As the year in politics closed, Congress and President Obama were arguing over maintaining the Bush-era income-tax rates. Conservatives insisted that the top 5 percent of households already accounted for nearly 60 percent of the aggregate tax revenue and that it was suicidal to hike taxes on the job-creating classes.
Liberals countered that the wages of the middle class have become stagnant over the last decade, and it is time for the wealthy to pay more so that others can pay less. Meanwhile, both sides talked of American decline and assumed that the federal government was either the problem or the solution.
These debates were predicated on ossified notions of relative wealth and poverty as calibrated in money, and ignored the fact that such methods of measurement are archaic in our brave new world. Imagine if just 30 years ago we had dreamed that soon most Americans would have small mobile phones that let users talk or send text messages and photos to anyone in the world for mere pennies per minute — a veritable revolution in daily life brought about without the aid of a massive Manhattan Project–like federal effort. We have gone from “a chicken in every pot” to “a cell phone in every hand.”
Could yesteryear’s Great Society have promised nearly all Americans that they would soon have instant information at their fingertips on almost any topic imaginable, from treating migraines to wiring a house to understanding Dante’s Inferno? Surely the kings, corporate magnates, and Wall Street fat-cats of earlier times would have paid fortunes for the knowledge that is now accorded to almost anyone with a computer at home, work, school, or a library, without the need of expensive specialists, scholars, or books.
Today, Americans have cheap GPS navigation systems superior to what jet pilots used 30 years ago. James Bond’s gadgets seem passé compared to the accessories available on today’s iPhones — all made available to us without a government program.
The country tore itself apart over health care in 2010. What was rarely mentioned is that dozens of cancers that were not long ago tantamount to death sentences are now treatable. For all the talk of an epidemic of obesity and couch-potato sloth, today’s 80-year-olds – thanks to new life-saving drugs, and rapid advances in correcting chronic bone, joint, hearing, vision, and dental problems – often resemble yesterday’s 60-year-olds.
As gas exceeds $3 a gallon in many parts of the country this Christmas, we rail about the rising cost, forgetting that in inflation-adjusted dollars, gas prices are not much higher than what we paid three decades ago. Our far more cleanly burning cars get almost twice as many miles per gallon as their predecessors got in 1975 — cutting our real price of gas in half.
In 1970, I was once given a ride in a plush Cadillac Coupe de Ville. Now, a mid-level Malibu, Taurus, Accord, or Camry is safer, quieter, more comfortable, and replete with a host of standard features that were yesterday’s high-ticket luxury options. I would wager that a basic Kia would run more reliably than the vintage Bentleys and Rolls-Royces of Britain’s Royal Family.
I grew up listening to scratchy vinyl records on a huge, awkward needle player. Now, thumb-sized iPods at cheaper prices hold far more songs and play them with far better quality. Flying used to be an aristocratic privilege beyond the reach of most of the middle class. Today it is an American pastime. Cruises in the 1960s were synonymous with private yachts; now the middle class enjoys luxury liners.
Three-bedroom, two-bathroom suburban houses of the 21st century are warmer in winter, cooler in summer, and with far more appliances and comforts than the vast mansions of the old rich of the mid-20th century.
In sum, Americans are richer, healthier, and have more options than at any time in their history — and in ways that do not usually register in our outdated metrics of what constitutes being wealthy or poor.
Yes, there is poverty still, and tension over relative status and influence. In addition, the good life cannot be measured by material affluence alone, but by peace of mind, security, and opportunities as well.
Yet this Christmas we should all at least give ourselves some credit. In the last three decades, the United States — through technological breakthroughs, improved worker productivity, and the importation of globalized production from abroad — has achieved a level of material prosperity for its 300 million citizens unmatched at any time in the history of civilization.
Quite simply, yesterday’s royalty would not make it into today’s middle class.
—Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern. © 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.