Finally, Proof (Real Proof, not Just Data) of What Inflation Has Done to Our Economy
Anyone who has ever risked blogging about inflation knows there are two kinds of commenters out there. First, there are those who are sure that inflation, although quiet lately, is poised for a big breakout that will destroy the economy. Second, there are those who are sure inflation has already done so, and that anyone who believes government data to the contrary is a real sucker.
This post is for the benefit of the second group. I’ve based it on material from a wonderful website, www.wishbookweb.com, that I ran across by chance while doing research for the national accounts chapter of my econ textbook. The site archives full-color, page-by-page images of dozens of old mail order catalogs from as far back as the 1930s.
Here is my data-free test for what inflation has really done to us: If you could choose between shopping on line today at today’s prices, or buying from a mail order catalog of the past at past prices, what items, if any, would you buy from the past? If the past looks like a shopper’s fantasyland to you, then you are right, inflation has ruined our country. If not, then maybe the good old days weren’t quite as good as we remember them.
My destination catalog today will be the 1962 Sears Christmas edition. I picked it partly because it was published an even 50 years ago, and partly because 1962 was just before the Kennedy-Johnson inflation got underway, the first of three big waves that hit the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. So get ready to dive through that window on your computer screen—let’s go shopping!
We’ll start in the clothing department. True, there have been changes in style. Some of the 1962 specials would draw odd looks if you wore them to the office or golf club in 2012. But not everything is out of fashion. How about a turtleneck sweater for $7.95 (women’s sizes a dollar less), or a pair of fleece-lined leather gloves for $6.95? Classic style, quality materials, and where could you beat the price today? You’d snap those up for sure. [But wait; see the addendum at the end of the post]
Need a watch? Here are the men’s models on p. 164. There’s a nice, basic Timex for just $14.95. Good deal, huh? But oops, better read the fine print. You have to wind it every day; and reset the time, too, or you’ll miss your bus. Wait, though–there at the bottom of the page is the newest thing, an electric watch. How does it compare to what the on-line store at Timex.com has for sale today? The 1962 electric model had a price of $43.95; the 2012 version costs just 4 bucks more, and probably keeps better time. So you won’t come back from 1962 with a watch, after all.
How about a TV? Here’s a top-of-the line 23-incher on p. 200 for $189.95. And check this out: “Silicon rectifiers as used in military missiles provide great reliability and long life.” Tempted? But, uh, “Controls conveniently grouped on the front?” Does that mean no remote? And color? Ya gotta be kidding! In 1962?
Before you grab that Sears Silvertone beauty, you’d better check out what the TV department at Amazon.com has on offer today. Here’s a nice 23-inch model: Color? Yep. Remote? Yep. Built-in DVD? Of course, dummy, this is 2012, after all! True, the 2012 model, at $229, will cost you an extra $50, but I think it’s still a better buy. How about you?
The bottom line? Yes, higher prices are bad, and monetary policy in the 1960s and 1970s was really awful; but if you’re shopping for basic consumer merchandise—clothing, personal accessories, electronics—maybe quality-adjusted inflation hasn’t been such a disaster after all.
That impression is even stronger if you translate the 1962 prices into hours worked. In 1962, average hourly earnings for nonsupervisory production workers were about $2.50 an hour. That means you would have had to work almost two weeks to earn enough to buy the TV. Today, average earnings are just under $20 an hour, meaning you can buy the color model with built-in DVD for just 12 hour’s wages.
OK, you’re back from your shopping trip. Take off your gloves, slip into that classic turtleneck, and switch on your TV—just in time to watch some politician ranting about the good old days, before inflation.
Addendum [March 12] I realized after I had put up this post that I should not have “bought” the Sears turtleneck and gloves without doing some comparison e-shopping. Here is what I found:
42 Responses to “Finally, Proof (Real Proof, not Just Data) of What Inflation Has Done to Our Economy”
It's inflation from rising petroleum prices that hurt. Everything made with or transported with oil costs more. Food is what everyone cannot do without, and prices go up daily, while personal supplies of money don't. We don't buy TVs, cars, houses, or other big ticket items everyday, dolt.
