Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Good Old Days Are Now

Offered for sale in the 1964 Radio Shack Catalog:

David Henderson at Econlog points to an interesting website that has an online archive of Radio Shack catalogs back to 1939.  David comments, "Choose any date earlier than 10 years ago and you get a feel for just how much our standard of living has increased. The items are generally what we regard as junk--and they're expensive."

One example from the 1964 catalog is the "Moderately priced, excellent stereo system" pictured above for $379.95.  That doesn't seem too expensive, except that those are 1964 dollars, and the average wage then was only about $2.50 (data here).  Measured by the cost of work time required at the average hourly wage, that "moderately priced" stereo would have required about 152 hours of work (almost an entire month, ignoring taxes) in 1964 to earn enough income to purchase the stereo equipment. 

Working 152 hours at today's average hourly wage of about $19, the average American today could earn almost $3,000, and could purchase something today that is infinitely superior to the 1964 stereo (an entire home theater system with a large-screen TV, a few laptop computers and iPods for the entire family?).  Or we could alternatively say that today's consumer only has to work about 5-6 hours to earn enough income to purchase an iPod, nowhere close to the 152 hours worked by a consumer in 1964, for a personal stereo system that most would prefer to the 1964 model.  

Here's one other way to see how expensive that stereo system was in 1964: Working at the minimum wage of $1.15 per hour in 1964, it would take 330 hours of work for a teenager to earn enough income to purchase that stereo system (almost the entire summer working 30 hours per week for 11 weeks).  Today a teenager working at the minimum wage of $7.25 could earn enough income in about two days to purchase an iPod.    

Considering how expensive stereo equipment was back in the 1960s (the $380 model was considered "moderately priced" so there were probably many much more expensive models), it probably makes sense that Radio Shack offer many "do-it-yourself" kits to build your own stereo equipment (and later kits for computers). In today's world of iPods and affordable computer and electronic equipment, who would even think of buying a kit to build your own stereo system or computer?

24 Comments:

At 6/15/2010 8:40 AM, Blogger juandos said...

Ahhh yes! Remember when!

Remember when an IBM PC XT - Model 5160 was a mere $8,000?!?!

 
At 6/15/2010 8:54 AM, Blogger Shakes The Clown said...

I remember spending $4500 for a personal computer, and that was with 1990's money.

People living at the poverty level right now in this country have acess to goods and technology that the richest people in the country couldn't touch 20 years ago.

 
At 6/15/2010 9:52 AM, Anonymous gettingrational said...

" In today's world of iPods and affordable computer and electronic equipment, who would even think of buying a kit to build your own stereo system or computer?"

I understand the point about not having to buy a kit but people still build their own computers. A neighbor kid built his own high performance gaming machine while in high school. He used affordable components from big box and smaller computer stores.

He had a passion for personal computers and the components that make them work. What does the young man do now that he is six years and a college degree removed from high school? In charge of a team that services all PCs at Microsoft's Redmond, WA campus.

 
At 6/15/2010 10:14 AM, Blogger Paul said...

it's fun to build your own computer, and you get exactly what you want. But it's rarely cheaper.

 
At 6/15/2010 12:33 PM, Blogger sethstorm said...

Except what you get is junk that barely lasts 2 years. The 1980's & 1990's machines, a lot longer than that.

Building your own computer isn't about being overly cheap. It's about building in quality while cutting out the middleman.

 
At 6/15/2010 12:39 PM, Blogger Randy said...

I am wondering if the Tandy/Radio Shack stereos were mfg'd in the US back then. Nowadays most cheap/moderate stereo equipment is built by Chinese making a few bucks a day.

 
At 6/15/2010 1:13 PM, Blogger Ron H. said...

juandos said... - "Remember when an IBM PC XT - Model 5160 was a mere $8,000?!?!"

Oh man! Talk about a stroll down memory lane. I remember unsoldering memory chips in early PCs, replacing them with sockets, then installing higher capacity memory chips. All available at local electronics supply stores.

