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Are we worse off than in 1979? Hey, get real!

SHARE Are we worse off than in 1979? Hey, get real!

Are you better off today than you were in 1979? Ralph Nader doesn't think so. As he argues in a piece by Dennis Lythgoe elsewhere on this page, "A majority of workers are making less in inflation-adjusted dollars than they made in 1979." He's not alone in this belief. A lot of other gloom-and-doomers feel the same. The protesters in Los Angeles last week were operating under the general opinion that corporations in this country are making things bad for everyone. We are working harder for less, caught in a whirlpool that must, one assumes, inevitably pull the nation down into widespread poverty and destitution.

And yet, our eyes tell us something different. Worse off than in 1979? In 1979, air travel was still so expensive as to be considered a luxury. Today, it is a primary means of transportation for many people heading out of town, even if the seats are cramped and food is meager. Then, we paused and felt our pocketbooks before dialing long distance. Today, we carry our phones in our pockets, and some of us sign deals that give us no roaming charges. If we don't want to call, we can always e-mail. Back then, we didn't have home computers, let alone e-mail.

So what is the truth? Do you trust your eyes or a set of disputable figures? Is the economic bus we are traveling together as a nation heading gradually uphill, or are we on a downward slope? Maybe it would help to stop for a moment and look backward.

The question the doom-and-gloom crowd should be asking is whether we are wealthier than we were 21 years ago. That requires measuring how much we, as a people, consume today as compared with back then. And the answer, as anyone who lived in both eras can attest, is obvious.

The Employment Policy Foundation, a pro-business think tank in Washington, explains this by showing how complicated it really is to compare life in two different eras. To paraphrase an argument made by University of California professor Bradley DeLong, even if our inflation-adjusted wages are less today than in 1979 (and they're not), we can buy many more things today at a much lower price, including scores of products that didn't even exist back then. In short, if we had to spend our 1979 salaries on 1979 goods and services, we wouldn't consider that salary to be worth nearly as much as the money we are paid today.

The standard of living has improved gradually for Americans for more than a century now. This may be difficult to see clearly over short time periods, but it is still continuing to improve. This quote from the foundation's Web site illustrates this with an example:

"Today we take items such as CD players for granted. In Edward Bellamy's 1895 novel 'Looking Backward,' the protagonist, who has traveled 100 years into the future, says, 'if we (in the 19th century) could have devised an arrangement for providing everybody with music in their homes, perfect in quality, unlimited in quantity, suited to every mood, and beginning and ceasing at will, we should have considered the limit of human felicity already attained.' "

Put it in that way and the vista suddenly becomes clear and a little dizzying. We are indeed winding steadily and slowly upward. Even the road from 1979 should be easy to discern. Back then, encyclopedias — the bulky multivolume kind that filled a bookcase — still were sold door-to-door and considered vital to any student. Today, the knowledge of the world, including video and audio samples, is available with a few keystrokes. Internet access is free, and computers are cheap. Never mind the living standard, think of how opportunities have been enhanced since then.

By the way, the Employment Policy Foundation argues that real wages have indeed grown, by 17 percent, since 1979, and total compensation is up by 24 percent. A lot of reports fail to take into account the increase in non-cash benefits, such as health insurance and paid leave. Then, too, there are generally acknowledged errors in the Consumer Price Index, which measures inflation. But those are just statistics. As everyone knows, statistics can be made to show anything that suits the presenter. Sometimes, the truth is a little more obvious.

The Information Age is kind of like a garden. Just about anything will grow in it, and that is how it should be. The trick is to be smart enough to know the weeds from the good plants, and to do a little tilling now and then. If not, the gloom-and-doom crowd will be taken too seriously, or their outrageous claims will go unchallenged.

Deseret News editorial page editor Jay Evensen may be reached at even@desnews.com