Neither oil nor food were listed in the 1962 Sears catalog, but the same principle would apply: A true picture of inflation over a long period should adjust for quality changes.
With regard to gas, yes, it costs more, but a gallon carries you more miles if you use it to fill your 2012 car.
Hamburger was cheaper in 1962, but it was sold with more fat in it. The fresh produce section in a 1962 supermarket would look just plain depressing to a modern shopper, whatever the prices.
Sure, inflation exists and it is not a good thing, but if you think about price and quality changes, rather than going by gut reactions, you see things differently.
I totally agree with you. Yes, inflation has caused prices to go up and the dollar is worth "less" today than it was in 1960. But those who just make that argument there and stop are missing the point.
Our standard of living has increased tenfold since 1960. Not only that, mostly everything takes a less of an average time to earn (like your TV example).
Also, food expenditures, while may be up nominally, have fallen as a % of all expenditures.
I havnt even considered the quality of life/products yet either, but you addressed that perfectly here.
Great post Dr. Dolan. I wasn't aware that a watch cost that much in 1962. It would be interesting to track the cost of a watch or TV through time to see the effects of Japan's trade policies and tech innovation and inflation. But then that would require data! Thanks again.
I don't know why so many economists miss the fact that the definition of inflation is the expansion of the money supply. Rising prices are only the result. I'm one of the former commenters but SQuade makes the important point. A gallon of gas used to cost 25 cents before they took the silver and gold out of the fiat currency. How about a gallon of milk? Where is the quality there these days? Who wears a watch anymore? No doubt our standard of living has risen but so has the rest of the world. After all, they produce all the goods now. America's service sector economy produces debt. The dollar is worth 95% less than it was 100 years ago. Fiat currency that can be inflated at the push of a button always has and always will destroy economies.
Uh, no, the definition of inflation is a continuous rise in the price level. And that is by no means a direct consequence of money supply expansion. Take off the tin foil hat.
what prices? the prices of the things you have to pay for? "or all those other prices, too." not that i really care…i don't have kids, rent don't own a house. don't live in a bankrupt City…but JUST outside of it….anywho "it is my view that the tree is rotting from the inside." but i have no problem stating "an actual collapse has not occurred" so whatever predictive ability i have there have "only been a few muncipal bankruptcies" to date…"and it was the garbage incinerators fault" of course. i do not shy away from empirical data…let alone reality. i'm glad to be wrong! the same cannot be said of you..or authors of useless articles such as this.
Bollocks! Look up any dictionary pre-1990 and you'll get a very different definition. Rising prices are the result of inflation and inflation is an expansion of the money supply.
I just happened to have a 1984 edition of the Penguin dictionary of economics to hand when I read this, so to (try to) settle the argument, this is what it says: "a process of steadily rising prices resulting in diminishing purchasing power of a given nominal sum of money". Clearly about prices not money.
Un no. Inflation is a general rise in prices over a period of time. All prices must be rising. Clearly that is not happenning right now. Many prices including daily prices are going down. Rents, car prices (adjust for quality), labor, etc.
Hmm…And the addition of over a billion people who were earlier incapable of purchasing bicycles, but are now buying multiple cars per person has absolutely nothing to do with rises in oil prices…
Supply and demand…Just an evul gubmint plot.
To heck with Sears, that's just junk for brain-dead suburbanites. Gone were the days you could buy firearms, Sears-brand cars or houses from the catalog. All of those would be worth a lot more than … a stinkin' watch.
Skip Sears and head to Sam Ash: buy Fender Stratocasters @ $120 each (pre-CBS Strats are + $50k today each), Gibson Les Paul Customs, buy Gretsch drum sets (Made in Brooklyn), Zildjian Istanbul K cymbals made in Turkey. Buy 100 @ $50 each. Large, thin varieties are highly sought after and are worth over $$$$, today.
