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The Ralph and Alice Kramden Standard of Living Benchmark

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The Ralph and Alice Kramden Standard of Living Benchmark

Does capitalism work for the average person? Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez say “no,” and call for socialist solutions.  I can understand AOC’s perspective; she was born in 1989, and because schools have dispensed with history (along with cursive writing and analog clocks) her frame of reference is limited.  But Bernie should know better.

 “This is the first generation of Americans that can’t expect to live better than their parents” is a trope that I can recall hearing in the 1970’s, then in the 80’s, again in the 90’s, again the 00’s, and we’re hearing it again today — it’s the perennial battle cry of whichever political party is out of power. And yet, somehow, living standards do improve, for almost everyone, decade after decade.   I won’t clutter these comments with charts and graphs, but if you want data, here’s a good place to start:


But data be damned, the American public knows what it knows.  Incredibly, in a Pew Research Center study in 2017, 41% of Americans answered “worse” when asked if life is better or worse than it was in the 1960’s.  Only 37% answered “better.”  Does anyone remember the cost, fifty years ago, of a long-distance phone call, our viewing choices on TV, or that most cancers were incurable?  Or how about the fact that all the world’s knowledge – what Faust sold his soul for – is now on our desktops, or as likely, in our pockets.


If you really want to see how living standards have changed — and not just for the elite — take a look at an episode of “The Honeymooners.” This was the life of a New York City bus driver in the 1950’s.


Now take a look at this 2016 article from the New York Post about NYC bus drivers making well over $100,000 a year:


I’m not saying a clip from “The Honeymooners” means Q.E.D., case closed, drop the mic — but I believe it does provide vivid and valuable historical context.  After all, TV viewers in the 1950’s didn’t say, “Wait, why are Ralph and Alice living in a shabby apartment with one table, four chairs and no TV?”  This was understood to be “working class” reality at that time.

So if average Americans have enjoyed improved living standards since the 50’s, wouldn’t they be even better off if we were more like democratic socialist Sweden?  Let’s stay with the bus drivers: in fact, the median salary for Swedish bus drivers is a bit less than $30,000/year; less than 1% of Swedish bus drivers make $49,000/year and 0% make more than $54,000/year, compared to $100k plus for the top NYC drivers.  An even better comparison might be with bus drivers in the state of Illinois, which has a population and urban/rural mix similar to Sweden’s.  The average salary of a bus driver in Illinois is $54,000/year.  Virtually no, zero, zilch bus drivers in Sweden make as much as the average Illinois driver.  Sure the Swedes get more benefits, but they also pay higher taxes.  And which system, democratic capitalism in the US or democratic socialism in Sweden, promotes a more vital and productive economic environment?  The computer revolution happened here, not in Sweden, and GDP per capita is about $54k in Sweden, but $62k here.

Of course, the US is messy, chaotic, and in some places crime-ridden — but that ferment is what makes America still the land of new ideas, disruptive technologies, and, yes, opportunity.  Sweden may be neat, clean, and safe — but as the great Chuck Berry sang in 1958:

Oh well, oh well, I feel so good today 
From the coast of California to the shores of Delaware Bay 
Well, I’m so glad I’m livin’ in the U.S.A. Yes. I’m so glad I’m livin’ in the U.S.A. 
Anything you want, we got right here in the U.S.A 

— Chuck Berry, “Living in the USA”


Swedish bus driver salaries:  https://www.statista.com/statistics/792885/salary-distribution-of-bus-drivers-in-sweden-by-salary-group/ 

Illinois bus driver salaries

National economic comparisons: US vs. Sweden:


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