“Moreover, despite the low 5.6% unemployment rate, wages remain relatively stagnant, and polls find many Americans worried about layoffs, job security and a perceived stagnation in living standards.” — Wall Street Journal April 10, 1996

It’s tough out there. Nothing I’m going to say is meant to minimize that.

But the perceived stagnation in living standards may be more quantitative than qualitative — and not just because the crime rate is down. (And the Los Angeles air and much of the nation’s water is cleaner.)

Here’s a letter I just got written by Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind, in 1949 (I collect stuff like this). I bought it because, ironically, Margaret Mitchell was killed in a car crash with a drunk driver a few months after writing it. Gone Through the Windshield. But it makes another point as well:

February 3, 1949

Dear Mr. Jones:

Here is our thought about the matter of a new car. The four-door car just will not do for us. It appears to have less leg room for John than the two-door and it would cramp his legs on a long trip. The steering gear on the four-door surprised me by being set at a different angle, so odd an angle that even with the heavy driving pillow behind me I could not reach the brakes. I can’t tell you how much this surprised us and disappointed us too. Mr. Mullin was as surprised as we were. He very obligingly said he’d bring us out the next two-door you had to try again. But John and I have talked the matter over and have decided we do not want the two-door either. We nearly got killed in an accident once when a drunk drove into the back of our car and we were sitting in seats which swung on hinges such as the two-door Mercury has. That type of seat will sling the passengers into the windshield. John felt, too, that the wheel of the two-door Mercury was in my ribs and that any slight accident might cause me serious injury. I also had the problem of lowered vision.

Cordially

Margaret Mitchell Marsh
Atlanta, Georgia

She goes on at some length — they’ll just put a new coat of paint on their old Mercury and hope it holds up a while longer . . . if not, they’ll take the train. If only Mercury would come out with a car that combined the virtues of the Mercury engine, the 1918 Piece-Arrow limousine and the 1920 T-Model Ford, she laments.

So here was a wealthy celebrity in 1949, who would have killed for a car like yours or mine. I have an airbag (an airbag could have saved her life). I have adjustable seats and seat belts. You, too? There’s a good chance you have air conditioning! And — now, this is truly incredible — a radio and possibly a telephone in your car! Power steering! Anti-lock brakes!

We have computers ten times as powerful as the ones we could have bought for the same price just a few years ago. That’s stagnation?

For $300, I have a scanner smaller than a hero sandwich that will stick the original of the Margaret Mitchell letter onto my screen in seconds, then optically transcribe it from a photo to an actual word-processing document I can edit and stick into the text above, saving all that mindless retyping. I can then shoot all this over the phone lines up to a satellite down to a computer where it gets fed into the computer from which you’ve just retrieved it.

Stagnation?

We have Caller ID and Prozac and not-from-concentrate orange juice year-round with little bits of real home-style pulp floating around in it. We have electronic banking, laser surgery, and $12 AM/FM clock radios* with snooze alarm that receive music digitally recorded on compact disc. We have Friends and the Internet and fat-free cheese!

Excuse my enthusiasm (and let’s be quick to acknowledge not everyone has the cash or education to enjoy these things). But this is not stagnation. This is wondrous progress quickly taken for granted.

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*I also have one of those $300 Bose radios you see advertised everywhere, but its clock broke — the big digital read-out always says 3:21 — and the sound is not worth the extra $288 to my ears.

Tomorrow: Energy:Crisis and Opportunity

 

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