Forget the music store and head to Leo Castelli in New York City, load up on cheap Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg artworks. A Johns was just sold to the Met for $20 mil (rumored). What would the same Johns cost in 1962? Maybe $10k.
What does all this mean about inflation? What kind of inflation are you talking about? Your point about product improvement is well-taken. Absent — but integral to the improvement concept — is the ongoing, accompanying money supply expansion point. Since money supply is debt taken on, (that certain kind of) inflation is GDP (and GDP is inflation).
Meanwhile, the 'hyper' kind of inflation that everyone is worried about is a currency arbitrage that is not seen in the US b/c there is strong dollar preference here and no currency black market. Any competition (overseas) favors the dollar (and will continue to do so b/c of float).
I'm not sure the comparison is always very apt; some goods from the past are not the same as today's especially in the area of electronics. One just can't compare a TV from 1962-(huge clunky CRT, major color balance issues-a friend of mine had one of those) with the digital age wonders of today. Clothing items may be a better comparison and there I would agree-prices have goon off towards the moon.
Ray, you bring up two interesting points.
First, you are right, some goods are not comparable at all. I would disagree with you about the TV; it is still the box you spend your evening in front of watching sitcoms or football, the picture is just better. But you certainly would be right about, say, computers. There just wasn’t anything like a PC, and even if you could afford $$$ for a basketball-court-sized 1962 computer, you would not have had any software for it that would be useful for the average home use, or anyone to e-mail.
Your second point regarding the clothing. I realized after I had put up my post that I should not have “bought” the Sears turtleneck and gloves without doing some comparison e-shopping. Here is what I found:
Women’s turtleneck, K-mart “basic edition” $4.99 (!) http://tiny.cc/5ah2aw vs. $6.95 Sears 1962 price
Radnor fleece-lined pigskin gloves $5.99 from Amazon http://tiny.cc/gah2aw vs $6.95 Sears 1962 price
I put in the links in case you don’t believe those prices. I could hardly believe them myself. So much for clothing prices going off to the moon!
EdDolan, but where's your reply to Von Mises comment that you've mistaken inflation for rising prices?
Since you ask, it is not a "mistake," it is a matter of style. Austrian economists prefer to use the term "inflation" in the older sense of increase in money stock, which is fine as long as they are talking to other Austrians who know their special lingo. Consider it "house style" for this blog that I use the term inflation to mean an increase in the price level as do most economists today.
Spoken like a real youngster – who wasn't even alive in 1962. If he did, he might also remember that an $10,000.00 PER YEAR salary was a REALLY good one. Sheesh. Kids…
My sentiments exactly. If you were making a thousand a month, you were in really good shape.
Ed, this is really wonderful stuff. It's amazing how much understanding of the world we can get by simply looking at things from the past.
Some other data points: "Stage a full scale invasion with this Army Combat Set". Green toy soldier set of 180 for 6 bucks, 335 pieces for $8. Glance around the modern net: 100 piece Normandy set for $30. Sounds more expensive, except we all know that the modern one isn't for kids. Anyone with kids can tell you that the price of "little plastic things" (e.g. toy soldiers) is undefined in the modern world. The only thing certain about them is that modern kids have, apparently. an infinite supply of them. All underfoot. So, the modern price would really be zero.
Corn popper push toy: 1962, $1.49. Amazon: Fisher-Price, $14. Yep, Fisher-Price has a moat, for sure.
Basic Barbie: $1.97. Now: $7. Interestingly, Ken's not more expensive than Barbie now.
Sleds: $10. Equivalent, modern American Flyers run $90. Most modern sleds are $10-and-up, plastic, toboggan/boogie boards more appropriate for can't-possibly-hurt-yourself, supervised hills than for running around town and sledding down any street momentarily without cars. So sleds are hard to compare.
Etch-a-Sketch: $3 yesteryear. $14 now.
Christmas wrapping paper, approx 100 sq ft, and lots of tags, ribbons, etc: $4 to $6. Today? Beats me. Get that stuff from the dollar store, says the Interweb.
