Menckens Ghost

More About: American History

Let’s put the bad news in context

By Mencken’s Ghost

Dec. 22, 2011


Yikes, the news is so depressing:  unsustainable debt, high unemployment, rising poverty, crony capitalism, creeping socialism, avaricious unions, greedy Wall Street tycoons, low test scores, clownish politicians, a rotting American empire, polar bears wearing bikinis and sun tan lotion instead of fur due to global warming, and millions of uninsured Americans writhing in pain in the streets from untreated illnesses and injuries.


You need a break from today’s bad news.  Please join me for a quick look at how things were a century ago in the nation and how they are today relative to other countries.




- In 1900, only 2% of homes had electricity, only 10% had flush toilets, only 8% had central heat, and none had wash machines, air conditioning, or refrigerators.  In other words, homes resembled the encampments of Wall Street demonstrators.


- In 1900, about a third of Americans lived in their own homes, versus about 66% today.  Also, homes were 600-800 sq. ft. back then, during a time when the average household had 4.6 members.  Today, the average home is 2,300 sq. ft. for 2.5 household members.  Interestingly, about 32% of owner-occupied homes were mortgaged in the early 20th century, versus over 60% today.  (Given the recent housing bubble and so many Americans being house-poor, you can decide if these developments have been bad or good.)


-  On average, Americans spent 43% of their income on food in 1900, versus about 15% today.  Granted, taxes were a bargain back then, because they were a third of today’s levels.


- In constant dollars, per-capita income in the USA is approximately 400% higher than 100 years ago. 


Note:  The current per-capita income figures would be even higher if welfare, other government transfer payments, and non-cash forms of pay were included in the numbers reported by the government.  These other types of income didn’t exist 100 years ago.  Household income would show even higher gains than per-capita income, if it were not for the fact that the percent of households headed by married couples has fallen from 80% in 1900 to 50% today.         


-  Medical spending per-capita has increased about twenty-fold in constant dollars since 1900.  However, life expectancy has increased from 46 years to 74 years for men, and from 48 years to 79 years for women.  Also, infant deaths in the first year of life have dropped from 165 deaths per 1,000 births to seven deaths.  People used to die from simple infections, and it was not unusual for children to die from measles, pertussis and diphtheria.  


- In 1911, approximately one-fourth of adults had less than five years of schooling.  Now, 100 years later, only 2% have less than five years.


Note:  As with many socioeconomic improvements, it can be debated how much of this was due to the government and how much would have taken place anyway, with possibly better results, if the government had simply let positive trends continue on their own.  Given my ideological biases, I believe that statist/collectivist thinking has been inoculated in children through the monopoly that the government and its teacher union minions have on K-12 education.  The monopoly wasn’t as strong in 1900, when the percent of children attending private high schools was double the percent today.


- At the beginning of the 20th century, teachers earned less than $7,000 in today’s dollars and had an average class size of 34 pupils.  Now teachers have an average class size of 19 pupils and earn approximately 600% more, not counting benefits and pensions.


- While per-capita energy consumption has increased by 288% between 1900 and today, energy efficiency (GDP per million Btu) has improved by 247 percent.  


- With the current debate about the Keystone pipeline, it is interesting to note that there was one pipeline in 1930, versus over 600 today.


Other Countries:


- Although it has slipped recently, the USA still ranks in the top 10 or top five of the world’s nations on various indexes that rank per-capita gross domestic product, the purchasing power of citizens, the ease of doing business, innovation, the protection of property rights, the rule of law, low corruption, overall living standards, and money spent per-capita on books and music.  Despite the rise of China, the USA still ranks at the top in industrial production.   And it is first in the number of Nobel laureates in five of the six Nobel Prize categories.


- Several nations, especially Japan and the Scandinavian countries, have higher test scores, less poverty, less income inequality, a lower homicide rate, lower per-capita medical expenditures, and a healthier population.   Such comparisons are skewed, however, by the fact that these other countries are racially homogenous, don’t have large immigrant populations from third-world countries, and aren’t still dealing with social and economic problems lingering from slavery.  On the other hand, these countries, as well as most continental European countries, are dying demographically from having birth rates below replacement levels.


- The USA is in eleventh place in per-capita beer consumption and doesn’t even make the top 20 in the consumption of wine and pure alcohol.


- Nor does the USA make the top 20 in defense spending as a percent of GDP.


In closing, I hope that you feel better after having read the foregoing.



