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 for others. 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 that such methods of measurement are now 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 ever promised to 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 a crash course in Dante's "Inferno"? Surely the kings, corporate magnates and fat cats of the old Wall Street would have paid millions for such 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. Secret agent James Bond's gadgets seem passé in comparison 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 more than what we paid three decades ago. Our far more cleanly burning cars get almost twice as many miles per gallon as their predecessors in 1975 -- cutting our real price of gas in half.
In 1970, I was once given a ride in a plush luxury Cadillac Coup de Ville. Now, a midlevel 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-model 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 digital music pods 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.
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 always be measured by materialism 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.