CLEVELAND — Measuring purchasing power by dollars or other currencies is one way of looking at wealth.
But at FreightWaves’ Future of Supply Chain event, Marian Tupy said the best metric is “time prices”: the amount of time needed at a particular job to purchase a particular good.
Tupy was a keynote speaker on Day One of FOSC, which attracted more than 1,000 attendees. He is the founder and editor of HumanProgress.org and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. He sat down for an interview with FreightWaves.
Tupy’s fundamental message is one of optimism, not driven by a relentless feel-good philosophy but founded on data that shows enormous ongoing progress in the human condition. For example, based on Swedish data, which he said is some of the most complete over time, babies born in that country in the 1700s had about a 50% chance of living beyond their first birthday. Today, that number is far less, and those deaths are generally due to congenital defects, Tupy said.
Too many people are unwilling to accept these gains and instead see society on a downward slide, according to Tupy. There is “certainly historical amnesia” about where things were in history and where they are now, he added.
And when it comes to time prices, Tupy, both in person and in his 2022 book “Superabundance,” can cite a litany of products and services that take far fewer hours of labor to purchase today than in the past.
He used the example of chickens and eggs in his fireside chat to detail the methodology for calculating time prices.
Chicken as a meal, according to Tupy, is now considered not only healthy but “it’s one of the cheapest meats you can get in the U.S.” Up until the 20th century, Tupy said, “people rarely ate chicken” because of its cost.
Doing so was a status symbol, he added, because “if you kill a chicken, you also killed the secondary products of a chicken, which was eggs. So you needed to be extremely wealthy in order to signal to the world that you can actually dispose of what is essentially a food-producing machine.”
But as productivity and wealth have increased, that has changed, Tupy said. The amount of labor that a blue-collar worker needed to rack up in 1920 to purchase one chicken would now buy a worker 26 chickens. And the work needed to acquire one egg 100 years ago would get 36 eggs today.
Tupy said his book reviews “hundreds of different commodities, foodstuffs, fuels, minerals and metals” all with the same story: The number of hours needed to purchase those items has plummeted over time.
The value in measuring prices and wealth that way is that there is no need to adjust for currency fluctuations or imprecise measurements of inflation, Tupy said. Measuring the number of hours a Chinese worker 100 years ago needed to buy a certain product can easily be compared against what it takes a U.S. worker today or in the past to buy that good. And there is one constant, he added: “Everybody has 24 hours in a day.”
The fewer hours needed to secure life’s necessities means more time for other pursuits, Tupy said, “like enjoying a sport or traveling the world. So in many ways, time prices are the real prices.”
Tupy summarized his review of the past century or so in this statement: “Relative to wages, everything has become less expensive, including gold, platinum and silver and oil and gas. What really is increasing over time is human productivity and human wages.”
In his words, Tupy is not an “anarchist.” While the self-described libertarian said government “does a lot of things that create more problems than contribute to solutions,” he added that there exists a “role for the government to play in global commons.”
Specifically, if there are resources that have no private property rights, such as air or water, government action to preserve them is “not unwelcome, and necessary.”
Asked about climate change, Tupy went right to what he sees as a potential solution: nuclear. It would “enable humanity to produce reliably as much electricity as we could possibly want, with zero emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We know how to do this.”
Industry concerns about the far-reaching impact of the California Clean Fleets and California Clean Trucks rules could be heard in Tupy’s description of where government regulation historically has gone. Environmental standards in the past, Tupy said, have been “just enough for private corporations to catch up, because governments don’t want to create a situation where millions of people will lose their jobs because an entire industry has to shut down because you cannot meet a completely unrealistic standard.”
His concern is that “the pendulum has now shifted completely to the opposite side. We are no longer looking at environmental regulations in many instances as a question of striking the right balance.” The focus on the environment, he said, “has become like a religion where the negative consequences of government actions don’t matter.”
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