Comparing living standards over time

Scott Sumner writes:

Here’s one thought experiment. Get a department store catalog from today, and compare it to a catalog from 1964. (I recently saw Don Boudreaux do something similar at a conference.) Almost any millennial would rather shop out of the modern catalog, even with the same nominal amount of money to spend. Of course that’s just goods; there is also services, which have risen much faster in price. OK, so ask a millennial whether they’d rather live today on $100,000/year, or back in 1964 with the same nominal income. Recall the rotary phones and bulky cameras. The cars that rusted out frequently. Cars that you couldn’t count on to start on a cold morning. I recall getting cavities filled in 1964, without Novocaine. Not fun. No internet. Crappy TVs, where you have to constantly move the rabbit ears on top to get a decent picture. Lame black and white sitcoms, with 3 channels to choose from. Shorter life expectancy, even for the affluent. No Thai restaurants, sushi places or Starbucks. It’s steak and potatoes. Now against all that is the fact that someone making $100,000/year in 1964 was pretty rich, so your social standing was much higher than that income today. So it’s a close call, maybe living standards have risen for people making $100,000/year, maybe not. Zero inflation in the past 50 years may not be right, but it’s a reasonable estimate for a millennial, grounding in utility theory. In which period does $100,000 buy more happiness? We don’t know.

I say I prefer $100k today to $100k in 1964, that being a nominal rather than a real comparison.  If you are not convinced, try comparing $1 million or $1 billion (nominal) today to 1964.  For some income level, we have seen net deflation.

But here’s the catch: would you rather have net nominal 20k today or in 1964?  I would opt for 1964, where you would be quite prosperous and could track the career of Miles Davis and hear the Horowitz comeback concert at Carnegie Hall.  (To push along the scale a bit, $5 nominal in 1964 is clearly worth much more than $5 today nominal.  Back then you might eat the world’s best piece of fish for that much.)

So for people in the 20k a year income range, there has been net inflation.

Think about it: significant net deflation for the millionaires, but significant net inflation for those earning 20k a year.  In real terms income inequality has gone up much more than most of our numbers indicate.


All those Thai restaurants and IPhones must really be increasing our life satisfaction. We need to let in more immigrants so they make more ethnic restaurants and we will become even happier! Lets ask psychologists if life satisfaction has improved significantly since the 60s.

Because of course the only true, worthwhile Eudaimonia comes from winning, or at least not too badly loosing a rat race. Public policy must be made in the interest of the guy who will feel inferior if his neighbour has a better telephone than him.

If true, the best use of our welfare dollars is to build giant public TV screens with live feeds to Third World countries.

Hats off to Mr Cowen; that's perhaps the only interesting thing I have ever seen written about inequality..

Mind you, bugger Miles; nowadays one can listen to all the recorded Bix and Louis, free. You couldn't in '64.

Brenton - u hit the nail on the head; "utility" is a psychological phenomenon; what causes utility varies in time and space,but it is largely *relative* to what we expect

If I hadn't seen such riches, I could live with being poor


Oh, sit down!

But here’s the catch: would you rather have net nominal 20k today or in 1964? I would opt for 1964...So for people in the 20k a year income range, there has been net inflation

Cell phones, social media, video games, and internet, air conditioning, microwaves, plus government assistance means you can just about eat for free at that income level today. You can also listen to Miles Davis on your IPod today, and enjoy numerous forms of music that did not exist in 1964. You give up some social status.

Lived on less than $20K income for most of the 1990s as a college student. Aside from square footage, felt like my living standards were higher in many than my middle-class childhood, and it's improved significantly since then.

Incomes are piling up at the bottom of the distribution because people are responding rationally to incentives. Leisure is getting more valuable and more subsidized, work is getting less valuable and more taxed.

I think you're underestimating just what $20k in 1964 could buy. Why would you need air conditioning when you can just buy a summer home in the north? Would you prefer a microwave over full-time domestic help? In 1960 a $20k income would have put you well within the top 5% (just $14k!) which would readily afford domestic servants.

So here is a thought about inequality. Today in America, can the top 5% afford domestic servants? My guess is no, which indicates that the gap between the top 5% and the top 0.1% has gone up much faster than the gap between the top 5% and whoever counts as the domestic-servant class these days.

"Today in America, can the top 5% afford domestic servants?" Ask also whether they would want them. Domestic chores are far easier now than they were then, so there's much less need for servants.

I am not sure if they can afford servants, but they can afford to go to a restaurant (or order in) on a daily basis, send their clothes to the cleaners, hire a gardener, and get most of the services that were normally done by a servant by companies and such. Maybe they will have to make their beds, but that is it.

Maids (part time, split among multiple families) and nannies of various kinds are quite common in my middle-class professional circle.

Of course they can - a maid / part time nanny is well within reach of the upper 5%.
A live in servant? not for the lower of the top 5. Of course, the region matters - being in the national top 5 doesn't mean as much in Manhattan - but they have also chosen to spend money on a Manhattan apartment/condo vs. a larger house with more hired help.

Well, a summer home is nice, but air conditioning is more convenient, particularly if you're working (no telecommuting in 1964!). Full-time domestic help is probably slightly superior to modern appliances.

Tax effects seem to matter a lot -- the income tax rate at $20K in 1964 was 50% (!) vs about negative 5% with EITC today, though I'm not sure how the former relates to effective rates. I suppose if we look at consumption vs income we get significantly different answers.

Is "no telecommuting" supposed to be a negative? I guess you're one of those guys who actually likes seeing the blinking red of a blackberry at 10 pm. I do know they exist, much as I know that furries exist. Neither make much sense to me.

It's not like lawyers, engineers, or schoolteachers in 1964 had never heard of bringing work home with them.

I just meant that presumably heading north for the summer would be problematic for most occupations that paid $20,000 in 1964.

But yes, we do enjoy working from home a day or two a week.

"Is “no telecommuting” supposed to be a negative?"

In the past 5-10 years, when a critical issue comes up at a facility, I can generally log onto my laptop, VPN to the facility and have the issue fixed in a couple of hours.

I got a call around 10 years ago on Easter at a facility within driving distance. I got in my car, took 3 hours to drive there, went through the process of getting admitted, found the right servers to work on, fixed the issue and made it back that evening Yeah, no overnight stay in a hotel without a change of clothes!

A similar event happened 2 years ago. I fixed the issue within 45 minutes from my dining room table. We even made it to church on time.

Telecomuting has been a true quality of life boost for me. Not to mention it saves the customers (who would have paid the hourly rate for 6 hours of driving, plus expenses) roughly 80% of the cost of such support.

My parents bought a very nice, brand new, house for $22,000 in 1964. Any suggestion that anyone has experienced net deflation since then is moronic.

Your 1964 house would almost certainly be illegal under nearly all building codes today.

Aha --- an argument that regulation has improved things significantly. Never expected to see this in the MR comments.

Seems to me an argument that regulation has made housing less affordable. That's an improvement in the same way that mandating everyone fly first class would be an improvement.

Also, you can buy a house cheaper than that today in Detroit.

Perhaps the very same house, for $220.

Exact same square footage? What kind of windows, insulation, flooring, countertops, fixtures, etc, etc?

A median brand-new house today contains immensely more wealth than the median house in 1964. Even the variety & quality of wall paint is so much better now than back then.

What, you don't long for the lead?

According to wikipedia 5 percenters earn about 100k. I don't think full-time domestic help is reasonable for a single person but maybe it might be worthwhile for a larger family. Either way though they can definitely afford domestic help at part time which in my opinion makes more sense anyway.

Social status would be the biggest difference.

A guy with $20k in 1964 probably isn't marrying the homecoming queen but he's probably locking down one of her close friends.

A guy making $20k today is banging something hideous.

So theres a bit of a difference in the guy/girl opinion on this question.

I think you're overestimating what $20K in 1964 could buy. My dad made $10K and we were always broke. No summer homes…no winter homes…we lived in an asphalt shingle slab house with no attic, no basement, no garage, and no air conditioning. The $20K crowd lived on the nice side of the tracks and sent their kids to good schools where the top quarter went to college. That's not a glamorous lifestyle, just a moderately comfortable one, like making $150K now.

You might be underestimating what $20k in 1964 could buy. A HH income of $20k in 1964 puts you in the top 5% of earners (according to Census data). It's like making $200k now. A HH income of $20k today puts you on gov't assistance and your kids attend the worse schools which will set them up nicely for the hourly work they will do later in life.

Don't sell status short. That is the real driver of much of this "inequality" talk. It's the left's way of trying to reach the working class men it's lost so totally by offering them the olive branch of victimhood. The right grants working men status (and precious little else). We shall see if it works.

I don't understand the argument. Liberals offer what status to working class men? The status of being a victim? Who craves that?

In any case, I think the offer of victimhood is pretty strong on the other side of the aisle well -- they just take different forms.

"The status of being a victim? Who craves that?"
Everyone, to some extent or another.

Any basis for this claim?

Given the choice between "it's your fault" and "it's not your fault," I claim via introspection that most people take the latter.

So do you disagree or are you just going to snarkily say "link?" It seems obvious to me that people prefer to position themselves as being the oppressed, not the oppressor. You can see examples below, on this very thread.

So you have moved rather quickly from "everyone" to "people" to "I can find you one or two examples." You're bullshitting.

There's a long history of philosophical systems, from the Stoics through Nietzsche, that reject victimhood.

What's this thing called AA?

And what's Title IX?

