Cataloging Our Progress from 1975: Using Sears.com’s Selection on New Year’s Day 2013

by Don Boudreaux on January 1, 2013

in Growth, Standard of Living

About two hours ago (approximately noontime, EST, today) I went to Sears.com and took notice of the first five groups of items promoted on that webpage.  How does the work-time cost of these items today compare to the work-time cost of similar items in 1975?

The five groups of items featured most prominently at Sears.com during my visit were:

(1) exercise equipment (In particular, the piece of equipment pictured is a treadmill.)

(2) adult athletic shoes

(3) adult jeans

(4) televisions

(5) kitchen appliances (In particular, three appliances are pictured: washer/dryer combo; refrigerator/freezer; and kitchen range/oven.)

How long did a typical non-superivisory worker in America in 1975 have to work to buy one each of the lowest-priced version of each of these items that Sears sold (in its Fall/Winter 1975 catalog) in 1975?  How long does a similar worker today have to work to buy similar items?  (Note that that worker in 1975 earned, in 1975 dollars, $4.87 per hour.  A similar worker today earns, in 2012 dollars, $19.84 per hour.)

- Manual treadmill: 1975 price was $89.99 (or 18.5 hours of work in 1975); 2013 price is $127.99 (or 6.5 hours of work today)

- adult athletic shoes: 1975 price was $9.95 (or 2.0 hours); 2013 price is $19.99 (or 1.0 hour)

adult jeans:* 1975 price was $6.99 (or 1.4 hours); 2013 price is $19.99 (or 1.0 hour)

television (19″ color): 1975 price was $294.95 (or 60.6 hours); 2013 price is $129.99 (or 6.6 hours)

30″ kitchen all-electric range/oven: 1975 price was $159.95 (or 32.8 hours); 2013 price is $369.99 (or 18.6 hours)

frost-free refrigerator/freezer:** 1975 price was $319.95 [for 14.1 cubic feet] (or 65.7 hours); 2013 price is $404.99 [for 14.8 cubic feet] (or 20.4 hours)

- “standard size” all-electric washer/dryer combo: 1975 price was $329.90 (or 67.7 hours); 2013 price is $593.98 (or 29.9 hours)

All told, these items – the lowest-priced ones available in their class at Sears – cost in 1975 a total of $1,211.68 (in 1975 dollars).  The typical non-supervisory worker in America in 1975 (earning then $4.87 per hour) had to work a total of 248.8 hours (or, just over a month and a half) to buy the above bundle.

Today, these items (or, rather, their 2013, generally much-better equivalents) – the lowest-priced ones available in their class at Sears.com on January 1, 2013 – cost today a total of $1,666.92 (in 2013 dollars).  The typical non-supervisory worker in America today (earning, as of November 2012, $19.84 per hour) has to work a total of 84.0 hours (or just over two weeks) to buy the above bundle.

In short, to buy the lowest-priced bundle of these items today at Sears.com – nearly all of which items are of higher quality (and, in the case of the television, incomparably higher quality) than their 1975 counterparts – cost the ordinary American worker today a mere one-third of the work time that was required by his or her counterpart in 1975.

Note that my selection of the items above was dictated exclusively by the items that Sears.com happened to feature most prominently on its site during mid-day, Eastern time, on January 1, 2013.

….

* Sears.com’s lowest-priced men’s jeans are $12.99; so I used women’s jeans – the lowest-priced pair of which sell now for $19.99 – in order to make the “stagnationists’” case as strong as possible.

** Sears in 1975 sold, and Sears.com today sells, compact refrigerators.  I chose the smallest non-compact sizes.

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