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Free Minds & Free Markets

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.

Photo Credit: JeepersMedia/flickri

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  • commodious||

    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

    IT'S AN OUTRAGE, I TELL YA

  • The Last American Hero||

    At least we can watch a terabyte's worth of porn while the country slides into fiscal disarray. That must be the "ass-sex" plank of the libertarian platform. In some states you can smoke a joint while watching your porn.

    We're 2/3 of the way there, baby. Throw in a few Mexicans and BOOM - Libertopia.

  • commodious||

    They're not "Mexicans," they're Unofficial Americans.

  • WTF||

    Differently-documented voters.

  • Princess Trigger||

    So, in the spirit of brexit, they are 'Stayers'?

  • commodious||

    They just want to assert the sovereignty of Mexico's immigration policy.

  • WTF||

    "Make America Mexico Again!"

  • EscherEnigma||

    That only applies to Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming.

  • zazoo||

    We stole these places from Mexico / Spain.

    Who stole them from the Native Americans

    Who stole them from a previous set of Native Americans.

    And on and on.

  • WTF||

    So, we are not getting less free and suffering from less government adherence to the rule of law? Or is free WiFi supposed to make us forget that shit?

  • AlmightyJB||

    Bread and circuses

  • Hamster of Doom||

    Reason knows why the caged bird sings. Due to free wifi and medical advancement, the caged bird is better off all in all and one thing taken with another.

  • Tundra||

    Great question. A lack of gewgaws was never the issue, it's the fucking erosion of liberty!

    Get the fucking state out of the way and watch what smart, creative people do.

  • Libertarian||

    I marvel at the fact that things are getting better despite the countless interventions of government. In light of the fact that the difference between a 2% annual growth and a 3% annual growth means bazillions of dollars of progress is never made, and millions of people suffer needlessly, sobers me right up.

  • Egypt Steve||

    Heh. The government is not making you waste your afternoon commenting on a blog post. Why don't you get off-line and go create something, Mr. Genius?

  • Slow-Rion||

    Actually, I have a cop who looks over my shoulder and makes sure I comment on various message boards. I do this in lieu of paying taxes.

  • commodious||

    So, we are not getting less free and suffering from less government adherence to the rule of law? Or is free WiFi supposed to make us forget that shit?

    The sort of person who's convinced that life in the first world is steadily getting worse is the sort of person who welcomes the erosion of liberty.

  • WTF||

    lolwut? Define "worse". We have plenty of comfort and toys - that's better. Freedom, not so much - that's worse.

  • commodious||

    Someone who believes we are materially worse off and getting poorer is likely someone who wants to sacrifice our very real prosperity for European-style socialism or even full-blown Bolivarianism. Assuaging their concerns and dispelling the myths goes hand in hand with preserving liberty. I see this sort of article as aimed at Bernie or Trump voters, not necessarily other libertarians.

  • WTF||

    Okay, that makes sense. I didn't originally see where you were going with that.

  • Slow-Rion||

    This is a fantastic comment. Very true.

  • Crying Zelda Morning Link||

    I think the idea is that we have more restrictions, but we can better utilize the freedom we have or better bypass the restrictions.

    So real freedom is eroded, but fake freedom (freedom from life's unpleasantries) is increased.

    I would say that equates to things being better, even while freedom suffers.

  • EscherEnigma||

    Let's take Speech and Association.

    In the 50s, we had laws on obscenity, adultery, misgenation, sodomy, laws collectively known as "Jim Crow" that restricted how people could associate, "blue" laws and so-on.

    In short, you really could run into legal trouble with the government based on who you spoke to, supported, and associated with. Even if you take a hard-line libertarian stance against non-discrimination laws, I'd argue that people are still more free to say what they want, associate with who they want, and live how they want to live, without government interference.

    Throw in the technology, and people are able to take advantage of those freedoms to a degree far greater then ever before, especially when you remember it used to be a crime (literally) just to send a pro-gay newsletter through the mail.

    So yeah, businesses are more regulated now, but individuals have much greater freedom then ever before. And with increased technology, we're positioned to act on that freedom to a far greater extent then previously.

