The Volgi pointed me to this blog post via The Corner – there is a website where you can page thru an online catalog of RadioShack catalogs. For those of you too young or not in-the-know, these were thick, mailed catalogs that some of us were excited to see arrive in the mail. We held onto them as a reference guide to purchasing parts for various projects or to replace parts. So this, in itself, is amusing and retrospectively interesting to me. I can remember a number of these catalogs and paging through them finding the new multicolor LEDs (red got boring after a while, green and yellow came along…it was ages until we saw blue ones) or a reuseable IC socketboard where I could drop a 555 timer chip with a smokin’ new 4017 1-in-10 counter chip (the 4000’s series was the new kid compared to the old 7400-series) or attach it to a 4026 decade counter and 7-segment LED driver to make a dice rolling circuit. Of course, if you were building a more hardcore project, you’d likely turn to a Digikey or Jameco catalog.
The blog post has an interesting point: compare the cost of some of the entertainment items in these catalogs. Their main example is a 1964 “moderately priced stereo system” at $379.95. Moderate until you consider the fact that it’s a stereo system that would require the average wage earner to work 152 hours (almost a full month) to purchase. Comparatively, the a current average wage earner today would earn about $3,000 in the same period. Ok, well, we have inflation you say. Well, the article points out that comparing what you could buy (although the article references BestBuy prices and not RadioShack prices) today for that clearly outweighs the “moderately priced stereo system” of 1964. Conclusion: our lives have become better today as not only have improvements in technology been made but they have also driven prices down even an adjustment due to inflation.
While there are other economic comparators such as the Consumer Price Index (which some believe are flawed), there’s the Volgi’s favorite (although I think he’s partial to the McUdon Noodle Bowl) – the Big Mac Index (comparing the price of a Big Mac at McDonald’s, which has some flaws as it is somewhat market dependent geographically…time-wise, it’s not a bad comparator), and there’s the Christmas Price Index (looks at the total cost of the 364 items purchased in the “Twelve Days of Christmas” song). The problem with many of these indexes is the narrowness of the market chosen. Fast food is relatively ubiquitous, but is heavily reliant on the food industry (beef prices, marketing costs, etc.) but has little measure for, say, home prices, car prices or other markets where an hour’s wage might show a decline in purchasing power. The CPI tries to address this using a “basket of goods” approach where the items are common household items, at least domestically, that are comparable across time. In total, the CPI collects prices for roughly 80,000 items monthly.