Homeric Truth About American Living Standards

by Don Boudreaux on August 25, 2014

in Growth, Inequality, Standard of Living

Thomas Piketty famously references works of fiction to make serious, factual, and revealing points about living standards (in Piketty’s case, the living standards of the upper classes in England and France of 200 years ago).  And while such uses of fictional works can be done well or poorly, I agree with Piketty that these uses are a legitimate means of revealing relevant information and of enhancing our understanding of reality.

Jon Murphy – in this e-mail to me (shared here with his kind permission) – also references a work of fiction to make a serious, factual, and revealing point about living standards (in Jon’s case, the living standards of working-class Americans over the past 25 years):

Hi Don,

FXX has been doing a marathon of every Simpsons episode ever (a 12 day affair).  I’ve been watching it off and on and just thought I’d share with you an observation:

According to the Simpsons, there sure isn’t any stagnation.  The Simpsons, as you know, are a lower middle-class family (they often describe how much they are paycheck to paycheck, sometimes avoiding foods like steak because they can’t afford it).  So, much of what the family owns would be placed in that category.  As I am watching, it is amazing how much the family’s standard of living rises.  In the early 90’s, for example, there is just one car, a big ol’ TV set, etc.  By 2000, the family has 2 cars, and a “regular” TV.  By 2013, they now have a big-screen flat panel TV.  Homer still has the same job (mostly).  Marge is a housewife.  Bart and Lisa and Maggie are still kids, but the Simpsons’ lives are so much better.

But that’s not the only observation:

In one episode that takes place in the late 1990’s (or perhaps early 2000’s.  Not totally sure), Bart gets a girlfriend who is the daughter of a movie star.  She invites him over to watch TV because “You have never seen Itchy and Scratchy until you’ve seen it on DVD!”  Not 14 years ago, DVDs were the exclusive domain of the rich, and yet now they are ubiquitous!

Of course, this is hardly scientific and all kinds of legitimate arguments can be made against these observations, but I just thought I’d share that a family that represents “the average American” sure as shoot aren’t stagnating.

Best,
Jon

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