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Home / Economics  /
How Good Were The Good Old Days Really?  Part II.  
 Erawan Hotel Bangkok 1964

Better usually means newer, shinier, and pricier -- but not always: the Erawan Hotel of Bangkok, circa 1964.  

In Part I of this article, I articulated how the good old days are overly romanticized as being cheaper than they were. The illusion of cheapness comes from noting the prices as they were listed back in the so-called "good old days." Once inflation and purchasing power are introduced into the equation, bargain basement list prices like 5 bottles of Coca Cola and $3 cases of beer can actually be more expensive than similar products today.  Only cigarettes, with higher taxes levied on them since 1968; movie tickets, which are increasingly less relevant since we consume more high definition entertainment at home; and a child's Disneyland admittance, an occasion most of us would rarely indulge in were cheaper in the past. 

In point of fact, most of the items which count, the ones we define as life's labor saving conveniences and pleasures, are cheaper now than they were in the past.    In 2001, a state-of-the-art Sony VAIO PCG-SRX99 laptop computer with its 10" screen cost $1,500 ($2,000 in 2014 dollars). That 'powerhouse' came with an 850 Mhz Pentium III-M processor, 256 MB of RAM, 20 GB of hard drive storage, and one USB port.  Today's finest smart phones are more powerful than this Sony laptop and at less than a third of the real price in terms of purchasing power. 

In 1937, a round trip airfare from San Francisco to Hong Kong cost $1,710, equivalent to $28,465 in today's money, about three times a 1937 American citizen's annual disposable income.  I just looked up the modern day airfare for this same trip, and it costs $900, less than 3% of a present day flier's disposable income, and it takes less time, including the layovers, than flying between New York and Los Angeles in 1937.   Today's economy class passenger flies better than yesteryear's first class one. 

Nothing new here.  Technology has always allowed later generations to use as standard what it cost previous generations an arm and a leg to do at a fraction of the quality and convenience. 

When we, born of the present day, look back the past our parents and grandparents romanticize, it's all too simple for us to dismiss the hype because of all the technological wonders the past lacked. We don't have to look too far in the past in our own lives to see a world without the internet, digital home entertainment, or smart phones. Our own children might be wondering how we were able to function "back then" without these modern day marvels, yet function we did. 

Because a citizen living back then could not miss what didn't yet exist.  A 1960 television viewer didn't cry in front of his home TV screen because it was small and in black and white. A 1966 mother didn't shout obscenities when she had to pay $1 ($7.33 in today's money) for a three-minute long distance call on Sunday from New York to Seattle to talk to her daughter. A 1985 high school student didn't bitch about going to the library to research his term paper instead of doing it on the internet. A 1996 cellular phone user didn't condemn his antennaed device for not working like a smart phone.   

Seen from the vantage point of the time period, each of those citizens thought s/he had it pretty good technologically.  The 1960 television viewer would have marveled that his 17" Philco set cost just $249 (almost $2,000 today) when ten years earlier he would have had to pay $499 ($4,928 today) for a 12" one.    The 1966 mother would have been thrilled at the $1 three-minute phone call.  Thirty years earlier, she would have paid twelve times the price. The 1985 high school student would have been glad that the library he was doing his research at had multiple encyclopedia sets, microfiche machines, and was air conditioned; this would not have been a foregone conclusion twenty years prior. And our 1996 cell phone user would have been happy enough to be walking around with an affordable pocket-sized cell phone. A decade earlier he'd need a backpack to carry around his limited capability phone.  

So for us to assess the past and whether they really were the "good old days" for the people living in them, we need to take technology out of consideration.  It's already a foregone conclusion that tomorrow's citizenry will have it better off technologically than we do. 

As a case study for determining whether the good old days were really better or not, I use my present home of Bangkok, Thailand and do my best to compare it to the Bangkok of 50 years ago.  Bangkok is a good case study. Between 1964 and 2014 Bangkok is like a sped up version of the way richer countries evolved from the beginning to the end of the twentieth century, a quick way without spanning too much time to compare the "old" with the "new."   

