Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Divergence in Incomes and in Resource Usage

Recently, I was listening to Russ Roberts at EconTalk interview Andrew McAfee.  The topic was the surprising change in trends in resource use.  It appears that as economies grow, at first resource use increases, but eventually economic growth comes from more efficient use of resources instead of through the brute force of added resources.  Surprisingly, the use of many resources has been declining for some time in the developed world.  Not just in per capita terms, but in total.  Now, getting richer seems to mean using less.

They mentioned that the divergence seemed to happen around 1970.  Here is a graph of real GDP growth, iron and steel, and cement use, all indexed to 1970, using data from McAfee's website.

Although I don't think they mentioned the parallel in the program, I immediately thought of this graph that is frequently cited in the income inequality debate.  The source of this graph has made it quite clear what they think caused the divergence.
It seems likely to me that these issues are linked.  As economic growth became decoupled from the Malthusian quest for more resources, it became associated with rising services and status competition.  There could be a number of things going on here.  First, if it is easier to meet basic physical needs, there may be less motivation to increase income above a certain threshold.  Also, the real economic value of services and status items may be more difficult to track because it isn't based on the blunt measure of a physical quantity of inputs.  Variable inflation rates may be more difficult to track.  Think of the difference in rent between San Francisco and Little Rock, or groceries at Whole Foods vs. Wal-Mart.  Or, the price of a last-minute business class airplane ticket vs. an economy ticket.  Or, the vast number of services created by the internet that are commonly provided for free.  Think of the cost of Bloomberg financial services vs. the huge amount of data sites like Zillow make available for free.  The value of things versus the price of things has become highly variable.

In any event, these developments seem certainly to be related, and the transition away from a resource based economy seems like a much more relevant trigger than President Reagan.  I suspect there is a combination of mismeasured well-being and variance in well-being that is largely played out in status seeking services.  Thus, measured inequality seems high even though most households can purchase basic goods at real costs that are far below what they were in 1970.

I wonder if those who give Reagan such an important role in relative measured income growth after 1980 would feel such a strong intuition about the first graph, and hail Reagan as the president who curtailed resource usage.


  1. Fascinating post. Perhaps related, oil consumption in Europe and Japan is actually lowered today than it was in the late 1970s, while consumption in the US has more or less flatlined since that time. Obviously, the price signal played a role in the declining use of oil, as well as certain regulations.

    I do wonder if measured resource consumption of iron and steel is affected by the use of recycling. As for use of cement, my understanding is that cement is used mostly in infrastructure and construction. And we don't build enough of either anymore.

    If you Google images of the Obama's capacious new house in Martha's Vineyard, I think we can conclude that use of resources is still in vogue, at least in certain circles

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