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Published: Tuesday, 9/6/2005

The good ol days weren t all that good

There was a time when a motorist could get gasoline for 30 cents a gallon or less, and a brand-new car cost just a few grand. Smokers could put a quarter into a machine and get a pack of cigarettes. Draft beer cost a quarter or less. It wasn t all that long ago, the 1960s.

The good old days? Not so fast. We were in the midst of the costly, deadly, divisive Vietnam War. Massive protests were staged across the country. Big cities were torn apart by race riots. By the end of the decade, housing interest rates were beginning to push up to historic high levels for that era. The stock market was languishing.

Flash forward to the late 1980s. Gasoline prices dropped to under 60 cents a gallon. The good old-days? Maybe. If you didn t have any money in stocks. Not long after gas prices hit bottom, so did the stock market, in the Crash of 1987 that cost investors $500 billion.

During that era, millions of American workers struggled through the corporate-takeover craze fueled by junk bonds.

Gasoline sells for a king s ransom today, but it s not the end of the world. At least there s still some good news around relatively low interest rates, relatively low unemployment, a relatively good economy in most parts of the country.

But it s so much fun, in a perverse sort of way, to remember when things were so cheap, at least by modern-day standards. It s not so much fun to remember all the bad stuff that happened in those eras.

Take the 1970s, for example. Despite two energy scares, when OPEC raised its ugly head (in 1973 and again in 1978) and when the United States seriously considered gasoline rationing, even to the point of printing billions of coupons that were never used gasoline was still relatively low-priced throughout most of the decade.

But those years were marked by the Watergate scandal and all the resultant political shakeouts, rampant inflation, recessions, and a huge bear market on Wall Street. By the end of the 1970s, inflation was so out of control, the Federal Reserve took severe steps that sent the prime interest rate over 20 percent in 1980.

It s also fun to remember that in the 1950s and 60s, not only could you fill up a tank for $5 or less, but the attendant would also check your oil, battery, and tire pressure, and wash your windows. You might even get a free plate, glass, or saucer with a fill-up. Of course, that attendant probably made less than a dollar an hour, and perhaps you didn t make much more than that yourself in those days.

Even through the 1990s, gasoline was very cheap by today s standards at times under $1 a gallon. The good old days? Now you re talking. Except that we were in trouble and just didn t know it yet. We didn t know the huge bear market of the new millennium was lurking out there, and we couldn t even suspect anything as horrible as Sept. 11, 2001.

But today, of course, we re in the middle of a whole bunch of bad stuff, including astronomical gasoline prices. There is some consolation in the fact that the good old days weren t all that good necessarily. And there s comfort in the fact that nothing is forever.



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