Dazzling Knowledge

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Bare Necessities

The Bare Necessities explores the experience of economic insecurity among people who are actually quite priveleged.

Times are tough in many old industrial areas of the country. And middle-class anxiety about the costs of health care and higher education is real. But new data from the Census Bureau reveal that Americans of all income groups have made enormous gains in their standard of living in recent decades. As late as 1970, air conditioning, color TVs, washing machines, dryers and microwaves were considered luxuries. Today the vast majority of even poor families have these things in their homes. Almost one in three "poor" families has not one but at least two cars.

Consumption in real per-capita terms has nearly doubled since 1970. The single largest increase in expenditures for low-income households over the past 20 years was for audio and visual entertainment systems — up 119%. In 2007 Americans spent an estimated $1 billion to change the tune of the ringer on their cellphones. Eating in restaurants used to be something the rich did regularly and the middle class did on special occasions. The average family now spends $2,700 a year dining out.

There's a wonderful new video on Reason.tv called "Living Large." In it, comedian Drew Carey goes to a lake in California where people are relaxing on $80,000 27-foot boats and goofing around on $25,000 jet skis that they have hitched to their $40,000 SUVs. Mr. Carey asks these boat owners what they do for a living. As it turns out, they aren't hedge-fund managers. One is a gardener, another a truck driver, another an auto mechanic and another a cop.

When I was young my parents used to drill in me the moral imperative of eating everything on my plate, and they recited the (tall?) tale of how they even ate what would now be considered dog food during the darkest days of the Great Depression. The American Pet Products Manufacturers Association reports that Americans now spend $36 billion a year on their dogs, cats, turtles and so on, and one of the hottest-selling consumer items is "diet pet food." We have become a nation of fat cats — literally. I have a friend whose daughter insisted that he spend $200 on eye surgery for their hamster. (I want to see that hamster read the eye chart!)

After my lecture, one young woman walked up to me on her way out and huffed: "What I favor is a radical redistribution of wealth in America." I tried to tell her that America's greatness is a result of our focus on creating wealth, not redistributing it. But it was too late — she was already tuning in to her iPod.


Via Isegoria, where you'll also find this related note:

Burglaries are on the decline in the United States — because "everybody has everything now":

2 Comments:

Blogger Chamomiles Davis said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:42 AM  
Blogger Chamomiles Davis said...

In 2007 Americans spent an estimated $1 billion to change the tune of the ringer on their cellphones.

Well, half of that amount was money I spent, because I kept vacillating between "My Humps" and "Sensual Seduction." (For the record, I settled on "Sensual Seduction.")

What burglaries today lack in quantity, they make up for in quality.

10:44 AM  

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