Personal computers were really fun in those days, now they're just tools.

 
At 6/15/2010 1:30 PM, Blogger Ron H. said...

"It's about building in quality while cutting out the middleman."

sethstorm, I'm really surprised to hear you suggest cutting out the middleman. Middlemen - and middlewomen - deserve to make a living too.

I would expect you to be happy to pay more to keep those middleman employees working, but no, you're willing to cost them their jobs for your own selfish gain.

 
At 6/15/2010 2:43 PM, Anonymous Lyle said...

This talk about modern electronics being junk must date people to the post tube era. Recall that in the 1950s and 1960 there were TV repair places on a lot of streets because TV's needed to be repaired a lot, having 20 or 30 tubes. In addition they had voltages up to 20kv around the picture tube when the power was off so you had better know what you were doing.
Tube radios lead to the local stores tube tester, that would tell you if a tube was good, and under the tester was a supply of replacments.
Today TV's go 20 to 30 years without any repair. (Of course today there are so many new features many are not kept that long). I do recall Heathkits that were based upon both tubes and on solid state components having put both together.
So to denouce todays electronics as junk is wrong its far better than that built 50 years ago.

 
At 6/15/2010 3:40 PM, Blogger Marko said...

I have fond memories of visiting the radio shack with my Dad to test the tubes on the TV. When the TV stopped working (which seemed like it was every few months) you didn't know which tube had gone bad, so you opened the back, took out all the tubes and drove to Radio Shack and tested all the tubes and bought replacements. Then you went back and tried to figure out which tube went where. There were always a couple tubes left over, but we eventually found where they went. Fun stuff for a kid, probably not so fun for my Dad (except for spending guy time with his son).

I remember all the kits at the Radio Shack, and all the switches and wires. I would spend hours and hours looking in their catalog. Never did make one of those kits, but I dreamed about it. I think I tried to make a transistor radio once, but failed miserable. Never had the patience to soldier well.

Please note that making your own computer now days is very different from back then. Now it is pretty much buying modular - buy the parts and snap them together. I have done it many times. Maybe you do a bit of soldiering or silver pencil work so you can overclock a processor, but not like the old days. You got a circuit board and a bunch of transistors and doo-hickeys that needed to be soldiered into the board! Big difference.

Anyone remember TRS-80? Man that was the coolest thing in the world. A real computer you could buy and take home, and 'cheap' enough for the hobbiest. I remember looking at programs on cassette tapes for my friends computer. Space Invaders, oh man that would be cool, but it cost like 20 bucks! Too much.

Things are much better now. I have way more money being unemployed than when I had a job back then!

 
At 6/15/2010 3:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Shakes the Clown"

Ah... how few ppl get that cult classic!

As to your comments: that is why Libs must focus on "income disparity" rather than poverty levels. What you say is correct, and hence it is absurd to cry poormouth in the US (esp. versus, say, Bangladesh or Birkina Faso).

Oh no, now we must cry that CEOs make "too many" multiples of the rank & file! "Unconscionable!" Our poorest poor are among the world's richest... (BTW: I've noticed in my urban area that most "homeless" now have cell phones... who pays the bill on those? MP3 players are also common.)

As for prices: for years the baseline was $3000, that is, we tracked what computer you could get for a base $3k. Then the bottom fell out of that reference price as 'puters dropped much closer to $1k (while STILL employing cutting-edge stuff!).

Hieronymus

 
At 6/15/2010 3:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Marko said: "Things are much better now. I have way more money being unemployed than when I had a job back then!"

Exactly!

Are we... doomed?

Hieronymus

 
At 6/15/2010 4:26 PM, Blogger Benjamin said...

No doubt all commodities and manufactured goods (with the notable exception of military hardware, which always gets more expensive) will go down, not up, in price over the long-term.

However, other prices, such housing and health care, seem to get higher.