Nah, I'm going to stick with "everyone," although if "everyone except Nietsche" makes you feel better, go for it, and feel like you've won a victory.

Apparently some women make fake rape threats to do this.

University of Wyoming had a feminist do this.

The mid-90's were 10 years ago now, so it would be more like living on $15k back then. Still, $20k today is still plenty to live like a poor student on, I imagine, in the way you describe. Just not enough money to save for retirement, own a house, pay for your children's needs and education, survive a medical catastrophe like cancer (even with most insurances). Even if you can buy an old, small car in great shape that you know how to maintain yourself you'll still be out half a year's pay. College student level poor strategies towards these things are very short term - don't own a house, don't have children, declare bankruptcy if you get cancer, don't own a car or buy a junker. There are lots of things you can get away with when you are poor and young that you wouldn't want to still be doing if you were 50. And it's certainly a way of life that's totally incomparable to what it's like to really have enough.

I agree with Tyler that this is the catch. $100k is a suspiciously convenient number because it's enough for a careful planner now to do pretty much whatever they want to. Have children, attract a mate at just about any level of social status, live in any major city, travel abroad, never worry about the cost of food if they don't feel like it, etc. Unless you have rich person wants, you don't really *need* more than $100k even if it is nice to have. The story at $20k is of course extremely different.

I don't think anyone is arguing that living standards aren't better at $100K in 2014 than at $20K in 2014. But nearly all those things are actually paid for by people living at $20K income -- they get SS, housing assistance, aid for dependents, public schooling, Medicaid, welfare, etc. And of course people generally don't buy a car every year.

The definition of "having enough" has certainly changed since 1964!

In most states, a single person does not get the assistance you mention at $20,000/year of income.

I lived on less than $20,000 per year in Massachusetts (liberal hellhole) for grad school and got no assistance whatsoever. found 215 different benefits for people at 20K income, before I got bored and stopped filling out the questionnaire.

You really think someone making $20,000 receives substantial benefits? The further you get into that questionnaire the more quickly the list of "benefits you may be eligible for" shrinks. I filled out the full survey, assuming single person making $20,000 living in DC (very generous compared to most states) and without any special qualifying conditions like disability or military service. It spit out about 50 things for me. The list is almost entirely of ridiculous things like "Farm Storage Facility Loans" "Weatherization Assistance Program for Low-Income Persons" and assistance to help me fill out my taxes.

In most states, this person would not qualify for Medicaid, welfare payments or Social Security benefits until retirement. Public schools, sure, and aid for dependents possibly (e.g. your kid would get Medicaid and food stamps in most states). That income $20,000 would get some housing assistance in richer areas (I looked at Montgomery County MD). Of course that one is subject to availability.

I just took the survey. The government "benefits" a person like me, but with $20k income, include:

-A Fulbright scholarship (sure, no problem)
-Emergency Farm loans (for my farm, of course)
-COBRA (not cheap)
-Life Science and Agriscience Awards (just need to become an agriscientist)
-U.S. Participation at Venice and Cairo Biennale [Art] Exhibitions (not an artist)
-Special Milk Program (not a child)
-Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (not a federal employee)

The website said I "may" qualify for 88. I looked at them all, and I qualify for precisely zero of them.

Start with SNAP. The cutoff is $23K, and much higher with dependents.

Jan, I just think it's funny you're essentially complaining there are only 50 programs you personally might qualify for (others would qualify for some of the more specialized programs). Yes, many of them are very specific, but a few general ones (including those I mentioned above) that apply to virtually anyone with children living on $20K income. I could also add EITC, of course.

This really happened. Look at the 1964 spending vs the 2014 spending. Those are real dollars, not nominal.

I don't know where you are getting this from (maybe you live in an different universe?), but for a single person (no dependents) and no unusual medical conditions the cut-off for food stamps is NOT 23K, but much lower. It varies from state to state of course, but generally is in the same range as the poverty line.

As for the EITC, there is a small benefit for single, childless people, but it's basically chump change. Once again, without dependents or unusual medical circumstances a SINGLE, CHILDLESS person making 20K a year will not be receiving much in the way of public assistance, if anything.

$23K is from Type in Massachusetts, the link goes to a page saying the SNAP limit for one person, no kids, is $23K.

In fact, total transfers are considerably more than that -- check out the second quintile, income is $30K and transfers are $14.8K. Heck. even the bottom quintile manages to consume $30K -- most of it in transfers.

Granted, many of those people are retired, but the point stands.

Honestly, it's a little hard to believe anyone is surprised by this, considering the record numbers of people on food stamps, not to mention the Medicaid expansions in PPACA.

Right, but the original question was $20K in 1964 versus $20K today, and you're ignoring most of Nathan's points. $20K in 1964 would get you a nice house, an opulent retirement, and the ability to raise kids and send them to college.

You're also systematically overestimating the availability of public assistance.

I think you are wrong.

1) EITC definitely is in play.
2) EBT in California for 1 person household is max. gross income monthly of $1,946 - $20k is below this easily.
3) People are mentioning kids. If I have kids, I would definitely have massive more benefits, too. Child tax credits as well. School lunches, etc.,
4) We are a little too high for Medicaid, but the ACA offer us " If your income is below two and a half times (250%) the FPL you qualify for a policy with reduced deductibles, copayments and lower maximum out of pocket costs."
5) Many utilities offer reduced rates for the poor. In my city, 20k would qualify for CARE from PG&E and low income assistance from the municipal electric company. (Those are both based on a cut-off of $31,460.)
6) In California, we can get an Obamaphone (I forget the real name, sorry, not trying to be rude.) Income cut-off for that is: 1-2 member $25,500

I'm going to stop here because that's enough to disprove the claim that public assistance is not available. It is very much available, even for single males making $20,000. There are probably a host of other programs you can qualify for as well.

Did I say it is "not available"? You can do better than that.

You can't retire on consumption, so we must be talking about income. So right off the bat, you lose half that $20K in 1964 to taxes, while you get EITC, SNAP and other welfare in 2014, especially if you have kids. So now we're comparing $10K to maybe $25K.

You can save some of that $10K true, but your kids can go to community colleges in 2014, and if you're retiring 50 years later Viagra will be not only available but off patent :)'

Again, try That gigantic welfare state spending is going somewhere, we have one of the highest absolute per capita government spending rates in the world.

The mid-90s were 20 years ago. I'll just let that sink in a moment.

"enjoy numerous forms of music that did not exist in 1964. You give up some social status."
So you lose social status but gain the ability to listen to bounce music. Who wouldn't make that trade!

Well the "bounce music" enthusiast cohort aside, you trade social status for a plethora of goods that don't exist in 1964, possibly including medical treatments.

Have a cold in '64? Why don't you try this menthol cigarette?
Also, you have local planning boards that don't think twice about building schools on chemical waste pits (like the Niagara Love Canal). And, enjoy your asbestos...

Most people at 20K do not receive any kind of government assistance. That's above the poverty line, other than for people with children.

Massachusetts was $23K, without kids.

Also, a big part of Obamacare was about extending Medicaid to people above the poverty line, and giving them subsidies.

FWIW, BLS says the average family receiving assistance spent about $36K.

Part of the reason may be the cash economy. I know people who have very tragic circumstances involving their children that required more than a million dollars in Medicaid spending -- they could not accept W-2 work because it would push them out of Medicaid.

Sorry that was two-parent families, one-parent families spent $24K. Still, significantly more than $20K.

An interesting fact is that the single-parent families spent an average of only $487 on healthcare, apparently because 70% of them were on Medicaid.

The ACA Medicaid cutoff for single, childless people is well below 20K. I know because I was on Medicaid for a couple months here in Maryland when I lost my job. (The cutoff was roughly 16K.)

Bear in mind also that nearly all poverty benefits have asset tests too (ACA Medicaid is one of the very few exceptions). Even an old car on which nothing is owed can disqualify a person (yes, happened to someone I know with exactly $0.00 in income - disqualified for everything except Medicaid because his eleven year old Hyundai is paid off)

Yes, that appears to be correct -- 16,100 for childless adults. OTOH, I think the original question was whether someone could raise children at $20K. It looks like medical coverage goes as high as 300% of FPL.

But remember, those people DO qualify for insurance subsidies under ACA -- that goes up to 400% of PFPL, which is around $46K..

What's really expensive today is buying your children a better future for their children. In contrast, a $100,000 per year in 1964 would allow you to purchase every upper middle class amenity for your children.

According to Charles Murray's "Coming Apart," the only neighborhood in the country in 1960 that averaged over $100,000 in family income was Beverly Hills. If you made $100,000 per year back then, you and your family could likely afford to live in Chevy Chase, Pacific Heights, Brookline, the Upper East Side, Lake Forest, Shaker Heights, and so forth. You could afford to send your children to the best schools in town, belong to a nice country club, be a patron of the arts, and so forth.

I agree. Both economists and laymen tend to overvalue amennities like the internet, Cable TV, Spotify, even Starbucks. As long as our life spans on this planet our finite, providing us with ever expanding entertainment and dining options probably diminishes our quality of life by constantly reminding us of our limitations and how much we are missing. In 1964 I could have put a Miles Davis record on the stereo, and kicked back in my recliner with a copy of the Paris Review, a Herald Tribune,a ham and cheese sandwich and a glass of scotch. Am I really that much better off today drinking a Peats coffee and posting silly comments on web sites? Probably not.

