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Not Chopped Liver

Posted By Don Boudreaux On January 21, 2013 @ 8:47 am In Standard of Living,Work | Comments Disabled

Has the pay of ordinary Americans stagnated over the past 30 to 40 years?  Many prominent people say yes.  Others of us believe that the facts do not support this claim of stagnant pay.  Regular patrons of the Cafe have encountered several posts by Russ and by me that challenge, in different ways, this ‘stagnationist’ argument.  (Regular readers of Mark Perry’s Carpe Diem are also exposed to many reasons for doubting that middle-class Americans have been, as some say, “treading water” for the past several decades.)

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Here’s one piece of evidence that the real pay of ordinary Americans is today higher than in was in the 1970s.

This is a package, from a Whole Foods supermarket in Fairfax, Virginia, of cleaned and pre-cut vegetable for making soup.  Packages such as these are common now in supermarkets – not only in Whole Foods, but also in stores such as Giant and Safeway.

Buyers of these packages of pre-cut vegetables buy not only the vegetables but the convenience of simply dumping them into the pot.  Buyers here buy time.

Those of us old enough to remember supermarkets in the 1970s recall that no such packages were then available.  (Nor, by the way, were electric food processors at all common.  Americans in the 1970s bought whole vegetables; peeled and washed them at home; and chopped them up with knives or with other manually operated chopping devices.  I remember my mom using a manual chopper that had a curve blade and relied upon the pressure of a coiled spring to chop vegetables.)

So this package of washed and pre-cut vegetables suggests that the value of Americans’ time is higher today than it was in the past, before such packages were common.

The same suggestion is made by the ubiquity today of Jiffy Lube and Pep Boys.  Americans have better ways to spend their time than cutting vegetables and changing the oil in their automobiles.

As I say, this is evidence; it’s (of course) not proof.  My “demand-side” suggestion for the growing popularity of pre-cut vegetables and drive-in oil-change services might be off-base.  And if it is correct, it’s also likely not to be all that’s going on.  Supply-side forces are also at work, and these forces might play a larger role than the demand-side forces in driving this market development.  Some unheralded innovator – or, really, a series of innovators working together (likely unaware they were doing so!) – made it possible to construct and use chopping, wrapping, and other machines that enable food retailers to profitably offer for sale pre-cut veggies.

But when I look at these vegetables, I think “less time spent cooking!”

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