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Nineteenth Century Inequality Not As Bad As We Think

Blog Post | Wealth & Poverty

Nineteenth Century Inequality Not As Bad As We Think

A proper interpretation of consumption data shows that the 1800s fostered an egalitarian shift in wealth distribution.

When prices change, how that impacts people depends crucially on which prices increase and what goods and services people are consuming. Across the western world, price inflation–the rate at which prices increase–has been relatively slow for over a decade. Central bankers have consistently undershot their inflation targets despite their careful implentation of complex monetary policy. 

The supposed dearth of inflation might seem like small comfort–or a cruel joke–to the Californian hipster paying $15 for a smoothie bowl, the German renter whose rents are increasing at a stunning rate or the London young professional shoveling out £5 for an unimpressive lunch sandwich. The larger the diversity in consumption patterns, the less appropriate it is to aggregate price changes into a general price index such as CPI or PCE statistics.

One reason for the dissonance between official figures and real-world experience is the weight that statisticians place on various items when constructing a consumer price index (e.g. the Bank of England’s CPI; the ECB’s HICP; the Fed’s PCE). For instance, in the price index used by the European Central Bank, housing costs make up only 17% of the index, whereas the Federal Reserve places a 24% weight on housing expenses. That divergence turns a 25% increase in housing costs–with all other prices and consumption patterns held constant–into a 4.25% overall inflation in the Eurozone but a 6% inflation in the U.S.

While policymakers are aware of those data limitations and we have standardized statistical ways to adjust for quality improvements, these problems can still cause headaches. One illustrative example is the impact of iPhone prices on Sweden’s price index; Martin Enlund, FX strategist at Nordea, estimates that the quality adjustment of iPhones alone reduced the reported price increase by 0.1 percentage points every year for the last 5 years.

That minor detail has some implication for our modern world, considering that the Riksbank’s interest rate decisions have turned on such small margins before. Looking at these differences in consumption bundles and quality adjustments over longer historical periods, they quickly become astronomical. In a famous paper, Nobel Laureate William Nordhaus surveyed “lumens”–a unit for light–emitted by various sources throughout the centuries. Nordhaus estimated the price of light, the essential service its originators provide us with, to have fallen by 99.97% between 1800 and 1992.

Over decades or centuries, even small differences can result in very large adjustments when we evaluate past incomes. For instance, how much better is a computer as a calculating tool than an abacus? Is a keyboard and word processor ten, fifty or a hundred times better than quills, ink, and bulky, slowly decaying paper?

A recent study by Vincent Geloso and Peter Lindert makes a big deal out of consumption bundles. By disaggregating purchases by working classes and upper classes, they make a revolutionary discovery: beginning earlier than we used to believe, the poor’s standards of living improved faster than those of the rich. Contrary to the tired claim that capitalism involves the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer, it seems that during the 19th century the opposite was true.

The authors reach this conclusion by using different consumption bundles for two different income segments. People’s standards of living depend on what they themselves consume, not on what they could buy if they had the rich’s consumption patterns:

 “[T]he contrasts that matter are contrasts in individuals’ abilities to buy what they care to buy, or need to buy, and not the (nominal) inequality in their ability to buy the same common bundle as some other class could buy.”

The components that drove this extraordinary reduction in cost of living, argue Geloso and Lindert, were falling prices of grain-based foods and a rise in the relative price of services that the poorer classes supplied (mostly wage rates for common labor).

The American rise in inequality over the nineteenth century, using both top-1% / bottom-99% and top-10% / bottom-40% metrics, is much less pronounced than previously believed. The authors conclude: 

“[T]he ‘nineteenth-century’ period 1815–1914 brought a clearly egalitarian shift in the price structure for all four countries—England, Canada, the USA, and post-1850 Australia. The net change over these 100 years is unmistakable.”