Boudreaux's article is laughable on this point. He makes a huge deal over wearing 100% cotton shirts rather than polyester or cotton/poly blends as you would've in the 70s. Yes, cotton shirts are nicer and between the two I'd choose cotton. No, this does not meaningfully affect my life in any way - if all my shirts were to magically to switch back to poly I'd probably notice it for about 2 weeks before I became completely accustomed to it. If that's the great advance of the past 40 years then TGS is far worse than I could've possibly imagined.

Or travel. With $100,000/year in 1964 you could spend months in luxurious watering holes around the world. Even if you worked a full-time US job for a $100K salary, as Steve Sailer points out (thank you!) you would still live in the best neighborhood, send your kids to private school, drive your Corvette up to your beach cottage on weekends while paid help cleaned your house...

A problem with this thought experiment is that its not specific about the job.

We can claim that a guy making 100k in 1964 can travel a lot, but guys making that much are probably working 90 hours per week back then.

While the 100k guy in 2014 could be a state employee clocking off at 5:00 without a care in the world.

Conversely, 20k in 1964 is also a serious job with many hours to put in, whereas 20k in 2014 might be part-time.

I agree. Both economists and laymen tend to overvalue amennities like the internet, Cable TV, Spotify, even Starbucks. As long as our life spans on this planet remain finite, then providing us with ever expanding entertainment and dining options probably diminishes our quality of life by constantly reminding us of our limitations and how much we are missing. In 1964 I could have put a Miles Davis record on the stereo, and kicked back in my recliner with a copy of the Paris Review, a Herald Tribune,a ham and cheese sandwich and a glass of scotch. Am I really that much better off today drinking a Peats coffee and posting silly comments on web sites? Probably not.

It took you two comments to make your point. In 1964 it would have taken only one letter to the editor

Not necessarily. In 1964 he might have written his letter to the editor and after a week it wasn't published, so he would have thought "hmmm, maybe it got lost in the mail" and would write another one.

In 1964 he'd have mentioned it over beers at the KC meeting or the union hall with guys he's known for years. In 2014 he writes it to a bunch of complete strangers who are represented by black letters on a white screen. Just imagine - in 1964 I wouldn't have even known what some guy halfway across the country thought about race realism and human biodiversity. Now I can read his comments on a daily basis. Oh what progress!

Those Union Hall buddies surely would have had many interesting things to say about your letter and provided much stimulating intellectual discourse.

As opposed to the average internet commentor, who is a regular Francis Bacon. (present company etc etc)

Yet we spend so much time here...

The double post is because I was trying to edit the typos in the original post. In 1964 I would have used some white-out and fixed it in 5 seconds on my typewriter.

Or left that to your secretary.

The common thought experiment is to estimate the consumer surplus of the internet: how much money would someone have to pay you to never use the internet again? For many people, it's a lot of money. For some people it's infinite.

Of course, part of the value of the internet is that everyone else is on it, so it's not quite a fair comparison to a time when there was no internet.

Right, it depends a lot on how it's worded. Are you the only person on the planet not using the internet? In that case, yeah I'd pay a bunch of money, just because without it I'd be behind the 8 ball in so many ways - professionally socially etc. Is it that the internet disappeared like we never even knew it existed? In that case I'd pay a lot less.

Anyway I'm not sure how much that proves. Go to your average wino and ask how much he'd have to get to give up liquor forever. It'd be a lot. Does that mean that alcohol is significantly improving his quality of life?

That, of course, depends on what you mean by "quality of life". Not an easy thing to define.

A good thought experiment. $20,000 was indeed a lot of money in 1964, but from what my oncologist says there's a 50% chance I'd be dead if I took that deal. (The mumps I actually had a couple years after 1964 were no picnic either.)

But your oncologist is possibly inflating their importance: I've heard that cancer survivor-ship rates overall are only up 25% since the 1970s. Glad to hear (if that's the implication) that your cancer scare was benign or otherwise not a problem however.

As for Sumner's post, it's been said before, but the "less than 20k" was the new part. A scholar at the Hoover Institute made a point on the EconTalk? website the other day that a guaranteed minimum income for every unemployed American, based on the US governments terrible fiscal balance of today, would only work out to several thousand dollars per American, and that would not be enough to live on, but he forgot that you can live "OK" on that money in the Philippines. You'd be in a barangay (neighborhood) of largely poor people, but they won't bother you mostly, with an occasional pickpocket or petty theft.

A lot of people who would have gotten cancer in their 60's were dead of heart attacks in their 50's back in the 1960s. If you had cancer, there's no question it would be better to have it today than in 1960.

Health care is a huge miss in this question. Living for a month or two in the 1960's on a nominal income of $20,000/yr might be a good deal but I'm not getting in that time machine if it doesn't go in both directions!

That's a great point that really illustrates the subjective nature of inflation -- if you or a loved one have one of those medical issues for which treatments are much better today, the qualitative improvements to you are enormous, even though they might have little effect on others.

You touch upon a point I try tomake about 'healthcare inflation'. If you want the health care of 1960, you can have it in many ways. Just refuse to fill any script you get from your doctor unless a wikipedia search tells you it was available in 1960. Likewise do the same for diagnostic tests, operations and so on. Granted you can't quite do that with can't find a doctor who will just use '1960 knowledge'. But even if you did that imperfect experiment and looked at prices and costs I suspect a lot of healthcare inflation would disappear.

As for this entire post, you can indeed have 1960 if you want it. Who is stopping you from pretending it is 1960 and tracking Miles Davis's career? Who is stopping you from using Google to read the daily newspaper from 12/11/1960? In fact today it is probably easier to build a '1960 immersion' project with the internet than it would have been in 1980! Some stuff you can't have, of course. The sights, smells, tastes of the era are gone. So is a lot of the stuff spoken and written (if you ever read a newspaper from a few decades ago day by day you realize just how much stuff happens and then is collectively forgotten). But in many ways today we have the option of either 2014 or 1960 while the time machine only provides the option of 1960.

"That’s a great point that really illustrates the subjective nature of inflation — if you or a loved one have one of those medical issues for which treatments are much better today, the qualitative improvements to you are enormous, even though they might have little effect on others."

How much is the greater childhood survival rate worth to a parent today?

Medical care for both my father and me has advanced greatly since 1964. However, its also very expensive. Without health insurance we would not have access to this care, so it wouldn't really matter that it exists.

My father with a strong union job and a good health plan survived with inferior technology but high access. People working his job today have no health benefits and 40% lower wages. If he had to try and make ti work today he would probably die because he couldn't access the technology even though it exists, nor could he have even afforded the older treatments available in 1964.

OTOH quite a few treatments that didn't exist in 1964 are off-patent and cheap now. And a lot of jobs from 1964 don't exist at all today. Also, insurance is generally not a requirement to access medical care.

Per Cato, average life expectancy (in developed countries) has gone up from 70 to 78 in that time period.

Frostback statisticians roughly agree.

I must admit that's quite a bit more than I had imagined. I would've guessed that we were looking at an extra 2-3 years.

"Also, insurance is generally not a requirement to access medical care."

Are you insane? Without medical insurance I'd be dead many times over.

While some things are off-patent many of the things my family requires aren't, or are naturally expensive (not a simple pill), or are a medical service (which never goes off patent).

My father couldn't for instance get access to treatments he was using back then. In addition he probably couldn't get a job. Though illegal the company tried to fire him to save on his health insurance cost, and it was only union intervention that kept them from breaking the law. Today there is no union and they would get away with it.

Remember that the poor die sooner, partly because of not being able to afford good regular medical care. The difference in life expectancy between top and bottom deciles is on the order of a decade.

Y'all are welcome to find better data, but I think the leap up the income distribution if you moved from $20K in 2014 to $20K in 1964 would pretty much cover, and more, the drop in overall life expectancy from going back 50 years in medical capacity.

Of course, smoking % has dropped precipitously in that time. I imagine that could affect the life expectancy by quite a bit

"Are you insane? Without medical insurance I’d be dead many times over. "

I've never actually seen an insurance product treat an illness. In any case, the concept of direct payment for services exists.

In 1980, life expectancy at birth was 2.8 years longer for the highest socioeconomic group defined in a research study than the lowest, according to a report by the Congressional Budget Office. By 2000, the gap had grown to 4.5 years.

1964 66.9 73.7

2012 Life expectancy for females is 81.2 years; for males, it's 76.4 years. That difference of 4.8 years is the same as in 2011.

I've watched medical insurance pay the bill for medical care I never could have afforded without it. Can't afford it, can't access it.

"“Are you insane? Without medical insurance I’d be dead many times over. ”
I’ve never actually seen an insurance product treat an illness. In any case, the concept of direct payment for services exists."

I'm more amazed that he finds value in not dying more than once. It seems like the value of medical insurance would decline drastically after the first death. ;)

An interesting fact is that the single-parent families spent an average of only $487 on healthcare, apparently because 70% of them were on Medicaid.

In addition to paying the bill in installments, other options include private charities and pro bono healthcare.

"... dead of heart attacks in their 50′s ..."

How much have fatal heart attacks decreased since 1960?

What percentage of the change in heart attack caused fatalities can be attributed to medical advances versus other factors such as nutritional habits, exercise frequency and smoking frequency?

We know a lot more about tobacco than we did in 1964, which has changed smoking patterns.

Clarification: My oncologist was speaking specifically about Herceptin (and about my specific case, not averages), so it would apply to 1994. My odds presumably would have been worse in 1964. My cancer was far from benign. It was a particularly aggressive and invasive form.

