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U.S. Cost of Living and Wage Stagnation, 1979-2015

Blog Post | Economic Growth

U.S. Cost of Living and Wage Stagnation, 1979-2015

Looking at average hourly earnings alone ignores at least three very important factors.

The question of the cost of living in the United States is intimately connected to the issue of the so-called “wage stagnation,” which is typically blamed on economic liberalization that started under President Carter, gathered steam under President Reagan, and peaked under President Clinton.

According to a 2015 report issued by the Economic Policy Institute, a pro-labor think tank based in Washington, D.C., “ever since 1979, the vast majority of American workers have seen their hourly wages stagnate or decline. This is despite real GDP growth of 149 percent and net productivity growth of 64 percent over this period. In short, the potential has existed for ample, broad-based wage growth over the last three-and-a-half decades, but these economic gains have largely bypassed the vast majority.”

True, adjusted for inflation, average hourly earnings of production and nonsupervisory employees in the private sector (closest approximation for the quintessential blue-collar worker that I could find) have barely changed between 1979 and 2015. In October 1979, average hourly earnings stood at $6.51 or $21.20 in 2015 dollars. In October 2015, average hourly earnings stood at $21.18 – slightly below the inflation adjusted 1979 level.

Looking at the average hourly earnings, however, ignores at least three very important factors: expansion of non-wage benefits, fall in the price of consumer goods and rise in price of services, such as education and healthcare.

First, in recent decades, non-wage benefits expanded. Today they include relocation assistance, medical and prescription coverage, vision and dental coverage, health and dependent care flexible spending accounts, retirement benefit plans, group-term life and long term care insurance plans, legal and adoption assistance plans, child care and transportation benefits, vacation and sick paid time-off, and employee discount programs from a variety of vendors, etc.

It is not easy to put an exact figure on the value of those non-wage benefits, but they could amount to as much as 30 or even 40 percent of the workers’ earnings. The lion’s share of the non-wage benefits, as my Cato colleague Peter Van Doren wrote in 2011, is consumed by “the dramatic increase in health insurance costs.” “The fixed costs of health insurance,” Van Doren shows, “are a much larger percentage of the total compensation of lower-earnings workers.”

Second, many, perhaps most, big-ticket items used by a typical American family on a daily basis have decreased in price. Over at Human Progress, we have been comparing the prices of common household items as advertised in the 1979 Sears catalog and prices of common household items as sold by Walmart in 2015.

We have divided the 1979 nominal prices by 1979 average nominal hourly wages and 2015 nominal prices by 2015 average nominal hourly wages, to calculate the “time cost” of common household items in each year (i.e., the number of hours the average American would have to work to earn enough money to purchase various household items at the nominal prices). Thus, the “time cost” of a 13 Cu. Ft. refrigerator fell by 52 percent in terms of the hours of work required at the average hourly nominal wage, etc.

Needless to say, the above price reductions greatly underestimate the totality of welfare gains by an average American, by ignoring qualitative, aesthetic and environmental improvements on commonly used items. (To give just one example, a refrigerator today uses one-third of the electricity used by a refrigerator in the 1970s.)

From the above discussion it might be reasonable to conclude that Americans are much better off today than they were in the late 1970s, but that would be too simplistic. The cost of education, healthcare and housing has risen at a faster pace than total compensation. It is true that today’s houses are larger, healthcare better, and education more high-tech than in the past, but quality improvements do not seem to account for the entirety of price increases. For example, there appears to be a high degree of academic consensus that housing price inflation is driven, primarily, by zoning laws. (No such consensus, alas, exists for the rise in education and healthcare costs.)

The question of standard of living is a complex one. The accompanying infographic refers to merely one part of the debate, i.e., affordability of commonly used items. While we believe that the infographic tells an important story, it should be considered within a broader context, including non-wage compensation and offsetting increases in the cost of housing, education, and healthcare.

This first appeared in Reason

CNBC | Food Production

Chipotle Tests Automation for Burrito Bowls and Salads

“The Hyphen robot will make burrito bowls and salads for digital orders only. The technology moves the bowls underneath the digital make line to dispense the correct ingredients. Simultaneously, an employee can assemble digital orders for other items, such as tacos, quesadillas and burritos, on the digital make line. When the robot is done making an order, it sends the bowl or salad back up to the surface so employees can properly package the order.”

