New data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that for all the problems with American education, the current cohort of young people is the best-educated such cohort we’ve ever had notwithsanding the continued migration of many poorly educated Latin Americans to the United States.
So good for us. This brings a more precise datapoint to bear on an argument I made last year about why I don’t agree with people who say we’ve had stagnating living standards for the past 40 years. Stagnationism used to be very prominent on the left, but since Barack Obama’s inauguration I’ve increasingly heard it from the right as well. And it’s true that published inflation-adjusted wage and income series appear to show substantial stagnation. But if you look at actual quantities consumed it’s very hard to see where this stagnation is happening. Compared to 1973 or 1983, we live in bigger houses today. We have more gadgets and more entertainment options. We take more airplane trips. We eat a wider range of foods. We have at least as much clothing. Our cars have improved (as has our coffee). And even in the much-criticized health and education sectors, the fact is that we see improvements, not declines. There are illnesses we can treat or cure in 2013 that were untreatable three or four decades ago, and despite the massive increase in tuition prices, we’re earning more college degrees, not fewer.
It’s certainly possible that real growth in living standards from 1973–2013 has been slower than it was in 1933–1973 (at least for those people who managed not to get killed in war), but if you step back for a minute from the CPI figures it’s very difficult to locate the stagnation. We’ve increased our consumption of goods and services, men work fewer hours per year than they used to, and women have more career opportunities. There are a lot of problems, but the trajectory is positive even in the “technological frontier” countries.