Devo fans vs. inflation

Consider three fellows, Manny, Moe, and Jack, who grow up in my home town of Austin, Minnesota. All three are huge Devo fans, and all three graduate from various colleges in 1979.

Hormel is in the middle of a wage freeze, so workers are still earning a mid-70’s wage. Inflation has taken a pretty big bite, but the money’s still good, and small towns are cheap, so it seems reasonable to to move back home to Austin and get jobs at the Spam plant. They rapidly settle into a life of hard work and a decent, middle-class existence.

Are we not men?

Some time during May of 1980, the Universe is (very gently) torn asunder. Our New Wave fans barely notice the shock, but from here on out, each will take a very different path.

Manny joins us on our timeline. Ronald Reagan was elected later in the year — in the mid 80’s Manny joined the P9 strike but ultimately accepted defeat and returned to work on the line in the reformed UFCW chapter. His job is much the same now as it ever was — there’s not a lot of automation on the line because, honestly, people are cheaper than robots. Manny has also started wearing a less conspicuous hat.


Moe lives in a world where things pretty much stayed the same. No big strikes, no major economic shifts — every few years the union re-negotiated a contract to account for inflation, so his standard of living has kept pretty steady. His work today is also exactly the same as it was in 1980 — it takes the same number of people as it ever did to produce the same amount of spam.

Moe is older now, and wiser, but still super into Devo.


Jack’s world is the hardest one to imagine. Technologically, socially, it’s much like ours. Factory and farm productivity have skyrocketed, free trade has opened new markets and opportunities, etc.

In Jack’s world, though, the gains from these changes were shared throughout American society. Not redistributed, exactly, just shared. ‘Present trends’ (those visible in 1980) continued. Jack is now a spam-making dynamo — he has fancy, high-tech tools, and a lot of the line has been replaced with robots. Each line worker produces 2.5 times as much Spam today as in 1980.

Jack wears a futuristic looking space-hat, but that’s only because he thinks it’s funny — the technology of his world is the same as ours; it’s only his economy that is sci-fi.


Since Manny lives in our world, it’s easy to tell what his hourly wage is. I looked it up on Moe’s wage is easy to calculate too, presuming that we understand what inflation is. Jack’s world is tough to imagine… but we do have a pretty good idea of how much more productive he could be now if we apply an average amount of technology to his work. In inflation-and-cross-universe-adjusted-dollars, here’s how they are doing:


In case you’re unfamiliar with the cost of living in a small, midwestern town, here are those wages adjusted to demonstrate a comparable lifestyle in San Francisco:


I’ll be thinking about these three as thoughts pass through my mind like “Am I middle class?” and “Is America a rich country?” and “Wow, bacon sure is cheap.”

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