Try to predict shifts in relative prices!

by on February 26, 2009 at 6:25 am in Games | Permalink

Matt Yglesias asks:

Brad DeLong observes
“In Agatha Christie’s autobiography, she mentioned how she never
thought she would ever be wealthy enough to own a car – nor so poor
that she wouldn’t have servants.”

This kind of thing gets a bit hard to get one’s head around when
thinking about the future. What do you think will be the equivalent 100
years from now of Agatha Christie’s car and servants?

I await your answers.

davidc February 26, 2009 at 7:02 am

How about an “do androids dream of electric sheep” scenario where environmental damage makes real animals very expensive. But meanwhile everyone has robot/synthetic copies of them?

An health care economist government that makes the bad things really expensive (cigars and such) but health items are almost mandatory?

nick February 26, 2009 at 7:07 am

Interesting spot – I hadn’t heard that quote.
I guess something to do with life expectancy, ie. that people who now cannot imagine working after 65 or living beyong 100 will seem equally strange to people in a century’s time.

Flass February 26, 2009 at 7:27 am

Servants and car

american in europe February 26, 2009 at 7:59 am

Expensive: Air travel (As oil production declines flying will become the exclusive preserve of the rich.)
Cheap: Film making. (Pro quality HD video and sound will be built into even the cheapest cameras, so everyone can be the next Steven Speilberg.)

joan February 26, 2009 at 8:12 am

The increasing income inequality and manufacturing efficiency will make servants common again but servants will own cars and hi tech luxury manufactured goods.

Winslow Theramin February 26, 2009 at 8:50 am

Wealthy enough to have every book, film and song ever made at my fingertips (i.e., stored on a key fob – this *will* happen within 30 years); too poor to not have a car (personal transportation will become prohibitively expensive over time)

Robert Scarth February 26, 2009 at 9:12 am

Car -> Space travel
Servants -> not so sure, but maybe private education for one’s children

I expect the price of space travel to come down dramatically over the next couple of decades, and to easily be within the reach of a middle class person (sort of the equivalent of holidaying on another continent today).

I’m not so sure about what might move out of affordability. It might be owning a house, or how about books? If most written material moves online or otherwise into electronic format, books might become an expensive luxury product. Although I find it difficult to image that they might become so expensive middle class people can’t afford them. Wood? Meat produced by a real animal; most people eating some artificial substitute? Wild fish?

MS February 26, 2009 at 9:27 am

With the way the economy is heading, and with unemployment so high, soon no body will be able to afford cars, and MBA graduates will work as servants in exchange for food.

Here’s perhaps a more realistic example: “I will never be wealthy enough to have my legs waxed monthly, nor will I be so poor that I cannot afford laser hair removal.”

glh February 26, 2009 at 9:36 am

In the 70s, I would never have thought I would be wealthy enough to afford a computer, but poor enough to not be able to retire.

jb February 26, 2009 at 9:59 am

100 years from now

“I never thought I would be so rich as to afford real meat (instead of synthetic), nor so poor as to not vacation on Mars”


“I never thought I would be so rich as to buy a spaceship, nor so poor I couldn’t afford a (Virtual Reality) palace.”


“I never thought I would be so rich as to afford a human servant, nor so poor I couldn’t afford 100 robotic ones.”

Peter February 26, 2009 at 10:23 am

Here’s perhaps a more realistic example: “I will never be wealthy enough to have my legs waxed monthly, nor will I be so poor that I cannot afford laser hair removal.”

Oh, no. Any discussion of women and hair removal makes me very, very worried. Though I suppose if it’s limited to legs and armpits it’s not too bad.

Blackadder February 26, 2009 at 10:38 am

Reminds me of something a Papal legate said upon visiting Byzantium back in the day. “Their treasuries are overflowing, yet they do their own laundry.”

In both cases there is the same basic phenomenon at work. As a society gets wealthier, the real cost of most things goes down, but the real cost of human labor goes up. As such, a futuristic version of the above would be something like “I never thought I’d be rich enough to own my own spacecraft, nor so poor that I couldn’t hire someone to mow my lawn.”

a February 26, 2009 at 10:43 am

@bjk: “majority white school districts?”

yakov_a February 26, 2009 at 11:14 am

That I’d be rich enough to live forever, but was so poor that I’d have to spend most of my time working.

Anonymous February 26, 2009 at 11:30 am

The question says “100 years from now”. By then, barring a technological or social collapse, nearly all economic activity will take place online and in virtual worlds, and much physical infrastructure will have fallen into decay, in much the same way that inner cities in the US fell into decay when economic activity and human capital shifted to the suburbs. An exception will be the energy infrastructure needed to keep the servers humming, and possibly food/agricultural infrastructure (assuming we’re still in corporeal form and haven’t uploaded ourselves).

Anything that involves massive manipulation of atoms in the physical world will be expensive. They will probably look at thousand-mile-long interstate highways the way we look at the Egyptian pyramids. Anything that can be automated and done with electrons online will be cheap.