  • AlmightyJB||

    True, again a mixed bag though. I think a lot of it depended on where you lived. I think it was a lot easier being anonymous and out of the watchful eye of authorities than today. There also was a lot less law enforcement to nitpick little bullshit.

  • Jickerson||

    We still have obscenity laws, as well as FCC censorship. Also, the government is conducting unconstitutional mass surveillance on the populace, which is something that was not practical before (though I have no doubt the government of the past would have done it if it could).

    Our level of freedom has increased in some ways and decreased in others. Maybe we are a bit more free than before, but I still wouldn't call the situation "good" by any means.

  • Bruce D||

    Ahh, the internet! The better to track you with, my dear.

  • Paper Wasp||

    Individuals have more freedom today if they're adults, but if they're kids, they're fucked. Zero-tolerance school policies and busybodies narking on free-range kids have made child life a hell of a lot less free.

  • ||

    Is there any evidence that government adheres to the rule of law any less than it ever did? A hundred or so years ago, there were mass roundups of people based on politics, people thrown in prison for marrying someone of the wrong race, explicitly racist government policies, etc.

  • EscherEnigma||

    I suspect not. Just going back a few decades, the shocking thing about Rodney King wasn't that it happened (people had been making accusations of such for years), but that it was caught on tape and could be proved.

    Similarly, while we're currently seeing an uptick in stories on police brutality, asset forfeiture and so-on, I haven't seen anything to indicate there is an up-tick in events as opposed to an up-tick in reporting, and I would argue that that up-tick in reporting is because of social media and the ubiquitous camera-phone.

    That is to say... there have always been abuses, but they're more likely to be revealed as such now.

  • invisible finger||

    Exactly. We could have had free WiFi 25 years ago but the government restricted us from having it until we were ready. You know, just like effective medications

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Every time I see a panhandler (and there are plenty around here) with a well fed dog sitting next to him/her, I think, "If times are so fucking hard, why haven't you eaten that dog, yet?"

  • Hamster of Doom||

    The panhandler doesn't feed the dog. Every dog-lover in the city feeds the dog, oh my word yes, and aren't there a lot of dog-lovers out there.

  • lap83||

    I used to live in a city where the panhandlers had a dog that they sort of shared because it was much more sympathetic than they were...... "Give me money to feed my dog?" /gravelly-voiced gross middle aged lady, with "her" dog sitting 8 feet away like it doesn't want to be seen with her

  • Juice||

    Just keep a pocket full of milkbones.

  • Libertarian||

    Here it is. I'm posting my first cat picture. I'm so proud.

    http://www.economicpolicyjourn.....-paul.html

  • Tundra||

    You are a bad person. Shame on you.

  • RBS||


    The Moderate ViewJune 29, 2016 at 10:58 AM
    He must hate himself.

    Reply

    Nailed it.

  • Juice||

    He's lost a lot of weight. Good for him.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    The share of the populace that qualifies as upper middle class has more than doubled since 1979.

    Bracket creep.

  • Tak Kak||

    Having access to unlimited porn certainly is great, but it seems like a distraction more than anything. Technological improvements don't necessarily mean that the country as whole isn't going in the wrong direction, just that life is extremely complicated and mundane. Just like in the market there can both be equlilibriating and disequilibriating forces.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Yeah, like everything it's a mixed bag. We are no doubt much wealthier (even our "poor" people) and have greater access to information and technology. OTOH, our governnents debt and unfunded liabilities are a threat to our national security, we are in a state if perpetual war for perpetual peace, we have more people in cages than the rest of the world including totalitarian states, you can't start a lemonaid stand must less a business without major hassle by the man, everything is an "epidemic" which requires marshall law type powers to the state, I could go on and on.

  • Number 2||

    "But you listen to Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump and you'd think America has been sliding downhill since the Johnson administration."

    Lyndon or Andrew?

  • Glide||

    Lyndon for Bernie
    Andrew for Trump

  • CE||

    Good news doesn't sell. People want to blame someone else for their unhappiness.

  • ||

    I blame you *Clint Eastwood squint*

  • Sir Doombringer of SexBot||

    So the Internet has the exact same quality ratio as books? The majority of the latter being pure crap.

  • Mustang||

    Isn't immense wealth followed by uncontrolled collapse the usual pattern for empires though? No one is paying attention to the erosion of their liberties because they're too busy looking at the next shiny object.

