The Wonders of Economic Growth
Many of us often refer to “the good old days” and the era we have in mind seems to be anywhere from thirty years ago to one hundred years ago, depending in part on our age. But Franklin Pierce Adams, one of the most prominent American columnists in the early twentieth century, noting the same tendency back then, put it best when he wrote, “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.” Fortunately, almost no one refers to the medieval era as the good old days. But it’s still worth seeing how people lived back then.
This is from David R. Henderson, “The Wonders of Economic Growth,” Defining Ideas, June 2, 2022.
In 2000, Brad DeLong, an economist at UC-Berkeley, wrote a great paper titled “Cornucopia.” In it is a bar graph showing economic growth per capita over ten centuries from the eleventh century to the twentieth century. It bumps along close to zero for many centuries (except for the fourteenth century, when there’s more than a blip), increases substantially in the nineteenth century, and then explodes in the twentieth century. In that same paper, DeLong pulls off a marvelous stunt. He takes the 1895 Montgomery Ward catalogue and, instead of comparing prices of various items then and in 2000, gives data for the number of hours one would have had to work at average 1895 US wages to buy various items versus the number of hours one would have had to work to buy those same items in 2000.
The results are astounding. Consider four of his ten examples. To buy six volumes of the Horatio Alger novels in 1895 took 21 hours of work, versus 0.6 hours in 2000. A one-speed bicycle took 260 hours of work, versus 7.2 hours in 2000. An office chair? Twenty-four hours then, versus 2 hours in 2000. A set of the Encyclopedia Britannica cost 140 hours of work, versus 33.8 in 2000. That last number dramatically understates the progress to today because almost no one wants to buy the Encyclopedia today, which is why it is no longer published, and we can get Wikipedia at a zero price. Except on controversial issues, Wikipedia is quite good. The only item that was more expensive in hours worked in 2000 than in 1895 was a sterling silver teaspoon, which took 26 hours in 1895 and 34 hours in 2000. But here DeLong tells an interesting story. Why did people want a sterling silver teaspoon in 1895? he asks. The answer: they wanted something that wouldn’t corrode. Now we have eating utensils that are very cheap and don’t corrode.
Read the whole thing.