In the Western World it has recently been claimed that so-called economic stagnation has not seen the middle classes benefit from the great technological boom in terms of real wage growth. This, it is said, goes some way to explaining the rise of "populist" politicians and economic protectionism. I use a personal anecdote to illustrate a refutation of these ideas and conclude we are, all of us, more wealthy than the economists, politicians and pessimists want us to believe.
"Stagnation" is a term used in economics to denote a period of near zero economic growth. This is to be contrasted with inflation (high growth - or precisely "price increases") and deflation (negative growth or price decreases). It has been argued that much of the Western World, but especially the United States is in an extended period of stagnation. Emblematic of this idea is the work of Economist Tyler Cowen, whose 2011 pamphlet "The Great Stagnation" argues that the causes of growth in America are largely spent and we are now in a period where there has been little "real growth" in wages for some decades and will be for some decades to come. My aim here is not as a critique especially of the work of that economist or even that pamphlet (which is worth reading) but rather the broader idea that things are not much better now than they were a decade or more ago as measured against the index of "real wage growth" or the thesis that is contained in the article already linked to above by Amanda Novello where, writing about the economic "recovery" that is discussed post the 2008 financial crisis:
"Digging deeper exposes that middle and low-income workers and their families in the United States have not reaped their share of the benefits of the apparent recovery, benefits that such a recovery should produce for all, and not only the few. Data shows that, in fact, it’s only wealthier households and larger corporations that have gained noticeably since the recession ended a decade ago. This is because long-developing trends of inequality have proven impervious to the decade’s economic growth."
Is it true that "only wealthier households and larger corporations" have experienced benefits over the last decade? Economists will say numbers speak for themselves. Look at "real wage growth", for example. Real wage growth is a measure of how much wages have grown as compared to the rise in the cost of living (or broadly the average cost of other things in life). Real wage growth is supposed to be a proxy for a quantitative measure of one's standard of living. So if there has been no "real wage growth" is it true one's standard of living has not improved? This is all a very abstract way of talking about people's actual lived experience: their work, their lives, their day-to-day activities (including, in small part, their spending habits). In particular we must consider actual individuals - not groups of people. People seem to think that if those on minimum wage have, as a group, not seen "real wage growth" that this is a cause for concern. But which person on minimum wage 10 or 20 years ago is still there, in the same role? Don't people change jobs - and, in part, because they no longer wish to be on the wage they were? Don't people take on other responsibilities (like study) in order to improve their lot? Economists are quick to define into existence something like a "real wage growth" metric and claim this indicates some deep truth about the lives of individual people. Rather than bring to bear various other metrics that might stand in contrast to this, I want instead to simply consider a narrow aspect of my own life and ask the question: am I no better off? Obviously a single data point cannot refute a trend, but I am doing this for the pessimists who are complaining their lives are no better off. Those who, at 30, 40 or 50 complain things are not much better for them now than when they were 20. I hope that any reader who persists with this piece simply compares my life with theirs. I note that my story parallels that of all my family and friends - many of whom, I would suggest, are far worse off and less mobile than I will demonstrate I have been.
(What follows is a true story, and you may be able to predict where it’s going. So, if you want, skip straight to the final two paragraphs.)
My father was (and remains) what has become known as an “audiophile”. These days the suffix “phile” is added to just about anything one likes to indicate a passion for: numberphile (i.e: a mathematician), retrophile (one who loves cultures of the past), bibliophile (you get the picture). Anyways, before the term existed, my father was an audiophile of the kind that today is rarer than one might think. Or at least I might think. He used to obsess - during the early stages of CD audio - about whether the CD was recorded in DDD or some lower quality like AAD. The "A" was for "Acoustic" and the "D" for "Digital" and the three letters in a row told you something about each stage of the recording process. DDD was clearly "Digital recording" at all stages - so of the highest quality. I knew of no one else who cared about this. But today - I get it. So often I walk along a street to hear a person blaring music for themselves from an iPhone or some other smartphone. I mean - public music played from an iPhone speaker! Now don’t get me wrong - the latest iPhones have reasonable speakers given their size. But outdoors on noisy streets? Putting aside what I consider the discourtesy to fellow pedestrians and others to have their senses assailed by music they may not like following them to the train station, there are very very cheap alternatives that solve all the problems of: faster battery drain, annoyance to fellow travellers and chief among them to my mind: the quality of the sound. Any half decent (and cheaper by the week) set of ear buds or phones completely outclasses inbuilt phone speakers. If one can afford a smart phone, one can afford a reasonably cheap, reasonably high quality pair of earbuds. Whatever the case, I have inherited (ok, learned) this preference from my father. People who listen to the sound from the television’s inbuilt speakers rather than always ensuring it runs through their separate amplifier and high quality speaker system instead - a mystery to me. People content to remain using the included white wired headphones with their iPhone - I just do not understand. I also do not understand Apple's AirPods, period. Given the price - why is their sound quality so low? Why aren't they noise cancelling or at least noise isolating? Earbuds half the price do a far better job. But I digress.
