It’s vital to the liberal narrative that pretty much everything has to go generally downhill (except global warming, of course, which is always going up even when it’s not, like right now). Life has to deteriorate, they think. That things are getting worse is an article of faith among liberals; it’s even a tenet of their faith. (If things are swimming along fine, what excuse is there for government intrusion?) You might even say that most liberals hate most good news. Prominent among the liberals’ permanent myths is the belief that Americans have become poorer except for a tiny minority of the very rich __________% (Fill in the blank.) In its most common version the idea is that Americans’ real standard of living has done nothing but decline since sometimes in the seventies. This, whatever the numbers say.
I, for one, know it’s not true. I was there, after all, from the beginning, even from before the beginning! I remember well how bad the good old days were in many respects. I am distressed that some people with apparently conservative or libertarian ideas have now also espoused this false belief. In this essay in two parts, I try to help readers find their way in the midst of often misleading or downright false statements that seem to support this erroneous belief. As usual, I do not address myself to specialists but rather to the intelligent but ignorant. Specialists are welcome to comment if they agree to do it in English or in some other official language.
1 I don’t contend that I understand what happened to American real incomes during the current crisis, say, between 2009 and 2013. I will say nothing about this recent period. (If I told you what I suspect happened, you might be astounded, though.) I refer in this essay only to the period 1975-2007.
2 I believe poverty and prosperity have to be measured in terms of real income, income as experienced by real human beings: It’s not how many dollar bills you have in your wallet, it’s what your paycheck actually buys that matters. This brings up several tough technical problems we will get into presently or in the next episode. If you think of poverty in different terms, I am not sure I have anything useful to say to you.
The superficial facts
General federal statistics, all OECD figures, all World Bank numbers show that on the average Americans have become considerably richer since 1975. Nevertheless, these statistics, contrary to a now common belief – significantly understate the economic progress of Americans. We, in general, have become vastly richer than were were then.
I will deal later explicitly with the issue of possible differences between what the average shows and the economic progress of sub-categories of the US population. In the meantime, I must point out that some common forms of enrichment cannot be confined to a particular group. Cleaner drinking water, for example, is usually cleaner for everyone. It would be impractical to reserve wells of dirty, polluted water for the poor or for racial minorities. (However, if you search a little you might actually find liberal allegations of such segregation or, at least, the intimations of such. National Public Radio is a good bet.)
Here is what I don’t intended to do, don’t do: I do not accuse government statistics of lying. I help others read them and complement them where they need to be complemented. There is not government conspiracy designed to mislead us about the living standards of Americans, I think.
Major (unintended) sources of bias.
There are three major sources of bias in expressing standard of living that understate, underestimate, understate economic betterment. I explain them below.
Ballooning health expenditures
Since the seventies, most employed Americans have taken most of their pay raises in the form of health benefits. This results from a historically accidental peculiarity of the American wage and benefit system going back to WWII. (It may be getting removed by the implementation of Obamacare as I write in 2013). The large increase in health expenditures provided by employers do not appear in wage statistics. Yet, they constitute consumption in a way similar to straight wages. In fact, wherever people are given a choice between more steak and more health care, they seem to chose more steak and more health care. Health care possesses an interesting characteristic all of its own: While there is a limit to how much steak an individual can ingest, there is no limit at all to how much health care -broadly defined – the same individual can absorb. It’s close to infinite. Why, I am considering right now some surgery to correct a nose I have not really liked for more than sixty years!
Whether it is a wise societal choice to spend apparently limitless resources on health care, much of it for the old and economically unproductive is an interesting issue in its own right. However, it’s not my issue here. Health services have been produced in vast quantities since 1975. They were eagerly consumed by Americans. Health expenditures constitute a part of the standard of living. If you don’t believe this, just ask yourself if the withdrawal of all health care would not be a lowering of the standard of living.
Better quality of common goods
Common objects on which comparisons of living standard across time are based have improved tremendously in quality. This is difficult, sometimes impossible to measure. Indices of comparison across time (1975 to 2007) don’t do a good job of it.
Nominal wages, the numbers printed on your paychecks, have to be corrected for inflation. We all know that a dollar does not buy as much as it did in 1975. (Around that time, my salary of $20,000/year was quite comfortable.) Federal international and private organizations in charge of these things do their very best to correct raw numbers in meaningful ways. However, they meet with several limitations because things of 1975 are often radically different from what bears the same name in 2007.
(Note: The agencies in charge do their best and mostly intelligently. Again, I am not faulting their efforts. Also, I think there is little intellectual fraud involved in this work because their results are among the most and best scrutinized in the history of the world.)
Here is an example: I suspect that the average television set of 1975 was like mine was then: It was small, offered only black and white images, often had scratchy sound, and gave access to little more than three national networks. Watching television then was like eating in a mediocre restaurant that offered only three dishes ( and there was maybe a hot dog stand outside).