And rural areas of America seem to require more, not less, subsidy every year.

In Kentucky, the federal subsidy is running at $5k per capita.

 
At 6/15/2010 9:34 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Benji, you left out Milton Friedman in your thread hijack.

 
At 6/15/2010 9:46 PM, Blogger Benjamin said...

I do wonder what Milton Friedman would have said about a military procurement system that buys $14 billion aircraft carriers, that cost $1 billion in the 1970s.
I guess he would label such a system as essentially corrupt, typical of the the sort of ossified state lard expected from large federal organizations.

 
At 6/16/2010 7:49 AM, Blogger juandos said...

Ron H says: "I remember unsoldering memory chips in early PCs, replacing them with sockets, then installing higher capacity memory chips"...

Oh yeah! Those damn soldering irons were hot too! Only needed to grab one by the wrong end once to understand that...:-)

"Personal computers were really fun in those days, now they're just tools"...

Well that's true it seems but the computer can still be built out of component parts, one just has to mail order the damn things now...

None the less its a lot easier today to put together a desktop/laptop computer since they all fit together like tinker toys...

Still the one positive bit about that is a much broader commonality of parts, socket sizes, and connectors... Not a minor detail if time is a problem...

The other upside is sites like PriceWatch rising to meet the needs of people who know what they want and how they want it for their computers...

 
At 6/16/2010 9:24 AM, Blogger Jet Beagle said...

Benjamin: "However, other prices, such housing and health care, seem to get higher."

A few thoughts on this, Benjamin:

1. Houses today are far superior and far larger than those built 40 and 50 years ago. So I'm not sure price comparisons are valid.

2. Land costs have risen sharply in some areas due simply to supply. After all the close land in major metro areas were developed, housing prices in those metro areas should have increased.

3. Health care today is only remotely similar to what was practiced 40 and 50 years ago. Technological advancement has dramatically improved our quality of life, but that technology - and the practitioners who apply it - are not free.

4. We spend more on health care because we are wealthier, IMO. As our disposable income continued to rise, we had to spend it on something. Many of us have chosen to spend more on health care.

 
At 6/16/2010 11:39 AM, Blogger Ron H. said...

juandos said: "Well that's true it seems but the computer can still be built out of component parts, one just has to mail order the damn things now..."

"None the less its a lot easier today to put together a desktop/laptop computer since they all fit together like tinker toys..."

Yes, and I still do build my own. You're right, they are still fun. Maybe I'm just jaded after so many years.

"Still the one positive bit about that is a much broader commonality of parts, socket sizes, and connectors... Not a minor detail if time is a problem..."

IBM set this standard with the IBM AT in 1984. When IBM later produced a micro-channel machine called the PS-2, the rest of the industry said "no thanks", and the basic AT architecture and concept of universal plug compatibility has remained ever since. Few manufacturers have succeeded outside this standard, Apple being the only one I can think of, off hand.

 
At 6/16/2010 12:03 PM, Blogger Ron H. said...

Anon @ 3:47 siad... - "(BTW: I've noticed in my urban area that most "homeless" now have cell phones... who pays the bill on those?"

I too used to wonder that someone with little else should have a cell phone, but I've since realized that a cell phone is important as a connection to the rest of the world.

A job seeker with no address and no phone # will likely have difficulty getting a job.

Pre-paid phones such as this one are widely available, and minutes are reasonable.

 
At 6/16/2010 12:30 PM, Blogger Ron H. said...

Jet Beagle said:

" 2. Land costs have risen sharply in some areas due simply to supply. After all the close land in major metro areas were developed, housing prices in those metro areas should have increased."

2.5 Not to mention the effect of restrictions on land use, such as minimum lot sizes and requirements for "open space", etc.

 
At 6/19/2010 4:55 PM, Blogger juandos said...

"BTW: I've noticed in my urban area that most "homeless" now have cell phones... who pays the bill on those?"...

