Good Old Days, My Foot!
By Patrick F. Cannon
When you reach a certain age (i.e., when you get as old as me), you are apt to receive e-mails from contemporary friends and relatives forwarding content extolling the “good old days.” Now, the “good old days” are defined as that halcyon era of our youth when perfection had been reached. Ever since, we all know, the world has gone to hell in a hand basket (which must confuse the devil no end. Does he recycle them?).
Leaving aside cultural considerations for the moment, for which opinions are subjective anyway, let’s just look at a few areas that might be of interest. While most people would argue the opposite, crime rates are generally lower than they were in 1956, the year I graduated from high school. The murder rate, which did peak in the 1980s, has returned roughly to where it was then. This is not to say that murder is not a problem in some cities, but in the majority of the country it remains a rare occurrence.
While the clamor sometimes suggests the opposite, race relations and opportunities for minorities continue to improve. In 1956, we had no civil rights or voting acts. When I served in the Army at posts in the South in the early 60s, I could not go out to dinner in town with my African-American friends. When I returned to Chicago in 1963, there were still restaurants, clubs and other establishments that would not serve African-Americans. Although they didn’t experience this kind of discrimination, women too have increasingly assumed their rightful places at the top tables.
I won’t belabor a point I’ve made before, but while the US poverty rate has been fairly consistent at about 15 percent over time, programs like Medicaid, food assistance and the earned-income tax credit have made being poor far more bearable than formerly. And though it seems President Trump has missed the point with his unwise raising of tariffs on washing machines and solar panels, freer trade generally has significantly reduced abject poverty around the world.
In general, what we buy now is both better and cheaper than it was in 1956. In that year, it would have cost you $495 to get a 21 inch RCA table model color television. In today’s money, that would be $4,500. For $495 now, you can get a 50 inch UHD 4K HDR LED Smart TV (I’ll leave it up to you to sort out what that all means). It will come on immediately, and you never have to fiddle with a bunch of knobs to get a decent picture. And if you can’t afford even $495, you can get a high definition television for less than $200, the equivalent of $22 in 1956.
You could get a very fine refrigerator then for about $400, which equates to about $3,700 now. You can certainly spend $3,700 for a fridge today, but for about half that you can get one that’s much larger than the 1956 model, will have a large freezer and make and deliver both ice cubes and filtered water at the touch of a button. Oh, and it will use much less electricity to do it all, as will the clothes washer and dryer that doesn’t cost you $4,500 now, but about $1,500.
Now, your new car will cost you more than it would have in 1956, even adjusted for inflation. But it’s not the same car, is it? For one thing, it’s safer in an accident. The death rate per 100,000 population was 22.48 then; it’s 11.59 now. On average, adjusted for inflation, gas costs about the same, but the average car now gets 24.8 miles per gallon instead of 14.5.
I had a driver’s license in 1956, but didn’t buy my first car until 1963.You could then expect to get a tune up every 10,000 miles or so, and get no more than 30,000 miles on a set of tires (and be lucky not to have the occasional flat tire in the meantime). If you could afford it, you traded in your car after three or four years because you knew rust would soon begin to appear. And when you had your oil checked at the gas station, you were never surprised when you needed to add a quart. The typical new car warranty was 12 months or 12,000 miles; for my current car it is 48 months and 48,000 miles and it’s by no means the longest available.
In purely material terms then, things are much better than in the “good old days.” But everything isn’t hunky dory. In my view – again it’s subjective – the vulgarization of the culture has been consistent and continuous. Popular music is a good example, but it’s not the only one. I keep reading that we’re in some Golden Age of television. Golden Age of zombies? Golden Age of gratuitous profanity and nudity? I recently saw a documentary on the current “fine” art market that was depressing for two reasons: the treating of art as mainly a commodity; and the obvious pandering of many artists anxious to feed the system.
Civility is no longer the norm, particularly in our political life. And our President isn’t the only leader who seems to ignore the lessons of history and proven science. But I console myself with the realization that I can get in my technologically-advanced car, turn on the navigation system and set it to “get away from it all.”
Copyright 2018, Patrick F. Cannon