Dell Catalogs Then and Now
I'm spending New Year's morning cleaning out my office at home and found a Dell catalog from May 2001 when I bought the computer before this one. As has often been observed, we've been paying the same nominal prices for computers for 20 years (e.g., my original 128K Mac in 1984 cost about the same nominal amount as the machine I'm currently using - 2.8ghz, 1gb RAM 120gb hd) and we keep getting better and better stuff for it. This old Dell catalog certainly bears that out.
However, two other points often overlooked:
1. The new products that appear year to year. This catalog from 01 was very light on photography and video, for example.
2. The rapidity with which new technology becomes a mere "add-in." In my current Dell catalog, a 17" LCD is the standard basic included monitor, with high-end systems including a 19" LCD. In May of 2001, there was a "new" item in the monitor section: a 15" LCD monitor for the bargain price of ...... $540. In 4 to 5 years, that same item isn't as good as the "toss-in" on new systems.
You can buy a 15" LCD for just over $200 at Dell today (or $178 at PC Connection), but even their "bargain" systems include a free 15" LCD. For example, you can buy a whole system for $499 that is at least twice as good as what I bought in 5/01 and get included FREE a monitor that cost more in 5/01 than the whole computer including the same monitor does today!
How we account for these improvements in product quality and the falling real cost of such products when we talk about economic well-being remains a tricky business, but there's no doubt about the reality. Real worker compensation may be growing very slowly, but what you can buy with it continues to grow significantly.
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Steven Horwitz - 1/2/2006
Great question Sudha, and I agree with the thrust of your argument. We should be more concerned about what people are able to consume not how much income/wealth they have. The work by Cox and Alm and others on what consumer goods even the poorest Americans own along with other work on longer life expectancies, better health, etc are what really matter for judging how well American workers are doing, and for trying to understand the role the market plays in helping to bring those results about.
Sudha Shenoy - 1/1/2006
"real worker compensation may be growing very slowly but what you can buy with it..."
So _which_ is "real worker compensation"? A sum of money 'deflated' by some perennially out-of-date, crude 'index'? or what people _actually_ buy & use/consume? And what does the former have to do with the latter, anyway?