Crosman pellet/BB gun: $15 to $26, the latter with scope. Amazon, similar, $25, but a scope is an extra $7. Today, though, one must not forget the pink, 6.8 million volt stun gun. $14.
4×4 piece dinnerware place setting: $8.39. Great deal! Modern "stoneware" runs from $40 on up. Corelle is $25. I'd assume good plastic ones are less.
Men's pants ran from $5 to $8. Double to triple that now at Costco, but I'd go with the Costco stuff, remembering the horrible feel of anything synthetic in those years.
Men's 65/35 dacron/cotton shirts were $4, which, again, remembering what these shirts felt like, is about $996 over-priced. A modern Goodwill would match these old prices with far better quality, no contest.
Comparing anything electronic available to those impoverished Sears shoppers of 1962 is not fair, what with Moore's Law applying around 20% price deflation every year.
Did you take consideration about Economies of scale? As you might know, in that situation, prices decrease since one leve to the other. In the other hand, technology makes goods cheaper. Did you consider the increase of energy prices and how they affect in final prices of goods? Did you realize what happen in the Republic of Weimar in the decade of 1920's? Did you consider what happen in the decade of 1970's as oil prices start to grow, so did inflation, and then a new depression? Did you consider as the economy grows we are more and more qualify workers, then we earn more money per hour because we are more productive?
Inflation is not good, has never been and will never be. A 10% of inflation means that, if I have $1.000 they will be worth, really, just $900. I lose money power.
You have totally missed the point of what inflation is. Because we live in a capitalist free market goods and services improve through competition. Prices go down and quality goes up through innovation. The problem is that the government inflates the currency to capture all those benefits for itself. For example milk may cost the same today as 50 years ago (adjusted for inflation) but the milk 50 years ago would be considered organic by today's standards and cost 2-3 times more. The government uses corporate innovation to mask siphoning your savings away with inflation.
I would argue against higher quality. To mask inflation we have shipping our manufacturing to China to make use of slave labor. To further mitigate inflation we ask them for lower and lower quality. I, for one, am weary of Chinese products of such poor quality that they simply do not work. That $250 TV? Good luck. It will be in a landfill in 20 months.
How was taxation across the board in 1962 as compared to now? Yeah our technology is better and cheaper, but our private sector debt is through the roof. People spending what they don't have has distorted the prices with the housing bubble being a prime example. If people had to spend within their means like a majority of people did before the 70's I would think supply and demand would push our current prices a lot higher.
I know one thing, the price of food and gas that the government conveniently ignores affects the middle and lower classes more heavily. Ron Paul said it well the other day in Congress when he asked Bernanke if he has bought his own groceries lately. People in the real world see these effects on their budgets. When you spend more at the pump and in the grocery store it leaves less money for tv's, clothes and specialty items.
The key date is October 1973, when the oil embargo hit. Everyone borrowed to cover shortfalls, figuring things would get back to normal soon. By the time everyone realized there was a new normal in town, they were on a debt spiral they couldn't pull out of. And here we are.
A good measure of inflation is asking your national elected officials what the price of bread and milk is in your area….that's the rate of inflation.
Perception is 99% reality…..most families live in a reality of every day lives. Too many have overreaching expectations to what they can afford consequently we have the enormous destructive level of debt we are carrying, both public and private.
Debt will create it's own "inflationary" pressures.
Get out of debt and the perception of inflation disappears.
excellent post. about the purest definition of inflation i have ever seen.
Your article is invalid one one point. Almost every job created since 2008 is part-time and pays less than $8 an hour. (Hell, I have two of them.) I'd rather be making $100 a week in 1962 than $140 a week in 2012.
Your wage comparison is funny given it doesn't account for the wage to produce these goods. The $2.50 an hour of the 60's is for the guy who makes the watch so-to-speak. Ironically, its probably about same cost in dollar terms for Chang to make it Shenzen today.
