First, the inspiration part.
Organizers say it will almost certainly be the first paper at the prestigious Brookings Papers on Economic Activity that was commissioned based on a blog comment. It is also a rare honor for a graduate student to present a sole-authored paper there; a quick scan of Brookings records shows a similar appearance by the now-renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs when he was a doctoral student in 1979.
“It’s made Matt famous,” said Tyler Cowen, the George Mason University economist who runs the Marginal Revolution blog, and who elevated Rognlie’s comment into a standalone post on his site. “It was brilliantly reasoned and right on target. And very elegant.”
Note that it should inspire high-quality comments, not quantity or snark.
The topic is inequality, which leads to a summary of my talk.
In 1965, the St. Louis Cardinals played their home games in Sportsman’s Park (aka Busch Stadium I). The most expensive seat in the ballpark, a box seat, cost $3.50. A blue-collar worker, who earned about $2 an hour at the time, could treat a family of four to a game in these most expensive seats for less than one day’s pay.
These days, the Cards play at the new stadium, Busch Stadium III. A typical blue-collar worker makes something like $20 an hour The cheapest seat in the stadium still costs less than an hour’s pay. But the most expensive seats cost somewhere north of $800. It would take a month for a blue collar worker to earn enough to treat a family of four to the best seats in the ballpark.
In fact, most seats at the new ballpark are out of reach of blue-collar workers. Why is this? Are the new owners more greedy than Augie Busch, who gave tickets away cheap because he was a nice guy? I think not.
The new owners charge high prices for most seats because nowadays they can. In 1965, the top third and the bottom third of the earnings distribution were not that far apart, so that if you charged prices way above what a blue-collar worker could afford, you would have had mostly empty seats. Today, the top third provide a cadre of highly affluent customers.
In 1965, if you were in the top third and went to a baseball game, chances are that there were people sitting nearby from the bottom third Today, the top third and the bottom third are not sitting in the same part of the ballpark.
I think that the explanation for this comes from the four forces.
1. The New Commanding Heights, which means that over the past 100 years more of the increase in total wealth has been spent on education and health care than on manufactured goods. This trend has become most noticeable in the last thirty years. It means that earnings are no longer split between corporate shareholders and a nearly-homogeneous work force. They are split between high-skilled professionals and low-skilled support staff.
2. Bifurcated marriage patterns. Fifty years ago, one often found a marriage between someone who originated in the top third of the distribution and someone who originated in the bottom third. Since the 1960s, that has become rare. That creates the Coming Apart phenomenon documented by Charles Murray and re-documented by Robert Putnam.
3. Factor-price equalization exacerbates the competitive pressure on low-skilled workers.
4. Moore’s Law means that when computers are able to do a task as well as humans, they soon surpass humans.
Policy interventions to try to stop these four forces or reverse their effects are likely to be futile. The future will be some combination of the Diamond Age scenario (everyone’s basic needs satisfied, with an upper class of Vickys enjoying handmade luxury goods) and a Beyond Therapy scenario, with everyone enhanced by genetic engineering, implants, and drugs.