A century before Paul Ehrlich would predict imminent starvation in the entire world (specifically in what he thought was a remarkably backwards India), the world surplus of grains had enriched the poor–even in the “dark Satanic mills” of Britain. The lower relative price of grains mitigated and partly reversed the economic inequality we tend to associate with the nineteenth century.

The exact bundles used to measure consumption matter greatly for understanding prosperity, today as well as in the past.

CNN | Cost of Services

Cheap Robotaxi Rides Rattle China’s Taxi Drivers

“The fleet of 500 vehicles operating in the city belongs to Apollo Go, a unit of Chinese tech giant Baidu. They serve an area that covers roughly half of Wuhan’s population, according to a May company release.

A major selling point is the price. Base fares start as low as 4 yuan (55 cents), compared with 18 yuan ($2.48) for a taxi driven by a human, state media Global Times reported on Wednesday.

The service launched in 2022 and started to gain traction during the first half of the year. The company aims to double its fleet to 1,000 cars by the end of 2024. Wuhan currently has around 17,000 regular cabs, according to the city’s transport bureau.”

From CNN.

Blog Post | Tourism & Leisure

Cruising Has Never Been More Abundant

Over the past 50 years, the time price of a Caribbean cruise has dropped over 70 percent. Blue-collar and unskilled workers now get 3.4 cruises for the time price of one in 1972.

Summary: In the last 50 years, the time price of a Caribbean cruise vacation has dropped significantly, making it accessible to blue-collar and unskilled workers. Ted Arison’s Carnival cruise line, starting in 1972, transformed cruising from an exclusive luxury to an affordable vacation for many. Today’s cruises offer vastly improved experiences and illustrate how entrepreneurial vision can make luxuries accessible to all.

Entrepreneur Ted Arison launched his first ship, the Mardi Gras, on March 11, 1972. At the time, cruising was considered an expensive luxury for older rich people. Over the past five decades, Arison’s Carnival cruise line made this high-end experience affordable for everybody, including plumbers, schoolteachers, and college students. The Mardi Gras sailed for 20 years and created the market we enjoy today. It even gave life to a popular TV show, The Love Boat, which aired from 1976 to 1990. Carnival cruise line managed to grow from a one-ship line to the largest cruise company in the world. The first Mardi Gras cost $5 million and accommodated 1,248 passengers on 10 decks.

1972 Mardi Gras

You could book a seven-day cruise from Miami to the Caribbean for $240 to $595. Blue-collar workers at the time were earning around $4.59 an hour in wages and benefits. At $240, a cruise would cost them 52.3 hours. Unskilled workers were earning closer to $2.14 an hour, making their time price around 112.2 hours.

In 2021, Carnival launched its new Mardi Gras. This $950 million ship accommodates 6,500 passengers and approximately 2,000 crew members. It hosts “Bolt” the world’s first shipboard roller coaster, along with a water park and a sports center and is powered with liquified natural gas. The quality of the experience has vastly improved in 50 years with better food choices, entertainment, comfort, and safety. The new Mardi Gras weighs 180,000 tons, around 6.6 times more than the 27,284-ton original. This larger size dramatically reduces sea sickness.

2024 Mardi Gras

Today you can book a seven-day cruise from Carnival’s new $163 million, 188,000-square-foot terminal at Port Canaveral, Florida, to the Caribbean for $549. Blue-collar workers are now earning around $36.15 an hour in wages and benefits, putting their time price at 15.2 hours. Unskilled workers are earning closer to $16.51 an hour today, making their time price around 33.3 hours.

For these workers, the time price has dropped more than 70 percent. For the time it took them to earn the money to buy 1 cruise in 1972, they get 3.4 today. Cruise abundance has increased 240 percent. If you “upskilled” from an unskilled worker in 1972 to a blue-collar worker by 2022, your cruise abundance increased by a factor of 7.38, or 638 percent. Everybody floats first class now.

