Sunday, October 25, 2009

Looking At Today From The Past

I was trying to explain to my children what life was like before cell phones and the internet. My wide eyed wonder at seeing my first push button phone, the expense of telephone calls and air conditioning. I found a great site called The People's History that said $100.00 in in 1950 would be worth $835.41 in 2005. According to this method of computation, a television that sold for $179.00 back in 1954 would be like paying $1500.00 for a television today. By contrast, houses commonly sold between $7000.00 and 14,000.00.

If you crunch the numbers and look at the ratio of the price of a home to the income of a head of household, we do not come out very far ahead. On phone service we do better today. Most people have unlimited national phone service. You can buy phone cards and talk for hours around the world. Entertainment choices are far better. Gone are the days when you had to wait to watch your favourite TV show.

If you really want to be scientific about prices, the best method to use is to compute how many minutes you have to work to buy something. Minimum wage was 75 cents in 1950. That year gasoline was 18 cents a gallon. That means you worked about 15 minutes at minimum wage to buy a gallon of gas. Today minimum wage is $7.15. A gallon of gas costs about $2.80 in New York City. That means the cost of gas to a minimum wage earner is about 24 minutes of work. Although calculations are more complicated, they provide a more complete picture of how things are.

When I tell my kids about teachers that used to slap us around, they are properly horrified. Their attitude changes when I point out that we were less afraid of each other. In school violence usually meant meeting at the flagpole for a fight. Columbine and felonies in school were unheard of.

One difference that looms large is not between now and then but between America and Europe. When was the last time America had a war on its soil? In Europe, you could go back 60 years. In Yugoslavia, you only have to go back 15 years. In America you have to go back 145 years. One thing I remember in Italy back in the 1970's was how big grandchildren looked next to their grandparents. There was no genetic mutation. There was better nutrition. There was genuine hunger in much of Europe when some of the old folks I saw on the streets of Roe and Torino were growing up.

I remember reading in the American Spectator that back in the 1920's, African American out of wedlock births were about 10%. Today, the rate across the board for all races is 40%. National Public Radio reports as follows on today's discouraging statistics.

Forty years ago, a government report on the state of the black family in America warned that almost one out of four black children were born to unmarried mothers. Recent figures suggest that now, almost 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock.

This raises the very real juxtaposition of social and economic poverty. It also raises the question of external oppression versus internal oppression.

Sometimes, you see a relative who has grown taller, grayer, fatter or thinner in the years since you took leave of them. Introducing my children to the past is like taking a similar look at changes in the world and in society. Assessing how things have change requires not only open eyes but discerning vision. It means asking the right questions and knowing which questions to ask and of whom to ask them.

Early on in life, I realised that history involved real people, and that I could ask my parents and grandparents about what I read in the history books. I have spoken with an Italian POW, Hitler Youth members, and a man whose father had a medal pinned on his chest by Stalin himself. To me, learning history is a dialogue between who I meet and what I read. My library is on my bookshelves and sitting in front of me behind the partition in a taxi. I don't trust my government, and I don't even necessarily trust my own perceptions.

It's always good to step outside your time and place to look at the present. I am always glad when my children ask me questions. It reminds me to keep asking them myself.


The following is a Swift Meat commercial from 1949. It has a far more spontaneous and far less glossy feel than what we watch today. Sphere: Related Content

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