If you’ll be doing any Christmas shopping in the next few weeks, it might boost your holiday spirits if you consider that there’s never been a better time in history to be a consumer. Taking into account all of the relevant variables: prices (which have been declining for most consumer electronic products), selection, quality, availability of new products, the convenience of shopping online, access to consumer reports and customer feedback, and overall affordability, there’s no question that today’s consumers are better off than any previous generation of holiday shoppers. Ever.
Here’s one example, comparing holiday shopping fifty years ago to the situation today: Pictured above is a Sears Silvertone Home Entertainment Center (TV, radio and record player) offered for sale at $380 in the 1962 Sears Christmas Catalog available online here at WishbookWeb.com, home of the vintage Christmas catalog archive, with full online versions of Christmas catalogs back to 1933 from Sears, Lord and Taylor, Spiegel, JC Penny, FAO Schwatz, Ward, etc.
In today’s dollars, the Sears Home Entertainment Center above would cost about $2,900. With that amount of money today, what could you buy in the electronic marketplace of 2012? Using current prices from the BestBuy website, the graphic below shows the cornucopia of consumer electronic productions that you could purchase today for less than $2,900, illustrating the dramatic technological advances in manufacturing over the last half century that have made more consumer electronic products available at prices that keep getting cheaper all the time:
Here are the details on the products pictured above:
1. Samsung – 500W 5.1-Ch. Blu-ray Home Theater System for $200.
2. LG – 50″ Plasma HDTV for $550.
3. Dell – Ultrabook 14″ Laptop – 4GB Memory – 500GB Hard Drive + 32GB Solid State Drive for $550
4. Apple iPod touch 32GB MP3 Player for $285.
5. RCA Blu-ray Disc Player for $100.
6. Canon – PowerShot 12.1-Megapixel Digital Camera for $200.
7. Garmin 5″ GPS with Lifetime Map Updates for $100.
8. TiVo High-Definition Digital Video Recorder for $250.
9. Apple iPhone® 5 with 32GB Memory Mobile Phone for $250.
10. SiriusXM Lynx Portable Radio with Wi-Fi for $130.
11. Panasonic 16GB HD Flash Memory Camcorder for $230.
Bottom Line: A holiday shopper fifty years ago with a $380 budget would have only been able to afford one item from the 1962 Sears Christmas catalog – the Sears Home Entertainment Center pictured above. A holiday shopper today with the same amount of inflation-adjusted dollars (about $2,900) could afford to buy 11 state-of-the-art electronic items (a laptop computer, a GPS system, a digital camera, a home theater system, a plasma HDTV, an iPod Touch, a Blu-ray disc player, a Tivo digital recorder, an iPhone, a camcorder, and a portable satellite radio). And of course, most of the electronic products above weren’t even available 50 years ago, so a multi-billionaire in 1962 wouldn’t have been able to purchase items that most teenagers can afford today, e.g. a laptop computer, the GPS system, a digital camera, an iPod or iPhone, etc. To paraphrase AEI president Arthur Brooks, “If you’re not grateful to be an American holiday shopper this season, you’re not paying attention.”
Related: Recently, Paul Krugman and other progressives have described the 1950s as a period of prosperity for America’s middle-class, and Don Boudreaux (also here), Steve Horwitz (“Never has more stuff been available to more people more cheaply than today”) and I have responded. Although the shopping analysis above compares today’s prices and products to the early 1960s, and not the 1950s, my previous conclusion still holds:
If we wanted to identify a “golden era” of prosperity for middle- and low-income Americans based on the affordability of consumer electronic products, that period would definitely be today. Consumers in the economy of 2012 are many times better off than the consumers of any past decade, including the 1950s that Krugman and others wax so nostalgic about. The “good old days” for middle-class consumers are now, not 50 or 60 years ago.