During her State of the Union response, Senator Joni Ernst mentioned growing up in circumstances that required her to wear bread bags over her shoes on rainy school days, to protect the only good pair she owned. People made massive fun of her online, and in response to that both Megan McArdle and Peggy Noonan wrote excellent essays. So, thanks, internet!—I guess.
Both essays point out that the people who ridiculed Ernst demonstrated zero awareness of how dramatically affluence has grown in this country in just 50 years. Noonan:
There are a lot of Americans, and most of them seem to be on social media, who do not know some essentials about their country, but this is the way it was in America once, only 40 and 50 years ago: America had less then. Americans had less.
If you were from a family that was barely or not quite getting by, you really had one pair of shoes. If your family was doing OK you had one pair of shoes for school and also a pair of what were called Sunday shoes—black leather or patent leather shoes. If you were really comfortable you had a pair of shoes for school, Sunday shoes, a pair of play shoes and even boots, which where I spent my childhood (Brooklyn, and Massapequa, Long Island) were called galoshes or rubbers. At a certain point everyone had to have sneakers for gym, but if you didn’t have sneakers you could share a pair with a friend, trading them in the hall before class.
If you had just one pair of shoes, which was the case in my family, you had trouble when it rained or snowed. How to deal with it? You used the plastic bags that bread came in. Or you used plastic bags that other items came in. Or you used Saran Wrap if you had it, wrapping your shoes and socks in it. Or you let your shoes and socks get all wet, which we also did.
Consider the “Little House on the Prairie” books, which I’d bet almost every woman in my readership, and many of the men, recalls from their childhoods. I loved those books when I was a kid, which seemed to describe an enchanted world — horses! sleighs! a fire merrily crackling in the fireplace, and children frolicking in the snow all winter, then running barefoot across the prairies! Then I reread them as an adult, as a prelude to my research, and what really strikes you is how incredibly poor these people were. The Ingalls family were in many ways bourgeoisie: educated by the standards of the day, active in community leadership, landowners. And they had nothing.
There’s a scene in one of the books where Laura is excited to get her own tin cup for Christmas, because she previously had to share with her sister. Think about that. No, go into your kitchen and look at your dishes. Then imagine if you had three kids, four plates and three cups, because buying another cup was simply beyond your household budget — because a single cup for your kid to drink out of represented not a few hours of work, but a substantial fraction of your annual earnings, the kind of money you really had to think hard before spending. Then imagine how your five-year-old would feel if they got an orange and a Corelle place setting for Christmas.
There’s a reason old-fashioned kitchens didn’t have cabinets: They didn’t need them. There wasn’t anything to put there.
Both essayists, particularly McArdle, offer remarkable illustrations of how material advantages which are nearly uinversal today were not that long ago available only to the very wealthy, or simply didn’t exist. Both also resist the temptation to tut-tut about our widespread historical ignorance, so perhaps some will read these tales of how things used to be and marvel.
What the essays don’t address—no surprise, since I rarely see this addressed by contemporary writers, even ones I admire—is whether the change is a blessing, a curse, some mixture of the two, or simply indifferent. I have my own opinions, sketchy and incomplete—but I always find that pondering this is profitable to me in many ways, and so I’m surprised that more writers don’t struggle with the matter in print. Perhaps this is settled wisdom for nearly everyone, but perhaps there is an element of not looking too deeply into the matter for fear of one might discover, and then have to deal with.
All the talk about shoes made me think about my own relationship with shoes, which is mostly indifferent. For awhile I owned a few pairs at a time, never anything fancy, believing that there was some shoe-health-related reason to give each pair a day off. I changed my mind about that, and for awhile had two pair, one everyday and one for church. Then I adopted a 24/7 view of worship, and gave up on the idea of dressing up for church—so, one pair. And that pair has lasted me for about ten years now—not because they were great shoes, but because I don’t care much about their condition. About two years ago I discovered that the top had separated from the sole of one shoe in one spot along the inside. I discovered this because my foot was getting wet in that spot. But I then discovered that, by being careful where I walked, this wasn’t much of a problem. A few months back my dad noticed the pitiful condition of my shoes, and gave me a nice pair that he had bought but didn’t like. So now I have two pair. I wear the nice ones when I come to visit my dad in El Paso, and also to church on Sunday in Frankfort. The rest of the time I continue to wear the pitiful pair.