Since I am analyzing the "good old days" from the perspective of a Western man who grew up in the USA, I will analyze Bangkok's altered landscape and experience over the 50 years from a Western perspective as well. We will imagine two average American men, one from 1964 and one from 2014, coming to Bangkok for a one-week vacation and examine their typical experiences in order to arrive at some kind of measure of what seems "better."    The purpose of this exercise is not to determine how the experience of a local Thai resident in Bangkok in 1964 and 2014 has changed over the last fifty years. This change would be far more dramatic and a different topic from the one I've introduced. 

We already know that flight travel has come down tremendously in cost over fifty years. Mr. 1964 would have had to pay about $1,100 in today's money just to get from California to New York. Never mind what he'd pay to fly over the Pacific and how long it would take. So we will assume that both Mr. 1964 and Mr. 2014 have won free tickets to Bangkok, for if they did not, international air travel would have been out of reach for the average man of 1964. 

Mr. 1964 and Mr. 2014 journey to their respective Bangkoks with different standards of living.  We've already gone over in Part I how people's disposable incomes in real terms have risen over time.    Mr. 1964's disposable income, in 2014 dollars, is $19,362; Mr. 2014's is the 2013 figure we calculated in Part I increased by 1.5% (the average of the GDP per capita annual growth rates between 2009-13) equal to $34,968. Mr. 1964's disposable income is 55% that of Mr. 2014's.  

Mr. 1964 checks into the Erawan Hotel, one of the nicest and largest hotels in town with 200 air-conditioned rooms. He reserves a double room (363 baht/night, including service) and books breakfast, lunch, and dinner at his hotel (105 baht total with service = $5.20). His total daily outlay for meals and accommodation is 468 baht, then equal to $23.40, and in 2014 dollars, $176.48. Over the course of a week, he will spend $1,235.36 or 6.4% of his annual disposable income. 

By 1964 standards, Mr. 1964 will not be disappointed. He enters the reception, which looks like someone's extra large living room. He can be waited on and have drinks served to him by the attentive staff in the Terrace Bar. The swimming pool is surrounded by tropical gardens, and as Mr. 1964 swims in the hot humid climes, he looks out at the bare skyline around him.  The hotel boasts Le Cave, Southeast Asia's first and only wine cellar, and its Ambassador Club features Thai classical dance every night.  Staying at the Erawan is a very Thai experience, and everyone who stays there raves about it. 

Erawan HotelBy 2014, the Erawan Hotel is gone. It was razed in 1987 to make way for the 380 room Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel, another 5-star hotel of the present day variety sporting all of the expected modern amenities.   Mr. 2014 secures a grand king room here with breakfast which costs 7,100 baht. Add on 2,900 baht for lunch and dinner in one of the Grand Hyatt's 5 restaurants, and Mr. 2014 is looking at a daily room & board expenditure of 11,770 baht ($358) with tax and service included. Per week, Mr. 2014 spends $2,506, about 7.2% of his annual disposable income. In purchasing power terms, Mr. 2014 pays slightly more than Mr. 1964.

Mr. 2014 gets to swim in the pool overlooking Bangkok's now much expanded skyline. When he swims his lap in one direction, he looks at the 7-story Central World Department Store with its 45-story office tower building beside. In the other direction, he sees the 22 stories of his own hotel. After his swim, he works out in the hotel gym and chills out in Grand Hyatt's Isawan spa. 

Luxury in 1964 is not as luxurious as luxury in 2014. That's a given. Were the Erawan Hotel of 1964 transported to 2014, it would be an anomaly, a 3-star hotel in terms of facilities but with 5-star service. Who would check in and be willing to pay elevated prices on an aging property, one reason I am sure that it was torn down after 31 years in business. 

Mr. 1964 savors other pleasures.  He drives on uncongested Bangkok streets. The population of the city is only 2.5m and not many people can afford a car.  As he's escorted around in a private vehicle, he spots the many klongs (canals) that once constituted Bangkok. 

Mr. 2014 experiences a Bangkok with over 10m souls.  He can see the traffic gridlock right from the hotel entrance. His Bangkok is more industrial and polluted, and despite the affordability of a private car for the week or a taxi, he makes do with the city's Skytrain and mass rapid transit links. The quaint klongs were filled in and turned into roads or land for more buildings decades ago.  

