Cataloging Our Economic Progress Since 1982

by Don Boudreaux on January 17, 2014

in Growth, Standard of Living

Todd Myers of the Seattle-based Washington Policy Center kindly sent to me three old catalogs, one from Sears and two from Montgomery Ward.  I’ll have some fun in the next few months using these catalogues to compare middle-class American consumption possibilities today with the possibilities back in the allegedly good old days of decades ago.

I looked first at the Sears catalog.  Specifically, it’s Sears’s 1982 Wish Book, Sears’s catalog for the Christmas season.  (Sears’s first Wish Book appeared in 1932, so the 1982 edition celebrated the 50th anniversary of that publication.)

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To me, 1982 seems like yesterday.  (I turned 24 that year.  It was my third year of graduate school, and my first in the program at Auburn University.  Bob Ekelund’s Micro Theory course and Roger Garrison’s Macro Theory course were highlights of my first semester there.  The Auburn co-eds were highlights, too – but that’s a matter not for this blog!)  Yet when I look through this catalog, nostalgia mixes with surprise at just how different – how much poorer – was the world of 32 years ago from the world of today.

What follows are some comparisons of work-time costs of 1982 with 2014.

In 1982 the average hourly wage of production and nonsupervisory employees, in 1982-84 dollars, was $8.19.  (Actually, it was somewhat lower than $8.19.  $8.19 is the figure for January 1982, the month in 1982 for which that figure was highest.  I use this high-end figure to make earnings in 1982 as strong as possible.)  This wage is now (December 2013) $20.35.

Jeans   In 1982 Americans could buy Sears’s lowest-priced all-cotton jeans for $14.99. (See page 240 of the catalog).  Today, a comparable pair of jeans is available from Sears for $13.99.  Thus, in 1982 the typical American worker had to work 1 hour and 50 minutes to buy an  inexpensive pair of jeans; today, a typical American worker, to buy such a pair of jeans, has to work only 41 minutes – less than half the work-time required of his 1982 counterpart.

Man’s Wool Blazer   In 1982 Sears’s lowest-priced all-wool man’s blazer was priced at $79.99.  (See page 199 of the catalog.)  Today, Sears.com’s lowest-priced all-wool blazer sells for $129.99.  So the typical American in 1982 had to work 9 hours and 46 minutes to buy that blazer; today, a typical American worker, to buy such a man’s blazer, has to work only 6 hours and 23 minutes –  35 percent less time than in 1982.

Rechargeable 3-head man’s electric razor   In 1982 Sear’s lowest-priced razor of this sort sold for $39.99.  (See page 147 of the catalog.)  Today, Amazon sells such a razor for $14.95.  So the typical American in 1982 had to work 4 hours and 53 minutes to buy that razor; today, a typical American worker can earn enough money to buy a nearly identical razor by working only 44 minutes – a mere 15 percent of the work-time required in 1982.

Gas Grill   In 1982 Sears’s lowest-priced gas grill was priced at $199.95.  (See page 427 of the catalog.)  Today, Sears.com’s lowest-priced gas grill sells for $149.97.  So the typical American in 1982 had to work 24 hours and 24 minutes to buy that grill; today, a typical American worker can earn enough money to buy a far better gas grill by working only 7 hours and 22 minutes – less than a third of the work-time required in 1982.

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