If you look at things we can't technologically 'fix' or outsource it to some third-world hole our money is dirt cheap. What's a gallon of gas cost in 1962? Or the car that it goes in? Haha, right. And frankly, something like a '62 Buick Invicta is pretty compelling car no matter the year.
Let's include the biggest family expense–housing, typically about 30% of the family budget. In 1962 the avg American home was some 1200 sq. ft, 1 bath, 3 BR, no garage or maybe a carport. Interest rate about 6%. Average home price in '62, about $13,000. or 2x average income. (Remember, approximately.) Today's average and median home prices may be as high as 2.5 times household income (varies greatly on region). But the housing bought is 40% larger and has lots more insulation, double pane windows, 1.5 to 2 baths, porch or deck, garage, etc. Americans are getting more housing for less money, especially when we include interest rates. Quality and quantity demands have been inflating. The recent slump has almost brought housing prices down to the long term trend line.
A better measure is postage stamps. I pasted four cent stamps on the thank you notes I sent out after that 1962 Christmas (and I probably did get some things from that very Sears catalog). Today it would require a forty-five cent stamp, almost ten times greater.
Another good comparison would be motor fuel prices. One would occasionally see "gas wars" break out between competing service stations across major intersections, and the prices would drop well below twenty cents per gallon. I won't even mention today's price, because it will be higher by the time you read this.
In 1962 gasoline was $0.31 a gallon. A McDonald's hamburger was 15 cents, the average house sold for around $18,500 and a mid priced car for $2,500. A first class stamp cost 4 cents, a dozen eggs 54 cents and a gallon of milk 49 cents. Candy bars were generally a nickel and movie tickets 50 cents–plus 20 cents for popcorn. Yes, for some items prices have dropped or capabilities greatly improved, but for those things people spend most of their income on–food, shelter and auto transportation–prices have risen greatly over the past 50 years and not just since 1962. Clothing, thanks to WalMart and China, has not see quite the price inflation of other basics, but if one looked at the prices for work clothes–try jeans–one would likely see a significant increase in price from 1962 to today. Then there are services. Though it is difficult to find 50-year old comparable service prices, it's fair to say that the increase in the price of services has been even greater that the increases in retail goods.
It should be pointed out that decreases hours worked to purchase various items has little to do with inflation and everything to do with changes in the relative price of labor versus most consumer items. In short, the price of labor (wages) has been increasing faster than the price of consumer goods. Moreover, labor is generally able to compensate for increased consumer prices by requiring higher wages–the classic cost-push inflation spiral.
On the other hand, inflation hits hardest those living on savings or fixed incomes who cannot pass on the increase in prices and who suffer a real decline in their standard of living. I hope Professor Dolan's indifference to the suffering inflation causes people in these circumstances is unintentional.
This is a pretty unimpressive article.
Comparing a 1962 TV to a 2012 TV is apples to oranges.
What would be more meaningful would be to compare apples to apples – literally.
TVs and other manufactured items change a lot, apples not so much.
Trying comparing 1962 prices to 2012 prices on the following: a gallon of gas, a loaf of bread or pound of copper or ,best of all, an ounce of gold.
Printing money depreciates the currency – that's all there is to it.
Reply to BCanuck and several others in the above thread who make the same or similar points:
I'm sorry, but I think you have missed the point of my post. Of course I agree that inflation depreciates the currency. The question is, how much inflation, how much depreciation? If there is zero change in quality, then the increase in price of a good measures the amount by which the value of the currency depreciates. For gold, which you mention, the "price" of gold in dollars is precisely the inverse of the "price" of dollars in gold.
For a good that changes in quality, the change in price is not a good measure of the amount by which the value of the currency has depreciated. The 'price' of dollars in TVs is higher, not lower, than it was in the 1960s. Relative to TVs, the dollar has appreciated, not depreciated
Reality is, the the economy produces a mix of goods, some of which change in quality and some of which do not. The point of the article is that if you don't take that into account, you get a distorted idea of the degree to which we are adversely affected by "inflation" as measured by an index like the CPI.
BTW, although I accept your examples of copper and gold as goods of unchanged quality, I do not accept apples or gas.