Certainly knowing one's life depends (depended) on recent medical advances would discourage one from migrating to the past to die there for want of effective treatment. (I have a medical condition much less serious than cancer which I still wouldn't want to move to the past with, so I'm not minimizing the issue.)

But if one were choosing between $100K/year in 1964 versus today behind some kind of Rawlsianoid veil of ignorance as to one's future medical problems, the choice might not be so clear, especially for younger people.

It is hard to separate out the contributions of medical advances and other factors to improved average life expectancies. Many fewer Americans work dangerous industrial jobs now than fifty years ago, fewer smoke, more survive automobile accidents, etc. With income of $100,000/year in 1964 one would not have to work a dangerous job, and no one has to smoke (indeed, many people quit after the 1964 Surgeon General's Report).

Life expectancies have lengthened more for rich people than poor people over recent decades, suggesting that for maximum lifespan medicine matters more (since, as previously noted, rich people have long avoided many occupational hazards). Of course, many of those gains accrued to people who were already living in 1964.

Anyway, as Steve Sailer pointed out, anticipated longevity isn't the only thing people care about. With $100,000 annually in 1964 one could keep a large family in luxury and send all of one's children to top colleges. Ivy League tuition was around $1,700/year in 1964 compared to ~$44,000 today. In 1964 one could support two children at HYP simultaneously (tuition, room, board, books, busfare) for about $6,000/year, or 6% of a $100K income. Nowadays those two sprigs would cost perhaps $130,000 yearly. And one's children, applying to Ivy League schools between 1964 and, say, 1984, would be much more likely to get in-- college admissions are much more competitive now than several decades back.

If you offered to send me and my family to 1964 with a $100,000 annual income I would be tempted even knowing that it might cost me a few years of life. My kids will be applying to college very soon. Too bad they can't apply to the colleges of 1966 (yes, even considering "1968" and Kent State and so-forth. Remember that nearly all young people then did not get shot down by the Ohio National Guard).

My Princeton education would have been unavailable at any price in 1964. It's an interesting thought experiment, as I said, but much easier, as noted above, if you're female.

In 1997 I was the first person in the world with my precise type of NHL cancer to get treated with the future blockbuster drug Rituxan, which is likely why I'm here today.

Same here, if I was as healthy as a horse I might take that deal, my great grandparents made it to a hundred and were pretty spry. I also would have enjoyed living and travelling a world where we still had a few more years of european hegemony and Arab a go go, Lebanon and Iran would have a decade before disaster, Egypt was well on its way to ruin but really not that bad yet. And on $20K I could even live in a house in on the Pacific with waves breaking under my window and no coastal comission to hassle me. Heck on $100K/yr in 1964 you could live like a lord of creation in Cali, that lifestyle was amazingly sweet before it all went to heck. Even with the disaster on the late 60s you would have almost twenty years before the El Nino of 1983-4 and near 30 before the peace dividend hit.

The millenials moan these days about white privilege, they have no idea how awesome it was back then.

As to entertainment, there are more good books written before 1964 than I will ever read, etc... Hearing Charlie Mingus live for another decade, two more Beatles tours...

But I have had a kidney transplant and if I were my age in 1964 I would be mouldering in my grave. But if I had my Dad's constitution, I think I might.

Of course with $100K in nominal 1964 dollars per annum you could be buying Old Masters, and English aristocrats were still emptying those country houses to pay for heating.

My type one diabetic (diagnosed at 10 months) daughter's life would have been VASTLY worse at any income level in 1950 and she would be dead in 1910.

Scott notes various awesome things an individual can buy today, then balances that against:

"Now against all that is the fact that someone making $100,000/year in 1964 was pretty rich, so your social standing was much higher than that income today."

But here's where the individualist bias of economists blinds them to basic human motivations. The central point of achieving a high social standing is not to achieve a high social standing for yourself, but for your children so that they can marry better and provide you with better grandchildren. That's the Darwinian purpose behind social climbing.

Average age of marriage for college educated Americans is 28. It's highly unlikely your kid's going to meet their future spouse in whatever fancy neighborhood you live in or prep school you send them to. College is more likely, but still a statistical outside chance. Most likely your kid's going to meet their mate sometime a few years out of school when they're living away from home and on their own. In this scenario parental social standing has negligible effect. 2014 just isn't a Bronte novel.

How many 20-something singles living in Brooklyn, much less in Manhattan, support themselves 100% without any help from mom and dad?

Plenty. If you don't just include white people in bburg. I

Speaking of Brooklyn and living standards over time. How much would people pay to have my father's childhood living in a safe, urban Brooklyn, among co-ethnics and extended family with a sense of community, neighbors who actually knew each other, plenty of parks, going to Dodgers games for a quarter, where it was safe for unsupervised children to walk to the park to play stickball, walking distance to Manhttan? My Dad was poor (his father died when he was young) and could afford to live in a place like this. Today the combination of safe and urban alone make this impossible (and neighbors don't even know each other in places like this).

You could probably replicate a very similar experience today in Salt Lake City.

Queens, baby! It's the new Brooklyn.

Right. For example, my late in-laws lived in the Austin neighborhood on the far west side of Chicago, just east of Oak Park. In 1966 Austin was an urbanist paradise where their four young children could walk safely to school unaccompanied. By 1970 they had to flee to the exurbs after their small kids had been mugged three times on the streets. They lost half their net worth from 1967-1970 because, being good liberals, they had tried to make integration work.

"Today the combination of safe and urban alone make this impossible,,,"

Don't get out much, huh?

It is impossible that *poor* person could afford urban and safe is what I meant.

Aha. Yeah, you are right about that, but I'm not sure that safety is the major constraint. The wealthy are bidding up the price of desirable urban neighborhoods, but I think that desirable is more about location, housing stock, transportation options, and amenities, than about safety. Outside of a few exceptions, most big cities are safer than they have been in 50 years or so.

The have may or may not have fewer murders, but the places poor people can afford to live are certainly not safer.

That's a fair point, but there's plenty of high quality, educated, intelligent young single people outside New York. You can live in Chicago, Austin, Seattle or Atlanta, support yourself and still have many neighborhoods that are dense with upscale urban professionals. You might even live in *gasp* Dallas, Phoenix, Tampa, or Boise and definitely be able to support yourself. One might be shocked to learn that there's still plenty of white collar, educated young people in these cities. It's not like you're going to marry a day laborer just because you live in the Sun Belt.

You may not have Williamsburg style neighborhoods, where you can bump into potential mates like a romantic comedy. But statistically many more people meet their future spouses on dating sites. Even in Manhattan most dating is done on Tinder/J-Date/ If you're in a million plus metro, you still have a dizzying array of dating choices.

This reminds me of something Tom Wolfe wrote in the 1970s. After he published the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in the late 1960s he did a lecture tour of Italy to talk about how in Northern California young people were moving out of their parents house and forming communes and taking lots of drugs. And what really fascinated Italian youth back then was not the communes or the drugs but the first part: young people were moving out of their parents houses. How could they afford that? Wolfe said that in Italy it was not uncommon for 30 year old radicals to spend all day on the barricades throwing paving stones at the pigs, then come home to mama for dinner and watch his 36-year-old older brother morosely munching the gnocchi. Italy has been crowded and expensive for a couple of thousand years.

David Denby said something similar in his New Yorker review of the Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis about a homeless folk singer in early 60s Greenwich Village. Actually, rents were so cheap back then that even folksingers made enough money to afford a dumpy apartment within a few subway stops of Greenwich Village.

...and provide you with better grandchildren

In that case you are much much better off in 2014 than 1964. We know much more about genetics and have much better tools for liberal eugenics. Same for education and other abilities to get things done.

Of course, you are wrong that people care about status for the sake of their grandchildren.

I'm still fairly young myself, but having talked to a few people about this, it seems that legacy and long-term family standing become more and more important as people age, sometimes to the point that it is one of the only things people care about later in life.

That may be true, but you would have to be an idiot to think that the concerns of the elderly are the only things that matter for human happiness.

Next, crazy Darwinists will be telling us that interest in the opposite sex is nature's way of getting us to make babies.

Steve Sailor, you seem to have a very crude layman view of evolutionary psychology.

You clearly do not understand the difference between a fitness maximizer and an adaptation executor. That makes you, pun intended, unfit for a well-adapted discussion on the matter. :)

You're proposing that interest in the opposite sex is an evolutionary relic?

The central point of achieving a high social standing is not to achieve a high social standing for yourself, but for your children so that they can marry better and provide you with better grandchildren. That’s the Darwinian purpose behind social climbing.[CITATION NEEDED]

Right. Social striving is probably based in the same impulse as all striving, to attract mates. Just because someone is already married doesn't make those urges go away.

And why do humans want to attract mates?

You could do the same thing with GDP PPP adjustments. Based on purchasing power adjustments, $1 in India goes four times farther than the US. But how many people would rather make $100k in India than the US?

That's a much closer call than a trip to1964, and I expect all else being equal Indians usually choose India. (An example of all-else-not-equal would be if moving to US head office was just one of many steps up the corporate pyramid).

A rich Indian can still have nice modern cars, phones, toilets etc. She probably lives somewhere where the water and electricity supply is OK, and can afford private-sector replacements otherwise. She also can enjoy the higher intellectual culture that the globe has today compared to the past. The 747 and the interweb give her more ways to do the last than even the richest in 1964.

The Indian can have personal servants *and* a microwave.