  • WTF||

    Listen, those Visigoths are just the JV team.
    - Emperor Valentinian II

  • Florida Hipster||

    Did you watch barbarians rising on the history channel? It was a pretty good summary of the fall of Rome.

    Disclaimer: I'm not a historian, so they could have gotten everything wrong and I would know.

  • AlmightyJB||

    I recorded them but haven't watched yet.

  • Florida Hipster||

    I really enjoyed it. Hope you do too.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Oh I'm sure I will. That stuff is right up my alley:)

  • WTF||

    I have not as I was not aware of it, I will definitely watch it though.

  • R C Dean||

    I caught part of one. I need to add it to my DVR list.

  • Libertarian||

    I've posted this before, so don't bother clicking if you've seen it already. But Don Boudreaux summarizes the reality of the progress humans have made in the last 100 years. Parenthetically, I grew up with images of bloated-belly children in mainstream magazines -- there is a LOT of misery still in the world, but compared to the past the gains made have undoubtedly improved geometrically.

    http://cafehayek.com/2016/02/40405.html

  • ||

    Ask Bernie and he'll tell you that despite our relative prosperity unless you are the global elite we are all miserable. And Britain is just the beginning!

    Bernie Sanders: Democrats Need to Wake Up

    Despite major increases in productivity, the median male worker in America today is making $726 dollars less than he did in 1973, while the median female worker is making $1,154 less than she did in 2007, after adjusting for inflation.

    Nearly 47 million Americans live in poverty. An estimated 28 million have no health insurance, while many others are underinsured. Millions of people are struggling with outrageous levels of student debt. For perhaps the first time in modern history, our younger generation will probably have a lower standard of living than their parents. Frighteningly, millions of poorly educated Americans will have a shorter life span than the previous generation as they succumb to despair, drugs and alcohol.

    Says the guy who has sucked off the teat of the taxpayer for 40 years.

  • WTF||

    An estimated 28 million have no health insurance, while many others are underinsured.

    Unpossible! Obamacare fixed all this!

  • R C Dean||

    How can anyone be underinsured if they have a policy that meets OCare standards?

  • WTF||

    We just need to socialism harder!

  • Libertarian||

    "Says the guy who has sucked off the teat of the taxpayer for 40 years."

    Have you watched Nigel Farage's first post-Brexit speech? He made a statement that the other EU members had never held a real job. God, I wish we could clone him.

  • ||

    Yeah that was amazing. Farage spiked that thing like Billy White Shoes, twas a thing a beauty.

    "Look who's laughing now..."

    Glorious.

    If you haven't seen it already, watch Daniel Hannan present the Brexit argument two days before the vote more eloquently than anyone could pretend to imagine, and far more convincingly than any argument against it.

  • Libertarian||

    Thanks for posting. After listening to both Farage and Hannan, I'm trying to think of an American politician who could stand up and speak as eloquently, and I'm coming up blank.

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Nearly 47 million Americans live in poverty.

    We can easily double that number.Just bump the poverty line some more.

    SEE HOW MUCH WORK THERE IS TO BE DONE!

  • WTF||

    Just define poverty as the lowest quintile. POOF! 64 million Americans live in poverty.

    Actually, there are Americans who live in poverty relative to other Americans. There are no statistically significant number of Americans that live in absolute poverty as the term is commonly understood. Except maybe for a small number of mentally-ill homeless people who should probably be in institutions.

  • meister574||

    If you include the poverty levels of the entire world, everyone in the US is part of the 1%.

  • WTF||

    Exactly.

  • invisible finger||

    homeless people who should probably be in institutions.

    Democrat-controlled cities are institutions.

  • Eman||

    Thisreads like an appendix to "the discovery of freedom", which I like alot. Its the scariest thing about bernie sanders too, like even if he succeeded in bringing the entire country up to whatever standard of living he deems appropriate that's what the standard of living would be forever. People can't even agree on what a theoretical utopia would look like so that's a terrible goal to begin with

  • The Late P Brooks||

    Actually, there are Americans who live in poverty relative to other Americans.

    My neighbor has a bigger (much nicer) house than I; on more land.

    WHY MUST I SUFFER THIS INDIGNITY?

