WASHINGTON. — Washington -- The questions about the middle class are always about the same: Are they making progress, and are they making progress fast enough?
In theory it can be measured by money, but the straight money argument has become confuddled. Realists, like me (called ''optimists'' by pessimists), will tell you that the middle class has been doing better over recent decades, and will show solid income data to prove it. Other statistical sharpshooters will tell you otherwise, and will show other income data.
Luckily, there is another way to look at it. If we can't agree on how much money is coming in, let's take a look at how much money is going out. Let's look at what people are buying. After all, if folks are able to buy more, they're probably doing better. And vice versa.
This happens to be exactly the right moment to go through that exercise. The world's best book has just been published: The Statistical Abstract of the United States, with 1,490 tables. It tells lots about what Americans have been buying. Thus:
The number of passenger cars went up by 62 percent from 1970 to 1989 (to 122 million) while the population was growing by 21 percent. The number of motorcycles also went up 62 percent, to 4.6 million.
The median size of a new home went up by 38 percent, to 1,905 square feet (1970-1990). The home ownership rate went up by 1.7 percent from 1970 and down by .06 percent since 1980. At 64 percent, it's near, but not quite at, an all-time high.
The number of air conditioners purchased in 1985 was 3 million; in 1989 it was 5 million. Almost 70 percent of Americans now have air conditioning.
Americans don't only buy cars and houses. They pay dearly to buy college education, and these days they buy it for their daughters as well as for their sons. There were 3 million American females in college in 1970, and 7.2 million in 1989.
The number of color television sets sold per year went up 55 percent from 1980 to 1989 -- to 6.5 million.
The number of recreational boats owned went from 8.8 million in 1970, to 11.8 million in 1980, to 15.6 million in 1989. Major-league baseball attendance went up by 27 percent from 1980 to 1989 -- to 56 million. The number of hunting and fishing licenses went up by 25 percent from 1970-1988, to 66 million.
In just the five years from 1984-1989 the number of Americans traveling to foreign countries went up 27 percent, to 15 million per year, excluding Canada and Mexico. The number of ''pleasure trips'' (100 miles or more) climbed by 34 percent from 1980 to 1989, to 457 million.
Alas, as reported, the cost of health care has gone way up. Of course, the rate of doctors per person went up by 50 percent (1970-1987); the rate of doctor and dentist visits per person went way up; the cancer survival rate increased; 1.3 million Americans are walking around with implanted artificial hip and knee joints; and, perhaps related to medical expenditures, there has been a stunning increase in life expectancy.
The number of people covered by private pension plans has gone up by 72 percent since 1975, to 77 million, although employer contributions to the plans are not counted as personal income, thus artificially depressing income statistics.
So then. We spend more. We earn more. We're doing better. Not every person, not everywhere, not every moment -- only generally, as a middle-class nation.
We also complain a lot. That's all right. As much as I hate to admit it, it may even be that complaining can be part of the process of progress.
Ben Wattenberg, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is author of ''The First Universal Nation.''