Bohanon: The Headlines Haven’t Changed in 57 Years

February 2, 2015

by Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D.

A friend of mine at church brought me a Muncie Star newspaper dated August 21, 1958, that she found when cleaning at home. She pointed to a front-page headline: “New Outburst of Terrorism in Lebanon;” my last column was about Middle East terrorism. Then as now the region is politically unstable and violent.

As I perused the rest of the newspaper, it was uncanny how many stories echoed today’s headlines. Then as now, national Republicans decried Democrats for proposing “big-spending policies.” The difference, however, is that the Republican was President Dwight Eisenhower and the Democrats were the majority caucuses of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Eisenhower decried a looming $12 billion federal budget deficit for 1958. That’s just under $100 billion in today’s dollars. In comparison, the current projected federal-budget deficit for 2015 is $468 billion.

Senators Jenner from Indiana and Butler from Maryland introduced legislation to limit the power of the Supreme Court that was designed to check “a runaway wild court that is tearing down the Constitution.” Opponents said adopting their proposal would “upset the constitutional balance of power.”

At a local level, there were budget problems in Muncie City schools. The Muncie City school system was merging with the Center Township system — and bringing teacher salaries to parity was a cost that neither district had budgeted. It seems the expanding school systems of the 1950s were persistently short of funds just as shrinking school systems of the 2010s are in chronic financial crisis.

Finally, the cartoon on the front page showed a father and teenage son at a car lot with the caption “A father with a teenage boy pleading for a car ought to understand how God feels about some of the praying we do.”

A first reaction to these parallels of nearly 60 years ago is — how depressing. The problems have not gotten better but are worse: budget deficits are larger, terrorism is more widespread and vicious, tensions between the three branches of government have not been resolved, local tax bases shrink while demand for services expand and teenagers make more demands than ever.

On the other hand, it’s somewhat reassuring to know that we have been there before and gotten through it. In fact, by many measures we are much better off, as a couple of prices from the 1958 newspaper reveal. Back then, Goodyear tires cost between $12.95 and $17.95 per tire. Adjusted into 2015 dollars, that translates into $106 to $147 per tire. A quick Internet search indicates the price range for today’s Goodyear tires are $82 to $115 per tire, 20 percent less than in 1958, and the 2015 tires are undoubtedly of better quality.

A pack of three golf balls were on sale in 1958 for $1.29 — which translates to $10.56 in today’s dollars. Today it is easy to find a pack of 12 golf balls for around $12. The balls are cheaper today, although many of us feel quite pressed to find the time to hit the links.

Perhaps the moral of the story is that human nature is pretty much the same despite our material progress, and most of our collective problems stem from human nature. Government overspending, domestic political tensions, violent threats from outside our country and whiny teenagers are part of the human condition. We never solve these problems; we only deal with them.

A corollary is that we ignore the wisdom of the ages at our own risk. Maybe the Bible, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Adam Smith and Ralph Waldo Emerson can tell us more about our predicament than the crop of current talk-show hosts — or even enlightened newspaper columnists.

Cecil Bohanon, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a professor of economics at Ball State University.

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