Marc Carlisle: I got an Aspen lifestyle reminder in the mail
In 1973, the price of a gallon of gasoline shot up overnight by half, from 39 cents a gallon to nearly 60 cents for a gallon of regular leaded. Unleaded gasoline wouldn’t make its debut for three more years, three years of dull anxiety as drivers waited in line to fill up their tanks. The closer to the pumps, the higher the anxiety among drivers who were fearful the pumps would run dry before they could tell the service station attendant to “Fill ‘er up.” As the economy fell into recession, and teetered for a time on depression, the happiest people in this country were economists, able in real time to study the effects of a massive price shock on output, wages and production. Drivers’ reaction to higher prices was of special interest; while everyone accepted the notion that as the price of gas went up, people would buy less, economists could only guess how much the price had to rise before drivers would actually start to drive less, or at what price drivers started walking to the store or taking the train to work.
The basis conclusion that has held true until today was that for the first 20 percent over a short time, drivers would grouse but would pay. But when the price rose by more than 20 percent within 90 days, drivers stopped grousing and started hiding the car keys.Once a week, I check my mail. While the box is always full, there’s not much inside, mostly quaint bulk mailers and credit card offers. I probably would go to the post office even less often if I could talk the postmaster into recycling all the obvious junk mail, but this is Summit County, and checking the mail is a social outing, not just an errand. Sorting the junk mail gives me a chance to linger as I fill up the blue recycling bin and say hello to whomever the cat drags in. Before I began paying bills online and reading my magazines and newsletters on line, I would have felt vaguely self-conscious about sorting my mail in public.
Typically, I could care less, although four times a year there is an exception. Once a quarter, I receive the latest issue of something called Aspen Peak. I don’t know why, the magazine simply started showing up about five years ago. At nearly four pounds an issue, the glossy pages of the Peak provide the latest breathless gossip, complete with posed and occasional candid photos, from a world with which I am unfamiliar. The latest issue, which I feel nervous handling for fear of smudging the shiny pages, has no fewer than a dozen separate full page ads for diamonds I’ll never buy and jewelers I’ll never visit. High resolution photography offers big homes and bigger homes, clothing lines whose names I would surely mispronounce worn by models of unnatural dimension, and drinking spirits sold for status and not for taste. Finding a copy in my mailbox makes me self-conscious, and if someone happens to say hello to me when I have a copy, I feel obliged for no good reason to explain unasked that nope, the Peak’s not me, didn’t ask for it, don’t subscribe. In the 1970s, glossy photo magazines like the Peak were more common, although most folks wouldn’t remember that; more than half of adults hadn’t even been born in 1973, so they wouldn’t remember either a magazine era or 39 cent gas. Maybe that helps explain why in 2007, when the price of a gallon of gasoline has soared by nearly 60 percent since the first of the year, the economists can’t begin to explain why we’re actually using more gasoline, and not less, a lot less. A handful of Americans are more wealthy today than in the 1970s, but not many, although a large number think that they are. In the 1970s, the largest mortgage available from a bank had payments that amounted to no more than one third of your annual income, and then only for your primary residence. Today, too many feel wealthy with a subprime loan for a million dollar spec house that might be featured in Aspen Peak, debt on top of the home mortgage, a home equity line of credit, and credit card debt that averages $20,000 per household.
Living an illusion of wealth is risky for the dreamer and dangerous for the rest of us. I get the Aspen Peak for free, but I’m going to cancel it just the same – I was around in the 1970s, and I know I can’t afford the lifestyle anymore. Marc Carlisle writes a Thursday column. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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