Buffalo (NY) journalist and historian Steve Cichon has an article on the Trending Buffalo website (“Everything from 1991 Radio Shack ad I now do with my phone“) featuring a full-page Radio Shack ad from the Buffalo News on February 16, 1991 (see graphic above). Of the 15 electronics products featured in the Radio Shack ad, 13 of them can now be replaced with a $200 iPhone according to Steve’s analysis. The 13 Radio Shack items in the ad (all-weather personal stereo, AM/FM clock radio, headphones, calculator, computer, camcorder, cell phone, regular phone, CD player, CB radio, scanner, phone answering machine, and cassette recorder) would have cost a total of $3,055 in 1991, which is equivalent in today’s dollars to $5,225. Versus only $200 for an iPhone 5S.
In hours worked at the average wage, the 13 electronics items in 1991 would have had a “time cost” of 290.4 hours of work at the average hourly wage then of $10.52 (or 7.25 weeks or 36.3 days). Today, the $200 iPhone would have a “time cost” of fewer than 10 hours (9.82) of work at the average hourly wage today of $20.35, and just one day of work, plus a few extra hours.
MP: When you consider that an iPhone can fit in your pocket and has many apps and features that were either not available in 1991 (GPS, text messaging, Internet access, mobile access to movies, more than 900,000 apps, iCloud access, etc.) or not listed in the 1991 Radio Shack ad (camera, photo-editing), it’s amazing how much progress we’ve made in just several decades, and how affordable electronic productions have become.
The comparison above is an example of the “invisible hand” at work, giving us more goods, better goods, and cheaper goods over time. And the poor and middle class benefit the most. While only the wealthy might have been able to afford the bundle of 13 electronic products costing $5,000 in 1991 (in today’s dollars), almost anybody today can afford an iPhone with features that far exceed the 13 products in 1991.
Instead of spending so much time obsessing about income inequality, the “top 1%,” the “decline of the middle class,” and generally criticizing and blaming the free market for every woe, maybe we should devote more time to celebrating how the “miracle of the marketplace” has brought about rising living standards for all income groups in America, especially low-income households. Falling prices of manufactured goods like food, cars, clothing, household appliances, computers and electronics have probably given low-income households in the US greater access to the “good life” than all of the government programs and safety nets that are part of the trillion dollars of spending on America’s “War on Poverty.”