days (although I, and I suspect you too, will be wondering exactly what the CPI means by the time you get to the end of this post.) Thus, if the CPI is meaningful, any good that costs 6.45 times as much today as it did 41 years ago is really equally costly. Using that rule of thumb, it turns out that making out the family budget is indeed a very, very different matter today than it was in 1965.
Has technology saved money? Yes—in a few critical areas, led by electronics. The 21-inch color tv that cost $269 in 1965 costs only $140 today—less than 10% of the 1965 price, adjusting for inflation. (That’s a simple analog tv; most people are now spending much more, but getting much more, too.) A 12 cubic foot refrigerator costs less than 1/3 of what it cost then, partly, I would guess, because Americans are much less likely to make it. But one of the most amazing bargains—and the most inexplicable to me—is air travel. A round trip ticket from
Poverty has become somewhat deceptive, I suspect, because, as I found, basic necessities cost about half what they did then, relative to other goods. A dozen eggs, a gallon of milk, or a pound of ground chuck all cost about half what they did then when inflation is taken into account. Ice cream is also cheaper, although both sugar and coffee are about 20% more expensive in terms of other goods. (That does not, however, explain how lifesavers have gone from a nickel in 1965 to at least $.75 today, and over a dollar at some airports—a relative increase of about 2.5 times.) The sugar increase has also kept the cost of coca-cola at about the same level, although beer is about 33% cheaper than it was. Clothing is also much cheaper, once again because Americans no longer make it or the cloth it comes from. A Brooks Brothers lightweight suit that retailed for $115.00 in 1965 is only $420.00 now—just over half in real terms. (This is an area where research is not easy to do.) Eating out is harder to measure. The double-hamburger special for which I used to pay $1.00 at Charlie’s kitchen now costs $4.95, a 20% drop in real terms, but the Durgin Park Prime Rib has gone from $4.00 to $33.95, a 30% increase. (Of course, it’s no longer anywhere near as popular an item.) Fast food, of course, was only in its infancy then.
Median family income, according to official statistics, has hardly risen at all. The $6,882 figure for 1965 works out to $44,389 today; the actual figure for 2005 was $46,326. I shall have to leave tax calculations for those two families to another time—the data is out there, but it would be a lot of work. The minimum wage was, I am pretty sure, $1.25 in 1965, which would mean $8.06 today, but it is only $5.50. Despite this, a minimum wage earner can eat and dress as well as a 1965 variety because those things cost less, and he could even take an occasional airplane trip. But today’s low earners face other problems.
Getting around is not substantially more expensive today. Gasoline is up now—although it wasn’t long ago that it was as cheap as ever—but it is only up about 50%. We are paying farmers less, oil companies more. No calculation is more difficult than automobiles, but a one-year old Chevy Impala, I discovered, costs almost exactly the same in constant dollars today ($13,500) as it did then ($1,900)—and it certainly provides longer life and more value. Public transportation costs more—twice as much in
Many of you have undoubtedly already guessed the punch line. The most expensive big-ticket items are a college education and housing, especially in major urban areas. A year at Harvard in 1965 cost $2,700; today it costs almost $44,000, which works out to a 2.5 times increase. No one knows exactly where all that money is going, but a significant chunk actually lines the pockets of the endowment managers. (The endowment has increased about fourfold after adjusting for inflation, but tuition, remarkably, continues to increase as well.) As for housing. . .a ranch house in
What does this mean? Most of the money spent on housing is retiring debt, and is therefore going into the pockets of the financial industry, instead of the paychecks of farmers, industrial workers, and flight attendants as it might have 40 years ago. We are paying the most for some of the least labor-intensive work, which must be contributing a great deal to the rise in income inequality. Only the banks, one would think, are actually benefiting from this huge increase in housing costs. Meanwhile, the cost of college is forcing more and more young people to incur large debts (something almost unheard of in the 1960s) and to go into the financial industry themselves to pay them off.
Going still further back, I have just read a little campaign rhetoric from the three-way election of 1912. Two of the candidates, Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt, talked ceaselessly about the overweening influence of the rich, the problem of Trusts, and the need to give workers and farmers their fair share. Such ideas went into eclipse during the 1920s but the depression brought them back with a vengeance, and from the 1930s through the 1970s or so the federal government did a great deal to make life better for ordinary farmers and industrial workers. During the last 25 years their jobs have been exported at an increasing rate, replaced by lower-paying jobs in retail and service industries. The Chinese and South Americans make cheap clothing and grow cheap food for us all, but more Americans are on a treadmill, and education has never, literally never, been half so expensive as it is today. The soldiers of the Second World War bought a relatively just society with their sacrifices, and it is not clear how or if we will rebuild it now.