Blackadder’s Lair

The home of many a cunning plan

On the Rich Doing Their Own Laundry

Brad DeLong recently quoted the following snippet from an email he received on his blog:

In Agatha Christie’s autobiography, she mentioned how she never thought she would ever be wealthy enough to own a car – nor so poor that she wouldn’t have servants…

Today, having servants is a luxury only open to the rich, whereas owning at least one car is a standard part of middle class life, outside of a few major cities. In Christie’s youth, however, it was just the opposite. Automobiles were the luxury, whereas most middle class families could afford live in servants (the same is true of many developing countries today).

The Christie quote (or paraphrase, rather) reminds me of something a Papal legate wrote about the habits of the Byzantines back in the day: “Their treasuries are overflowing, yet they do their own laundry.”

In both cases there is the same basic phenomenon at work. As a society gets wealthier, the real cost of most things goes down, but the real cost of human labor goes up. To quote John Nye:

As incomes rise and the opportunity cost of performing menial labor changes, fewer people will want to work as servants. Those that do will command a higher price. So in America the middle and upper middle-classes are less likely to have servants than in much poorer nations.

Higher labor costs due to rising incomes also affect the supply of goods requiring specialized knowledge and high degrees of craftsmanship. Those members of the population with a taste for hand-carved furniture, stained glass windows, or other items requiring patience and craftsmanship will find that the number of people willing to work at such tasks may shrink and the prices that are charged by those that remain may grow. In certain cases, the costs may so discourage demand, and the supply of workers may fall below a critical level so that even the specialized knowledge itself is lost to future generations. Again, this change in relative prices is likely to be felt most acutely by the wealthiest, but it will also affect those of more modest means who have a peculiar affinity for some items that they feel are essential to the good life.

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February 27, 2009 - Posted by | Capitalism, Progress

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