Americans Forget How Good They Have It

Less than 3 in 10 Americans believe the country's headed in the right direction


Maybe what the country needs is a good 5-cent distemper shot. Only 29 percent of the public thinks America is headed in the right direction. (The rest are too busy sharpening their pitchfork tines to answer the question.) Yet in many ways things have never been better. Take, for example, the ballpoint pen.

No, seriously. It's a marvel of modern engineering—the iPhone of its day, which was not so long ago.

James Ward told the story a while back in a brief article for The Wall Street Journal. Ballpoint pens went on sale in the U.S. in 1945. The first ones cost $12.60, which comes to $166 in today's dollars. Despite the price, there was a mad run on the things. Gimbels in New York sold nearly 8,000 on the first day.

Before Laszlo Biro invented the ballpoint, people used fountain pens. And fountain pens were just a short step up from quill pens made from large birds' feathers, which had been in use since the sixth century. That's the equivalent of taking 1,500 years to go from Windows 95 to Windows XP.

Within 15 years of the ballpoint's debut, desktop calculators made an appearance. The first ones weighed 33 pounds. Before desktop calculators, if you wanted to perform advanced mathematics you had to use something called a slide rule, which required a three-year college course to learn how to use.

Desktop computers came along only a few years after that—although you had to assemble them yourself with a soldering gun and spare parts from an Erector set. Then you had to program the thing, in FORTRAN or COBOL or some other language that sounded like an alien planet in a 1950s sci-fi movie. And if you wanted to store any information, you had to write over your favorite Van Halen casette tape with your dad's cassette recorder.

Eventually Steve Jobs had a brilliant idea: People might want to buy computers already assembled and programmed. Apple was born. Then along came Commodore and Sinclair and a few others, until IBM horned in on the market and PC clones proliferated. By 1990 you could get your hands on a 386 with a 33-megahertz microprocessor, four megabytes of RAM, and a 200-megabyte hard drive for the low, low price of $5,299 (only $9,739 in today's dollars).

Today, less than $400 will get you a run-of-the-mill machine with a 2-gig processor, 8 gigs of RAM, and a terabyte of hard drive space in case you want to store movies on your PC. All of the movies.

Most people don't, though, because they can live-stream everything in high-definition over connections so fast that the end of the movie arrives before the middle does. A few years ago people Googled "free wi-fi" a lot because there wasn't much of it. Now 89 percent of the public thinks free wi-fi is listed in the Bill of Rights, and if the YouTube video of the kid falling off the swing buffers for more than a picosecond they're never going to set foot in that McDonald's again dammit, because what an outrage.

This is what psychologists call habituation—the tendency to get used to things, no matter how good or bad. You buy a new car and for the first few weeks you absolutely love it, but then one day you find the shine of it has worn off and it's just a car. Or you lose your job and spend the first two weeks crying so hard you have mucus swinging from your nose, but by week four you're genuinely curious about what Jerry Springer has in store this afternoon. Life goes on.

A few decades ago rich people could buy encyclopedia sets on the installment plan. Now most of us walk around with a little box in our pocket that gives us instant access to nearly the entirety of human knowledge. And it's like that in field after field.

Transportation? Nothing but horses (if you were lucky) for century after century, and then—boom!—motor vehicles, transatlantic flight, and maglev trains. Medicine? Leeches and eating parts of dead people for centuries—and now, positron emission tomography and genetic editing.

Even ordinary goods are, today, almost miraculously more available.

As the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas pointed out back in 1997, around the time Google was registering its domain name: "A pair of stockings cost just 25 cents a century ago. This sounds wonderful until we learn that a worker of the era earned only 14.8 cents an hour. So paying for the stockings took 1 hour 41 minutes of work. Today a better pair requires only about 18 minutes of work. Put another way, stockings cost an 1897 worker today's equivalent of $22, whereas now a worker pays only about $4. If modern Americans had to work as hard as their forebears did for everyday products, they'd be in a continual state of sticker shock—$67 scissors, $913 baby carriages, $2,222 bicycles, $1,202 telephones." 

Robert J. Samuelson recently noted that the middle class is shrinking—not because people are getting poorer, but because they are getting richer. The share of the populace that qualifies as upper middle class has more than doubled since 1979. But you listen to Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump and you'd think America has been sliding downhill since the Johnson administration. Don't believe it for a second.