Busting middle-class myths
By Donald J. Boudreaux
Published: Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, 9:08 p.m.
The new year is a natural time to mimic the Roman god after whom this long, cold month is named. Like Janus, we can look not only forward but also back. While looking back is easier than looking forward — unlike tomorrow, yesterday has already happened — it's not as easy as it might seem. The past is clouded with myths that distort our backward glances.
One of these myths is that middle-class Americans are today in a bad way economically, compared with middle-class Americans' wonderful well-being in halcyon days gone by. Specifically, legions of “progressive” pundits, politicians and professors point both to the 1950s and to the 1970s as decades in which ordinary Americans thrived in ways that ordinary Americans today can only dream of.
The economics (if not the social attitudes) of the 1950s are beloved by today's “progressives” because that was a decade of unusually high marginal tax rates, record-high labor-union membership and very few foreign competitors for American firms. “Progressives” also recall the 1970s fondly because that was the decade just before the tax-cutting, deregulating Reaganites inflicted their Neanderthal ideas on the nation.
Given “progressives'” uneasy grasp of economics, it's no surprise they're so easily persuaded that middle-class Americans today are being shortchanged. After all, tax rates are now generally lower (the top personal income-tax rate when Reagan took office was 69 percent!), private-sector labor unions are dying, more foreign firms compete against American firms and much of the deregulation of 30 years ago remains in place.
What's not open to question is the fate of America's middle class today. We are better supplied today by the private market than we have been at any time in history — period. Whatever the source of this prosperity, those who question that it's real ignore powerful evidence.
As in my last column, let's compare today to decades past. This time let's look not at clothing but at basic home appliances.
In particular, how many hours did a typical, non-supervisory American have to work in the past to furnish his home with Sears' lowest-priced versions of each of these items: automatic clothes washer and dryer, full-size refrigerator-freezer, 30-inch electric range-oven combo, television, electric vacuum cleaner, automatic toaster, 10-cup electric coffee maker and 20-gallon electric water heater?
An ordinary American worker in 1956 had to toil for 456 hours — nearly three months — to buy all of these commonplace household items from Sears.
By 1975, an ordinary worker had to spend much less time — only 252 hours, just over a month and a half — than did his 1956 counterpart to buy the same items from Sears.
But what about today? Is it true that economic gains for America's middle class have stopped since Gerald Ford occupied the Oval Office?
Here's evidence that those gains have not stopped: An ordinary American worker today, to buy the same bundle of items from Sears.com, needs to work a mere 105 hours — just about two and a half weeks. That's nearly a month less work time than was required in 1975, nearly nine weeks less than was required in 1956.
Happy New Year!
Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Starkey: Steelers know when to say goodbye
- Analysis: Kesler remains on Penguins’ radar as Shero looks bring back ‘Big 3’ formula
- Pirates’ big risk with pitch-heavy draft focus might soon pay off
- With so many needs, Steelers can ill afford to miss in draft
- Ex-Colts executive Polian: Approach free agency with caution
- Penguins GM Shero’s deadline deals: Addition by subtraction
- IUP students have raucous early St. Patrick’s Day celebration
- Pitt rallies in final seconds of regulation en route to OT win at Clemson
- Franklin Regional wrestler backs up his words with 1st state title
- Penguins minor league report: Defenseman Dumoulin optimistic for home stretch
- Greensburg bishop’s time at helm draws to a close