The U.S. Census Bureau says the median American household’s income was 1.3 percent lower in 2012 than in 1989 after adjusting for inflation. That suggests stagnant American consumption for the last 24 years. That assertion is not as ridiculous as North Korean propaganda about the United States – “their houses blow down very easily and they have to live in tents” – but it’s still misleading.
To start, the country is currently enjoying the fruits of major technological advances in electronics. In 1989, there were almost no mobile phones. Today, more than 90 percent of American adults have one, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project – and more than half of those phones count as “smart”. The same project estimates that about 70 percent of U.S. adults are daily internet users, compared to zero in 1989.
Considering the increased consumption of electronic goods, a typical American household could only be poorer now than then if there were matching declines in the consumption of other goods and services. But none of the statistics I could find shows this. On the contrary.
Housing? The government calculates that the average living space per person in the U.S. increased by 15 percent between 1985 and 2005. The newer and bigger dwellings are still standing, so the subsequent housing market bust could not have eliminated the gain, and the increase is far too large to be accounted for entirely by the spread of so-called McMansions for the richest sliver of the population.
Travel? No way. Both car and airline miles travelled per person are up about 12 percent since 1989. Also, overall quality has improved, despite decaying highways. Planes are quieter; cars are both more powerful (80 percent more horsepower on average) and more fuel efficient (11 percent higher miles per gallon).