Despite the endless whining to the effect that “we’ve never had it so bad,” the number of citizens who own their own homes has soared from barely 50% in 1950 to 70% today, and the typical home itself is more than 50% larger than fifty years ago. In 1950, 24% of homes didn’t have flush toilets, and less than 2% had air conditioning. Today, virtually 100% of the places we live enjoy flush toilets (what a relief) and more than 80% of homes boast air conditioning.
It would be easy to continue in this vein, but you surely get the idea: in terms of options, conveniences, comforts, material blessings, opportunities, no generation in the history of the world has lived as lavishly as this generation of Americans.
I recently spent a weekend in Louisville, Kentucky and ended up staying in the same Hyatt hotel as literally hundreds of competitors in a National Indoor Archery Championship. Normal middle class Americans traveled from every corner of the map, carrying their high tech bows in formidable cases – as if they were toting cellos or French horns. Somehow, these ordinary salt-of-the-earth folk could travel to Louisville, stay in a gorgeous hotel, and pursue a sport that they loved with amazingly complicated and ingenious rigs for putting arrows into targets.
I’ve also recently visited both Las Vegas and Disneyland – neither vacation attraction limited to the rich or the near-rich. Millions of Main Street Americans can save up their money and choose their destinations – enjoying the kind of comfort and elegance and adventure that our grandparents or even our parents could scarcely imagine.
When I grew up, we never stayed in hotels – partially because with four boys my late, long-suffering mother understood her kids might wreck any facility. When we went on vacation together, we invariably went camping – because that was cheap, virtually free. I’ve spoken to many products of similar families from the 1950’s and ‘60’s, where hard-working parents with the Depression mentality couldn’t consider wasting money on restaurants of expensive getaways.
There are many other measures of greatness, of course, beyond material well-being --- and the generations that beat Hitler and later Communism certainly deserve gratitude for the achievements, even though they lived far less comfortable, far more circumscribed lives.
Think about the cruise ship industry: hundreds of thousands of Americans can get away in every season of the year and enjoy the sort of treatment, complete with lavish meals and entertainment, which only royalty enjoyed in the past. For a shockingly low price, retirees and young couples and everything in between can pick up an amazing Alaska cruise in downtown Seattle and sail among glaciers and pods of whales. Middle class families that couldn’t afford to drive cars to work some fifty years ago, now can afford to ride gleaming luxury liners on vacation.
For many of us, it’s worth the effort to try to defend these astonishing, unprecedented opportunities. It isn’t necessarily good news that so-called “environmentalists” and various governmental planners have succeeded in driving more Americans onto mass transit than any time in the last fifty years. Giving up your car and getting on the bus may win commendation from Al Gore, but it does represent a lowered standard of living: sacrificing the independence of taking your own wheels to work. Fifty years ago, mom and dad or grandpa and grandma understand that a country that enabled more people to drive their own cars was a country with a rising living standard; today, as liberals try to push people out of those cars, they ought to be honest enough to acknowledge that they’re talking about lowering living standards.
The left argues that the threat of global climate change requires precisely such diminished levels of comfort and opportunity, but when people comes to understand these long-term goals they’ll hardly see the reduced array of choices for ordinary Americans as a development that’s actually worth celebrating.