Better Off than 40 Years Ago?
Veronique de Rugy asks, “Are You Better off Than You Were 40 Years Ago?” Well, she notes, our standard of living is wildly higher:
Wealth expands people’s choices, and Americans are fabulously more prosperous than they were in 1968. According to the Census Bureau, income per capita adjusted for inflation has doubled in the four decades since 1968, from $13,374 to $26,804. Non-wage compensation, in the form of employee benefits, has also increased greatly during that time.
There’s a better measure of living standards than raw wealth: consumption. By this measure, the United States is also doing very well. Luxury goods that few could afford in 1968 are now standard in most households, including poor ones. Writing in the July/August 2008 American, Michael Cox and Richard Alm, the senior vice president and chief economist and the senior economics writer at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, reported that in 2005 a full 85 percent of households that are classified as poor by the Census Bureau have air conditioning (compared to only 36 percent in 1971); 97 percent have a color television (compared to 40 percent in 1971); 40 percent have an automatic dishwasher (as opposed to 20 percent in 1971); and almost 100 percent own a refrigerator (a 25 percent increase over 1970).
Look no further than your morning routine. The federal government has put its imprimatur on the mattress on your bed (through the Consumer Product Safety Commission). The Federal Communications Commission regulates the transmission and content of your favorite morning show. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), as well as the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, regulate the coffee you drink and the sugar you add to it. The USDA regulates the milk you pour in the coffee, as well as cheese, butter, and other dairy products you might eat for breakfast. And the FDA has its say about the shampoo, soap, and toothpaste you use with water that’s regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Then there is the explosion in security measures. Airline travel regulations, increased surveillance, and growing databases are a few examples of government’s expansion in our lives. Add in state and local regulations—on smoking, eating transfats, or labeling menus—and you can get the feeling that we’ve lost our freedom.
Only the most die-hard libertarians, though, consider themselves oppressed because of shampoo regulations. The Homeland Security nightmare is quite annoying, though, especially considering that it brings zero increase in safety.
Still, some perspective is needed:
Looking at the whole social picture, it’s hard to tell blacks, Jews, gays, and women that they are less free today than they were in 1968. As a woman, I can enter and leave the work world freely, whether I have kids or not. I can get an abortion, file for divorce, enter into a lesbian relationship, marry a black guy, or have several lovers, all without worrying about legal consequences (or being drummed out of polite society). While some restrictions persist, the breakdown of social barriers, many of them formerly enforced by government edict, has done much to increase my freedom and that of other once-restricted groups.
So is everyone freer today than in 1968 except for white men? Not exactly. White males—and men in general—are freer in an important way too. Just as it is today, in 1968 the U.S. was engaged in a war. But back then, the country had a partially drafted army, not the all-volunteer force that fights today. Draftees accounted for 30.4 percent (17,725) of combat deaths in Vietnam. The number of draftee deaths in Iraq: 0.
Not discussed are measures of freedom aside from governmental coercion. People seem afraid to let their kids play outside or walk to school, for example, neither of which was generally true a generation ago. We’ve got less free time than our 1968 predecessors had and our free time is less free than it was then. The right of married women to work outside the home became the near necessity of their doing so.
Still, I wouldn’t prefer to live in 1968. Would you?
Photo by Flickr user doegox under Creative Commons license.