There's been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere lately about whether we're better off--and if so, by how much--than our counterparts in 1973. Scott Sumner has added his thoughts. Here are my further thoughts--prompted by Scott and by some of his commenters.
There are two big issues. One issue is whether we're better off now than in 1973. The other is whether, if we had the same number of nominal $ now as we had in 1973, which set of goods and services (1973 or 2011) we would choose. One could easily answer that he would choose the 1973 set. But if one answered "I would choose 1973," all that would say is that there's net inflation. The net inflation could be as little as one percent a year. In other words, with the same number of nominal $, one could choose 1973 and still, with 4 times the number of nominal $ today, choose to be around today vs. in 1973 at the same age.
So the big issue, if we're talking about the existence or non- of stagnation is the second one above: whether we're better off today and by how much than in 1973. I vote for today.
. One comparison people on both sides of the issue make is on cars. Commenter Mark A. Sadowski pointed out that it takes actually a few more weeks of median income today to buy the average-price car today: 22.1 weeks in 2009 vs. 17.5 weeks in 1973. Good point. Here's the problem. Think of how crappy the average car was then, compared to now. I'm thinking mainly repairs, which are a huge time and money sink. It's not at all unusual to go 80K miles in a car bought recently without much other than oil changes and new tires. That was almost unheard of in 1973.
. There's a huge discussion on Scott's site about the quality of music. Irrelevant (almost.) Whatever music you had then, you have now, plus new options for music produced since 1973. My life would be much poorer without Enya, Journey, Amy Grant, and Norah Jones. (OK, you snickerer--that's right--you. To the back of the room with you. :-)) Why the almost? Because I can't find on-line one of my favorite pieces of music ever: "It's a Beautiful Day" by the Beach Boys. With vinyl records still in existence, I'd be able to buy another one. You probably have your examples too.
. Commenter W. Peden points out just how far Britain has come. It's a long list of positive developments.
. Health care. Commenter Russ Anderson says this:
Other than antibiotics, medicine was still primitive in the 1960's. Hospitals were still, for the most part, a place people went to die. Look at sports medicine. Gale Sayers and Tony Oliva's careers ended prematurely due to knee injuries that would easily be repaired today. "Tommy John" surgery was an experiment in 1973 (on the real Tommy John). Now it is so commonplace and successful that healthy young pitchers are asking to have the procedure to make their arm stronger. You may not find the 5 year cancer survival rate increasing from 49% to 66% significant, but I do (as someone that knows several cancer survivors that would not have survived 20 years ago).
Scott mentions how one could fly in 1973 grope-free. Good point. Government has really messed some things up. I'll grant him that.