Please don’t take the above as some sort of humblebrag. It’s not that I take pride in being frugal about shoes, or indifferent to fashion or appearance. I just don’t care about shoes. And the fact that you can get 10+ years out of a pair of $80 shoes—as long as you don’t care what they look like—has saved me a lot of money over the years, money I could use for other things or simply not have to earn in the first place. So I can appreciate at some level the idea that owning more than one pair of shoes might be a source of pleasure but isn’t necessarily an unmixed blessing.
In his book on self-deception, Gregg Ten Elshof recounts his history of car ownership:
I’ve driven old cars for most of my adult life. Two of my favorites have been handed down to me by grandmothers who could no longer drive. The first was a gray 1980 Chevy Citation, complete with sport louvers on the back window. I sold that one for five hundred dollars when a cream-colored 1982 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera came my way from another aging grandmother. My neighbors drive nice cars.
But I wouldn’t have traded with them for the world. Just think of the advantages! I never worried about my cars being stolen , dinged, or scratched. In fact, I took great pleasure every time I let the cart bump ever so lightly against the side panel of my car as I approached to unload my groceries. I parked without fear in the tightest of spaces and never locked the doors. I could change lanes with hardly a glance, knowing that the driver next to me had more to lose. I never had to wash my cars — it wouldn’t have made much of an improvement if I did. And I saved money on gas, not so much because the cars got good mileage, but because, when carpooling, nobody ever wanted me to drive . And then there’s the all-important appearance of being untouched by the materialistic rat race that drives people to own nicer and nicer cars. I looked positively desert-fathers saintly driving around in my beaters. Yes, I loved those cars.
My world crashed in on me when my parents offered me a ridiculously good deal on their mint-condition 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee with four-wheel drive, leather interior, and seats that adjust electronically. I was, at first, sad to say goodbye to my Oldsmobile. Honestly, I was. But it would have been the height of financial irresponsibility to turn down the Jeep, so I condescended to my parents’ generous offer. Of course , after a year of driving the Jeep, I am now fully alive to the self-deluded re-ordering of values that made possible my preference for those old cars. So it goes in ressentiment. We adjust our preferences and values to accommodate whatever is realistic for us.
I believe the writer when he says that the experience of suddenly owning a new car opened his eyes to ways in which he had deluded himself into preferring older ones. Still—all the advantages he lists are real advantages! We always bought new vehicles, nothing fancy but still new, until 2004 when Jerry came along and we needed an eighth seat. We stumbled across a 1995 Chevy Suburban that had them. I remember being mildly proud of myself for finally having put off the burden of vehicle depreciation onto someone else. And for eight years that truck served us well.
Since then we experienced two important changes—reduced financial circumstances, and a son that took interest in auto mechanics. And as a result we went on to select our cars based mostly on our needs. We continue to drive the Honda Odyssey we bought new in 1998 and now has 350.000+ miles on it. After leaving the farm, we replaced the gas-guzzling Suburban we no longer needed with a 1995 Honda Accord station wagon, mileage unknown, for $2000. Maggie bought a 2000 VW Beetle for $2000. And Matthew bought a 1998 Honda Civic for $2200. All have needed work from time to time, but continue to serve us well. I’m mildly nervous on a cross-country trip in the van, but only because a breakdown would be inconvenient—and we don’t travel cross-country much anymore, and the one time we did recently the van performed like a champ.
Again, no humblebrag. We’ve learned to not care much about cars, and that attitude has saved us both money and headaches over the years.
I could go on, and probably will in future posts, but those two examples are sufficient to raise the question: does nice stuff constitute an actual improvement in one’s life? We sometimes behave as if anyone who lived more than 50 years ago must have been insane, in that their circumstances were a (relative) living hell, and yet they appear to have enjoyed life just about as much if not more. I’m not arguing that life was better back then, and we should somehow strive to turn back the clock. But I do think that a deeper understanding of the differences between then and now can benefit us, even free us to some extent.
Some aphorist (reportedly Sophie Tucker) once said, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, honey, rich is better!” Well, we no longer need to take her word for it! Most of us have had direct experience with great wealth, at least in historical terms. If we would now spend some time understanding what life would be like without that wealth, perhaps even tasting the lack of it here and there, we can answer the question ourselves.
And maybe it’s trite to point this out, but I’ll end with it anyway: Jesus disagreed with Sophie Tucker.
And Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” When the disciples heard this, they were very astonished …