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The Great Story of Our Era: Average People Better Off
Though the airfield does not appear on many charts, its existence is whispered of among pilots. The approach requires skill and timing, and there have been accidents; but when the mission is important, some risks must be accepted. Fliers who have data-pulse receivers of the extraordinarily accurate Global Positioning System satellite network use these devices when inbound, as the runway is only 2,350 feet long—short by the standards of such things—which places a premium on putting the wheels down precisely at the beginning of the field so as not to run out of runway at the end. Pilots exhale with relief when the landing is complete. Once on the ground, planes are directed to taxi to a secluded ramp, where crew and passengers quickly debark to swing into action—because there might be a wait for tables.
The aircraft are not military transports full of commandos but small private planes full of diners landing at McGehee’s Catfish House in Marietta, Oklahoma, one of the increasing number of “fly-in” restaurants in the United States. The runway belongs to McGehee’s and serves it exclusively. The field is lit for night landings, since the kitchen is open late. Guidance beacons with the aviator’s designation Loran T40 can be used to find McGehee’s, this being the international locator signal not of an airport or classified facility but a restaurant. At McGehee’s, you walk from your airplane to the hostess station. Much of the dinner trade arrives from Dallas, about forty air minutes away, though diners fly in from as far as hundreds of miles distant to savor a menu highlighted by fresh farm-raised catfish, pickled tomatoes, and turtle cheesecake.
Nearly a thousand fly-in restaurants are open for business in America today, according to an organization called Hundred-Dollar Hamburger. (Small private planes cost around $100 an hour to operate.) Most are simply eateries adjacent to general-aviation airports, but an increasing number, like McGehee’s, have become fly-in in the complete sense. The advent of such restaurants is exciting to the owners of small planes, many of whom learned to fly as a challenge, or in response to the romance of the air, then discovered that they crave destinations for the kind of one-hour hops that make for recreational aviation. Just imagine trying to explain to the indigent of the developing world that one problem experienced by Americans is finding something to do with their personal aircraft!
So far, fly-in restaurants offer no fly-through windows for takeout; that may only be a matter of time. Regardless of whether the fly-in restaurant is a breakthrough or an absurdity, what is telling is that the aircraft landing at McGehee’s are not private jets of the super-rich. Rather, they are one- and two- engine propeller planes of farmers, oil-field workers, mid-career professionals, and others from the middle class: men and women who are scarcely oligarchs, but who can afford to own an airplane and to drop $100 on a whim for a platter of fresh catfish. Today in the United States thousands of private aircraft are owned for personal use by people who are not rich, just as millions of not-rich Americans own two homes or four cars plus a boat, or know other extravagances once reserved for the topmost fraction of the elite.
Fly-in communities have sprung up as well—entire housing developments built around runways for small planes. Spruce Creek, near Daytona Beach, Florida, is a fly-in subdivision which boasts about 1,200 homes and fourteen miles of aircraft taxiway connecting houses with the runway. Pecan Plantation, completed at the turn of the twenty-first century near Fort Worth, Texas, has 125 homes, all served by taxiways. Planes can land, taxi home to the owner’s house, and be parked in the drive. Teen pilots can bring airplanes to the front door to pick up their dates. The occupants of Pecan Plantation are well-off but not millionaires. Many houses in the subdivision have hangars rather than garages, a popular option being 4,500-square-foot hangars—sized for two cars and two airplanes.
If fly-in dining and runway-based homes aren’t your cup of tea, how about golf-course living? Today in the United States there are at least two hundred housing developments built around fairways. At these communities, one sees golf carts scooting along side streets: Many residents own their own carts, park them in the garage, and ride directly from the back porch door to the clubhouse. Golf-course living, with club membership typically included in the home purchase price, has grown so much in popularity that developments are now found not just near big-money cities but in states such as Missouri and Wyoming. Powder Horn, a golf community in Sheridan, Wyoming, looks out on the majestic Bighorn Mountains and offers a well-reviewed eighteen-hole course reached from the porch door via personal cart. The development’s realty brochure gives this advice regarding lots: “Select a site on the fairway, one with a river or lake view, nestled in the hillside, close to the clubhouse or walking distance to the practice range.” Beautiful, well-appointed homes at Powder Horn cost from about $285,000 to about $425,000—not cheap but not inordinate, within the means of tens of millions of Americans.
