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Here’s a question, related to nothing at all we’ve been talking about so far:  where did all the money go, and what happened to mass entertainment to make so much of it cost as much as a mortgage?

I’m not talking about the financial meltdown now.  If we’d been experience a financial meltdown for the last thirty years, what I’m talking about here would still not make sense to me, but at least some of it would make more sense than it does.

Consider the following:  in the year I was born, when my late husband’s father was making $35 a week and newly hired associates in my father’s law firm got $100, when the top tax rate was 90% and started at a hundred grand–when, to put it bluntly, we all had a lot less money than we do now and kept a lot less of it after taxes–the town in which  I lived built a new educational complex.

It was shiny and state of the art and spacious.  A whole slew of new teachers were hired to go with it.  There were new textbooks, new labs full of new equipment, even new sports facilities, which in New England is like saying “new unnecessities.”  Class size was set at no more than fifteen in the lower grades and no more than twenty in the junior high and high schools.   German was added to a language curriculum that already included Latin, French and  Spanish.

Five years ago, well before the meltdown, when salaries were twenty times as high and taxes considerably lower, that same town has found it impossible to raise enough money to do necessary repairs on that same school complex.  They’ve kept up with textbooks, but they’ve had to cut most sports in order to pay for new lab equipment, and class sizes start at twenty-five in kindergarten and go to thirty-five in high school.  German is gone, as is Latin, and French is offered for only two years, less than is acceptable for most college admissions. 

Where did the money go?  Why did we feel that, having very little and only limited means in the 1950s, it was feasible and right and proper to spend it on schools and other public projects, but now, having much more and much lower taxes, such projects are all “too expensive” and it doesn’t matter a damn what happens to our schools and roads and bridges?

Or take what I think must be a related phenomenon, although  I don’t know how the relation works.

When I first went to the movies, it cost a quarter for a child’s ticket.  Five or six years later, it cost sixty cents.   Movies were, from their beginning, an entertainment form aimed at people with very little ready money.  Now movie tickets cost nine dollars in the evenings around here and seven at the matinees.  If you’re an adult taking two children, it would make more financial sense for you to buy the DVD than to go tho the theater.  The cost of food and drink at the theater is high enough so that the total of three small popcorns and three small drinks would get you all lunch at McDonald’s.

And it isn’t just movies–try going out to see a baseball game.  Prices for season tickets for any professional team are crippling, single tickets for single games are nearly impossible to find, and good tickets have price tags that look like car payments.  The days when “subway series” meant that all these working class guys in Brooklyn and Queens got a few days out at the ballgame are over.  If you’re not working for  Goldman Sachs, you can pretty much forget it.

Virtually everything that was, in my childhood, an activity for people who didn’t make much money is now too expensive for most of those people to afford, or at least to afford on a regular basis.  When my mother was a child, in the Great Depression, when her father had lost all his money and there wasn’t much in the house from day to day, she could still afford to go to the movies every week.  These days, somebody in her position couldn’t go at all.

The mass entertainment thing is related to the public projects thing because in both cases, people who don’t have much are being deprived of something I grew up taking for granted that everybody would have.   There are still world class school systems in pricey suburbs, but next door, in Danbury or  Waterbury or Bridgeport, the schools are worse than hopeless.

And I’m not talking about pedagogical methods here, I’m talking about schools without enough textbooks for all the students, without enough chairs in the classrooms, with inadequate heat, with bits and pieces of floors and ceilings missing.

Yes, schools in rich towns were always better than schools in poorer towns, but the fact is that most schools in this state were at least adequately built and maintained right on up until the seventies.   Now it costs “too much money” to do that, just as it costs “too much money” to fix the potholes in the streets or get the snow cleared well enough so that old ladies don’t fall down and break their necks or put in a new sewer system.

Where did all the money go?  Why, when we had much less than we have now–or at least much less than we had a year ago–do we think it’s “too expensive” to keep up our roads and schools and bridges and parks? 

And what happened to “mass entertainment” that so much of it has become financially off limits to most of the mass?

Sometimes on this blog and in the comments to this blog, we talk about senses of entitlement and I don’t know what else, but it seems to me that we have development a sense of entitlement about trivialites–I deserve a $600 PlayStation 3–and lost any sense of being entitled to, never mind responsible for, the important stuff.

Written by janeh

January 27th, 2009 at 6:23 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Demographic'

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  1. I don’t think I understand economics.

    I have opinions on it anyway, of course.

    First of all, economic comparisons over time are very tricky because of inflation and because of different ways of accounting and paying for different things. So I’m not entirely convinced that the difference is that unexpected.

    For example, pay scales and other job-related factors matter a lot. If you want teachers with degrees, especially degrees that could earn them a lot elsewhere, you’re going to have to pay them a lot more that the usual rate in the 40s and 50s. This goes double for female teachers – there were a LOT of women who went into teaching, nursing and secretarial work back then, earning even less than the male teachers, who don’t even consider teaching at all these days. When a modern government is building roads, they not only pay their workers more than they did, they provide various ‘insurance fees’ against injury on the job and unemployment. Standards change. Schools back then didn’t have – or need more than a fairly basic science lab. There was no need for a computer lab, for example. Of course, if your schools are like ours, they’ve probably eliminated the home economics and shop rooms, which might save some money.

    Maintenance is always a boring and easily put-off expense, at least until you get a lake downtown (as Montreal did recently because of its ageing water system). Or until your school collapses.