The BLS estimate is that one 1964 dollar is worth $7.66 today:

I think frankly Scott and Tyler are merely comfortable and fearful of the unknown. If you explained to millennials they could live in 1964 on an annual income equivalent to $766,000, I doubt that most would prefer $100,000 today. And if you let them try both for a week each, the vast majority would go back to 64, even a lot of the blacks and gays. It's good to be king.

If you're a woman, 1964 probably isn't quite as good a deal.

Or black. Or gay. Or a programmer.

I have it from numerous first person accounts that being gay in '64 was awesome. You'd think from today's accounts that homosexuality was invented in '69 at Stonewall. But back then there was a different notion of privacy, nominally straight men were much more "experimental" in their attitude, and HIV was not an issue. I know many older gay men that would go back in a heartbeat.

Wasn't homosexuality still officially a mental illness as late as 1973 in the DSM?

In any case, you certainly limited your career opportunities by being openly gay in 1964, though maybe that was offset by greater privacy. It's an interesting point.

I know some women (probably much less than a majority) who would too.

I assume you are talking about being gay and closeted. The latter was probably easier to pull off because even when it was basically an open secret, the fiction of "confirmed bachelors" and "maiden ladies" was carefully maintained.

Someone played the [citation needed] game above, so I will too.

There is a real life way to play out this thought experiment: Move to India.

Yes, it's not perfect because of globalization and there is internet and you can have a smart phone. But the nominal cost of living is a fraction of the equivalent in the US. The quality of goods and, especially, services is much much lower. The quality of infrastructure is vastly lower, perhaps even lower than in 1964 USA, so that will compensate for some of the aspects that are more modern. Social mores and women's rights and draconian laws around alcohol and drugs are more similar to 1964 USA.

Amenities aside, I would be much more at home with 1964 Americans than 2014 Indians, so that muddles the economic prosperity question. In 1964 I would find my parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts; even if we ignore that they are individuals that I love, they are people that I am familiar with surrounded by others similar to them. In India I know nobody.

I lived in India for a while. For the most part you can find high-quality imported goods, although they will be more expensive than domestically-produced ones. The draconian laws around alcohol and drugs aren't enforced in the southern parts of the country(which was where I lived), and in many of the northern parts as well. If you're a rich foreigner the worst that could happen to you is being made to pay a bribe.(And since it's India, remember, the stuff is much cheaper. Other vices such as prostitution are cheap and tolerated as well)

The worst part of living there would be the people, it's not a good place to raise your children. I only moved there after the last one went off to college. It's also a bad place, of course, to find a husband or wife if you're a young White person. But that's just the little things, marriage, children, that economists commonly ignore.

Plus almost no Jews there! FTW!

Glad you fixed the spelling, the Grand Wizard will be pleased.

The amount of thoughtless progressive pap this thread brought out is not at all surprising.

This is so obviously, ridiculously wrong. Estimated PPP differences between countries at the same point in time are a completely different thing from changes in currency value over time. The market values living in India very low, which is why it's cheap to live there. What you can get for cheaper in India is food and other people's labor. Most other things are not cheaper for comparable quality and many elite things are more expensive.

It's true that CPI series don't measure the value of social changes such as civil rights. But $100,000 in 1964 was more than enough to isolate oneself from discrimination and prejudice. Even the official estimate that it's equivalent to $766,000 today underestimates how high of a status $100,000 a year was in 1964, because the quality of high-status goods and services have improved since then (the CPI doesn't pay much attention to elite goods, but the same thing has happened with orginary goods, eg TVs and middle-class cars - this is the "hedonics" factor that goldbugs are always on about). $100,000 a year in 1964 was buy a Rolls Royce for your daughter on a whim rich.

Most important question: do I have recall or not?

Because if I do, I would go back in 1964 and invent/open all the internet and sushi places possible.

A 1964 internet place would be...pretty empty.

I recall novocaine being in use in dentistry in 1964.

"Recall the rotary phones..."
which worked, were easy to use, and lasted forever (my mother still uses hers after 60 years)
"...and bulky cameras"
which took better pictures.
In 1964 people actually worked 9-5, could depend on stable employment, and didn't face bankruptcy if their kids were going to college. (And on top of that, you didn't need to go to college to get a good job.) I'd prefer to live on the equivalent of 50 thousand back then than 100 thousand now, and I don't think it's even close.

If you had $100,000 a year in 1964 you had plenty of disposable income and the travel opportunities compared to today were far more interesting. Europe was still dirt cheap, you could stay at the best hotels and eat excellent local French or Italian food untouched by global fads without making much of a dent in your capital. The Middle East was still a relatively safe and welcoming place for Americans, and Mexico and Brazil were a lot more pleasant for tourists as well. Of course travel in China would have been impossible, and life was pretty drap in Eastern Europe, but I would probably take the trade off on the whole. If you want actual "diversity", you would have found a lot more in 1964, even within the borders of the US. In those days places like New Hampshire and Alabama were entirely different worlds, where regional dialects were still widely spoken. Globalization and cultural homogenization has its benefits, but it has made travel a fairly mundane and uninteresting prospect compared to the past. The Golden Age of Travel - the time when growing safety and convenience for the traveler intersected with a world still full of fairly isolated micro cultures probably was back in the 1930s, but the early 60s weren't bad.

At per capita incomes of $2335 and $3155 (Angus Maddison's estimates, 1960, in 1990 dollars), Mexico and Brazil must have been pleasant for tourists - if you love poverty. I agree that indigenous cultures were more accessible, including in the U.S. where the "old weird America" (Harry Smith's phrase) was very much on display, but we glorify third world poverty at our peril.

I am certainly not in favor of keeping countries or people poorer just to make life more interesting for tourists, just noting that there was certainly far more real diversity of cultures and social customs in 1964 than exists today.

The goods and services that matter, the goods and services that level the living standards of rich and not so rich, the goods and services that make it possible to move up the income ladder, have gone up significantly in price. Housing, school tuition, health insurance and services. Sure, the prices of tv's and other entertainment items have actually declined, but those frivolous items only give the illusion of leveling the living standards of rich and not so rich and may actually reduce the likelihood of moving up the income ladder. I attended a large state university as an undergraduate and in law school and never paid more than a few hundred dollars per semester in tuition. Today, I couldn't afford to attend the same school - law school tuition is now over $38,000 per year at the same school. And my two bedroom apartment that rented for $150 per month is now over $1,000 per month (and 45 years older). If education is the key to success, here's a statistic that I learned a few days ago that surprised me: the Federal government spends more on subsidizing college education today than all of the tuition paid to public colleges and universities combined. In other words, if the Federal government eliminated subsidies to private schools and, instead, simply paid everyone's tuition at public schools, Federal government spending would decline.

Wait, am I going back to the 1964 I remember fondly through the reminisces of my parents, or the actual 1964, what with its Vietnam and civil rights protests and bad dental work?

The protests would have had little effect on you in 1964. Dental work is another matter.

In 1964 there was infinitely better music, and the future was looking a lot better than the future we actually ended up getting.

Bonus point: Penicillin could cure most known STDs.

Yes, but in 1964 there was no smart indie-pop. Or Taylor Swift.

The music from 1964 still exists!

No Sargeant Pepper, though.

Right, but in 1964, you don't get any of the music created from 1964-present day. Today, I have an unlimited library of music from 1964, plus everything that was created after 1964.

I'd like to point out that both novocaine and gas were widely available in 1964. Just because Scott had bad parents doesn't mean it was the dark ages.

Also I'd like to see the evidence that millenials prefer modern catalogs. These hipsters love their vintage stuff so much they probably would prefer Scott's deal.

But when they got there they'd dress like Edwardians.

If I were rich enough compared to the average of the time, so that I could lead a playboy lifestyle, I'd probably take the wild 60's. Being able to bang a new hot girl every week would pretty much pale everything I could think of. Even living to the old age.

Is this completely discounting the possibility of being born a woman or a minority in 1964; therefore having a seriously constrained set of possibilities?

And what about the draft? $20K doesn't seem near enough to guarantee not getting shipped over to Vietnam. At the very least the amount of time and effort it would take to avoid that fate cuts into your utility.

There are basically no social indicators which have improved for either of those groups since 1964 (except medical tech [better trauma care for gunshot victims], and their access to Angry Birds, instagram, and better sex toys). Go find some pictures of black 'hoods in St. Louis then-and-now...

Re: "Think about it: significant net deflation for the millionaires"

Think about it.

We can tax millionaires more because there has been a significant net deflation for them...they won't notice it.

Good work.

What does this even mean?

The most important thing we bought since the 60s, at the level of all of humanity, is the destruction of the Soviet Union and the vastly reduced existential risk that brought about.

Assuming I'm going back to 1964 without any knowledge of the intervening years (so my memorized winning lottery numbers are useless), I'm going back to a 30% chance of dying in a nuclear holocaust. That's what, 5% now? 10%?

The lottery numbers wouldn't help you anyway, because the universe isn't deterministic -- they would just come out differently every time. Well, except the rigged ones.

This all depends on how time travel works, which I don't yet understand. Better to be safe and start memorizing.

Memorize patents. The laws of physics don't change.

Yeah the looming threat of WWIII is the big sticking point here.

That and the racial issue. Obviously if you are a minority it's 2014, and it's not even a question. Were there even any black people earning $20K in 1964? It would've have to have been a vanishingly tiny slice of the population.

Well, it might be a question if you're a minority in prison. The incarceration rate of African-American men with little education today is much higher than it was in 1964.