Mencken’s Ghost is the nom de plume of an Arizona writer who can be reached at


2 Comments in Response to

Comment by Sharon Jarvis
Entered on:

When I was a kid, my parents also talked about how food tasted better and how you really got your money's worth when you bought something.  I am now 68 and I understand exactly what they meant. 

30 years ago, a VCR cost $400.  My new $175 DVD player was manufactured to only work with a cable box, not a TV, but neither the packaging or the salesman bothered to mention it.  I stopped buying electric can openers when four in succession stopped working after three months.  The microwave would turn itself on in the middle of the night.

So, all the cheap crap from China falls apart or stops working. And the food contains GMOs and BGHs but isn't labeled because Congress has been bought by the corporations.  Or it comes from foreign countries with no  food safety laws, no worker protection laws, no environmental laws, and there are only a handful of inspectors to catch the contamination because Congress gives more money to the Pentagon than to the FDA.  Oh, and did I mention the oceans are so polluted I no longer buy seafood?






Comment by David Jackson
Entered on:

 Hey, Ghost:

     Undoubtedly, what you "report" is true; however, in context, life 100 years ago was "what it was", and most people were pretty much inculturated. Obviously, looking back, living to 46 or so is not much of a benefit to anyone who fantasizes living to 76 or so.

     I recall my grandparents talking about the "good ol' days", when they didn't have ludicrous electric bills, water bills, and food that was totally absent any real nutritional values - refrigerated or frozen mass-produced and chemically enhanced packaged residue, one supposes.

    You are certainly correct about the home "ownership" issues:  How much space does a person occupy at any given moment? How much value is there in owning a home that has less value than when you purchased it, some 20-30 yers ago? How much is one's mental health worth, if you discover you've been screwed by your favorite government and their favored mortgage lending crime syndicate?

     Spending 15% of one's income on worthless food isn't a bargain!

     Four hundred percent of zero is still zero! Where is it that a person who has an income can go to buy something that is priced at a comparable value? Assuming a woman could find a job, today, her husband is likely out of work - or working at something that is so far below a living wage that he might as well not be working at all.

     Medical spending is a sick joke - no pun. Just because a bunch of "body mechanics" have sold their souls and our lives for the almighty buck, doesn't make the inflated costs a bargain, especially, since most people can't afford the luxury. That  infants don't die at an uncommonly high rate and there is some progress in the medical understanding of infection and antibiotics, doesn't mean that 100 years ago we were being abused by the medical establishment - in fact, the opposite is likely more realistic. I don't doubt that there was a time when medical "professionals" actually were professionals and the most decent of human beings, sort of the way law enforcement was for a month or two. That there has been some forward motion in the treatment of communicable diseases is in no way an indictment of earlier efforts, nor is it something that any reasonable person would not have expected.

     The purported benefits of more education are highly subjective and nearly ludicrous:  Being taught lies and bullshit for 12 years, instead of 5, isn't exactly an achievement! Education in the U.S. is a really bad joke, except to those who make a great deal of money pretending to support and promote it. Consensus education, isn't education! It is, at best, indoctrination. It is in fact a scam!

     Without actual proof, I'd still bet that turn-of-the-century teachers were at least capable of teaching their 34 kids - and grossly underpaid; whereas, the over-paid mindless, inept, mental midgets of today are the poorest bargain on the market. I often wonder what most would do if they had to get real work.

     Who is it that benefits from "improved" energy consumption?

      So there are a bunch of pipelines...So what? Why is is that there is any debate about the Keystone line...anyway?

      More Nobel laureates? That's nice. We probably have more Emmy winners and past World Series baseball teams, as well.

       What's wrong with reducing the number of "replacement parts" in the socio/economic/political machine. The only "people" - termed use tongue-in-cheek - who might be somehow affected are the subhuman offal who make their supposed living from manipulation and abuse of the renewable resource that see human beings to be. I don't much give a damn if some predatory politico or coporate asshole gets another vote or another dollar from an unsuspecting and powerless human brain- washed automaton; the world can only benefit from fewer open mouths and closed minds.

     So, Americans don't drink as much as much of the rest of the world...So what? What we don't kill oursleves with in liquid form, we make up for by ranking 4th in the top ten countries that murder its ctizens in the name of capital punishment and revenge - we should do so well with our "external" enemies!

     If we'd bother to defend ourselves, instead of our rank-and-file international enemies, we'd probably not even make the top 40 in defense spending...No one knows how many of our young warriors we'd save from sacrificing it all for a bunch of second-rate cowards and failed social systems. But, then, what would the power mongers and best friends of all those politics do for income and prestige?

     In closing, I don't feel any better or worse. How about you?

Best regards, and keep haunting!   



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