Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Don't squeeze me in!

That's what my beautiful friend Rebecca said to a cute guy in the library from her vantage in the expandable stacks.

You could say that everything is getting cheaper except for almost everything you need. We need places to live, energy to move, education to move up, and insurance to stay healthy. The productivity revolution isn't doing much to make those things more affordable.

Even after decades of building up and building out, homes and apartments are still prohibitively expensive in our most productive cities. Adjusted for inflation, home energy costs doubled between 1967 and 2003, and continued to rise in the last ten years. The cost of medical insurance is growing faster than wages. Tuition and higher education fees are growing even faster....

The reason why toasters are cheap and health insurance is not is that the productivity gains that made toasters -- not to mention computers, media*, durable goods, food, and clothes -- more affordable are not spilling over into health care. The next chart from McKinsey tells the story: More than half of total productivity growth comes from computers and information technology. Practically zero comes from health care and education. In fact, one reason why heath and education are adding the most jobs today is that employers can't meet new demand with technology or offshoring. They have to keep hiring people.

Health care isn't cost-effective because .... well, there are so many reasons. But perhaps the most important reason is that there are not clear incentives to make it more cost-effective....

From 1970 to 2010, real GDP doubled while real earnings fell by 28 percent. Two labor trends helped to offset this reversal. First, and very happily, women stormed into the workforce and supported their families with income. Second, and less joyously, everybody worked much harder. The typical two-parent family worked 26 percent more hours in 2010 than in 1975 but the middle class still feels incredibly squeezed.
Remember when we talked about the tropes of '80s commercials? Because John is writing a novel that's set in the '80s, he's been picking up old magazines here and there as a form of research. The ads in these magazines are fascinating. You'll see things like a full-page or even full-spread ad for a "slim-line" telephone (with a number pad right on the receiver!) or other shitty electronics, clearly marketed to a middle-aged middle class. They're weird for (at least) two reasons:
  1. There is so much damn text in these ads. You're basically expected to read a short story to get the gist.
  2. Electronics are generally marketed to a much younger demographic now. It seems like adults copy their kids when deciding what kind of phone, etc. to buy.
Other weird things:
  • As previously noted, there was more of a blue-collar (but white) presence in advertisements in the '80s. Perhaps now it is assumed that blue-collar whites have no buying power and are not worth targeting? (Additionally, perhaps, it's assumed that blue-collar whites don't read magazines?)
  • It feels like half the ad space in, say, an old LIFE magazine are devoted to booze and cigarette ads. These ads are hilarious: They all deliver a "You deserve it!" message. The cigarette ads depict stuff like a sweaty dancer having a smoke in the studio after ballet class. You've earned it! The booze ads show middle-aged, middle-class white people in sweaters sitting around in groups laughing while they drink brandy and obscure liqueurs on the rocks. Stuff like Midori and Galliano. You deserve it! Again, booze ads these days are mostly targeted at college students and 20-somethings it seems: what to drink when you're hitting da clubz (probably vodka).
Check this one out (click to enlarge):

"When you're feeling a bit bored by your usual -- try it on the rocks. If you're more bored than usual -- try it in a snifter. Of course, when you raise your glass, you'll also raise a few eyebrows. But surely you've done that before." Really? Did this ad convince anyone tequila is a classy alternative to scotch? In another ad there's a guy with the exact same haircut and smug expression saying, "Bourbon? No thanks. I've switched to Gold Rum and soda. It's smooth, it's light."

More weird crap from 1980s print alcohol ads:
  • "A Harvey Wallbanger is more than just a gold-plated screwdriver. It's the party drink of the decade."
  • "When I play, I strive for the highest quality in my performance. I look for the same standards in my vodka." (Attributed to Pinchas Zukerman in a Smirnoff ad.)
  • "First there was light. Followed soon thereafter by man and woman, a.k.a Adam and Eve. Then came the business with the apple, and before you could say, 'You snake in the grass,' five zillion years went by. But all wasn't for naught, because that fateful faux pas not only altered the history of haberdashery but also inspired the creation of DeKuyper Original Apple Barrel Schnapps."
  • "When you go south with Avocados [sic] and Jose Cuervo almost anything can happen. And usually does."
Unrelated: Here's an unexpectedly dire caption below a cuddly animal photo in the September 1984 issue of LIFE (featuring Michael Jackson on the cover): "At dawn a lioness nuzzles a cub whose mother, along with the rest of the pride, is gnawing on a wildebeest carcass nearby." "Gnawing on a wildebeest carcass nearby" is my new away message.

Bonus sexist caption on a New Yorker-style cartoon in a 1984 issue of Playboy (showing a woman holding a newspaper next to a man in an armchair with his head in his hands): "Sam, you must read this article! A study has shown that some people suffer from depression as a reaction to other people's telling them what to do." (Speaking of captions, I enjoyed this article about the hordes of celebrities trying to crack the New Yorker's weekly caption contest.)


  1. Ha ha, John reads Playboy but just as "research for his novel." That's a classic 80s trope right there!

  2. I was going to post something about how the burst of the education bubble is going to make the housing bubble looking like nothing more than a blip, blah, blah, blah, boring.

    But then there were smoking/deserving ballerinas, haberdasheries, and wildebeasts, and suddenly this post turned into the funniest thing I've read today. I literally LOL'ed. Thanks!

  3. Well goddammit, you're welcome!

  4. I second Christen's sentiment--nice work balancing the terrible economic material with heap of whimsy.

    And I could read old ads from bygone decades all day. I got a huge book of them from the 1940s and 1950s to do some research and almost every single page had an LOL moment, or at least a WTF one.

  5. the stereotype of a nagging wife is sexist? i'm never gonna understand sexism.

  6. Yeah, vintage ads are gold.

    Allen: Yeah, I think so. Have you seen that video with clips of old coffee commercials? The husbands are always being dicks to their wives about coffee.

  7. is the cuervo guy an example of an 80s DB? a db before there were dbs?

  8. uhoh now i'm not sure i know the diff. is a db more like the jersey shore guys? in my book mr cuervo (well, taking into account the caption) is a db. i think i need to hear someone talk before i can call them a blowhard.

  9. wait, take it back, i get it, cuervo guy would never pop his polo collar.

  10. Okay, just to reveal where I am on the evolutionary food chain -- I had to Google "db" to figure out what it means. So okay, I'm clear about that detail now.

    One of the ads that came to mind as I was reading your post (and again maybe revealing something of where I am on the evolutionary food chain) was a cigarette ad in a magazine -- maybe from the early 1980's -- which showed two women in a bar, talking, and there may have been one or two other women at the edge of the image, and the woman talking was gesturing with her hands in front of her, maybe a foot apart, palms facing each other, in a "it was this long" gesture. And her friends were looking at her in mild disbelief. The ad caption in large letters, as I recall, was "Wild with pleasure."

    And you mean tequila isn't a classy alternative to scotch? Who knew?