Price Check on Aisle 2010

In 1946, Princes's burgers were 15 cents; a nickel more with cheese.

For those of us who came of age in the late 1950s, a couple of ridiculous factors stand out about the economics of those times, when you look at it by today’s money standards. One was the low-cost of everything; the other was how little we got paid for anything we did. In fairness though, can we really compare economic conditions in 2010 with those in 1955? I don’t know. Wiser heads than me have said we cannot, but I’m sometimes a ornery curmudgeon. (You don’t have to be ornery all the time to become a curmudgeon. You just have that gene in you and get older to earn the distinction.)

Economists are a little like baseball historians in this regard when it comes to comparing conditions from one era to those of another. Many say you can’t do it because of the deflationary/inflationary slide that prices take on both income possibility and the cost of living due to changes in the world economy.

What the heck does that mean? If something like a Prince’s hamburger cost us 15 cents in 1945 and now sells for five to six bucks, if minimum wage in 1945 was 40 cents ann hour and then $7.25 an hour in 2009, shouldn’t we be a little concerned with trying to simplify the reasons things have changed. To me, that makes sense, but what do I know? I grew up in the Houston East End, where nobody I know ever took any courses in economics, and where the goal of making $10,000 a year someday seemed like the best answer to all our basic needs.

With all that in mind, here’s what I’ve tried to learn and piece together from banging around in the world for a half century in the marketplace. Feedback, corrections, and additions from all of you are welcome. Today’s subject is about as close as I will ever come to a serious column on world conditions.

Here are the differences i now see between 1956, the year I finished high school and started college, and 2010:

(1) In 1956, we didn’t live on credit cards. If we didn’t have the money for something, we didn’t buy it.

(2) In 1956, we were the manufacturing giant of the world. We lost much of that ability to make things for sale to ourselves and others because (a) our own cost of union labor and (b) federally guaranteed minimum wages took us out of competition from countries that had large supplies of incredibly cheap, exploitable labor.

(3) Even though we make fewer things today, our population continues to grow, increasing competition for the skilled jobs available and pushing more people toward minimum wage service jobs, and subsidy living paid for by the government at all levels.

(4) Job competition in the past half century also has increased rightfully too as a direct result of a more balanced playing field for women and minorities. In spite of the good changes, we still have fewer people working at taxable jobs that pay for everything else.

(5) Americans are now so busy that this need for immediate help from others drives the product and service markets to become the best at “give it to them now and put it on the card” kinds of selling. If it’s popcorn at the movies or a house full of new furniture, you just put it on the credit card and worry about it tomorrow.

(6) Unfortunately, our culture also now gives us a Congress that puts “our” government program needs on the credit “tab” that leaves both the problem and the explanation for debt to our grandchildren and politicians of the future.

(7) Bottom Line: At our present rate, we are in line for a “going out of business” sale that will be immensely helped by the booming new economy of China.

So, what can we do about it, if anything? I’m not sure, but here’s what seems important to me:

(1) We need to find a true bipartisan approach to solving the national debt problem. This business of the party on the outside always doing everything it can to promote the failure of the party on the inside is getting to be like the two sailors arguing over who put the hole on “my side of the boat” with the harmed party getting even by putting a hole on his sailing mate’s floor – just to get even.

(2) We need to start making things we need again – and buying only those things we need with cash. If we sink the credit-spending industry, maybe that’s what we need to do. How can we ever hope to get out of debt when  a whole industry exists to make sure we stay there?

(3) If we could do the first two things, maybe we could also find a way to install the third leg of this stool. And that is – to find a reasonable balance between income and expenses for our so-called American “way of life.” It seems to me that the balance will find itself if we are all trying to live on what we make and then buying only what we can afford to pay for now.

(4) I also think it’s imperative that we find a way to control our borders so that immigration takes place as a legal process. Illegal immigration creates a source of cheap labor that actually becomes an addiction to the American industries that depend upon it, while at the same time passing on the cost of health and educational programs for the children of illegals to the American workers who are paying taxes.

We can’t keep doing what we’re doing and hope to survive as the America we know and love. I will be going back to baseball, local history, and the lighter side tomorrow, but I just had to get this stuff off my chest this Saturday morning.

We are going to need all the guts and wisdom we can muster to survive this one, folks, and I sure make no claim for having any or all the answers. Maybe debt is important to economic expansion, or simply  practically necessary in the matter of homes and cars, but what else do we have to go in the hole to own, season tickets to the Astros home games? As much as I love our team, I don’t think so.

Maybe we can all start the turnaround in this way: It’s Saturday. If you’re going out to a weekend movie, try not to charge the tickets or the pop corn. It’s a start.

And please weigh in with your own thoughts about what we need to do to right the ship of our economy. If we wait on our politicians to come up the answers, left or right, we may just be waiting until hell freezes over. Most politicians seem to be about taking good care of their own needs while they strive to take or hold on to power while hoping to come across to the voting public as people who care about their constituents and their country.

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2 Responses to “Price Check on Aisle 2010”

  1. Bob Hulsey Says:

    Here’s a quick history lesson. Because of World War II, a large, diverse country went through an unintentional experiment and object lesson for the rest of the world.

    A large wall was erected. On one side was an economic system made up of central planning, government-run society where your job, your healthcare and your commerce were all controlled by the government. While the elites lived well, the rest lived an impoverished existence largely in fear of their government.

    On the other side of the wall was a capitalist society where economies grew by businesses striving to make bigger profits and personal wealth, relying on that society to meet the needs of the less fortunate by the charity of those who did not have much in assets. The only economic limits on people were their own desire for hard work and industriousness and the government encared policies to assist in growing and generating more business.

    The first society collapsed after 50 years. As it crumpled, people risked their lives just to get over, under or around that wall. The second society exists today and while it has its faults, it still thrives and is experiencing an economic rebirth.

    One major American political party wants to take the country on the path of the first society. They have already taken over the banks, the auto industry and are designing the seizure of our health care system and replacing it with one totally controlled by the government.

    The other major American political party is powerless to stop them until November. They’d like to see the country follow the principles of the second society, indeed the same economic policy that has served our country so well for 200 years.

    That’s the choice we have in November – choose the party that wants to be like East Germany or the party that wants to be like West Germany.

  2. Bill McCurdy Says:

    Bob –

    Thanks for that most articulate response.

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