This is a picture of my brother and me in Florida circa 1969. Florida was a big deal. My dad bought a tiny Opel Kadet station wagon for the trip and added air conditioning to it because we were making the trip in August.
All the way down, my parents monitored every cent they spent along the way. Everything was planned to the penny. They kept track of their gasoline costs, their miles per gallon. Groceries were visited daily; sandwiches were made at the motel along with snacks and milk, juice and cokes (the Hoosier way of saying “pop” or “soda”) were kept in the coolers. A few times we got to stay at the Howard Johnson and visit its restaurant where I fell in love with fried clams and peppermint stick ice cream. All of these expenditures went into a ledger, and there was always great consternation and gnashing of teeth when we came close to going over it.
We traveled down one coast and back up the other. We saw the Spanish Fort in St. Augustine and the Saturn V on the pad at Cape Kennedy. We tiptoed through Alligator Ally, almost coming to a crisis when the Opel overheated and stopped running in the middle of the swamp. We made our way to Cyprus Springs where they had filmed “The Creature from the Black Lagoon, ” and a statue of it could be seen from a glass bottom boat. We traveled through Sarasota and ended up in St. Petersburg in a cheap motel. Twice a day we would cross the intercoastal roadway to spend as much time as we could on the pristine, white beaches. And then, after eleven days of travel from the top of the country to the bottom, it was time to head back up.
Florida had been a big deal. My folks had spent two years planning and saving for it. We wouldn’t go back again until I was fifteen. Vacations in the meantime were day trips to Cincinnati to watch the Cubs and Reds or to Cedar Point off Lake Erie. Nothing ever again like that Florida trip, not for a long time.
My family was considered middle class.
Let me show you something else. These are Halloween costumes from sometime in the mid-sixties. My mom made these from scratch. She may have used a cutout pattern that she bought from the fabric store but Mom also bought the fabric and everything else she needed and used her sewing machine to make us these costumes for a single use.
This wasn’t the only time she did it either, and she wasn’t the only mom in the neighborhood who made their kids Halloween costumes… or school clothes for that matter.
Here we are as Batman and Robin a few years later. We were considered middle class.
I keep emphasizing this point because I think that, especially today, millions are looking back on this time as the Golden Age of America when everyone was happy, had a job and a home and money coming out their ears.
Baby boomers who lived through the time look back with nostalgia; and those too young to remember hear the stories of an America stronger, richer, greater, more respected, simpler, happier. I will give these good people one concession- it was a lot simpler.
I just bought a 1969 Buick Electra. It’s a beautiful behemoth, a land yacht with fine, sleek lines. This model was loaded, 430 cubic inch V8, black with a brougham top and a powder blue interior. It is the pinnacle of late ’60’s engineering with air conditioning, AM/FM radio, power windows, seats, and locks and whitewall tires. Here’s what it doesn’t have that almost every recently manufactured car on the road today possesses: disc brakes with ABS, cruise control, a digital sound system, GPS, wifi, airbags, shoulder strap seat belts, emissions controls, all-season radial tires, rear camera, reinforced cabin to withstand accidents and protect the occupants, stability and traction controls, a computer that works in concert with all of the vehicles’s components to provide the safest, most efficient, most comfortable travel experience possible.
Drop a modern, modest sedan into 1969, and it looks like an alien spaceship to the engineers who designed that Electra. An argument could be made that the average household in today bears a much greater burden trying to buy a Focus today than the family who bought the Electra in ’69. That premise would be wrong.
The average cost of a 2017 Buick Regal sedan is just under $30,000. The Electra in ’69 was just under $5,000. The median household income today is $53,000; in ’69 it was $7,300. So the Electra would have cost a family 68% of their annual income while the Regal today is closer to 56%.
Here’s the kicker that blows the apart the “we were better off then” mantra: median household income, adjusted for inflation, in 1969 was $47,900. Today, the median household income is $53,000. The bottom line is that the average family in America today is richer today than it was in 1969 by ten percent.
A car is the second largest purchase a household makes. It’s a chunk of change for the average person, a significant financial commitment, and a pretty good indicator of wealth and productivity.
What can we extrapolate from these two facts? Well, for one, productivity is significantly better today than it was in 1969. We can get a consumer item that is technologically superior in every way… at a lower cost. Second, we have more wealth, as both a nation and as individuals, than we did forty-eight years ago.
Nobody but Nobody… on either side of the political or cultural fence ever brings up this simple fact. Most of them probably don’t even know, although all I did was look up the U. S. Census Bureau statistics. It skewers the talking points. It pulls back the veil on our collective, grand illusion that we are worse off today. More of a grand delusion, really.