Yes, I Want Fries With That
My family and I are living the American Dream. The four of us live in a small 3 bedroom 2 bath house in the poorest section of one of the richest little communities in the poorest state in the richest country in the world. We're able to afford to send our kids to a decent school. We have 3 automobiles -- all running, none up on blocks. 3 TV sets, 5 stereo's, 2 cats and a dog. Enough computer equipment to provide disaster recovery for NORAD; indoor plumbing, refrigeration, air-conditioning and heating. A substantial Playboy magazine collection (that's mine). A washing machine, a drier and enough women's clothing to keep them both running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
I guess statistically we're middle-class Americans. The kids are sure we're destitute because they're driving a badly hail-damaged 7 year old Toyota Tercel. It's tough being poor with rich kids.
I have a degree in business and most of another one in finance. I'm supposed to know something about money, investing, economics -- that sort of thing. I sure don't feel like I know anything about it. What's worse, I don't think anybody else does either. I see professionals on TV announcing that the economy is growing by leaps and bounds or that the economy is really depressed. Sometimes I see two different "experts" simultaneously claiming either end of this spectrum during the same show!
I can't help but notice there's no such thing as a non-partisan economist. I strongly believe the only "economic indicator" these guys use is to check to see if their guy won the last presidential election. The Democrats only complain about the economy when the Republicans are in power and versa vicey.
During Clinton's '92 campaign, while the Democrats were running around screaming "the economy is falling"; I was working for a mortgage company. We were all busting our butts trying to stay up with the greatest house buying/refinancing deluge this country has ever seen! Almost immediately after Clinton's election -- long before he took office -- the Democrat's view of the economy drastically changed. I couldn't tell the difference then. I can't tell the difference now.
For all my training on the subject, I've never been able to tell much about the state of the economy at any one time. One of the tricks to evaluating any situation is knowing how far back to stand while you look at it. You can't see what's wrong with a car engine from across the street -- you're too far away. You can't see if a picture is hanging straight while you've got your hands on it -- you're too close. I never could figure out where to stand to check the status of the economy. Until recently, I didn't think anyone else had either.
Then a co-worker, Dave Acker, introduced me to what I call the "Burger and Fries" theory of economics. Dave has a distinct advantage in economic analysis -- he's never had any formal training on the subject. Because of this, he was easily able to put his finger on the pulse of our nation's commerce. He instinctively knew where to stand. Dave's theory holds that the economy has seen no substantial changes in the last fifty years! He uses minimum wage and lunch as a measuring stick to prove his point.
In 1938, when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, setting minimum wage at 40 cents an hour, one hour of work would buy you a burger an order of french fries and something to drink. Today, one hour of minimum wage will buy you a burger, fries and something to drink. After years of study, this is the most useful economic indicator I've ever seen! (I know the government has the Consumer Price Index, but the way their indicators wildly fluctuate, I'm afraid they're standing too close.) The truth is, the reason no one can get a handle on economic change is because there hasn't been any measurable difference since the end of W.W.II!
Any blue-blooded yuppie will tell you this just isn't so. I have to admit I even liked the yippies more than the yuppies. At least Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Reuben were complaining about real issues. Biff and Buffy are complaining because they can't afford the grown-up version of Barbie's dream house. They are convinced that their parents had a much easier time obtaining the American Dream.
Yes, the adult generation of the 50's and 60's seemed to be able to make it on only one salary per household. They also made it without two cars, private school, a clothes dryer (remember clothes lines?), cable TV, or credit cards. Eating out, even just a hamburger, was a real treat. Their kids didn't wear clothes with designer labels on them; clothes were handed down from one generation to the next. They didn't have a TV in every bedroom and had never even heard of a Jacuzzi. A movie was something they went to a few times a year, not something they rented a few times a week. They drank water from the tap, not from a bottle. (Of course it was safe to do that then, but that's another story.) "Able to afford a house" meant the ability to purchase an 800 square foot, one bathroom box on the side of a highway. It did not mean a 4,000 square foot, Martha Stewart showcase overlooking the bay.
The American Dream hasn't become so hard to attain because of a decaying economy -- it was always hard to attain. But now that we're trying to keep up with the Trump's instead of the Jones', it's quite a bit harder.
Copyright © Lewis W. Napper. All Rights Reserved.