When I was a child - under 10 - I really wanted some good, private set of speakers I could tune into a radio or - even better - play cassettes. I wanted to emulate my dad, of course, and be something like a connoisseur of sound. The first bit of tech I got in this regard was a little mono radio - and I was very proud of it. But within a year - I guess for a Christmas present - I was bought a portable stereo cassette player with radio. And that, to me, was simply amazing. Stereo I could carry around…and play cassettes on. I’m not sure I ever carried it far. It ran on something like 6 D-size batteries. It looked something very much like this.
Next I found, I guess in a catalogue, a pair of over-the-head headphones that had an aerial and could be used to tune into the radio. Well now that was really it! I could walk around listening to the latest hits and not annoy anyone else. These didn’t predate the Sony Walkman - that had been out for almost a decade already - but the Walkman was well over $100 - and in our family - back in the 80s - $100 may as well have been $1000.
But the problem was, it only played whatever the radio stations were playing. I wanted to be able to play my own cassettes. Back in those days, the technique was to wait by the radio station until your favourite song came on, and hit record. This way you could make your own "mixed tape". I wished I could play my various "mixed tapes" on some portable audio device. Alongside my love of portable audio, I had begun to develop a love of hiking. I lived in a part of Sydney surrounded by bushland (forest, in other words) - and in other parts quiet suburban streets. I could imagine few greater pleasures than walking, jogging or running and listening to music. The problem was, of course, the batteries never lasted long with these things. A few hours at most. And, back in the day, you really did stand out as odd wearing such a contraption as pictured above on your head. They simply were not that popular. Especially among people my age. Nevertheless I do recall dreaming of the possibility that I might be able to actually record my own favourite music rather than have to listen only to what the radio was playing at any particular time. This was something a walkman - with in built cassette - would allow me to do. But, again, they were for rich people…not children from the suburbs until, I guess, sometime towards the end of the 80s. By then, there were cheaper (Chinese, I guess) knockoffs. And so finally I was able to get a portable cassette radio. Now I was really cooking because I could record my own music, from the radio on my stereo system (no doubt in violation of copyright law at the time), onto a cassette and then carry it with me. This was the height of technology and personal agency. I think it was in 1993 I was able to ask for my first “digital” actual Sony branded Walkman. I say digital, because it had an LCD read out. It looked exactly like this:
The absolutely remarkable thing about this walkman was that it could store in memory your favourite radio stations. So by hitting the 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 position one could quickly switch from station to station at will rather than, prior to this, having to manually find the station by tuning using an analogue dial. I was able to record from CD onto cassette all my favourite music - and some comedy radio shows I enjoyed. The first CD player had arrived in our home in 1988 and so I was building a library of cassettes to carry about with me. The only problem with this procedure was that I would often hear a song on the radio and have no way to record it on the fly. I would either have to wait until it came on the radio when I got home - or (increasingly) buy the CD and then transfer it to cassette. I dreamed of the capacity for a walkman to record onto cassette whatever was playing.
When I left school I went to university - full time. By which I mean, 5 days a week, for 7 or 8 hours a day. Lectures commenced at 9am and finished at 4pm, except on Wednesdays when it was 5pm. Uni was located a considerable 90 minute journey away using public transport (which I did) and after university on some days of the week (especially Thursday) I was a security guard at the largest shopping mall in Sydney - and also on weekends. This left very little “free” time except travel time (which was around 3 or more hours a day), but a part time job did make me more wealthy than most of my friends - at least in those early years - because while they went to university as well, they did not tend to work jobs as I did to pay their own way and save a little. Or where they did work part time jobs, they chose to work in fast food or at a grocery store and so on. A security guard required a little training, and there were hazards, so there was a monetary reward for making that choice over some other kind of minimum wage position. Nevertheless it was never paid well (for example, in the late 90s, a weekday shift would be around $13 Australian dollars per hour. McDonalds paid something closer to $10 per hour. In both cases the evening and weekend rates were more (on Sunday, I got "double time"!).
