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.
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.