Victimhood again. Reporters love reporting that life is getting worse. News stories tell us we're "running ourselves ragged," and that Americans "have no free time." Pick up a magazine and read all about it: not enough time for romance, for relaxation, for our kids. Busy, busy, busy-less time than ever before. Except, it's not true.
When I went looking for real data, some scientific measure of how we spend our time, all paths led to the University of Maryland. There, sociologist John Robinson records how people spend their days. Beginning in 1965, he's had people fill out diaries so he could calculate how much free time people really have.
STOSSEL I assume since 1965, we've lost free time.
JOHN ROBINSON It's not the case. There is a discrepancy between what people say and what they report when they keep a time diary.
His time diaries show that since 1965, we've gained almost an hour more free time per day. Researchers say it's because Americans today work fewer hours, marry later, have fewer kids, retire earlier, and have better tools, like washing machines and microwaves.
The idea that we work harder than our ancestors is pure nonsense. Until 1890, half of all Americans worked in agriculture. People romanticize farms, but the old-fashioned family farm meant backbreaking labor under a broiling sun. Work began at dawn and continued past dark. Work in mines and factories was worse. Modern jobs are much easier. Our ancestors would be agog to see how much time we spend playing golf, watching TV (an average three to four hours per day), and going to our kids' soccer games, while complaining about how much we work. But don't tell that to any magazine editors you know; you wouldn't want to ruin a perfectly good thing for them. The free-time myth is good for circulation.
MYTH: Gas prices are going through the roof.
TRUTH: Gasoline is a bargain.
The media periodically get upset about "record" gas prices.
"The price of gasoline has risen again to a record high!" said one newscaster in 2004. "The high prices are making it harder for some to keep their heads above water," said another.
Drivers assume what they see at the pump confirms what they've heard on TV. One told me the prices are "scary." A woman said gas was "going up and up and up, and it's the most expensive it's ever been." And she was on a bike.
The media were saying that gas prices were at record highs for one simple, simple-minded reason: They are economically illiterate, so they didn't account for inflation. That makes the numbers look bigger than the costs actually are. Such reporting is silly. Not adjusting for inflation would mean that the movies Meet the Fockers and Rush Hour 2 outgrossed Gone With the Wind.
It's not as if the reporters would have to work at doing calculations to figure this out. Not only are there instant inflation calculators on the Web, but the U.S. Department of Energy accounts for inflation in its annual report of gas prices. At the time I'm writing this, the average price of gasoline in the U.S. is $2.26 per gallon. Once you account for inflation, that means gas today is sixty-seven cents a gallon cheaper than it was in 1922, and sixty-nine cents cheaper than in 1981. True, after Hurricane Katrina the price did reach an average of $2.87 per gallon-but that still is lower than the record average set in March 1981 of $3.12 per gallon.