So it was, then, in the late-90s I was able to upgrade my older “play only” Sony Walkman for one that could indeed record. Not only did it have a record function it had so many other features (like a digital equaliser and “bass boost”). The great advantage now was that my journeys too and from work and to and from university could be accompanied by my favourite radio shows even if they were on whilst I was at work or in lectures…because I was recording them for my travel time. I absolutely loved train/bus journeys with music of my choice, or radio show of my choice while reading/studying my university notes...or rather more often some popular science book I had bought. I seemed to have reached the absolute zenith of what I wanted from portable audio. Although I did imagine the possibility of having a recordable CD. Whatever the case this walkman also accompanied me on long patrols of the shopping centre late at night (always at low volume, sometimes with one earpiece out so I could still hear if there was ever any broken glass. Only ever once did this happen - and the alarm system was loud enough that no set of earbuds at whatever volume would ever drown those out)
But, as the 90s rolled into the 2000s and I was merely a security guard on minimum wage in an unskilled job - I was nevertheless able to afford almost as much technology and creature comforts as my imagination allowed me. I was able to build my own PC from buying the best motherboard, CPU, RAM, Hardrive and so on I could find…and I could afford among the best portable audio. Somewhere in the 80s the Sony “Discman” came out - it was a portable CD player…but it was never popular because it wasn’t really very portable. The slightest bump and the machine skipped making listening and walking (for example) an intolerable experience. In around 1999/2000 I did buy one of the first CD-walkmans which came standard with a RAM buffer which meant if it did get bumped, it was able to store about 30 seconds worth of audio on solid state memory rather than skip. But actually my top of the line Sony Walkman then had sound quality that easily matched the discman - because the earbud headphones had really increased in quality. One of my friends, who was also in a low-wage job, bought this for me for my birthday:
That walkman was set apart by the quality of its earbuds as well as its excellent record feature and pseudo-digital fast forward and rewind (it could tell where songs stopped and started again, making your favourites on the cassette easier to find). All of this made my life absolutely wonderful because…as I said, I loved walking. And the more I loved walking and hiking, the more I wanted to listen to music and other audio (like my favourite radio shows I had recorded). But the problem was, one had to carry additional casettes and each cassette was usually only 90 minutes or so. For long hikes that just really did not do. And during this time I went to Africa (Zimbabwe) on Safari which included lengthy hikes...and lengthy travel times and also South America for some months, even hiking the Inca Trail in Peru…a three night long trial at high altitude through the Andes. I think I carried 6 cassettes with me for that journey. There are only so many times you can hear your favourite hits over and again. If only cassettes were smaller…or could store more songs?
Now in truth the Sony Minidisc player had been out since 1992. But it was well outside my budget. So it was not until 2002 I bought one - and what an astonishing device it was. I still have it. It looks like this:
This was merely incremental progress in some ways, but seemingly revolutionary for my life. Casettes had improved in quality markedly over the decade, but now the option of a small optical disc - much smaller than a cassette - could store many hours of audio. Indeed one could choose the sampling rate - the highest selection meant your minidisc could store about 70 minutes of audio, while the lowest quality meant 4 times that amount. There were science, philosophy and other radio shows I could download/record straight from the radio in low quality and keep, while I could transfer my CD audio music collection to minidisc - all stored on generic branded discs which were very cheap, and getting cheaper all the time as competition entered the market. And of course, at this time, this was one of the first devices one could actually hook up to a computer and download songs and other audio directly to via USB. Now that, I guess, deserves the term "revolutionary".
Throughout this time I changed jobs - going from being a security guard, to a “science communicator” with the university (which actually was paid quite a bit less - but this was an exchange I was happy to make as the “confrontation” - physical and otherwise - which is the life of a security officer - had become something I felt I had outgrown).