    I strongly suspect both movies and sports are run on far more expensive lines than previously, partly due to salaries, partly due to technology (in the case of movies, particularly). It must surely cost far more to make an average movie today than years ago, even taking inflation into account.

    Maybe someone else has actual knowledge instead of speculation!


    27 Jan 09 at 6:42 am

  2. In the 50s & 60s, upstream of the teachers, how much administration & overhead was there? A principal, a school nurse, some admin workers (making not much money) in the office, perhaps a part time counselor, and a janitor. Above them, the school board, and some staff in large school districts.

    Now, we’ve got multiple layers of principals, vice principals, asst. Principals, social workers, counselors, special ed aides, regional and district admin staff, security personnel, maintenance workers, school lunch managers & staff, people to deal with testing and state & federal subsidies, managers of programs for special ed, gifted students, paid coaches for sports, and on and on and on.

    When you hear that each class receives something like $350,000 per year in state & federal money, you do tend to think “WHERE is it going?” because the teacher salary and overhead costs of the building/supplies don’t come anywhere near that. I think it all goes into administrative costs and compliance costs for testing and teacher accountability programs. So, are we getting better educations for all the extra bucks? In some ways, yes. In others, no.

    Movies used to work on a studio system, where contracted players, even big box-office stars, were set to work in several dozen movies per year for a SALARY, with limited crews and no need for special effects. Screenwriters were contracted as well, and costs were controlled and movies were made for a reasonable multiple of the standard ticket price.

    Now each movie has hundreds of credited contributors, hundreds more uncredited. Each movie is in essence a small business, with capitalization and eventual profit (or not). Some businesses are better run than others, of course. An average movie production cost now is in the hundreds of millions of dollars, with CGI effects, and star salaries in the tens of millions, per actor. Not to mention profit participation by the stars. Probably, if it were all figured out, that $10 movie ticket IS still near the same proportion to the cost of the movie that $.25 ones were. And it probably takes about the same time to earn $10 that earning 25 cents took back in the 50s.

    Interestingly, I learned that given the distribution deals and what theaters pay to get movies from the distributors, ticket prices barely cover the theater’s costs of renting the movie, and all profit has to come from food sales. Thus we get the $9 bucket of popcorn that actually costs a dime, and the $4 box of candy.

    During the elections-before-last, here in California, we learned that in the 1960s & 70s, something like 20% of the budget was spent on “infrastructure,” roads, bridges, schools, like that. Currently it is something like 1%. No wonder everything is crumbling. Where did that money go? It got sucked into the “general fund” which is code for social entitlement programs, medicare, etc, that suddenly began taking up so much more of the costs of running the state. It’s easy to delay, for another year, the filling of potholes, when you have needy people who have to be served. However, when you spend a large percentage of the money on making sure that only “deserving” people get the help, then you’ve got administrative overhead sucking up resources.

    What’s the solution? Common sense looks good to me, but I’m not consulted. ;) Are we in fact entitled to the things our parents took for granted? We’re only entitled to what we’re willing to pay for, but unfortunately, we’ve lost touch with and control of those people who are spending the money FOR us. It’s all just grown into a system too big to influence, and too unwieldy to change easily.

    Even the Governator has been defeated by the Budget Monster. Too many entrenched bureacracies interested only in continued existence and growing power make sure that spending will continue. Please step up your tax payments now, please. Disregard your need to save for the future. We need it now!! Oh, and in the future too.

    I’m afraid that this applies in spades in the federal arena. I am not a happy taxpayer right now.


    27 Jan 09 at 3:40 pm

  3. I doubt if there is a simple answer but there may have been a change in government salaries. My parents were about 30 when the Great Depression started. I remember my father saying that at that time civil service salaries were low because they were secure jobs. People were willing to work for below average wages as long as they were guaranteed job security.

    Another factor may be that we are living longer. That increases the costs of Social Security, pensions and mecdical care.


    27 Jan 09 at 4:45 pm

  4. A friend is about to retire from a small Indiana school system. When he started teaching, the system’s administration used what had been a three-bedroom home near one of the schools. Currently, it fills what used to be a fair-size Junior High School.

    When I came to what has become my home town as a Second-grade student, it was very much as you described–gleaming new schools and all, though our classes ran a bit larger. School administration was mniscule–a principal and a secretary per school and a school superintendent and some clerical staff downtown. We now have a complete purpose-built building of admnistrators, and they won’t all fit. And rather than close our most decrepit high school–even though there was vacant space in the others–we rehabbed it at $40,000,000–more than a new building owuld have cost. This was a tribute to ethnic pride, if you will. (By the way, the school board screamed bloody murder when the voters recently refused to pay for a second gymnasium for every school in the system. We were failing to invest in the education of the next generation. Mind you, no one proposed adding laboratory or shop class space, or library shelves.)

    The Washington TIMES ran similar stories for the DC school system a few years ago–some of the highest per-capita spending in the nation, and the worst results. But the school board has District-provided limos and chauffeurs. Spending per pupil goes up after inflation all over the country, decade by decade, but it’s not being spent on teachers salaries, textbooks or reducing class size. It’s swallowed by administration and administrators.

    My home town, by the way, also recently built a down town sports stadium and a convention center at public expense and have guaranteed the profits of a downtown hotel. The city council was furious when the state capped property taxes on private homes. How could the city be expected to pave streets or pay for schools? (Perhaps if the fans paid for the stadium, the attendees the convention center and the guests supported the hotel?)


    27 Jan 09 at 5:07 pm

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