From CNBC.

The Human Progress Podcast | Ep. 37

Stephen Barrows: The Economic Madness of Malthusianism

The economist Stephen Barrows joins Chelsea Follett to discuss the intellectual history of population economics, the benefits of population growth, and what we can expect from a future of falling fertility.

Blog Post | Air Transport

The Gift of Flying Home for Christmas

The time price of airfares has fallen 38.1 percent in five years.

Airports will be busy again this Christmas. According to Kayak data, domestic flight searches are up 155 percent compared to 2020, though they are still 43 percent lower than in 2019.

Fortunately, we continue to enjoy the gift of decreasing airfares. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that since 2016, airfares have decreased in price from an index value of 270.9 to 203.8, or 24.8 percent.

Since we buy things with money but pay for them with time, we prefer to analyze the cost of airfares using time prices. To calculate the time price, we divide the nominal price by the nominal wage. That will give us the number of hours of work required to earn enough money to buy an airplane ticket.

We can calculate the time prices using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They report that the nominal blue-collar hourly wage increased by 21.5 percent from $21.72 in 2016 to $26.40 in 2021.

It took 12.47 hours to earn enough money to buy the average airplane ticket in 2016. Today, it takes just 7.72 hours. That’s a decline of 38.1 percent.

For the same amount of time working, you can get 61.6 percent more airfares today than in 2016. Flying abundance has been growing at a compound annual rate of around 10.7 percent a year. At this rate, we get twice as many flights every 7.22 years.

Excerpt from our forthcoming book, Superabundance.

Blog Post | Scientific Research

The Fastest Learning Curve in History?

Human genome sequencing has become over a million times more abundant since 2003. In the near future, the price may drop another 90 percent from $1,000 to $100.

The Human Genome Project was an international effort to map the entire three-billion-letter human genome. The project launched in 1990 and concluded its work in 2003 – 50 years after James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the double-helix structure of DNA. The U.S. government contributed $3.8 billion toward the project, though the cost of the actual sequencing was lower.

Dr. Eric Green, the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, recalled that “the first genome cost us about a billion dollars … Now when we sequence a person’s genome, it’s less than $1000, so that’s a million-fold reduction.”

Note that blue-collar worker hourly compensation (wages and benefits) rate increased by 51 percent between 2003 and 2020 (i.e., from $21.54 to $32.54). Consequently, it would have cost that worker 46,425,255 hours of work to earn enough money to buy his or her DNA sequence in 2003, but only 30.73 hours of work to do so in 2020.

The time price of DNA sequencing, in other words, dropped by 99.99993 percent. For the same hours of work required to earn the money to buy one DNA sequence in 2003, a blue-collar worker can get over 1.5 million sequences today. That amounts to over a 150 million percent increase in DNA sequencing abundance.

Now a group of Chinese entrepreneurs at the BGI hope to get the price down to $100 using a robotic arm and a roomful of chemical baths and imaging machines. Rade Drmanac, chief scientific officer of Complete Genomics, a division of BGI, noted that at $100, genetic sequencing could soon be common for every child at birth.

The National Human Genome Research Institute tracks costs associated with DNA sequencing and produced the chart below. Note the logarithmic scale on the vertical (i.e., Y) axis:

Exponential innovation occasionally experiences a double exponent or punctuation as it did in January of 2008 when DNA sequencing transitioned from the Sanger method (i.e., dideoxy chain termination sequencing) to “second generation” or “next-generation” DNA sequencing technologies.

A fall in the cost of DNA sequencing from $1,000,000,000 to $100 over 20 years would imply a compound rate of decline of 6.5 percent a month. (Adjusting for the time price puts the compound rate of decline at 7.13 percent per month.) Moore’s law indicates that prices of computing decline at 2.85 percent a month. So, the cost of DNA sequencing per genome may amount to the fastest price decline in history.

Long live learning curves. The knowledge they create is our true wealth.