Daniel Sutter: New Year’s reflections from “A Christmas Story”

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We typically reflect at year’s end on the many events, good and bad, over the past 12 months. I hope that 2015 brought more good than bad for you and your family. The economy affects our life events as well. Whether 2015 was a good year for each of us individually depends in part on the performance of the economy.

Some observers believe that progress, taken for granted for decades, has come to a halt for average Americans. If so, we will have fewer good events in our lives in the future. Some statistics support this belief, notably inflation-adjusted median household income, which was only $350 higher in 2014 than 1989. We have gone a generation with no improvement in this measure of the standard of living.

Other numbers, many assembled at the Human Progress website, suggest that life continues to get better. Recent progress has improved the quality and reduced the cost of many of the “necessities” of life. For example, for Christmas 1979, Sears sold a 19” color television for $459.99, while in 2015 Walmart sold a 19” color TV for $89.99. The 2015 TV is high definition and light enough for easy wall mounting, while the 1979 model needed a sturdy TV table and an antenna to tune in a handful of over-the-air channels.

My favorite holiday movie, “A Christmas Story,” offers a wonderful view of progress over the decades. The movie tells of Ralphie Parker’s efforts to get a Red Ryder air rifle for Christmas, despite the objections of his mother and others that he’ll shoot his eye out. The movie portrays a Midwestern Christmas from the 1940s, yet still reminds me of my childhood Christmases in Michigan a generation later (and not just because of the snow).

Life in the Parker house bears a surface resemblance to, but many subtle differences, from today. A radio, not a television, provides family entertainment. Ralphie’s mother went years without eating a hot dinner, because she waited on the rest of the family, but reheating dinner was very challenging before microwaves. The Parker children, Ralph and Randy, share a bedroom. This is not surprising, as the average house built in the U.S. in 1950 was 1,000 square feet, and many early 20th Century homes were 600 to 800 sq. ft. Today’s average new home exceeds 2,500 sq. ft. I shared a bedroom growing up, but few children today do so.

The Parker family naturally had just one car, and a tire blows out while driving home after buying a Christmas tree. Blow-outs are frequent enough that Mr. Parker tracks his best tire changing times. Tires have gotten much more durable, and we can afford to not drive on patched, old tires. A new set of tires might be expensive, but not so long ago they were a luxury.

Mr. Parker had to work to keep things in the home running. In addition to changing flats, he deals with a frozen fuel line on the car and fixes the furnace. These things required time and knowledge. Today such repairs are so infrequent that many Americans do not know how to change a tire. Imagine if the Parkers had to find a phone (no smart phones) to call AAA every time they had a flat.

More and fancier things and toys, of course, do not automatically make our lives better. The toys Ralph and Randy receive on Christmas morning seem simplistic and boring today, and yet provided them countless hours of enjoyment. Values matter for happiness, and people who rely on gadgets and gizmos to give their lives meaning will be continually disappointed. But better things can and do improve our lives.

One quality running through “A Christmas Story” is a sense of prosperity. In the movie’s opening scene, for instance, children look in awe at the toy display in a department store window. The prosperity was real: post World War II America was more prosperous than any nation in history. The Depression was gone, and with the War over, we could produce consumer goods.

The students at the movie’s Warren G. Harding grade school probably couldn’t have imagined all of the progress they would see in their lifetimes. And this, I think, offers an important lesson for us. Life is great, and yet the future will likely be even better!

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision.

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