Ahhh, its your federal government hard at work extorting from the productive in order to pander to the parasitic...

 
At 6/19/2010 7:46 PM, Blogger Ron H. said...

juandos, I too thought that the "Safelink" program provided phones to the homeless, but I guess that's not really the intent of the program.

Under "How To Qualify" I found the following:

"4. You have a valid United States Postal Address. In order for us to ship you your free phone you must live at a residence that can receive mail from the US Post Office. Sorry, but P.O. Boxes cannot be accepted."

I'm sure that requirement is easy enough to circumvent,but it seems the purpose of the program isn't to help those who really need a phone, but merely those who would like to keep in touch with their BFFs.

 
At 11/14/2011 4:20 PM, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

>>> Except what you get is junk that barely lasts 2 years. The 1980's & 1990's machines, a lot longer than that.

Building your own computer isn't about being overly cheap. It's about building in quality while cutting out the middleman.


As someone who has assembled computers from purchased parts for decades, I can say that seth's complaints are, as usual, mindless as well as clueless.

1) Even in the 1980s and 90s, the typical "lifespan" of a computer was 2-5 years, and you usually WANTED to replace the thing after 2 years. It's just that, at $2500 or more each time, you could not AFFORD to do that. At $450, you can afford to replace stuff.

2) You can always spend a bit more -- $700-900 -- and get something a bit less flimsy, if you prefer to not "trade up" in the short run.

3) The downside to Roll Your Own computers is incompatibilities -- the typical parts-assembled computers will generally have 2-3x as many oddball "bluescreen" and parts-crash type issues as one which is sold as a whole. Most manufacturers have a process that catches and reports such issues before purchase and/or after purchase which produces bug fixes and the like, which the RYO types don't have direct input into. They are limited to bug fixes which "just happen" to fix their problems.

 
At 11/14/2011 4:38 PM, Blogger OBloodyHell said...

>>> I do wonder what Milton Friedman would have said about a military procurement system that buys $14 billion aircraft carriers, that cost $1 billion in the 1970s.

I do wonder when, if ever, Bennie will get his cranio-rectalectomy.

First off at least a chunk of that is inflation-adjustment. $2=$1 in 1970s dollars at best.

Another large chunk of it is that modern aircraft carriers are VASTLY more technically developed than the 1970s models.

You might recall a little thing that happened in the 1980s, off a small South Atlantic island grouping called "The Falklands"?

You might also recall that it exposed the vulnerability of surface ships to cheap missiles and the like?

So at lest one thing which has been beefed up, at non-trivial expense, is the protective systems for those same ships against long-range attacks via missiles and the like.

I mean, really, Get A Clue. Comparing a 2010 aircraft carrier with a 1980 aircraft carrier is rathre obviously akin to comparing a 1975 aircraft carrier ("USS Nimitz") to a 1945 carrier's capabilities.

Now go rent the movie
The Final Countdown
which pretty much does EXACTLY that latter thing.

In one single scene, in the middle of the movie, you'll grasp just HOW FAR the technology for flight alone had gone in the intervening 35 years from 1940 to the late 1970s. And realize we are as far beyond then as they were beyond WWII.

A modern car costs well beyond the inflation adjusted cars of the 70s or even of the 50s. They do hold a vast improvement in a number of arenas -- crashworthiness, survivability, and general technical competence -- over those older cars.

The main advantage of the older cars is that they can be worked on by the average person. Modern cars generally require too much specialty knowledge for all but the most determined gearheads. That's a tradeoff, as the modern car outside the pure econobox range is generally capable of 75k to 100k more miles in its lifetime. It also gets much better MPG with much better performance than that 70s car.

So the transportation system we call "a car" is more expensive than that we had in the 1970s -- because we specifically expect much more from it.

So, too, is the case with the tansportation/military delivery system we call an "aircraft carrier".

So go see a doctor about that cranio-rectal thing, Bennie, n'kay?

 

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