  • WTF||

    Pretty much. Our "poor people" are fat, and have apartments, smartphones, and xboxes.

  • R C Dean||

    Yet in many ways things have never been better.

    No question, some things have never been better. Of course, the size and scope of government is not one of those things.

    Libertarianism is about the size and scope of government. While its great to point out all the other stuff that has gotten better, libertarians shouldn't lose sight of the foundation of their political philosophy.

    Yay! I have an Iphone.

    Boo! The Iphone is subject to constant, warrantless data harvesting by government.

    The latter should be the libertarian focus. On net, are you more, or less, free from government intrusion because you have an Iphone? I would say less free. The benefits of having an Iphone are great, but from a libertarian perspective, I don't see how you can say they have increased liberty in this country.

  • R C Dean||

    Just caught up to commodius comment above. Insightful. My frustration with this line of articles is reduced.

  • ace_m82||

    How many things is it possible for me to do in this country, that initiate no violence, that control-freaks will gladly send men with guns to punish me for doing?

    Now, I'll ask again, is America headed in the right direction?

  • ranrod||

    With every new law enacted by federal and state legislatures, every new ruling handed down by government courts, and every new military weapon, invasive tactic and egregious protocol employed by government agents, "we the people" the prisoners of the American police state are being pushed that much further into a corner, our backs against the prison wall.
    No longer must the government obey the law.
    Likewise, "we the people" are no longer shielded by the rule of law.

    https://www.rutherford.org/ publications_resources/

    john_whiteheads_commentary/ we_the_prisoners_the_demise_ of_the_fourth_amendment

  • ranrod||

    While the First Amendment which gives us a voice is being muzzled, the Fourth Amendment which protects us from being bullied, badgered, beaten, broken and spied on by government agents is being disemboweled.
    No-knock raids: Police can perform a "no-knock" as long as they have a reasonable suspicion that knocking and announcing their presence, under the particular circumstances, would be dangerous or futile or give occupants a chance to destroy evidence of a crime (Richards v. Wisconsin). Legal ownership of a firearm is also enough to justify a no-knock raid by police (Quinn v. Texas).

  • Grant||

    This is because 7 out of ten Americans are economic ignoramuses.

  • bassjoe||

    Maybe it's because Americans listen to demagogues too much?

    Objectively, life has never been better for America and Americans. We're rich, medicated and have a lot of toys, our currency is still considered a safe haven on the level of gold, and our armed forces are #1 by a fucking lot. In terms of freedom, we have gained a lot over the decades and, yes, lost a bit too, but we're still better off than most of humanity.

  • Diane Merriam||

    Hey, it didn't take 3 years to learn the slide rule. I got most of it in less than a semester. :)

  • Mauser||

    What was the national debt in 1897? How easy was it to start a business in the late 1800s - early 1900s?
    How many erroneous foreign interventions were we engaged in back then? Granted, it wasn't all peachy obviously, after all, this the era that gave the rise to the progressive movement and we all know what that ultimately wrought. Just saying.

  • JFree||

    Reason - commentariat and writers - really is the home of the central-planning wing of libertarian thought. So Hinkle - are the morons who don't realize how good they have it just less knowledgeable about their own situation than you-the-almighty and the clapping seals here assembled? Stockings? computers?

    Since 2000, incomes have risen 25% - REAL rents have risen 55%. We now have the lowest homeownership rates since the mid-1960's - and the highest rent-to-income ratio since then. But hey - at least socks are cheap.

    Keerist - I have spent years listening to social welfare bullshit that justifies social welfare on the basis of 'well technology is cheaper so we are far better off now than we were in the era of smaller govt'. Now looks like the central-planning wing of libertarians are making the same argument.

  • slotowner||

    I think you can sum it up. Few American's are thankful anymore.

    We are lucky to be born in a time & place where obesity is a bigger concern that starvation, where few mother's & children die at birth, & disease is mostly held in check.

    We are lucky to be Americans instead of the poor, war torn places of the world.

    We casually use things that would cause J.P Morgan, William Randolph Hurst, & Andrew Carnegie to turn green with envy.

    We can listen to more music in a year than was ever written by all of the classical composers combined.

    I think if we were more thankful we'd just be happier with our lives.

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