Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Latest Reminder That Time Marches On

Bob (Bob Newhart): Jerry, why would she spend so much for a watch?

Jerry (Peter Bonerz): She loves you, Bob.

Bob: She'd better have a better reason than that.

"The Bob Newhart Show"

Warning: This may have the ring of a good old days syndrome story, but bear with me. We're all entitled to them, and this is mine — or, at least, my latest one.

I was scanning the news stories on news web sites this morning when this item caught my eye.
A nickel boost in the first–class stamp price to 50 cents is part of the U.S. Postal Service's latest plan to stop bleeding red ink.

You can read the entire article if you wish.

But the bottom line, I guess, is that the Postal Service sustained more than $3 billion in losses in the last quarter of 2011 — and the Postal Service, like so many other businesses, essentially relies on the revenue it gets from the holiday season to keep it going for the rest of the year.

When the holidays aren't happy, they aren't happy.

And the Postal Service's representatives were downright gloomy when they appeared before lawmakers to make their latest request for an increase in stamp prices.

I understand their predicament. Really, I do.

It may not be quite as dire as presented — I mean, it's virtually a given that, when someone comes to Congress to ask for something (usually money), the worst–case scenario is presented as a possible outcome if the wish is not granted (even if that worst–case outcome is unlikely).

I don't know if it is a remote possibility in this instance — I studied economics in college but only what I was required to take to get my degree — but there seems to be no question that traditional mail service has been struggling. It's been that way for quite awhile.

And things do seem to deteriorate more rapidly now than they did when I was a child.

So I don't doubt that there is something of a sense of urgency behind this request.

To the man in the street, though, I can see how it might seem a little excessive. The Postal Service just raised its postage rates at the start of 2012 and now, less than two months later, it is back before Congress asking for another increase.

"It's only five cents," some people will say — undoubtedly comparing that figure to the recent increase in gas prices.

And there is a certain validity in that. Everything is relative. And a five–cent increase in postage rates really pales next to the 50–cent spike in gas prices I have witnessed in the last couple of months.

But the commodities are not really comparable. That 50–cent increase represents about one–sixth the previous marketplace value of a gallon of gas. A five–cent increase in the postal rate is about one–ninth more than we're paying now.

The proposed price hike for stamps, therefore, is not as steep as the increase in fuel prices has been (or, if analysts are correct, will be). I guess it is really more about that five cent figure. It triggered kind of a stream–of–consciousness flashback.

See, five cents is what individual stamps were selling for when I was a child.

Today, five cents is the amount of the requested increase. The going rate is nine times what it was when I was a child.

Everything costs more now, of course. When I was a child, you could get a gallon of gas for about 30 cents. And you could get a brand–new car for a couple thousand dollars.

When you compare today's prices to the late 1960s and early 1970s, everything looks like a bargain, doesn't it? A loaf of bread cost maybe a quarter back then. Milk probably ran about a dollar a gallon. I remember seeing TV commercials for McDonald's that promised a burger, fries and a drink "and change back" from a single dollar bill. Boy, those were the days, huh?

Well, not entirely. I mean, minimum wage was about $1.50 an hour. If you were earning $10,000 a year, you were probably considered middle to upper class.

Everything is relative.

Those thoughts, in turn, reminded me of an episode of The Bob Newhart Show in the early 1970s — when Emily gave Bob a fine watch for his birthday. He had no idea when he left the apartment that morning that it was the most expensive watch on the market, but he soon found out, courtesy of his friend Jerry the dentist.

"You don't just pick those up in a drug store," Jerry said. Turned out, he was right. Bob phoned a reputable jeweler and found out what such a watch cost.

Later in the episode, after Bob had confronted Emily about the cost of the watch, sparking a memorable fight, he confessed what was really bothering him.

"When I was a kid," he explained, "I used to think of everything in terms of ice cream cones. I loved ice cream cones. Something that cost 20 cents was two ice cream cones. A dollar was 10 ice cream cones.

"And, when I found out how much this watch cost, I felt like I had been run over by a Good Humor truck."

The times, they truly are a–changing. Sometimes it seems they're changing too fast.

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