Make America great again.
That’s a phrase overloaded with implications. As we have noted, it says clearly that we once were great but are no longer. So, for most of us, our lives were better at some point in the past than the present.
We once were great. We were better. When was that? How were we better off? It’s difficult to compare living conditions then and now. I presume they mean we used to have more money to buy more stuff, and now we have less money to buy less stuff.
That’s just the material comparison. The geopolitical comparison, as in how powerful and secure we were, is another thing. Comparing health and longevity then and now is something else again.
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That sent my memory swirling. When were we great? How about 1963? I was 10 years old. I lived a comfortable suburban life in a fairly typical three-bedroom rambler. Dad had a good job, drove the Studebaker while mom had the Ford station wagon. Fifth grade was good. I had suffered a setback in the summer, undergoing minor surgery that required a six-inch incision in my abdomen and two weeks in the hospital. The same procedure today is an outpatient affair that takes a couple of hours.
The economy was going great. The average annual income was $5,807, which is equal to about $45,600 today. The median price of a new house was $17,200, or $135,000 today. Average income now is essentially unchanged. The median house now costs $306,000. Whether we were great or not, we spent less on our houses. No air conditioning or granite countertops, I suspect.
Geopolitically, we were trained to assume the Soviet Union was going to blow us all to smithereens at any moment. President Kennedy was strong. All my friends had fathers who worked in the defense industry, or so it seemed. We could see the missile tests from the Air Force base up north. Every boy who didn’t go to college was drafted. Vietnam was a minor news item and bloodshed was a couple of years off. Our parents talked about “The War” as if it happened last month, and well remembered a time when boys went off to the service and did not return. The races were mostly kept apart, Martin Luther King was getting ready to march on Washington, the Ku Klux Klan was on the cover of Life, we heard about an English band called the Beatles, laughed at a little foreign car called a Volkswagen, and my big sister listened to her Peter, Paul and Mary record album over and over and over again, because it was the only album she owned.
Of course we assume the middle class was better off then than now, because everyone says so. In some ways, maybe. Some of the economists will tell you that the reason that a lower percentage of Americans rate “middle class” today, is that a lot of people have moved up. Some people have it worse. Some cities are down. But generally, on average, we are better off.
Fast forward to 1975, the year I got my first newspaper job. I took in $160 a week, which adjusted is about $37,000 a year today. Not so bad. I drove a 1962 Ford Falcon, with red vinyl buckets, a roaring 85 horsepower 144 cubic-inch straight six under the hood, AM radio, no heater, zero to 60 in less time than a Coke commercial, and 19 miles per gallon. Cherry, it was. My one bedroom basement apartment was $125 a month and my used 19-inch black-and-white TV only cost me a week’s wages. Sweet.
The 1975 median household income was $10,579, or $47,227 in today’s dollars, says the Census Bureau. It is $53,657 as of 2014. What would make us great again? Something in me says we’ve been great all along.