When economists correct for inflation, they have little choice but to compare that television set with a modern ultra-flat etc… Hence, when they report that the cost of a television set has increased in face dollars by, say, 100%, they are not able to take into account that the actual service (the enjoyment) attached to a contemporary set with precise colors, faithful sound that is a gateway to 300 sources is ten times, or one hundred times, greater than what I derived from my 1975 B&W set.
This example can pretty much be turned into a general rule: Everything is better, works better, tastes better, gives more service than its equivalent back then. When you find a seeming exception, you soon discover that it’s not real. Two examples of exceptions that don’t resist examination:
A Cars are more expensive now than then by several measures. This means that it takes more days of mean (average) American wages to buy the cheapest car in American than it did then. But the cheapest car on American roads today are vastly better in every way than their supposed equivalent back then. They break down less often; they are safer (weight for weight); they require much less maintenance. (Older people will remember the days when every car required an oil change every 5,000 miles and when prudent car owners changed oil every 3,500 miles.)
In addition, much of the rise in real car prices is due to mandated safety and environmental buffers now built into them that did note exist in 1975. (It’s startling to see in not-so-old movies parents getting into the family car with their children and driving off with no one buckling safety belts because there aren’t any.) No matter how one feels about the current health and environmental restrictions pushing upward car prices, they are undeniably form of consumption. It’s useless to cry,” I don’t want it” when you imposed it on yourself through the political process you deem legitimate in every way.
B Many older people, and I am often tempted to join them, believe that any number of produce just tasted better back then, produce such as tomatoes and strawberries, for example. This is pure delusion. Here is how I know: Several times, I have steeled my resolve, put cash in my pocket and directed my steps to the local farmers’ market. There, against all my instincts, I purchase a pound of organic tomatoes or a tiny basket of grossly priced strawberries. Now organic produce is not better for you (See “organic food” on this blog.) but it’s often fresher, and often handpicked. Each time, I recovered in my mouth the taste of produce of my youth. Each time, I did the calculations only to rediscover anew that the outrageous cost of the farmer’s market produce was actually less, as a percentage of any income, or in inflation-corrected dollars, than the equivalents did when I was young.
We have become used to paying little for mediocre produce, the better produce of yesteryear are still available. They are not even especially expensive. They appear expensive because we are spoiled by general low food prices.
An then, of course, there is the coffee. It was so vile then, coast-to-coast, in 1975 that if anyone but a drunks’ bar served it today he would probably be indicted. And then, there is bread that would have qualified as light construction material. The list is endless: In the good old days, most things were mediocre to very bad and they were, in fact expensive. Current measures are seldom able to take improvement in quality into account. For this reason, they understate average economic progress in America between 1975 and 2007.
I repeat that this average economic progress is also mostly widespread, available to all parts of the population. There are, in fact, few corner bakeries operating especially in the ghetto and specializing in nutritionally unsound, bad-tasting bread for African-Americans.
There may be an exception to the general rule that things have become cheaper in thirty years with constant quality I am not able to deal with here. It may be a major exception: Housing in all its forms may be more expensive in real terms now than it was in 1975. Much housing is the same now as it was then, so prices matters a great deal. Thus, better quality would not explain superior cost. I am eager to see sources on this issue and to publish them here.
New goods, new services
When comparing the prices of things and services then and now, economists are not able, of course, to take into account objects and services that simply did not exist then. This inescapable fact also understates the real progress in living standards. I repeat: Some good things are not counted at all in comparisons of the standard of living then and now because they did not exist at all then. This fact in itself constitutes an overstatement of the standard of living of then. The Internet and its many manifestations, its many subordinate services, such as Google, are a case in point.
I hasten to add that this judgment does not depend on how much you, personally value the Internet and its multiple offerings. To demonstrate that it’s a form of consumption, it’s enough to observe that few of those who can have access to the Internet actually turn it down. I, for example, like most residents of developed societies probably know more than one thousand people. Of the people I know, only three refuse to gain Internet access (and they periodically cheat by catching a ride on a relative’s network tool!)
I can hear some older readers grumble ( as one did recently on this blog) that newfangled technical innovations, such as the Internet and hugely better television, actually made life worse. I smile sarcastically inside for the following reason: Very few Americans seem to be following the primitivist dream implicit in such judgment and make for the wilderness. This, although it would be easy because there is probably more and more undeveloped, empty space in America as the population become more concentrated in a few mega cities. This is too has improved since 1975: There is more and wilder wilderness.
Large health expenditures, better products, more products have increased the general standard of living of Americans considerably beyond what wage and income statistics show. This statement is implicitly based on averages. The demonstration above does not exclude the logical possibility that some sectors of American society were worse off in 2007 than they, or their equivalents were in 1975. This issue is dear to liberal sensitivity. I deal with it in Part 2, soon forthcoming.