I happen to live in Washington State, apple country. Your 1962 apple was typically a "delicious" varietal, which is now so little in demand because of its poor taste qualities that Washington farmers have pulled out nearly all the delicious trees in favor of more modern varieties like Fujis, or sometimes the return of higher-quality heirloom varieties. Spread of organic farming has also upgraded apple quality.
With regard to gas, people don't "consume" gas, they consume auto transportation A gallon of gas takes you farther in a 2012 Ford than a 1962 Ford of comparable size class. So there has been a quality change in the auto transport index.
I think the pint being overlooked is that the prices of technology items could have been even lower had it not been for inflation. Bcanuck's comment is really spot on. THAT is really what should have been done.
Also as for the comments on the improvement in the standards of living, I think the improvement is not real and enduring; it is built on borrowed money and flawed models which is shortly (if not already) fall apart. I think a lot of people are in for a shock- just see what happens to the standard of living in about 10 years time.
Nice cherry picking there. How about quality of life stuff? is today's air cleaner than 1962? (two-packs-a-day smokers used to live into their 70s – try to find one today) How about water? traffic congestion? Visit a doctor lately? (they used to do house calls) Now it's 15 minutes with the great man and a prescription for expensive pills – and you get to pick up whatever the crowd in the waiting room is spewing out – an added freebee!. Road and bridge tolls? in 1964 (in midtown manhattan!) we got a bbq chicken, french bread and a qt of milk for about a dollar total. SS tax was what % in 1962? real estate tax rates? water and sewer? garbage pickup 5-6 days a week. air for your tires was free, now $1.
George– I accept your point that inflation is higher for some items than others. However, your own "quality of life" examples seem to undermine your argument. In some of the exact areas you cite, quality is up, not down.
Air quality: Air quality has steadily improved for all major pollutants, carbon monoxide, SO2, NOX, ozone, etc. Some good charts here: http://www.epa.gov/airtrends/ CO2 emissions are the exception, but I don't know if that counts as a "clean air" issue. Similar trends for water. Fecal bacterial count down almost everywhere, Lake Erie, "dead" in 1962, is recovering, etc.
Medical care: Yes, we have inflation in medical care and that is a big problem, needs attention. But the inflation is partly offset by quality improvements. For example, check out this site http://seer.cancer.gov/faststats/index.php to see steady improvements in cancer survival rates. Story is similar for survival of heart attacks, strokes.
Food quality has also improved. You remember stuff you liked from the 60s (BBQ chicken). I remember how bad produce used to be; limited supply, not as fresh, organic never available, one kind of lettuce (iceberg or nothing), greenish-pink tomatoes in little plastic tubes.
Remember, I don't claim there is no inflation, just that you have to adjust inflation for quality improvements to get the whole picture.
Oh that is the year I graduated high school.
What silly irrelevance… it was a far different world.
In my first job, I worked with Linotype — hot lead.
Clothing was sewn downstairs by ladies of the ILGWU.
In most cases, today's low prices that the writer cited are a consequence of exporting American jobs to factories in China.
When doing archeological or history studies, it's always useful to compare how many working hours it took to earn a loaf of bread, or rent, or other common things. Still worth it today because that's what counts. How long you spend working in order to be able to buy. I'm not sure there's any other way you can compare since technology keeps moving along and has done for over 10,000 years.
You have some good points, but you may want to check the inflation rate on food to see the true devastation. Or you could just make a trip to the local grocery store and let your mouth drop open in shock when you get your total…
The reason goods are cheap in comparison to the 60's is that we import everything from third world countries who pay their workers nothing and have no taxes. Not a relevant comparison.
Good analysis but I don't see any discussion about production efficiency. We can make these items much cheaper than we used to. That is a critical variable in the cost of goods beyond the depreciating dollar. Beyond that, who cares about TVs and Watches? Housing, Energy, Healthcare, Food and Taxes are what matter to people. Those are the things we can't avoid and those items are soaking up virtually all the middle class's income.