The larger the market, the more affordable things become for everyone. Adam Smith wrote about this in 1776. From 1972 to today, US population increased 131 percent from 208 million to around 340 million. Every 1 percent increase in population corresponded to a 1.83 percent to 4.87 percent increase in personal cruise abundance.

It’s visionary entrepreneurs like Ted Arison that take on enormous risks and create whole new markets and then get fabulously rich by making luxuries affordable for everyone.

This article was published at Gale Winds on June 28, 2024.

Blog Post | Air Transport

Flying Abundance (And Safety) Has Increased Dramatically

Get 10.8 flights from New York to London today for the time price of one in 1970 and be 80.4 times safer.

Summary: Since the Wright brothers’ pioneering flight in 1903, the aviation industry has made remarkable strides in safety, affordability, and accessibility. Comparing flight prices from 1970 to today reveals a staggering 90.8 percent decrease in the time price of flying, with transcontinental flights now affordable for the average person. Additionally, advancements in aviation technology have made flying dramatically safer today than it was in 1970, and are likely to improve flying safety in the future.

The Wright brothers launched the era of aviation on December 17, 1903, with a 12-second flight. Since then, aeronautical engineers and market innovators have made the experience safer, faster, and much more affordable.

For example, in 1970 the price for a roundtrip ticket from New York to London was $550. Blue-collar workers at the time were earning around $3.93 an hour in compensation (wages and benefits). This suggests a time price of around 140 hours.

Today, the ticket price has dropped to around $467. Blue-collar workers are now earning closer to $36.15 an hour, putting the time price at 12.9 hours. The time price has fallen by 90.8 percent: for the time required to earn the money to buy one flight in 1970, you can get 10.8 flights today.

Flying abundance has increased by 980 percent, compounding at an annual rate of 4.5 percent over the last 54 years. During this same period the global population increased by 4.3 billion (117 percent), from 3.7 billion to more than 8 billion. Every 1 percentage point increase in population corresponded to an 8.4 percentage point increase in flying abundance.

This graphic highlights how flight abundance has increased to 10.8 times the amount it was in 1970.

Now transcontinental flights are affordable for almost everyone. Free-market entrepreneurial capitalism isn’t about making more luxuries for the wealthy, it’s about making luxuries affordable for the average person.

While it is true that the 1970s flights may have had roomier cabins and better dining, flying today is dramatically safer. The Aviation Safety Network tracks airline accident data. Revenue passenger kilometer (RPK) is a standard metric used in aviation. Using this data, Javier Mediavilla plotted the ratio of fatalities per trillion RPK from 1970 to 2019 using five-year averages. The ratio decreased by 98.76 percent, from 3,218 to 40, during this 49-year range. Flying is more than 80.4 times safer today than in 1970, and safety has been improving at a compound rate of around 9.37 percent a year.

This graph highlights how the number fatalities per RPK has seen a steep decline since 1970.

Considering both the time price and safety, flying has become 868 times more abundant since 1970 (10.8 x 80.4 = 868). If there had been no innovation in flying since 1970,  New York to London airfare would be around $5,059 today. Only the rich could afford transatlantic flights in 1970.

The 3,442-mile flight takes around seven hours. The supersonic Concorde could fly it in less than three. While there are no commercial supersonic flights available today, Boom Supersonic, a private company based in Colorado, aims to bring them back to US airlines by 2029. Perhaps spending half as much time on flights will allow people to use their most valuable resource for other value-creating activities.

This article was published at Gale Winds on 3/26/2024.

Nature | Noncommunicable Disease

New Car-T Cancer Therapy Is Now Made At One-Tenth the Cost

“A small Indian biotechnology company is producing a home-grown version of a cutting-edge cancer treatment known as chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy that was pioneered in the United States. CAR-T therapies are used mainly to treat blood cancers and have burgeoned in the past few years.

The Indian CAR-T therapy costs one-tenth that of comparable commercial products available globally.”

From Nature.