In the early 2000s, parts of the education system in Australia permitted graduates with just a Bachelor’s Degree to work as casual teachers in schools - so I took on this while I completed a Bachelor of Teaching (which would entitle me to work in schools on a permanent basis, for substantially more money). This brought with it a real increase in my financial position - money like I had never had before and didn't even know what to do with (I should probably have invested - but no, I was having too much fun travelling). But, once more, during this period I was working, then studying, working, then studying. Nevertheless I was able to save more. I paid my way through and completed two more degrees and then used these as tickets to travel for even longer periods. I had been to Africa, and South America and to numerous places within Australia (Tasmania was and remains my favourite. I agree with Edmund Hillary who described it as "the greatest hiking country on Earth".) After saving up from all those jobs, I moved to London and my minidisc player went with me - as I could download music from NAPSTER (which ages you, if you remember it) and radio shows from Australia to salve the homesickness as early versions of podcasts began to become popular. But, of course, the minidisc player still had the problem that the finiteness of the discs meant carrying quite a number of them, if one did not want to get repetitive with their audio. Solid state MP3 devices early on never had much memory - but were better for jogging (minidiscs were still liable to skipping). But the move to solid state seemed inevitable.
As I have continued to work, I migrated fully to an Apple device. At first it was the iPod nano - which was amazing - great for the gym and for jogging because it could store thousands of songs and podcasts in a device one barely noticed they were even carrying. But the first iPhone was for me also truly revolutionary because now, here was a device effectively with unlimited storage: the cloud meant that radio shows were there for download so long as you could find a WIFI or 3G signal. Especially for exercising and jogging this was a true game changer. Suddenly everything on the internet was accessible from my pocket for the first time - and streaming became a thing. The finiteness of the memory was barely a factor anymore.
And now we come to today -and on my wrist is an Apple Watch, as small as an iPod nano with so many of the features of an iPhone - and in my ears are wireless bud earphones. This is the stuff of dreams for my 10 year old self. Or my 20 year old self. Or my 30 year old self.
If I had remained a security guard at that shopping mall all these years - I guess I would not be paid much more now in "real wages" than I was then. Indeed I know, because I can look up, what that job pays here in Australia. And given the rise in living costs - indeed, it’s not like “Security Guard” is a more attractive job now than it was then. Why should it be? Jobs like those, in the main, are not meant to be kept for life - unless one really wants to get into the security industry say and own their own security company. That certainly could be a reasonable ambition. But had I stayed there, in that shopping mall, wearing that uniform, I expect I would have been promoted to supervisor, then manager and so forth up into the corporate section of the centre (interestingly the rank-system in a large shopping centre like that was quite a complex affair!). So no one stays in an entry level job like that forever, that’s common sense. Unless they really try hard not to try to get promoted or find some other job more attractive. People do get promoted, they do gain experience and so are moved into “higher” positions of greater responsibility, or sideways into a position where the ladder is easier to climb. Or they do a course for some hours a week and retrain to take on a different, by their lights better, role that pays more (or is more interesting, more fun, less hazardous and so on).
But say, for argument's sake, I never did any of that and remained a security guard in precisely the same position. Is the lack of increase of income of “security guards” relative to the cost of living - some sign of “stagnation” as it is often suggested to be? People say things like “real wages have not increased” as if people are stuck in the same job, forced to make the same choice day after day? Whatever the case - say I did make the choice to stay in that job and not made the choice to spend the rest of my time studying whenever I had the chance (when I wasn’t listening to recorded radio shows) - would it be fair to say I would have been “no better off” now compared to then? That because my "real wage growth" had been near zero that I was someone being "left behind"?
No. No way! Not by a long shot. Because today, even on that same wage, I could have afforded an Apple Watch and wireless earbuds. Which is exactly what I have now and the pinnacle of portable audio technology for me, so far as I am concerned. The Apple Watch I have comes to me on a “plan” via my mobile provider. It costs me $20 a month to pay off. I could afford that, even as a security guard. Easily! And yes, my data on top of that costs a little more (which I can share across multiple devices) - but the point is - the very best technology and access to the world’s information and music library - almost unimaginable technology to me 20 years ago - is available even to some of the least wealthy people in modern western societies - and soon to everyone else too!