Our man from 1964 is greeted with smiles wherever he goes. He is rather a rarity. Only around 200,000 foreigners visited Thailand annually in 1964.  Blissfully unaware of what's going on back home, at night, he journeys to the night spots of Sukhumvit, first stopping by a popular bar called the Copa between sois 5 and 7. With central Bangkok being quite small and the number of visitors so few, Mr. 1964 runs into the same people again and again and strikes up some camaraderie with a few he joins up with in the days to come.    

By 2014, Thailand attracts more than 18m tourists, and Mr. 2014 is just another guy passing through.   This impacts his connections with locals and other foreigners.  Sukhumvit is now chock a block full of buildings. He stops in an Irish pub on Monday, but when he returns on Tuesday, there is different clientele entirely.  He meets no one whose contacts he would want to add to his cell phone. The pub blares out soccer matches from its large television. As Mr. 2014 inattentively glances at the screen, his smart phone beeps. His boss back in the US needs him to look over a few figures in the next few hours and e-mail him back the changes.  

Everything has become bigger and bolder: the hotels, the residences, the discoes, the restaurants, and there's more of all of them. Mr. 2014 is part of a globalized world. The same McDonald's and Starbucks he's addicted to at home he can enjoy here as well. His room at the Hyatt offers cable TV, and he can watch the same TV and news here as he watches in his own living room. 

On their fourth days in town, Mr. 1964 and Mr. 2014 decide to dip their wicks in Bangkok's infamous prostitution industry. Mr. 1964 heads up to New Phetchaburi Road which over the next few years grows into a 5 mile strip of bars with local girls catering to the burgeoning American GI crowd coming to Bangkok for R & R.  An all-nighter with a cute local costs him $5 (100 baht then, $37.71 today), slightly less than 0.2% of his annual disposable income. The people of 1964 have fun for fun's sake and his pickup is very informal. Some of the broke soldiers he's encountered have met girls in these bars who've gone home with them for free.

Mr. 2014, by contrast, has his choice of fish bowl massage shops, erotic massage parlors, and pickup bars scattered all over town. Tuk tuk drivers beckon to him all the time with brochures. He journeys over to the Nana Plaza Discotheque and picks up a jaded hottie who looks like she's slept with the entire country of Denmark and may, possibly, be on drugs. She's asking 3,000 baht. The last ten guys she's picked up over the prior three days paid that. Mr. 2014, ever the shrewd bargainer - he looked up prices on the internet - gets her down to 2,500 baht ($76), slightly more than 0.2% of his annual disposable income. The friendliness factor in the sexual encounter may have changed over fifty years, but the relative cost remains about the same.  None of the fellow middle-aged foreign tourists Mr. 2014 has met stand a chance of getting these girls to put out for free. People in 2014 go out with an express purpose in mind and fun usually involves a bar fine. 

I could go on and on with the comparisons, but I think you get the gist of it. The passage of time has made places more commercial, less distant, less distinct. We don't need to be talking about foreigners visiting Bangkok. We could be referring to a Los Angelino visiting New York in 1964 vs 2014.  Though we're more connected online with more people than ever before with social media, in reality we feel less connected than ever. People work longer today and with 24/7 internet access, are never really ever fully removed from it. 

When our grandparents speak of the "good old days," price is the wrong thing to focus on. Mr. 1964's Bangkok isn't much cheaper in purchasing power terms than Mr. 2014's. The good in the "good old days" was in it being simpler, with less choices and options, but packaged with a  connectedness that you belonged and others cared.   Sometimes you catch yourself longing for that simplicity when you  feel you're being overwhelmed with too many choices and options today and treated like nothing more than one more generic ID number in the global marketplace.

Grandpa and Grandpa weren't sniffing too much moonshine. The good old days really did have something special to offer. For my next vacation, I'd happily take a time machine back to 1964 and revel in a time when there was less which also offered more. 

If you liked reading this, consider:
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 The Complete Article Index