Nick's Rent vs. Tom's Pearl Necklace in 2004 $US
|In 2004, $80.00 per month from 1925 is worth:||In 2004, $350,000.00 from 1925 is worth:|
|$860.66 using the Consumer Price Index||$3,765,400.00 using the Consumer Price Index|
|$2,994.46 using the unskilled wage||$13,100,742.57 using the unskilled wage|
Nick tells readers he pays $80 per month for his East Egg house rental. He also tells readers that, at Tom and Daisy's wedding, Tom gave Daisy a necklace worth $350,000. Those are "material conditions" of the characters' lives and shapes their "historical circumstances." Moreover, to understand them as Fitzgerald meant us to know them, we have to adjust the prices for changes in the value of U.S. currency between 1925 and the present day.
The necklace remains about 4375 times as expensive as the rent, but the inflation of prices and wages has led the wedding present to achieve a truly shocking level of extravagance. The rent remains somewhere between a real bargain (even in Baltimore!) and something one might pay to rent a house on Long Island Sound without feeling cheated. In any event, the comparison shows us just how far outside Carraway's economic league Tom Buchanan plays, and how hard Jay Gatsby must play to be a contender for Daisy's affections (or for Nick's).
The U.S. dollar remained relatively "strong" in buying power through the 1950s, when inflation began to reduce its worth to current levels. For comparison, consider this: my father's last hourly job before going to college, assisting the manager of an Acme supermarket in Delaware, paid him $1.65 an hour in 1951. When corrected for inflation by comparison with the Consumer Price Index (i.e., what things cost), that hourly wage had the buying power of $12.40 in 2005 dollars (almost $26,000 a year). By 1960, the same salary would have had only half the buying power ($6.59), and between 1960 and 1980, the dollar's buying power was halved again, to $2.37. Wages rose, of course, but not uniformly across social classes, leading to the notorious division between America's super-rich, our new "nobility," who are worth billions and have annual incomes measured in the millions, and our poor, who are defined by the U.S. government in 2006 as single persons earning below $9800 a year. The statistical odds a child born to parents living at the bottom of the economy will earn even a median wage are only one out of eight, and for a child with the same abilities born to parents at the top, his chances of earning a salary in the top 10% of incomes by the time he is forty are more than twenty-seven times greater (Kearl). That is why Marxists believe "the American Dream" is a dangerous form of false consciousness.
Relative dollar value calculations courtesy of Economic History Services, "What is its Relative Value?" at the MeasuringWorth.com web site (10/04 and 12/06). Poverty threshold information from the U.S. Health and Human Services web site: http://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty/06poverty.shtml. Social stratification of wealth information comes from extrapolations based on a 1979 Carnegie Foundation study discussed in "Explorations in Social Inequality," a web page found on A Sociological Tour Through Cyberspace, written and maintained by Professor Michael Kearl, Sociology Department, Trinity University (http://www.trinity.edu/~mkearl/strat.html viewed on 12/5/06).