I wish I had more time – or that my time weren’t so valuable. I would spend more time perusing my 1975 Fall/Winter Sears catalog.
I checked out a few items from that catalog that are reasonably – though hardly fully – comparable to similar items in 2006. Then, I divided the average hourly nominal earning of production workers in 1975 ($4.87 in December of that year) into the price of each of these (more or less) randomly selected items. I did the same for 2006 items found (with exceptions noted below) at Sears.com, dividing these prices by the average hourly nominal earning of production workers in December 2005 ($16.34). My data are found in at this BLS site.
My aim – copying the method used by Michael Cox and Richard Alm in part of their 1999 book Myths of Rich & Poor – is to see how many hours this average American production worker must work to purchase each of these items.
Here’s what I found:
Sears’ lowest-priced 10-inch table saw: 52.35 hours of work required in 1975; 7.34 hours of work required in 2006.
Sears’ lowest-priced gasoline-powered lawn mower: 13.14 hours of work required in 1975 (to buy a lawn-mower that cuts a 20-inch swathe); 8.56 hours of work required in 2006 (to buy a lawn-mower that cuts a 22-inch swathe. Sears no longer sells a power mower that cuts a swathe smaller than 22 inches.)
Sears Best freezer: 79 hours of work required in 1975 (to buy a freezer with 22.3 cubic feet of storage capacity); 39.77 hours of work required in 2006 (to buy a freezer with 24.9 cubic feet of storage capacity; this size freezer is the closest size available today to that of Sears Best in 1975.)
Sears Best side-by-side fridge-freezer: 139.62 hours of work required in 1975 (to buy a fridge with 22.1 cubic feet of storage capacity); 79.56 hours of work required in 2006 (to buy a comparable fridge with 22.0 cubic feet of storage capacity.)
Sears’ lowest-priced answering machine: 20.43 hours of work required in 1975; 1.1 hours of work required in 2006.
A ½-horsepower garbage disposer: 20.52 hours of work required in 1975; 4.59 hours of work required in 2006.
Sears lowest-priced garage-door opener: 20.1 hours of work required in 1975 (to buy a ¼-horsepower opener); 8.57 hours of work required in 2006 (to buy a ½-horsepower opener; Sears no longer sells garage-door openers with less than ½-horsepower.)
Sears highest-priced work boots: 11.49 hours of work required in 1975; 8.26 hours of work required in 2006.
One gallon of Sears Best interior latex paint: 2.4 hours of work required in 1975; 1.84 hours of work required in 2006. (Actually, Sears sells no paint on-line, so the price I got for a premium gallon of interior latex paint is from Restoration Hardware.)
Sears Best automobile tire (with specs 165/13, and a treadlife warranty of 40,000 miles: 8.37 hours of work required in 1975; 2.92 hours of work required in 2006 – although, the price here is of a Bridgestone tire that I found at another on-line merchant. Judging from its website, Sears no longer sells tires with specs 165/13 and a 40,000 mile warranty.
I realize that you can accuse me of bias – perusing the 1975 catalog and choosing those goods whose real prices have fallen most dramatically over the past 30 years. Certainly, a catalog of 1,491 pages has too many goods (and services, such as appliance installation) to count.
I avoided clothing (which is the first half of the catalog) because most of the clothing Sears sold in 1975 was made of polyester, or polyester/cotton blends – stuff that few of us wear these days.
And some other goods are simply incomparable across this time span. Take mattresses: Sears does sell today some mattress and box-spring sets that today are comparable to the very best set that it sold in 1975, but Sears top-of-the-line mattresses today are not comparable to its top-of-the-line mattress in 1975. Likewise with photography equipment and audio-visual equipment: how do you compare a 2006 CD player to a 1975 turntable?
A more fundamental objection to such a practice would go like this: “Sure, prices of things sold in department stores are today much more affordable than they were in 1975, but what about health-care, housing, and education? These things require more hours of work. What does your little catalog exercise really prove about Americans’ overall standard of living?”
It’s a good question – and I believe that I have an answer. But that answer will await a later blog post (for, unlike Sears, I don’t want anyone to say that this post “has everything!”).