Wealth is not about how much money you have, or cash you can pull out of your bank account. It includes that - but it also includes all the many things that money can buy and which you already have. My Apple Watch - if I could travel back 20 years - I imagine would have been regarded as one of the most astonishing devices in existence making me one of the most wealthy people on the planet. By this measure: the technology on my wrist would have been bought by Bill Gates or some other billionaire - for many billions of dollars if I could have convinced them what it truly was. If you have seen the movies: it would have been like the chip from the first Terminator which, if you recall - was not destroyed when Arnold’s evil character was killed. That last remaining chip was used by a technology company to “go in directions they never could have imagined”. It was basically alien technology. So too my Apple Watch placed in 2000, or let’s say 1990
The Apple Watch really does confer wealth onto you far beyond what its price would suggest. If you own one, you are more wealthy than anyone living in 1990. In 1990 there was no way to get any book in the world fed wirelessly into your ears - read to you by a machine. To thus learn the knowledge that could, potentially, improve your lot so easily. There was no way to call overseas…all from your wrist. People are rather pessimistic about the idea there has been such astonishing progress and an increase in wealth over time. They point to statistics like: wages have not increased while the cost of homes has. Some use this to explain the appeal of particular political movements. The same house today in some town costs 10 times what it did some years ago while the wage for the same job has only increased by a factor of 2. Doesn't this mean society is "going backwards" in some way? Now there may be some legitimate concerns here: there may be government regulations making the cost of housing greater in some places and more or less appealing in others. But none of this is really about how "wealthy" one is. Or if it is, that is merely one metric: how big is the house that a particular income earner can purchase now?
The security guard that I was from 1996 to 2000 no doubt was right to think he was near the bottom of the “Australian” wealth pecking order. But today - were I in the same job, being paid the minimum wage today - I would nevertheless be far far more wealthy. Not because my income relative to other jobs would have been greater - it isn’t. And shouldn’t be expected to be. But rather that the “purchasing power” of that same amount of money is unimaginably greater than what it was in 2000. Namely it can purchase technology absolutely unthought of in that time and which makes any security guard today in Australia on minimum wage the equal of the most wealthy on the planet by the metric that they can buy the best of certain things. I don't know what Elon Musk wears on his wrist in terms of smart-tech - but I know it's not much better than what I do, if at all. And the quality of his earbuds and audio he experiences each day I can bet is not much better than mine. In many ways I am just as wealthy as Musk on a number of metrics even though I have but a fraction of his income. Yes: he can build rockets. But I don't want to build rockets. I quite like doing with my time...precisely what I do with my time, much of the time.
If I had been told in 2000 all the features of an Apple Watch and then asked to guess what it cost, I do not know exactly what I might have said. But given that the cost of the best Walkmans at the time were well over $1000, and the best earbuds (wired of course) some hundreds, I guess I would have thought $5000 would have been a steal. And back then I could not have afforded the best quality walkman with all the best features. But now - the Apple Watch I has does precisely what the best smart wearable tech can do for the wealthiest. Everyone now is far far more wealthy according to that standard: they can afford personal technology that is not super outclassed by people who have much more income. Wages have all gone up in the sense we can all buy more than we ever could because there is more stuff to be purchased - more innovation and creation and technology to make our lives easier, more interesting and more mobile. And by more mobile I mean both more portable and more able to move into other jobs or other interests. Because we can put on our wrists (you don’t even need an Apple watch - there's lots of "wearable tech" far less expensive with almost all the same features) devices that can feed into our ears lessons that can lead us down lanes that in decades gone by would have required us to enrol into university courses at great expense. Now, it’s so much easier. So much more fun, and all so liberating. So is there stagnation? Stagflation? Recession? Cause for pessimism? Whatever the technical definitions from economics behind these terms, it should not cause one to think it has any direct bearing on their own individual life (unless they lose their job, let’s say). Those terms are never about individuals - but groups. Individuals are mobile and move between jobs and thus income bands and, meanwhile, as they do - the innovation continues despite what the naysayers say. Because whatever the gross metrics happen to be, they tend never to account for all the other ways life has improved, individual wealth increased and our personal purchasing power so much greater. Those who claim you’re worse off or that things have not improved are trying to sell you something. Something political rather much of the time. The truth is rather different: wealth continues to increase - you can do far more for far less cost. David Deutsch says in "The Beginning of Infinity" that wealth is “the repertoire of physical transformations that one is capable of causing.” Now just consider all the ways in which your own life has been transformed by technology and ideas, regardless of your income having increased or not and all the ways in which you can, now, if you choose make choices to transform your own life through - for example - education at near zero cost by downloading anything you like - the knowledge - so you can make things better for yourself. By any measure, almost all of us are far more wealthy now than we have ever been before.
The most valuable thing you can offer to an idea