Um, how was there a 30% chance of dying in a nuclear war? Unless someone can canvass lots and lots of parallel realities, no one knows what that number is. Not then, not now.

There is also the Edward Tenner ("Why Things Bite Back: The Revenge of Unintended Consequences") argument. People showcasing their lives on Facebook makes us sad and gets us caught up in a heightened arms race. The distractibility of phones and quality TV means we read less and improve our minds less. The availability of high calorie junk food makes us fatter. Awesome video games like WoW and Dota 2 mean that a lot young men who would be married and in fulfilling relationships are instead neckbeards with awesome porn collections.

This post should have added to the title "for a white male" for it completely ignores the changes in social mores and laws. I don't think many women today would choose to live in the mad men era, with even narrower career options (if her husband "allows" her to work at all) and no reproductive rights. Men of draft age unable to get a college exemption would be facing being drafted into Vietnam. And even though Ferguson et al. have shown us how far we haven't come since the sixties, I doubt many minorities would choose to live in an America before the civil rights act. And what about the cold war and living under a constant awareness of nuclear annihilation?

And nobody, but nobody, who grew up with the internet appreciates what life was like with one-way media and no information except what was in the local library or newspaper.

I think that is an excellent point. The 1960's were a time with a low cost of living. But that low cost of living was based, at least in part, on segregation. People want to buy a house in a "nice neighborhood" with "good schools" but what they're really saying is they want to live with other affluent whites. Which leads to a arms race over housing in "nice neighborhoods".

If we were to bring back segregation and drop immigration levels, then we could recapture some of the good parts of the 1960's (Steve Sailor says hi), but morally speaking, I don't think that's justifiable.

I also suspect that there is a "defining decency down" factor as well. Poor and working class whites are increasingly behaving like minorities, so there is an arms race to avoid living near poor whites as well. In a more homogeneous and stricter culture (read: hard work, abstinence, etc...), that's less of a problem. But again, the price may be a bit too high.

While I can buy that blacks are better off today when compared to some areas in the south in 1964, its a hard swallow to believe that about blacks in the north where I live. In 1964 they generally had jobs, safety, intact families, and a higher level of culture. Today they have sky high unemployment, crime and drug infested communities, 70%+ illegitimacy rates, and ghetto culture. Even segregation is actually worse if we look at statistics on where people live compared to then, economic segregation replaced classic segregation, which if you've looked at real estate prices was very expensive for all of us.

Nobody will admit this of course, because its an embarrassing failure and depressing. We just have to soldier on and pretend it was all good. And people will claim that this is an attack on civil rights legislation, which I think was good overall. I just don't think it was enough to overcome all the other liberal disasters that were foisted on all of us but hit blacks especially hard.

And nobody, but nobody, who grew up with the internet appreciates what life was like with one-way media and no information except what was in the local library or newspaper.

Not only was the news media in 1964 much better quality, it was interested in a strange pre-internet concept called "truth".

Sure, aside from the S.O.P. of hiding the illicit affairs of politicians and celebrities. I bet other than that it was a regular boy scout convention.

To "truth" add "reality." In 1964 every minor city had at least two competing newspapers. An army of bloggers linking each other doesn't do as much information gathering.

You guys, seriously. Who stands a better chance of survival: a crooked small-town police department in 1960, or the same thing today?

Yes, the "truth" of the straight white men who owned the saying machines. And off that, only what was deemed "fit to print". Women and minorities need not apply.

*for years....

Dang autocorrect!

Back then there was no spell-check.


It's not "women and minorities" who control it today. A lot of them "look white."

Yes, the “truth” of the straight white men who owned the saying machines.

We are so much better off now that the media just makes stuff up.

For people like Laura the concept of "truth" is false, it's all a question of "who, whom."

I don’t think many women today would choose to live in the mad men era, with even narrower career options (if her husband “allows” her to work at all) and no reproductive rights.

It seems the women least opposed to that era today are the elderly ones who actually experienced it.

Sure. As my aunts and grandmother have said Four years, You get used to hanging if you hang long enough.

Another difference is that back then liberals objected to anti-semitism.

But the thought experiment said I was going to have $100,000 per year. I don't have to care about career options or whether a husband allows me to work.


Sorry, but I have to ask: what's going on with your blog comment handle?

Is this a joke of some sort? Or, are you antisemitic? Or, is the name somehow meant to be ironic?

I must be missing the reference or something. Not sure what you're trying to say with that...

And I left out LGBT folk, for whom the sixties offered jail, institutional commitment, casual hate crimes that nobody else would question, ostracism, unemployment, and having life in the closet as the most appealing option.

But they were much less likely to die of AIDS in the sixties. Big coincidence, right?


There's no link. HIV had not yet become epidemic anywhere in the world in 1964. It apparently existed in Africa, but was rare even there. There are a few old puzzling cases that may have been HIV in the US, but how they were contracted and why they did not spread is a mystery.
Plenty of people were having gay sex and even mainlining drugs-- heroin has been around since the early 1900s after all.
HIV had its own timetable and it most certainly had no concern for our laws or customs.

HIV just flies around the atmosphere, we all breath it in, but it's a homophobic virus so it only infects gays.

In reality, AIDS never would have been an "epidemic" had gays stayed in the closet and limited their sodomy to only a few "partners," as most did until the 1970s. Homosexuals themselves, not to mention the rest of society, were better off when social pressure forced most of them to hide their deviations.

Richard, don't be obtuse. If HIV had undergone whatever mutation made it so virulent in the late 70s in the 1950s instead, the 60s would have had the 80s AIDS epidemic.
Do you really think there was no homosexuality in 1964? Or no one doing intravenous drugs? If so, I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn.

Ts were so oppressed that they didn't even exist.

Thanks for making this point. Yes. Tyler is assuming that the person choosing is white, male, straight, and indeed probably Gentile and Northern European.

To some degree, this is controlled for in the thought experiment by assuming the income, but someone in non-privileged categories would still find a narrower range of possible careers and fewer neighborhoods to live in.

And God forbid you wanted to marry across racial lines: anti-miscegenation laws stayed on the books in half the country until 1967.

Even in this hostile environment plenty of women shun the feminist ideal in their personal lives.

Can I make the rather obvious point that in 1964, I could not have read this interesting conversation, with so many different and well-informed viewpoints? I think the (average) quality of intellectual conversation has actually improved a lot since then.

Well it's been said before, but, mostly the expensive stuff has become more expensive but the cheap stuff has become cheaper. With inevitable exceptions, as it's a huge generalization.

Big-ticket items such as housing and (real estate in general, at least where people want to live) and higher education have become more costly, with little improvement in quality.

But low-cost items, everything from electronic entertainment to toasters to paper clips, have mostly become far less costly. Sometimes due to technical improvements and sometimes due to globalization and/or automation.

A few things have become more expensive yet significantly better, such as medical treatment. Which is important if you're old or have a chronic disease or are otherwise not in good health, but perhaps not all that important if you are?

Air travel costs somewhat less (deregulation and improved efficiency), but it's less pleasant and no faster. Automobile travel is somewhat less costly (unless you have to pay for parking) because, although cars cost more now, they last longer and are more reliable (as well as safer).

Perhaps once you've seen Paree you can't go back to the old farm. Perhaps once you've had a smartphone you just couldn't go back to Ma Bell and rotary dial. But people living in 1964 certainly didn't miss the smartphones and Internet they did not have, did they? Viewed from the perspective of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, perhaps these are more baubles than fundamental human "needs"?

Looking at 50 years of technical change, by far the largest have been improvements in electronics and, to a considerable extent, electronics have driven many other improvements (such as better cars). But the past 50 years have produced not just technical change, but social change as well and, how well would you fit into that world of 1964 anyway?

In any case, when one looks at the human experience over a lifetime, just how important are gadgets and technology anyway, as compared with basics such as family, professional achievement, and generally living a good life?

Well said.

By the way, note the false trade-off: where is the concept of opportunity cost in these comments?

I've also found that people say the Internet has been so great for us aren't acknowledging opportunity costs.

Without so many machines to entertain us, we used to meet up with other people to make fun. It seems like people socialize far less than they once did on an informal basis and there's certainly a mountain of data that shows the rich tapestry of formal clubs and organizations that once dominated American community life faded tremendously. See Bowling Alone.

Some of this (particularly to Steve's thinking) might be that increasing diversity leads to decreasing cohesion and a decreasing sense of community. (I think Putnam found that himself.) But infinite personal entertainment just has to be a bigger factor.

In other words, I think that much of the stuff that people cite as benefits for the modern era actually make us less happy, starting with TV. I think most people would be happier if none of this stuff had ever been invented. (Yes, I see the irony of typing this into the comments section of a blog.)

But economists surely cannot admit that because if people are devoting the vast majority of their leisure time (and spending a good deal of their money) on something that reduces their net happiness. Even if you don't believe in homo economicus, people who are that wrong about their best interests destroy every model.

Television was ubiquitous in 1964 and people were complaining about its very low quality. The 60s were the era of "My Mother The Car" after all.

Call X the median income in a given year. Then I would restate your claim, using numerical guesses, as "I would rather have 3X in 1964 than X/3 in 2014, but I would rather have 2X in 2014 than 18X in 1964." This might be more of a statement about diminishing marginal utility of income than about relative price indices.

Or the growth of the welfare state.

Again, it seems really important to distinguish between income and consumption. There's a significant consumption floor in 2014 because of government assistance.

