Memories are an unreliable guide to the past. I know this because my memory has betrayed me many times and because I see and hear others make the same mistakes. My wife and children, for example, have many strange recollections about their past, and my role in it, that I do not believe are supported by credible evidence. A recent conversation with a local resident also helped confirm my convictions about the convenience of our memories.
I had not given much thought to 1967 before my conversation where the person with whom I was speaking claimed Oregon was a better place in that year and wouldn’t it be great if we could simply return to that time. I didn’t respond to his claim, but I thought about it and concluded either his memory was bad or his personal experience was unique. I think a good case can be made that Oregon is a better place in 2011 than it was in 1967.
The most obvious improvement is that you can expect to live about eight years longer now than you could in 1967. Better medical care, fewer traffic deaths, reduced smoking, and generally better safety have all played a role in extending our lives and reducing the number of tragedies we experience. My friend might point out that there were only 61 homicides in Oregon in 1967, while we had 85 in 2009; but all this proves is that the murder rate today is far lower than it was then. Oregon’s population was less than two million in 1967 and is nearly four million today; so you stood a much greater chance of being murdered then than you do now.
It would be easy to assume that Oregon was more unspoiled when the population was so much smaller, but that assumption would be wrong. The Willamette River was heavily polluted and virtually unavailable for recreational purposes through much of the Valley. It was in 1967, in fact, that Governor Tom McCall led a campaign to restore the river and create the greenways we enjoy today. Wigwam burners, field burning and other air pollutants made Oregon’s air difficult to breathe in many locations. Oregon had fewer parks or other recreational amenities and Portland, the state’s only real city at the time, was a blighted, unattractive place.
I think life in Oregon was simpler in 1967 than it is today. People had fewer choices about where and how to shop, recreate, seek medical care, work, and live. Oregon incomes were higher relative to the national average in 1967, but the overall standard of living was much lower. Oregon’s unemployment rate has bounced around since records have been kept, and the oldest data I could easily confirm through Bureau of Labor Statistics was in 1976. That year the rate stood at 12 percent, and it is currently listed at 10.5 percent.
Statistics never tell the full story, and the very personal calculation of happiness or contentedness is difficult to measure collectively. Nonetheless, I do not think you can pick any time in the past and make a legitimate claim that conditions were better for more people in Oregon than they are today. The Vietnam War, race riots, campus unrest, the Cold War, and crime dominated the news in 1967 and certainly affected perceptions of security and happiness. My final thought is that regardless of whether it was better or not in 1967, our obligation is to influence the future rather than try to recreate the past. I believe we can make 2012 better than 2011, and that’s where we should be focusing our attention.