Over at his terrific blog Carpe Diem, Mark Perry links to my first post on things getting better (see also here) for the poor and very helpfully adds a table of his own comparing the hours of labor at the average hourly wage it took in 1973 and 2009 to buy the same household basics. As you'll see below, rising real wages along with dramatic reductions in costs have cut the work time needed to buy these products to a fraction of their 1973 values. This is how the poor keep getting richer and what explains my data (not two income households or excessive debt or the like).
Two comments on these data:
1. They understate the case because they do not account for increases in the quality of the goods in question. There is no doubt that all of those household appliances last longer and do more things at better quality than in years past (the toaster and coffee pot and fridge are easy examples).
The color TV is almost a whole different "thing" than it used to be. Think of it this way: the TV that Perry priced was from an Eaton's catalog. Following his link, you can see that the $399.95 TV was a 17" color portable (the most expensive TV there was a $680 26" color in a wood cabinet). The 17" had no advanced features other than a handle. I was just at Wal-Mart looking at LCD TVs. I'm going to buy an RCA there for about $550 in 2009 wages that is a 40" Hi-def with excellent sound that can be used for a computer, a Gameboy, or whatever else fits in it. For less than a third (29.4 vs. 97.1) of the hours worked I get a product that is WAY better than its 1973 equivalent. (The same is true of other high-price durables like houses and cars.) For a lower nominal price, I can get the 40" LCD instead of the top of the line from 1973.
2. These data only confirm what Julian Simon said: humanity is the ultimate resource. Another way to say that goods and services are dropping in "real" price is that the real value of human labor continues to climb. A labor force with more/better human capital using physical capital that is itself more productive will command a higher wage, contributing to the rising standard of living that my first set of data illustrates.
Finally: THESE are the Smithian and Schumpeterian horses of the gains from exchange and innovation in action. Following in Simon's footsteps, I am willing to bet they will continue to outrace the horse of political stupidity over the decades to come, even if the political horse gains a little ground.