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But the Gasoline Back then Did Contain Lead

Here’s a letter to Washington, DC – based WTOP radio:

You report that “A new Economist poll finds that a majority of Americans yearn for the bubble gum days of the 1950s” (“Which era do you prefer? Poll finds Americans long for the 1950s“).

It’s hard to believe that these poll results reveal people’s informed preferences.  Rather, these results likely reflect nostalgia mixed with misinformation spread by a barrage of news ‘reports’ on the allegedly stagnant – or even deteriorating – economic fortunes of middle-class Americans.

I challenge you and other Americans to do what I did and lay your hands on a Sears catalog from the 1950s.  My catalog – bought recently on eBay (a company founded in 1995) – is from 1956.  Peruse the catalog.  What do you see?  You see, for example, Sears’s cheapest TV (black’n’white, of course), priced so that a typical full-time manufacturing worker in 1956 had to toil 61 hours to earn enough money to buy that TV.  Today, the typical American worker can buy an infinitely superior TV with only ten hours of work.  And this lower cost in term of work-time is true for nearly everything else that Sears sells: clothing, kitchen appliances, automobile parts, office furniture, sporting goods, children’s toys.  The list is long.*

An even longer list can be made of what you don’t see in that catalog or in any other record of the economy’s offerings to Americans in the 1950s: no digital cameras; no lightweight waterproof sportswear; no microwave ovens; no CDs, DVDs, or MP3 players; no personal computers; no cellphones; no GPS devices; no indexed mutual funds; no soft contact lenses; no statins; no measles or meningitis vaccines; no portable defibrillators; no oral contraception; no MRI machines.  Commercial jet travel did arrive in 1958 – but at fares well beyond the reach of most Americans.

While today is far from perfect, I’ll bet my defined-contribution pension that any American – even any white, male, Christian, heterosexual American – transported from today into the 1950s would struggle to get back to the future with a fervor that would embarrass the 1985 movie character Marty McFly.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

* See the links here (starting from the bottom).


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