If you embrace the conventional wisdom about income trends over the last few decades, you know that almost all the gains from economic growth have gone to those at the very top of the income distribution. The super-rich got super-richer, and they left the rest of us behind to make do with our stagnating incomes.
Except that what you know just might not be so. First, research by Vincent Geloso, Phillip Magness, John Moore, and Philip Schlosser shows that inequality hasn’t changed as much as a lot of people believe (you can read a shorter summary of their paper here). Second, data on inequality and the difficulties of comparing what a dollar buys now to what a dollar buys then obscure some of the ways we have become more equal over time. You can see this by going to Graceland.
My family lived in Memphis for six years while I taught at Rhodes College from 2006-2012. During that time, I only visited Graceland — Elvis Presley’s famed mansion and Memphis tourist attraction extraordinaire — once. It was as garish as you might expect, but in a lot of ways, economic growth meant it wasn’t as impressive in 2012 as it would have been when Elvis lived there in the 1970s. First, just a picture of the place doesn’t look like anything that special if you’re familiar with palatial modern suburban homes. The TV room in particular is quaint. In the 1970s, it would have been very impressive to own three TVs. In the 2020s, where everyone basically carries three TVs in their pocket and backpack — phone, laptop, tablet — it’s a lot less so. What was once Elvis’s unimaginable luxury is available to homeless people walking around with smartphones.
The furniture is interesting, just like it is in a lot of other old homes. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century furniture would have been pretty impressive and ornate for the time, but be honest, would you trade your recliner or sectional sofa for the kinds of chairs the elites sat on in the 1800s — or 1970s?
Ditto the Graceland kitchen. There were a lot of things Elvis had to have on hand like banana pudding, a case of Pepsi, and the ingredients for meatloaf. He could afford to pay someone to look after all that for him. With ubiquitous shopping and delivery services like DoorDash, GrubHub, Uber Eats, and Shipt, we basically have an army of software-armed professionals who can get us whatever we want whenever we want it.
Graceland shows us who has gotten the benefits from modern economic growth. Here’s how Joseph Schumpeter described it in a famous passage originally written in 1942:
There are no doubt some things available to the modern workman that Louis XIV himself would have been delighted to have yet was unable to have—modern dentistry for instance. On the whole, however, a budget on that level had little that really mattered to gain from capitalist achievement. Even the speed of traveling may be assumed to have been a minor consideration for so very dignified a gentleman. Electric lighting is no great boon to anyone who has money enough to buy a sufficient number of candles and to pay servants to attend to them. It is the cheap cloth, the cheap cotton and rayon fabric, boots, motorcars and so on that are the typical achievements of capitalist production, and not as a rule improvements that would mean much to the rich man. Queen Elizabeth owned silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort.”
Let’s update that for the modern world. Doordash, GrubHub, and Shipt are no great boons to anyone has money enough to pay someone to keep his fridge stocked. Streaming services and smartphones are no great boons to someone who can afford three TVs. Were he alive today, Elvis’s Disney+ subscription wouldn’t be any better than mine (as far as I know). Cheap commercial air travel, Uber, and Lyft are no great boons to someone who owns a private jet, a pink Cadillac, and a twenty-car garage. A SodaStream is no great boon to someone who can afford to pay someone to keep his fridge stocked with Pepsi. Google, Wikipedia, ChatGPT, and Bard — all of which I used while working on this article — are no great boon to someone who can afford to hire research assistants, copywriters, and copyeditors. Disney+ is no great boon to someone who has a private movie theater.
Allegedly, American officials wanted Soviet officials to see Graceland because it showed how this is the land of opportunity. Even a poor kid from Tupelo, Mississippi could make it big in the Land of Opportunity. The real “capitalist achievement,” however, isn’t Graceland. It’s the fact that compared to the stuff of the average person’s day-to-day life in 2023, Graceland just isn’t that impressive.