Comparing living standards over time

Scott Sumner writes:

Here’s one thought experiment. Get a department store catalog from today, and compare it to a catalog from 1964. (I recently saw Don Boudreaux do something similar at a conference.) Almost any millennial would rather shop out of the modern catalog, even with the same nominal amount of money to spend. Of course that’s just goods; there is also services, which have risen much faster in price. OK, so ask a millennial whether they’d rather live today on $100,000/year, or back in 1964 with the same nominal income. Recall the rotary phones and bulky cameras. The cars that rusted out frequently. Cars that you couldn’t count on to start on a cold morning. I recall getting cavities filled in 1964, without Novocaine. Not fun. No internet. Crappy TVs, where you have to constantly move the rabbit ears on top to get a decent picture. Lame black and white sitcoms, with 3 channels to choose from. Shorter life expectancy, even for the affluent. No Thai restaurants, sushi places or Starbucks. It’s steak and potatoes. Now against all that is the fact that someone making $100,000/year in 1964 was pretty rich, so your social standing was much higher than that income today. So it’s a close call, maybe living standards have risen for people making $100,000/year, maybe not. Zero inflation in the past 50 years may not be right, but it’s a reasonable estimate for a millennial, grounding in utility theory. In which period does $100,000 buy more happiness? We don’t know.

I say I prefer $100k today to $100k in 1964, that being a nominal rather than a real comparison.  If you are not convinced, try comparing $1 million or $1 billion (nominal) today to 1964.  For some income level, we have seen net deflation.

But here’s the catch: would you rather have net nominal 20k today or in 1964?  I would opt for 1964, where you would be quite prosperous and could track the career of Miles Davis and hear the Horowitz comeback concert at Carnegie Hall.  (To push along the scale a bit, $5 nominal in 1964 is clearly worth much more than $5 today nominal.  Back then you might eat the world’s best piece of fish for that much.)

So for people in the 20k a year income range, there has been net inflation.

Think about it: significant net deflation for the millionaires, but significant net inflation for those earning 20k a year.  In real terms income inequality has gone up much more than most of our numbers indicate.


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