Prefer the lake to ducking aircraft or dodging golf carts? In 2000, fully 13 percent of American home purchases were of second homes, mostly in vacation areas of woodland, mountain, or shore. Second-home sales have boomed so much that in many popular rustic retreats—such as the San Juan Islands north of Seattle, Washington, or Deep Creek Lake, Maryland, in the Alleghenies, equidistant from Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.—vacation homes by the thousands line the desirable riparian acreage, with land parcels growing scarce.
A century ago the very notion of a second home, owned not as a principal dwelling but a place of relaxation, could be contemplated strictly by a minuscule super-elite; now there are millions with a weekend place, and the number keeps rising. Today a leading problem with your dream house by the water is that so many other people also own vacation homes and own powerboats or jet skis—in 2001, Americans spent $25 billion, more than the GDP of North Korea, on recreational watercraft1—that the tranquility may be shattered by piston roar. At present many lakeside communities are wrapped up in campaigns to restrict noise from private motor vessels, and the politics of the mat- ter are delicate, because often the factions favoring stillness are arrayed in opposition to boat owners and jet skiers who are working-class women and men, and who feel their privileges are being trampled.
But imagine; the boat owners are working-class. Merely the concept of the “pleasure” boat possessed by an average individual rather than by a duke or an industrialist is new to our moment. Now so many average people own pleasure boats that docking space is short in many areas, while marinas have become the “marina industry”—complete with its own lobby group, the International Marina Institute, and with several trade publications, among them Marina Dock Age and Marina and Boatyard Today. In other battles regarding the great outdoors, such as in the national-monument areas of the California desert or at Yellowstone National Park, the offending machines may be snowmobiles or single-seat all-terrain vehicles, costing $5,000 each or more, owned by average people and opposed by those who dislike the noise. Since 1995, Americans have purchased more than 3 million all-terrain vehicles, which are used almost exclusively for recreation, and continue to snap them up at a rate of about 750,000 per year. But imagine—average people own expensive specialized vehicles just for weekend recreation. And so many of these vehicles exist that they have become a political issue!
Fly-in restaurants, golf-course communities, rustic lakes ringed by second homes, pleasure boats, huge SUVs with heated leather seats and built-in video, custom-painted snowmobiles with GPS: These and many other big-ticket items are now marketed not to the top but to the middle of American society, and increasingly to the middle of European society, too. They serve as well as any examples might to illustrate one of the most fundamental trends in the postwar Western world: namely, the grand increase in living standards for people who aren’t rich.
Poverty persists in the United States, at lower levels each decade, but its persistence nonetheless is a national outrage; millions live from paycheck to paycheck under nerve-racking financial pressure; millions lack health insurance; runaway materialism simultaneously makes us shallow and fails to give satisfaction; mass culture (the movies, television, pop music) grows stupider by the minute; inequality means some have far more than they could ever need while others have only resentment; global forces cause many to fear job loss. All these are important objections to trends in contemporary American life.
But in the main, Americans are steadily better off, and while the rich are richer, the bulk of the gains in living standards—the gains that really matter—have occurred below the plateau of wealth. Almost every person in the United States and the European Union today lives better than did his or her parents. In the United States and Western Europe, almost everything is getting better for almost everybody: This has been the case for years, and is likely to remain the case.
Consider a few statistics, derived from the 2000 United States Census. Almost 23 percent of households in the United States today have an income of at least $75,000, which equates to some sixty-three million people existing at the material standard of the upper middle class. Sixty-three million people—more than the total population of the United States in the year 1890—now live an “upper” existence in material terms. An upper-or-above life situation hardly ensures happiness, as large numbers of materially favored people today nevertheless feel miserable, a topic this book will explore in some depth. But the notion of sixty-three million people being very well off represents an astonishingly positive trend in standards of living. In 1890, less than 1 percent of American households earned the equivalent of $75,000 in today’s dollars; now nearly a quarter of households are at that favored point.