Matt O'Brien treated us to a classic case of bad reasoning by economists. A survey of elite economists (you know, the type of people that couldn't see an $8 trillion housing bubble) found that the vast majority said that the official income data understated the increase in the standard of living for the middle class over the last 35 years.
The explanation for this view is that new goods like cell phones and the Internet have vastly improved our standard of living in ways that are not picked up in the data. O'Brien suggests a thought experiment that has been put forward by this elite group. Would you be willing to trade an income of $50,000 in 2015 for an inflation adjusted $100,000 income in 1980, knowing that you can only buy the goods and services available in 1980?
The implication is that most of us would say no, since it would mean giving up our cell phones, Ipads and Ipods, smartphone cameras, wifi, and all sorts of other neat things. This may well be true, but there are two reasons why the economists raising this point flunk cost of living 101.
The first point is a narrow one. These folks are upset that our price indexes don't have a way of picking up the benefits of new goods like television, refrigerators, and the polio vaccine. (Sorry, guess those are pretty old now. But the point is that important new goods are not new.) But good economists know that price indexes also don't pick up the cost of these new goods. To be specific, we can complain that the consumer price index doesn't pick up the gain from the wonders of a cell phone. That's true. But it also doesn't pick up the cost of buying the phone and paying for monthly service. (It picks up the change in these costs once they are included in the price basket, but not the initial cost.) With an important qualification that we will get to momentarily, we can assume the benefits are greater than the cost since people opt to buy cell phones, but that gap is much less than just counting the benefits alone, which it seems is how our elite economists view the issue.
The second point is that we adjust our society and living patterns around the technology we have. Ask someone who lived in the suburbs in the 1960s how they would feel living without a car. It would be pretty awful, but just 30 years earlier most middle class families did not have a car or think they needed one. To take a slightly more recent example, imagine living without air conditioning in the summer. Most middle class families did fifty years ago.
We have constructed a society that is built around cell phones and the Internet. Asking people to go without these items would be a real hardship because they have become integrated into their lives. Does this mean that we are better off in a society with these things than without? It probably does, but asking how our Internet/cell phone addict would do in a world without the Internet or cell phones is a silly question.
There is one more point worth mentioning. Our elite economist friends presumably don't want to believe that well-being is relative. This could be important because there is a much sharper gap between the living standards of the rich and famous in 2015 than in 1980. Some people may take this into account in their assessment of their well-being. In other words they may feel deprived to some extent because their living standards are so much lower relative to the rich than was the case in 1980. We know the elite economists don't want people to think like this, but some of the ignorant masses might anyhow. Maybe if they just took more economics...