I’m working on a blog post for later today or tomorrow on Robert Gordon’s important new paper, “Is U.S. Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds.” In working my way through it, I read a passage that reminded me of Stanley Lebergott. Lebergott wrote a great entry, “Wages and Working Conditions,” for The Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics, now the 1st edition of The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. In it, he documented the incredible growth in real wages and improvement in working conditions that had occurred in the U.S. economy in the first 80 years of the 20th century. I wondered whether he was still alive. He’s not, having died in 2009. How did I miss it? He died on July 24, 2009, but it wasn’t announced until August 2. At that point, I was on my annual vacation at my cottage in Canada where I take some work but pretty much disconnect from the Web. Looking back, I see that, not surprisingly, Tyler Cowen caught it, but I also notice that none of his commenters commented on it.

That’s unfortunate because Lebergott’s work was some of the most important work done on the U.S. economy. Here are some quotes from his article in the Encyclopedia:

Surely the single most fundamental working condition is the chance of death on the job. In every society workers are killed or injured in the process of production. While occupational deaths are comparatively rare overall in the United States today, they still occur with some regularity in ocean fishing, the construction of giant bridges and skyscrapers, and a few other activities.

For all United States workers the number of fatalities per dollar of real (inflation-adjusted) GNP dropped by 96 percent between 1900 and 1979. Back in 1900 half of all worker deaths occurred in two industries–coal mining and railroading. But between 1900 and 1979 fatality rates per ton of coal mined and per ton-mile of freight carried fell by 97 percent.

This spectacular change in worker safety resulted from a combination of forces that include safer production technologies, union demands, improved medical procedures and antibiotics, workmen’s compensation laws, and litigation. Ranking the individual importance of these factors is difficult and probably would mean little. Together, they reflected a growing conviction on the part of the American people that the economy was productive enough to afford such change. What’s more, the United States made far more progress in the workplace than it did in the hospital. Even though inflation-adjusted medical expenditures tripled from 1950 to 1970 and increased by 74 percent from 1975 to 1988, the nation’s death rate declined in neither period. But industry succeeded in lowering its death rate, both by spending to improve health on the job and by discovering, developing, and adopting ways to save lives.

And how about women?

By 1981 (the latest date available), women’s kitchen work had been cut about twenty hours a week, according to national time-budget studies from Michigan’s Institute of Survey Research. That reduction came about because families bought more restaurant meals, more canned, frozen, and prepared foods, and acquired an arsenal of electric appliances. Women also spent fewer hours washing and ironing clothes and cleaning house. Fewer hours of work in the home had little impact on women’s labor force participation rate until the great increase after 1950.

And, on real wages:

By 1980 real earnings of American nonfarm workers were about four times as great as in 1900. Government taxes took away an increasing share of the worker’s paycheck. What remained, however, helped transform the American standard of living. In 1900 only a handful earned enough to enjoy such expensive luxuries as piped water, hot water, indoor toilets, electricity, and separate rooms for each child. But by 1990 workers’ earnings had made such items commonplace. Moreover, most Americans now have radios, TVs, automobiles, and medical care that no millionaire in 1900 could possibly have obtained.

And check out his table on real wages.

Rarely do I like the headline when a newspaper sums up an economist’s work. But Joe Holley, the Washington Post writer who wrote the obit, or the editor who wrote the headline, got it exactly write. It was “Stanley Lebergott, 91, Dies; Economist Saw the Good in Consumer Culture.” Holley quotes from a Jonathan Yardley review of a Lebergott’s book, Pursuing Happiness: American Consumers in the Twentieth Century:

Lebergott argues that the great American shopping spree is not mere self-indulgence but an essential part of what has been a remarkably successful pursuit of happiness. He believes that rather than focus on the self-indulgent aspects of consumerism, we do better service to the truth if we credit it with permitting Americans to liberate themselves from the onus of repetitive, unrewarding labor.

Amen, brother.

Why did reading Gordon’s paper remind me of this? Passages like the following:

The effects of these inventions and sub-inventions can be grouped by the particular impact they had on animal and human effort. Motor power replaced animal power. To maintain a horse every year cost approximately the same as buying a horse. Imagine today that for your $30,000 car you had to spend $30,000 every year on fuel and repairs. That’s an interesting measure of how much efficiency was gained from replacing the horses. Gone was the need for unsanitary and repulsive jobs of people who had to remove horse waste.
Much of the inventive effort replaced not just animals but also brute-force human effort: running water replaced hauling water and waste: oil and gas replaced coal and wood; electric hand tools became common by 1910 and 1920; and household appliances began to proliferate with the early washers and refrigerators in the 1920s. Human comfort and convenience benefited by replacing the outhouse, replacing the open-hearth fire, and by the invention of window screens shortly after 1870. Reading was easier with electric light, and pollution was reduced as natural gas began to be used in place of coal. Shopping, which in 1870 was heavily dominated by monopolistic local general stores in rural areas, was gradually replaced by department stores, supermarkets, and mail-order catalogs.

I never met Professor Lebergott. When I commissioned his article and in the editing process, we corresponded entirely by mail. Not e-mail. Mail. He is one of the handful of economists working in my lifetime whom I never met and strongly regret not meeting.