“Superabundance” Review

Are resources becoming scarcer as world population increases and per capita consumption increases? Are basic goods becoming more expensive relative to wages in the face of potential resource shortages? These are some of the main questions that are addressed in the just released book Superabundance by Marian Tupy and Gale Pooley. The authors were kind enough to provide me with an advance copy, which is why I’m already able to review this book on its release date (I’m not really that fast of a reader).

The author take a very optimistic view of the issues surrounding those opening questions. Properly measured (one of the key tasks of their work), resources are becoming more abundant, not more scarce. And properly measured, almost all consumer goods are becoming cheaper relative to wages.

The authors use the approach of “time prices” throughout the book. They are not the first to use this approach. Julian Simon (their inspiration for this project) used it in various places in his work. William Nordhaus famously used it is in paper on the history of the price of lighting. And Michael Cox and Richard Alm have used the time-price approach in many of their writings, from the 1997 Dallas Fed annual report, to a full-length book a few years later, as well as updates to the original 1997 report. And if you follow me on Twitter, I like to use this approach too.

In short, “time prices” tell us how many hours of work it takes to purchase a given good or service at different points in time. How many hours would you have to work to buy a pound of ground beef? A square foot of housing? An hour of college tuition? It’s the superior method when you are looking at the price of a particular good or service over time, compared with a naïve inflation adjustment, which only tells you if the price of that good/service rose faster or slower than goods or services in general, not if it’s become more affordable. Inflation adjustments are really only useful when you are trying to compare income or wages to all prices, to see if and how much incomes have increased over time. Of course, which wage series you choose is important (and you need to have a consistent series over time, or at least the end points), but as the authors point out (which they learned from me!), if you looking at wages after 1973, the wage series you use doesn’t matter much. Median wages, average wages, wages of the “unskilled” — these all give you the same trend since 1973. We don’t have all of these back earlier (especially median wages), but there’s not much reason to believe they’ve diverged that much. And the authors also present their data using multiple wage series in many of the charts and tables.

What do the authors find?

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