RE getting teeth filled in1964 without novocaine. That's flat out ridiculous. NOBODY in 1964 got teeth filled without novocaine unless they chose to. And that's regardless of income level.

Apparently lidocaine had largely replaced it by then.

The most important things for people are:

1) Living a relatively safe existence (physically, economically, etc)
2) To belong to a healthy community life and culture
3) Being able to marry, have kids, and generally have a successful family life
4) Having the means to help your children reach their potential and live good lives

For most people these things have decreased since 1964. iPhones are not a substitute good for the above.

Opportunities for two-income households (career women)
Leaded gasoline
Lead paint
Air quality
Water quality
Deaths per mile traveled (about twice as high iirc)
Houses twice as likely to burn down
Air travel
Automobile reliability
Access to knowledge (internet)
Acceptance of homosexuals
Violent crime rates

Two income households making the same as a one Income household is bad.

I'm not disputing that many goods that can be mass produced are cheaper, I just think it wasn't as important as what was lost.

Access to knowledge isn't the same as having it or being able to do anything with it. The information revolution added a lot of noise, which is often the opposite of knoweldge.

Crime rates are obviously worse. When people say they are falling they mean "falling compared to the height of the crack epidemic in 1990". If you use 1960 as your start date you'll realize crime of all kinds is way up.

Acceptance of homosexuals is bad, so obviously bad for everyone including them that I'll assume your just completely ignorant to have brought it up.

Re: Acceptance of homosexuals is bad

Only because it annoys some religious bigots (who are often more bigoted than religious when all is said and done). People said the same crap about accepting the Jews, and about accepting Protestants in Catholic countries and Catholics in Protestant countries. Get over it.

I think those are important only to somehow disabled people who for reason or another cannot strive for the most important things in human life: 1. having sex with hot chicks 2. creating something nobody else has ever done 3. adventure and excitement.

And it's not like Apple products couldn't have come into existence without urban crime and massive illegal immigration.

Take a look at the neighborhoods where the parents of Wozniak and Jobs could afford to live in 1964.

You couldn't pay me enough to live in 1964, and with enough truth serum, you'd all admit the same thing. Take your pick: the dentistry, the lack of birth control, the cigarette smoke, the actual racism and sexism (not today's invented kind), the threat of being drafted, and the fact that you'd actually have to work for a living? That's real work, people - not typing.

No thank you. Forward.

yeah, plus that was before feminists invented the orgasm wasn't it?

as a white male, none of your points make sense to me. The racism and sexism don't bother me. I can live with the cigarette smoke, I am in Austria now where smoking is still close to 1970s levels. I don't get the whinging about "dentistry". I actually remember the late 1960s, and people didn't spend a lot of time worrying about dentists. If I am making $100,000 a year I certainly don't have to worry about being drafted, and I would probably be working less actual hours and drinking martinis at lunch time. Productivity was lower back then, we actually worked less.

Lack of birth control? The Pill had just been introduced (1960 in the US) and was widely available.
Dentistry was not horrible either-- we're not talking George Washington's wooden teeth!

By the way most (non-elderly, non-underage) people today work for a living too. Not mentioned here: if you did have a job in 1964 it was much more secure. Seniority counted for everything, there was no outsourcing, and limited automation. Even if you got laid off you would likely be recalled after an unscheduled vacation. Permanent job loss generally involved employee malfeasance or outright failure of the entire firm. "Labor arbitrage" was unheard of and even if you weren't in a union you benefited from the standards that unions maintained. Oh, and real pensions.

I'm probably rare in this readership for earning bottom quintile dollars (and maintaining near-Lopez-level elitism!), and I'd hands-down rather be living today with those dollars. TallDave (and others) are on point; you'd have to be a straight white male--and oblivious to all sorts of other progress--to wish otherwise.

I think polls pretty consistently find that women today are considerably less happy then women back then, even without all the extra status that such a colossal income would produce.

Interesting. I wouldn't be surprised if polls had blacks happier, as well, but I still wouldn't wish that on them.

I don't think that they do. There is only a very weak link between money and happiness, but one consistent finding out of the happiness research is that below a certain level, poverty makes people very unhappy.

I can believe that some women are better off today, but didn't the median woman in 1964 have a husband who held a job and some kids too? Right there that's a huge change for the worse by 2014.

I'm a guy, but if I had to choose between a family and a career, it would be a pretty clear decision.

A lot of 60s marriages ended in divorce court. The fact that people tended to marry right out of school was a big mistake for most. Even in the Middle Ages they had a proverb: Marry in haste, repent at leisure.

If you count Finns as White, isn't everyone here a straight White male? I'm surprised nobody has directly pointed out that it's easier to get a hot woman if you are much richer than the competition. It's not everything, but it's certainly something. I'm sure it's in the back of everybody's mind.

So asking about happiness inequality over time is much more interesting.

Certainly depends on which span of time, so probably a roller coaster. But a net improvement in human happiness?

How exactly would one un-bias a modern observer exposed medicine, electricity and technology?

People, who knows. Pets? Definitely happier.

Maybe it's worth considering that opportunities to experience the natural environment in the US would probably have been better in 1960.

One example is the ocean environment. In 1943, early versions of SCUBA diving equipment became available. ( ) By 1960, the equipment had improved somewhat. The relatively unspoiled reefs of the Florida Keys and the not-yet-overfished kelp beds off Southern California's coasts were in better condition with more numerous and larger fish and other wildlife, and less crowded with human visitors. You could have explored and experienced these areas in a less polluted state.

Another example is climbing California's Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. In 1960, you didn't need a reservation and you were not required to collect and bring all of your feces back out. And, you would have met far fewer people on the trail. But, so many people want to make that hike that the environment could not recover without such restrictions and requirements today.

Finally, opportunities to actually inhabit real estate near the Southern California coast were more numerous and better. With a $100,000 income today you are, I guess, able to buy a condo with a view of something like Lankershim Blvd in North Hollywood (For those who have never seen Lankershim Boulevard, I think it's safe to say that it does not compare to the Pacific Ocean in terms of natural scenic beauty.) But back in 1960, I guess that same $100,000 salary would have offered you many more real estate choices, some with an ocean view.

And water resources in California are now notoriously scarce. Even wealthy residents of Montecito (like Oprah) are facing intense pressure to use less water. In 1960, it was easier to have a lush green lawn.

I imagine this sort of consideration generalizes to other parts of the country and other aspects of our natural environment. The US population in 1960 was about 180 million. Today, it's roughly 310 million. The country is simply more crowded and more of it has been developed and exploited.

Of course, this is just one aspect of the consideration.

These economic geniuses would have some basis for their comparisons if they actually stated what a dollar was worth in 1964 (regardless of the fact that government measures of inflation are flawed, it’s the one yardstick we have). Running the GDP deflators backward and forward from the base year of 2010, it appears you could buy for 17 cents in 1964 what today costs a dollar.

Second, they make a quality of goods comparison into a surrogate for price. Sometimes that’s applicable, sometimes not. In any case, most people don’t spend most of their income on Starbucks, Miles Davis concerts or Thai restaurant visits (the guys sounds like Silicon Valley yuppies). The items Cowen uses for comparison in deciding he’d rather have $20k in 1964 than $20k now are trivial. Things like health care now represent a much greater percentage of individual budgets than in 1964, as does housing. The much higher percentage of defined benefit pensions for the 1964 workforce vis-à-vis now meant people then had more disposable income. In 1961 my father bought a brand-new house with marble window sills and curly maple trim for $25,000. That was a smaller percentage of his annual income than my situation when I bought a house in 1993. Compare your salary with the purchase price of your house and you’ll get what I mean. And my father was not rich – he was a middle class person who changed his own oil in his car. $20k a year in 1964 was solidly middle class, maybe upper middle; $20k now is definitely working poor. Neither Cowen nor Sumner “get” this.

Inflation has a firmer basis in information theory than utilitarianism.

Inflation is the difference between how much information could theoretically be moved around with money (proportional to M^k) and how much information is observed to be moved around (proportional to measured NGDP).

A big difference between now and 1964 is confidence.

In 1964 if you were middle class, especially upper middle class, you had almost no fear that you would lose that position.

Now, virtually everyone lives with a fear that it would be very easy to lose that standard of living and find yourself having to adjust to a much lower standard of living.

Not just confidence, but hope: The future looked a lot brighter, nuclear war fears not withstanding.

In 1964 LSD was legal and could be ordered from a catalog. So it's got that going for it.

You could smoke anywhere, and drive drunk. Pretty much a libertarian paradise.

TC is pretty crazy here. In real terms, 100k is like 750k in 1964. First, forget Spotify when I can afford to buy and store pretty much all the records. More importantly, with that kind of money, I can retire early and travel the world pretty constantly. TC's position on travel being so worthwhile just doesn't mesh with his view of how much better media has become.

I would make this trade in a second.

The past is a foreign country, a healthier foreign country. Of course if you did go back to 1964 you'd go with the knowledge that the health would be fleeting. I'm hoping I'll live long enough(current age:41) to see White people take back their country, or at least put up a good fight.

I hope you live long enough to realize you're embarrassing the intelligent whites.

How about literacy deflation?

Almost 50 yrs ago, my yet to be wife worked at the local US Post Office. Among guys 20-30 years older, because of her exceptional demeanor and disposition, she got the nickname "Miss Vivacious".

There are three outstanding items of note:

1. Her coworkers thought of this word
2. She knew what this word meant
3. She accepted this as a compliment, straight and true.

