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Middle-Class Consumption

Scott Sumner has a good post, at EconLog, on the inequality debate.  Here’s a long comment that I left in the comments section of that post (edited and augmented here slightly):

Scott: Nice post. One (non-rhetorical) question: why do you believe that the consumption of the rich has risen faster than that of the middle class? You might be correct, but it seems to me that the very same sort of logic, observations, and data that suggest to you (and to me) that the consumption of the poor has risen faster than that of the middle class also suggest that the consumption of the middle class has risen faster than that of the rich.

You and I both remember the mid-1970s well. Here are my impressions of that era compared to today: Back then, flying was not common for middle-class people. Middle-class people were far less likely than they are today to vacation in Europe or Latin America. Middle-class-people’s cars broke down much more frequently than they do today. Many more middle-class families had only “the” family car rather than multiple cars. Middle-class people personally changed the oil in their cars more frequently than they do today (with the likes of Jiffy Lube performing that dirty job now).

Making long-distance telephone calls was so costly that middle-class people monitored the number of minutes they spent on such calls. Almost no middle-class person had a telephone in his or her car. Middle-class people had access to a less-varied selection of foods – both in supermarkets and in restaurants – than they have access to today. A smaller proportion (than today) of middle-class homes were equipped with automatic dishwashers, central air-conditioning, attached garages, push-button-garage-door controls, and garbage disposals. (I’m pretty sure, too, that the size of the typical middle-class home back then – measured in both square- and cubic-feet – was smaller than it is today. And while the size of the homes of the rich might have increased even more [I don’t know], a, say, 10% increase in living space starting from a relatively small space means a greater improvement in living standards than does a 10% increase in living space starting from a larger space.)

While rich people in the 1970s could afford home theaters, middle-class people could watch at home only those movies (and other programs) that the three t.v. networks (and perhaps also a local independent channel) were airing.  No middle-class person shipped, or had anything shipped, overnight.

Again, your claim might well be correct. I have no firm-enough evidence against it. But it strikes me as being as doubtful as is the claim of others that the consumption of the middle-class over the past several decades has grown faster than has the consumption of the poor.