By Stanley Bing
October 1, 2007

I saw a really good movie this past weekend, 3:10 to Yuma. Four tickets cost me more than $40. Popcorn and soda came to about $20. Parking was free, though. But I digress.

The movie is a super-macho shoot-em-up based on an old short story by Elmore Leonard about a classic confrontation between good and evil in the old West. There’s a lot to recommend it, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about today.

One line in it got me thinking. A Pinkerton, played by the gracefully aging, well-chiseled Peter Fonda, has been hired to guard a payroll shipment destined to be the target of the ultra-smooth and charming bandit, Russell Crowe. Someone is extolling the toughness and tenacity of the Pinkerton, who has been gut-shot but is still walking around. “That’s why they pay them $18 a day,” he says.

Eighteen dollars a day. Top wage in the late 19th Century, I guess. Elsewhere in the movie, you see signs that offer a meal for two bits, i.e. twenty-five cents. The meal probably consisted of a steak, potatoes, bread, some strong drink, stuff like that. Pretty good deal. Except most people were making a couple bucks a day, so maybe not. Maybe that was more than some could afford. In any event, it compares favorably to the $245 my son and I spent at Peter Luger the other night for basically the same fare. But then, I make more than $18 a day, I think… although in 2007 dollars? Who knows?

I’ve always been fascinated by what things cost, what they used to cost, whether what they cost now bears any relationship to how currency has changed, shifted over the years. When my dad parked cars for a living in the 1930s, he made $24 a week. Later, as a tenured professor at a major university, he made closer to $40,000 a year. For that wage, plus some income he picked up on consulting on the side, he was able to afford a big house in the suburbs. Of course, that house was purchased in the mid-60s for $34,500. Last year we sold it for a whole lot more than that.

Housing has gone crazy in my lifetime. When I was growing up, there was an entity in the very poshest spicy neighborhood in the county. It was called “the $100,000 house,” and, since it often sits on acres of land, it now goes for between five and ten million dollars.

Then there’s the automobile. My first car was a Ford Maverick, which came in a color called St. Louis Blue. It cost me $1999 fully loaded. At that time, the most expensive car you could get was a Cadillac, which retailed for about $6000. I don’t have to tell you what even the cheapest vehicle comes in at today, although it’s my perception that prices are now moderating a bit. Like, you can get a pretty good car for less than $40,000 now.

Don’t even start on the price of the gasoline that goes into them. When I was in college, which is not all that long ago, ladies and gentlemen, you could get a cheap gas called Merit for 25-cents per gallon. But you don’t have to go that far back to be shocked. Before the oil industry discovered that we’ll pay just about anything to keep driving — before Hurricane Katrina — people were discussing whether the $2.00 gallon was very far away. Many people said that was impossible. Now we know differently.

It’s not all about inflation, though. It’s just fascinating to ponder what money is worth, here and everywhere. I just read an article about life in Poland a few years ago, where some author was trying to purchase a house for several hundred million zlotys, I think it was. That’s a lot of zlotys for a very small house.

In the works of 19th Century English authors — where the value of money is a huge subject, by the way — individuals are often judged on the size of their income. A very, very wealthy aristocrat in the works of Anthony Trollope may be worth several thousand pounds a year. A perfectly respectable gentleman may, however, get by quite nicely on several hundred. And a cleric may subsist on sixty or seventy. How is that possible? Has the pound shrunk in value so dramatically? Certainly, it’s been devalued several times since 1860, but to that extent? And how much does a person need to make right now to be considered wealthy?

Are you wealthy? I’ll bet there are people who think you are. But could you, like a mogul I know, afford to have a fleet of 15 gorgeous cars simply because you like them? Could you, like Google’s (GOOG) Sergei Brin and Larry Page, go flying around on your own jumbo jet? Or are you rich because you can pick up anything under $500 without thinking about it? Or because you’re the only one with three cows in your village?

I do okay. But sometimes, well, I just don’t know. Last weekend, for instance, I went to a party out on the west coast. The hosts were a couple who made some money in hedge funds and real estate. Their ranch sits on about 100 acres in the middle of a Northern California mountain range. They have a barn and a bunch of stalls. They just finished building their home in the Italianate style, stucco, yellow brick, that kind of thing. There’s an infinity pool in the back. This is one of eight homes they own around the world. Our host said to me, “We’re doing okay, but we’re not as well-off as the folks we know in Jacksonville, Florida. Those people are really loaded!”

I’m sure the people in Jacksonville, by the way, feel the same about all those rich folks hunkering down in, say, Beverly Hills, Grosse Pointe or the Amalfi Coast. With an entry-level Maybach sedan clocking in at more than $335,000, it’s possible that nobody has enough money to make ends meet these days.

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