Recalling the Disco Decade

by Don Boudreaux on February 11, 2013

in Myths and Fallacies, Standard of Living

Comes to me an e-mail just now from a Mr. Isaac Taylor, which I reproduce here in part (link added):

I saw you on Santeli’s show. That reminded me that I saw you in person a long time ago in Portland talking about the same subject. I disagreed with you then and I still do. You think because you remember living in the 1970′s you are an expert on life back then. Well I’m a few years older than you and also remember the 1970′s….  In my memory those days were a hell of a lot better for common people than today.

It’s true that I (1) remember the 1970s well (as I was born in 1958), and (2) do not hesitate to use my memories of life in that decade as an input into my critical assessment of the ubiquitous assertion that living standards for middle-class Americans peaked sometime in the mid- or late-70s and have stagnated ever since.  I am well aware that personal recollections are an insufficient basis, standing alone, to make scientific assessments of the notion of middle-class stagnation.  But I reject the assertion that such memories are irrelevant.

My memories are information.  Like all information used to assess a claim scientifically, this particular species of information has limitations and it must be used with care and in combination with other pieces of relevant information.  My memory, being housed in a human brain, is imperfect.  (I don’t recall, for example, speaking about this topic in either Portland, Oregon or Portland, Maine.)  Mine is also the memory of a person whose own life’s circumstances have changed dramatically over the past 40 years.  My family was working class (with household income back then likely in the second-to-last quintile, and in the one or two years during that decade when my father was laid-off from his shipyard job for more than a few days, perhaps even in the bottom quintile), while my real income today, although not princely by modern American standards, is much higher than was ever earned by my parents.  So I must beware, as I am, not to confuse improvements in my own living standards with those of working- and middle-class Americans generally.

Readers of this blog know that I often look at objective, quantitative data when discussing the middle-class-stagnation thesis.  Russ does the same.  I don’t claim to have looked at all such available data, but I’ve looked at a great deal of them, and have compiled some of them myself.  If my memories of the 1970s were more in accord with the thesis of middle-class stagnation, I likely would not have bothered to look at as much of these data as I have.

What follows here is drawn from memory.  Perhaps my memory is grossly distorted, but my report of it here is an undistorted reflection of that memory.  Here’s some of what I recall, of relevance to this discussion, from middle-class America of the 1970s; I offer the 25 items on this list in no particular order, except as they come to me.

(1) Automobiles broke down much more frequently than they break down today, hence, leaving motorists stranded, sometimes for hours, more often than is the case today.

(2) Automobiles rusted faster and more thoroughly than they do today.

(3) Someone in his or her early 70s was widely regarded as being quite old.

(4) “Old” people back then were much more likely to wear dentures than are “old” people today.

(5) Frozen foods in supermarkets were gawdawful by the standards of today – in terms both of quality and of selection.

(6) Televisions broke down frequently.  (I remember many visits to our home from vacuum-tube-toting t.v. repairmen.)

(7) Denizens of moderately sized cities such as New Orleans got a total of 4 t.v. channels (increasing to 5 sometime later in that decade).

(8) Television reception was pathetic by the standards of today – even by the standards of today’s non-hi-def televisions.

(9) The selection of ethnic foods was quite limited.  Before I reached the age of 20, I’m pretty certain that I never saw a Thai restaurant, an Indian restaurant, a Vietnamese restaurant, an Ethiopian restaurant, or a Korean restaurant.  I remember one (!) Chinese restaurant (The House of Lee) in the New Orleans of my youth; I’m sure there were others, but I don’t recall seeing them, and I most certainly never ate at a Chinese restaurant until I was in graduate school in New York.  Mexican restaurants were a novelty, and sushi a freak dish.  (I was 27 years old when I took my first bite of sushi.  That was in Manhattan.)

(10) Beer was bad.  (I began drinking beer regularly in 1974.)  Budweiser, Schlitz, Miller, and a few other bland national brands were available, along with bland local brands such as Falstaff, Jax, and Dixie.  Coors was exotic when it first arrived in New Orleans, sometime in the 1970s.  There were no light beers, and not many foreign ones.  (The first foreign beer that I recall seeing is St. Pauli’s Girl.)

(11) Because I worked in a supermarket for part of my high-school and college days, I recall the wine section being, by today’s standards, minuscule.

(12) Many fewer houses and apartments back then had garbage disposals, automatic dishwashers, and central air-conditioning.

(13) It was not uncommon, even in south Louisiana, to ride in automobiles that had no air-conditioning.

(14) Automobile sound systems were poor by today’s standards.  (Anyone remember 8-track cassettes?)  The compact-disc hadn’t yet even been invented.

(15) Airplane travel was uncommon for ordinary Americans.

(16) When a family in the neighborhood got a new car or pick-up truck, it was big neighborhood news.  Neighbors would flock to the driveway of the lucky new-car owner to gape at the new four-wheeled acquisition.

(17) Far fewer households than today had riding lawn-mowers; most mowers – although gasoline powered – were manual push.

(18) Long-distance domestic telephone calls were a luxury.  Telephone calls to or from outside of the country were a hyper-luxury.

(19) In those pre-Barnes & Noble and amazon.com days, ready access to a wide selection of good books was denied to people outside of New York City and, perhaps, some other very large cities.

(20) The idea of getting a piece of clothing or book or hand tool or whatever shipped from the retailer to your house overnight was simply unthinkable.

(21) Coffee sucked.  (It was almost all made from robusta beans.)  And the selection of teas was pretty much limited to whatever Lipton sold.

(22) A diagnosis of cancer was far more frightening than it is today.  Any person so diagnosed was regarded as being as good as dead.

(23) Going to college was much more unusual than it is today.

(24) Contact lenses were much more expensive than they are today.  I purchased insurance (!) on my first pair of soft contact lenses (which I bought in 1980) in order to protect myself against the financial consequences of losing or damaging the one pair that I bought.  (Such lenses were bought one pair at a time.)

(25) The idea of widespread use of personal computers seemed like science fiction.  I very clearly recall overhearing, in the Spring of 1980, one of my economics professors, Wayne Shell (who also taught computer science), telling someone that he believed that, within a few years, many American households will have a computer.  I thought at the time that Dr. Shell’s prediction was fancifully far-fetched.

I could go on, listing at least another 50 such recollections.  But instead I’ll end this post here.

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