Gabriel Rossman February 26, 2009 at 12:00 pm

As blackadder implied, the original Christie quote implies everything you need to know, that is manufactured goods will continue to get cheaper relative to services. This is especially true as robotics improve but birthrates fall.
There’s also the issue of positional goods and other things with inherent scarcity, both of which issues are implied by bjk’s quip about white school districts.

Don Marti February 26, 2009 at 12:19 pm

I never thought I’d be able to afford a secretary.

I never thought I’d be too poor to retire.

Now, lots of people are connected, qualified and interested in “virtual assistant” positions, and every retirement savings scheme, public or private, turns into a scam. So I’ll be working for life but at least I’ll have some help with the administrative stuff.

Silas Barta February 26, 2009 at 12:47 pm

Like what B.B. said and contra Blackadder, “human” labor may not actually get more expensive. If human-style AGI becomes a reality (through deeper understanding of how to physically implement “intelligence” and the capability of feeding such a robot all of the human memes), there may very well be servants that are indistinguishable to the layman from a human and can be mass-produced in factories.

So the best I can come up with is, “I never thought I’d be rich enough to afford 30 servants, nor so stupid that I couldn’t outsmart one.”

And how come no one’s made the Star Wars Episode I reference yet: “No car is worth two servants! Not by a long shot!” ;-)

Roger Ong February 26, 2009 at 12:59 pm

Wealthy enough to: have the technology to feel almost any sensation, go to any location and have any experience through cyberspace.
Nor so poor as to: be unable to have any real estate larger than a single room.

wildebeest February 26, 2009 at 1:18 pm

Wealthy enough to have my personal island (artificial)

Poor enough to afford a college education with live, human professors

Lord February 26, 2009 at 2:13 pm

Leave the planet and own real estate.

adam February 26, 2009 at 2:30 pm

I can’t imagine being rich enough to retire or pay off the national debt or poor enough to not be able to buy fast food for lunch.

Ozornik February 26, 2009 at 3:25 pm

On a more serious note and in a kurzweillian future –

Anything that can be duplicated is cheap in a virtual reality. Hence, rich enough to have any of today’s material possession/services/standardized pleasures imaginable.
Poor to have custom-made sensory adventures a-la “The Game” movie (with Michael Douglas)

P.S. To ‘Diversity’ – I stand corrected: “mutually not interested whatsoever”

Anthony February 26, 2009 at 3:41 pm

nuclear power plant, tank of gas

Joe Ardent February 26, 2009 at 4:02 pm

100 years, eh?

“I never thought I’d be rich enough to afford to live somewhere with natural gravity, nor be so poor that I could not afford to be physically embodied.”

Come on, people. Your quaint notions that we’ll all still be bags of mortal meat are just adorable.

sidereal February 26, 2009 at 5:00 pm

“My estimates of what’s getting more expensive:

… majority white school districts”

Uh, how much does one of those cost exactly? Is there an exchange they’re listed on?

bjk February 26, 2009 at 7:01 pm

“My estimates of what’s getting more expensive:

… majority white school districts”

Uh, how much does one of those cost exactly? Is there an exchange they’re listed on?Uh, how much does one of those cost exactly? Is there an exchange they’re listed on?”

The cost is easy to figure out. Just pick two comparable houses on the same street, except for the school districts. And then figure out the premium for being located in a majority white school district.

Paul N February 26, 2009 at 10:07 pm

I never thought I would ever be wealthy enough to own a clone – nor so poor that I wouldn’t have a wife. (?)

Paul Seabright February 27, 2009 at 2:46 am

“I’ll never be so poor that I can’t afford a car, but I’ll never be rich enough to run it on gasoline”

Angela February 27, 2009 at 9:19 am

Yesterday, I was just thinking how I will never be able to afford a car (especially while living in a city). I could never imagine being too poor for a computer and the internet.

D. Watson February 27, 2009 at 2:13 pm

Some people have suggested that the way the music industry will survive file sharing is by charging more and more for live concerts. If they were to go exclusively to that model, you might need to be very rich indeed to listen to music that had been written within the last ten years.

Brent Royal-Gordon February 27, 2009 at 8:06 pm

There are so many good examples of this sort of thing from the past. Every house now owns a printing press, a telephone, a still camera, a movie screen…

Of course, projecting forward is much harder.

Car: Large diamond.

Servants: University education.

Stephen Smith March 1, 2009 at 9:09 am

A lot of the issues are going to be focused around externalities, especially in light of recent CO2 consumption and the rather imminent ‘tipping-point’ that the planet is heading towards, in terms of climate change and the ‘liquidation’ of what currently is Antarctica. Obviously, with fossil fuels being finite, depleting rapidly, and generally at an increasing cost + the future-I expect-extremely stringent regulation/banning and enforcement of this regulation, maybe;

I never thought I would be wealthy enough to purchase a barrel of oil (purely for museum purposes)


Nor so poor I would ever have to resort to the use of physical money

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