Historical Myopia: The Good Old Days Were Not Always So Good

Global warming, global cooling, nuclear war, epidemics, mass shootings, overpopulation, extinction, depressions, recessions, artificial intelligence, Seth MacFarlane. “Today” is the precipice of our own destruction and “yesterday” always better, simpler.

The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich, 1968                Time, "How to Survive the Coming Ice Age", 1977                Family Guy

The tendency to romanticize the “good ol’ days” is not unique and not necessarily a bad thing. It is what I like to call historical myopia (not sure where the phrase originated but I’m not taking credit for it). Myopia is the medical term for near-sightedness, meaning an inability to see clearly at a distance. We have a tendency to pick and choose events and eras from the past that today seem better but too often our memory is distorted or only partially informed.

This phenomenon is certainly not new. The Roman poet Horace, in Book III of his Odes (ca 20BC), exclaimed:

What has not cankering Time made worse?

       Viler than grandsires, sires beget

     Ourselves, yet baser, soon to curse

       The world with offspring baser yet.

This post is not meant to be a long, drawn-out treatise, with reams of data and figures, on why things are better now. Instead, my guide will be a Country Living magazine article from 2016, “14 Things That Were Just Better in the Good Old Days”, including some of the most common things we complain are worse today than yesterday

 

  • The price of gas.

There is no better indicator of the strength of the economy in the eyes of the average American than the price of gas. News stories about price fluctuations and prospects for higher prices are as common as the weather report and we fondly remember times when gas was cheaper. Is this true though?

Well, not really. Adjusted for inflation, the price of gas has been rather steady and followed the trend of the cost of living. In 1946 the nominal price per gallon was $0.21, which equals $2.55 when adjusted for inflation. In 1980 the price was $1.22 ($3.50 today), $1.46 ($2.01) in 2000, and $3.44($3.50) in 2012.

annual average gas prices, 1918-2016

In the short term there have been fluctuations up and down but the overall trend of the past century has been remarkably steady with respect to inflation.

 

  • Air travel. Airplanes used to be glamorous – the stuff of movie stars. People used to get dressed up to fly.

On this point I can’t argue although it must be pointed out that people in the post-war period dressed “better” whether flying the friendly skies or mowing the grass. As far as it being glamorous, well glamour is rare. If everything is glamorous then nothing is glamorous, and more to the point, movie stars and other members of the elite flew because they were the only ones who could afford it. We idolize the rich and famous because they possess what we don’t have, yet aspire to someday.

In the 1950’s the average person would pay up to 5% of his yearly salary for a ticket. A trip on TWA in 1955 from Chicago to Phoenix cost $138 round-trip, which adjusted for inflation is over $1100. By 1965 only 20% of Americans had ever flown.

average airfare cost, 1979-2011

The closest international airport to me is RDU in North Carolina. Using priceline.com I chose a round-trip flight to New York in March for $241 (and it’s actually even cheaper as they are running a deal as of the writing of this post for $165). The average salary in the US in 2017 was over $43,600, making that $241 flight to NY just 0.55% of an annual salary.

What about international flights to exotic, faraway places? A round-trip flight to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, a tiny Central Asian country most people couldn’t point out on a map with a gun to their head, costs just over $2000- to fly to the other side of the world in less than 24 hours including two layovers.

Not only is flying available now to the masses but it can take us around the globe in an incredibly efficient amount of time. I don’t know about you, but I am happy to trade a little glamour for the opportunity to explore the world. We are all Magellan now.

 

  • It seems like most items now are not built to last. They want you to have to buy it over and over again.

A great example to refute this claim is the automobile. Americans are keeping their cars for record lengths today, as high as nearly 12 years according to some estimates.

Furthermore, up to the 1980’s, there was a general consensus in the auto industry that 100,000 miles was the limit for the typical vehicle. Most odometers reset after 99,999 miles. I bought a brand new Jeep Cherokee in 1996 and sold it in 2007 with well over 100,000 miles. It never had any major problems and I still see it around town today.

iPhoneAlthough anecdotal, the Apple iPhone is a great example of the quality of modern devices. Apple is the largest company in the world with a market capitalization approaching $1 trillion. Not Exxon, or Wal-Mart, or Bank of America, but a company making hand-held devices, and luxury ones to boot, tops the chart. The iPhone X retails for $1000 yet people line up around the block every year to fork over money for the newest model and it ain’t because their old one bit the dust.

What other personal object in human history goes through as much day-to-day abuse as a smartphone? We drop them on the floor, in the sink and carry it with us everywhere so that it is usually no more than a few feet away at all times. We touch our phone over 2600 times a day on average, yet these devices manage to last for years.

In fact, for those of us who hold on to our phones for several years, the reason for replacement is not that the phone has died but rather the software and hardware has hit a wall. It may be that you can no longer update the operating system to the newest version which has numerous negative impacts, particularly security. In other cases, as apps update they take advantage of the average processing power of current phones. Over time your phone slows down as its processor struggles to run even basic apps.

We buy so many items today because we can- they are affordable and many of us want what is the newest “must have” model. It doesn’t matter how flashy or hypnotizing iPhone commercials are, if the product was a technical disaster the company would have folded years ago. We don’t wish for build quality today, we demand it as part of the package.

 

Conclusion

I think nostalgia is related to our survival instinct, rooted at the core of our existence, all the way to the genetic level. Watch the news or go to any number of online news outlets and I challenge you to find a top story, from the national level down to the local, that reads “Local teenager helps old lady across street”- no, if it bleeds it leads.

That’s not necessarily an indication of our blood lust or debasement but a powerful remnant of our survival instinct. We need to know the dangers that surround us, directly or indirectly. Taking comfort in your past is easy because it happened; nostalgia is thinking, ergo you are alive, ergo the past has been a success, ergo you can now take comfort from the “good ol’ days”, which is like a buffet from which we can pick and choose.

Memory is a tricky phenomenon and we’re rather bad at it. We pick a good time without taking the bad with it. We also pull on the past with no context- “such and such” was better back then, but… We never pull the “but” into the present. The price of airfare for example, we look fondly on the glamour of flying but fail to remember or comprehend that only a small percentage of people could actually afford to take to the skies decades ago.

A little skepticism is a good remedy for historical myopia. It doesn’t mean our past is of no value but always stop to think about the context of your previous experiences and ask yourself “Was it really that good?” and “What am I missing about that time?”

Or maybe you think the past was crappy but still better than today.

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