Nowadays, forgetaboutit!

4. Vivacious people could get hired at the post office.

With that kind of money, you could buy yourself a seat in Congress and change the future for the better, no?

For a physically unattractive man, the 1960's win hands down. Society cares much more about male attractiveness today.
Also, we should not ignore what has happened to the physiques of American's in the bottom half of the income distribution. Today's lower and working class women are much less appealing than their earlier counterparts.

Nominal price per sq. ft. of purchasing in Manhattan is 40x higher now than in the 1960s:

I'm going to annoy people by saying if you weren't at least a teenager in 1964 you probably shouldn't even comment on this thread because you have no idea. I knew a man who was an All-Pro lineman with the Phila. Eagles in the Fifties (admittedly not 1964). He said he never made more than $5,000/year playing for the Eagles.

Everyone realizes that the dollar has been and is being debased. But some don't realize the degree or the cumulative effect (please don't cite government numbers as a rebuttal). A fairer comparison would be $100,000 today with maybe $12,000 in 1964.

On the other hand, if you're old enough to have been a teenager in '64, you're likelier to have missed the point of the hypothetical entirely. Great anecdote though!

My parents bought their suburban, tri-level house for 19K in 1961.
I've seem old magazines from the late 60s where new cars were being advertised at $1999.

The government number is $13,056, so your SWAG is uncannily accurate (this also supports the idea that the government numbers are not all that bad).

On review, I was feeling pretty reactionary yesterday.

$20k in 1964 and I'd own a house and a Ford truck by 1970. Today it's enough for a small apartment, and I hope you don't plan on having kids because you sure can't afford that on $20k today.

The internet is wonderful and all, but you're not going to see me accept the technological gains as an excuse to be indifferent about the broad deterioration of the purchasing power of my income profile with respect to most of the basic categories of goods (especially rent and transportation, and never mind that you basically can't get a job without a phone and internet connection, so those are "basic needs" today).

This is an economic blog, but even still the OP is essentially a rather materialist take on wellbeing.

What matters for a good life is wellbeing and family life, functionally mostly one and the same - which we can measure by marriage rates, divorce rates, birth rates, mental illness rates, family cohesion, number of children growing up in a single parent household, membership of social groups, time spent on stressful competition and preparation for competition rather than work or leisure - and health - which we can measure by obesity rates, incidence of underweight, physical fitness rates. (How the use drugs that trade of health for wellbeing fit into this is a little more complicated...).

What also matters is political cohesion and order.

Namely, to what extent does money drive / obscure political reality and truth. How much are the rich able to use luxuries and clubs to manipulate the political and economic process? How much and how commonly are people corrupted by the prospect of joining an economic or power elite? How much control do the demos have over their democracy in balance?

How many and what "products" you can afford is gravy beyond this. Your iPhone isn't that important.

To a certain extent, even education and art are gravy.

What does the 1964 to 2014 comparison look like on the facets that actually matter?

But fundamentally these questions are sociological and political, not economic. Even if the underlying drives and incentives correlate strongly with inequality (or if they don't) and even if responses to these questions constrain economic outcomes.

My parents bought a house in Pasadena in 1964. Nice house. $40,000
2 years at 20k income.
That same house today: $2,000,000
20 years at 100k income.

I suppose we should factor in interest rates, but housing is clearly much more expensive.

Having had dental work on 1964 Maine, Novocain was for major cavities and if you couldn't take a few seconds of drilling you weren't good for much. At that time it was also taboo to praise the taste of food, and Portland is now a restaurant city. Also at that time people who made 100k had a social network of clubs where they could share their plans and prejudices far from "Jews, dogs, or Indians."

I don't know where Steve Sumner went to get his teeth fixed in 1964, but I can speak from experience (bad teeth since childhood) that if you had to have your tooth filled without Novocain in '64 (or even '54), your dentist was a quack. The main difference between dentistry today and dentistry back then is that back then you ended up with a mouthful of gold teeth, like a rapper.

Life was sweet in 1964. I grew up in Southern California, which was like growing up in Paradise. For one thing, there was so little traffic on the freeways (except for a little bit at rush hour, which lasted exactly one hour), that people drove around them just for pleasure, as Joan Didion once wrote. Finding a parking place was easy, too. Not to mention getting places--we could get from Pasadena (my home town) to the beach at Santa Monica (then clean and middle-class) in a half-hour. My dad could get to work in 10 minutes. No, cars weren't as safe or reliable as now--but if you had a $100K income, you could afford a big-tank Cadillac for protection. Kids played outside all day, so there was no such thing as childhood obesity, and there were also plenty of other kids to play with, since this was the tail end of the Baby Boom. There was also scarcely any adult obesity, and people looked much better in general, because there were standards of proper dress for every occasion. You didn't have to be a financial wizard to save for your old age: You just put your money in the bank or bought T-bills that guaranteed you a 6 percent rate of return and then sat back and watched "the magic of compound interest" double your money in 10 years. Try that nowadays. Land was so cheap that working-class people people lived in tract houses with big backyards for the kids to play in--the kind of housing that now goes for $1.1 million in the Silicon Valley. Many middle-class people had swimming pools, in contrast to today, where pools are only for the very rich. I hate residential air-conditioning (either freezing cold or stuffy), so I don't miss its lack (and people used to cope pretty well in those 90-degree Southern California summers by pulling the shades down and running breezes through their homes--also jumping into the pool). Household appliances are only a little better today than they were 50 years ago (top-of-the-line fridges had ice dispensers back then, just like now). The only thing I'd miss is the Cuisinart, although you could make do with a blender. Analog TV reception was admittedly dicey, but at least you never got a blue screen. Limited number of channels? But you could also watch Shakespeare plays and "Long Day's Journey into Night" with Jason Robards. People didn't need spell-check, because they learned how to spell. The public schools were generally excellent--and the parochial school I went to for just a few dollars a month featured nuns drilling stuff into the kids' heads that lasted forever because the nuns specialized in the "rote memorization" that today's educators avoid like the plague. My husband went to public schools in working-class Hawthorne, graduating in the class of '63. Then he went to Yale. His class valedictorian (a girl, just in case you think women had it bad back then) went to Radcliffe, i.e. Harvard. Top public universities such as UC-Berkeley cost next to nothing. Stanford cost about $12,000 a year in today's dollars, room and board included. Stanford had the addition allure of 3:1 male-to-female student ratio, which made it just great to be a woman in college. There was no such thing as a "campus rape epidemic" because strict dorm-visiting rules and parietal hours firmly separated the sexes, at least on campus. (There was also, by the way, plenty of birth control, although you couldn't get it for free in this pre-Sandra Fluke era). Nor was there such a thing as "campus binge-drinking," because there was plenty of regular campus drinking: Every party included a keg. Women were supposed to have it bad--but it never seemed that bad to me. College women typically found their husbands in college, where they had a Princeton Mom-type pool of brains-compatible men to pick from, instead of having to go through ten years of "Girls"-style angst and sexual misadventure before marriage and then hope they're still fertile, as happens now. Yes, they had a tough time getting into med school or getting jobs at white-shoe law firms--but most women then, as now, weren't that interested in hard-charging careers. It was tough not to be able to type into a computer--but people forget that in the pre-electronic age there was a huge human infrastructure--typists, secretaries, messengers, receptionists, news-clipping services, researchers, telephone operators who could tell you where people lived--that made life nearly as efficient as it is now. You couldn't shop online, but, thanks to cheap land, there were thousands of little brick-and-mortar stores selling all the odd little niche things that people now look for via their computers. You could also order niche goods by mail; the back of every magazine was filled with little ads for that stuff. Indeed, the supposedly conformist society of the early 1960s actually allowed for, and even harbored, a huge variety of personal eccentricity, as all traditional social orders do (the neighborhood I grew up in was full of "characters"). There was also a vast universe of print media catering to every taste and political ideology. It's a myth that culture was dictated on high from the New York Times and three TV channels (the L.A. Times was actually a right-wing newspaper in 1964.)

This is not to say that today's technology isn't a vast improvement over that of 50 years ago--or that medical care isn't better and airline travel cheaper (although exponentially more unpleasant). But the quality of life for ordinary people in an ordered society, with its rules written and unwritten, has its own "hedonic" value that all the electronic gizmos in the world can't match. We are fast moving into a world where raising children comfortably in a household headed by their two married biological parents, an ordinary expectation in 1964, is a luxury for the rich. This says something about where we've gone during the past 50 years.

@Charlotte Allen - very much enjoyed your comment particularly your citing, as I did earlier in this thread, that Novocain was as common as aspirin in 1964. But I have thought of one other advantage that 1964 had over today. There was no such thing as political correctness.

It is tempting to say that if we were free to build and subdivide, $20,000 today would be better but because of crime which BTW has fallen greatly since 1964 but maybe not enough so it may not be true.

A better question would be, can one live better on minimum wage today or in 1064.

No air conditioning in 1964 - on what planet? We had air conditioning, granted a window unit, in our Jackson Heights co-op with $80 monthly maintenance plus a $10 summer surcharge for each window unit. (The co-op maintenance fee included, and, interestingly, still includes utilities at the Northridge Co-op.) I'm sure that if you made $20,000, a typical starting salary on Wall Street back then, you could afford air conditioning just fine. You could also afford to hire full time household help, if that was something you wanted.
Even $10,000 back then was a good salary, but you'd be just scraping by on that kind of money nowadays.

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