MIT labor economist David Autor estimated that an average U.S. worker in 2015 could achieve his 1915 counterpart’s real income by “working about 17 weeks per year.” Seventeen weeks per year at 40 work hours per week is 680 hours per year. Spread over a 50-week work year, that’s 13.6 hours per week. And that overstates the workweek required for a 1930 standard of living for two reasons. First, the quality of almost everything we buy that is not produced by government has increased. Second, we can buy things that were simply unavailable then. Cell phones, anyone?
Why don’t we work 14-hour weeks? The answer, briefly, is that we want more. We are acquisitive people. Consider cars. Those few families that had cars in Keynes’s day usually had only one. Even 30 years later, when I was growing up, my father had one old Ford. And we were not poor: Dad’s income was probably just below the median income in Canada. Now, many families have two or three cars. We could do without televisions and smart phones, but we don’t want to. We could settle for being like most Brits or Americans in Keynes’s time, never traveling more than 200 miles from home. But we’ve heard about places called Las Vegas, Disneyland, and Florida—and, we want to go there. Also, antibiotics and other life-saving medicines come in awfully handy—but they cost money to get. The reality is that we want more and we will always want more.
More importantly, Trump is contributing to an emerging anti-tech attitude in the GOP. Last month, Trump senior adviser (for now) Steve Bannon argued tech giants like Google and Facebook should be regulated like public utilities. And in the wake of Google’s firing of memo writer and amateur evolutionary biologist James Damore, Bannon’s stance has been picked up by other influential voices on the right. Kurt Schlichter, a columnist for the conservative website Townhall, declared, “Conservatives must regulate Google and all of Silicon Valley into submission,” citing the “fascist witch-burning of an honest engineer for refusing to bow down at the altar of politically correct lies.” Then there’s top-rated Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who opined Monday that the Damore incident along with alleged anti-conservative bias in Google’s search algorithms means the company should “be regulated like the public utility it is to make sure it doesn’t further distort the free flow of information.”
Arnold Kling reveals a simple and yet vitally important fact about economic statistics. It’s a fact that those who boast of their greater-than-thou devotion to the facts too often ignore. Here ’tis:
I think that one should watch what is happening to non-wage benefits. Anecdotally, I keep hearing more stories about very generous family leave policies. With things like health care benefits and (401) K matching policies, firms have a lot of ways adjusting compensation that do not involve wages. Many of these are difficult for government statisticians to track.