It Gets Better: Sears Catalog Edition

by Ryan Young on September 22, 2011 · 1 comment

in Economy, Video, Zeitgeist

I forget who I’m paraphrasing here, but the two iron laws of modernity are 1) things are getting better, and 2) people think they’re getting worse. The short video at the bottom of this post is one way to prove the first law to victims of the second law. It’s a rough cut adapted from a recent talk Don Boudreaux gave; I eagerly await the full version.

When I took macroeconomics in graduate school, the professor circulated a Sears catalog from 1900 or so around the classroom. Most of the prices were given in cents, not dollars. Now imagine that you could buy anything you wanted from that catalog today at those low prices. They’re still too expensive. Take these vacuum cleaners pictured below:

$12.50 for a vacuum cleaner? What a deal! And yet, given the choice, I would not buy it. Too expensive. I wouldn’t even be willing to pay $5.00 for it. Heck, I wouldn’t even want it for free.

Why is even a price of zero too expensive for that vacuum? Because it doesn’t even use electricity. It’s manually powered. No thanks. I’m better off with the $90 vacuum I bought a few years ago.

Of course, I’ve been ignoring inflation. As a useful public service, the Minneapolis Fed has an inflation calculator right on its homepage. It only goes back to 1913, and our vacuum is a 1909. But that’s close enough for the point I’m making.

If that vacuum cost $12.50 in 1913, it would cost $285.17 in 2011. This manually powered vacuum, that I wouldn’t pay a dime for, is three times as expensive in real terms as my electric vacuum.

Things are better now. Modernity is a blessing. The first law holds. Hopefully the second law won’t prove quite so rigid.

Click here if the embedded video below doesn’t work. It’s well worth 1:26 of your time to watch.

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