Highway traffic began to slow outside of Boston as we made our way to the airport. My wife was driving, so I took out my $100 Android phone and opened Google Maps. Google Traffic instantly showed me, in real time, the best route to avoid delays and estimated the number of minutes we’d save by altering our route. Thanks to Google, there was no threat of missing our flight.
It was not too long ago that we relied on traffic reporters in helicopters, and their advice was often useless by the time we heard their updates.
Have you wondered how Google Traffic does it? The answer is crowdsourcing. If you are among the two-thirds of American adults who own a smartphone, and if the GPS locator on your phone is enabled, you are generating real-time traffic information. Google Traffic measures how fast cars are moving compared to normal speeds and generates location-specific reports.
Rich or poor, most of the drivers on the highway that day had access to the same miraculous traffic report and the same opportunity to make better driving decisions. This is just one example of how the marketplace generates equality in consumption.
The cars we drive are another indicator of consumption equality. We were driving an inexpensive Subaru Outback. There are more expensive, comfortable, and bigger cars on the market, but the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that there are none safer than the Outback.
Would a rich individual, on this same drive to the airport, have any noticeable advantages over me? He or she could hire a driver and use the drive time for something more productive, but even that advantage will dwindle as driverless cars become the norm.
In his Wall Street Journal commentary “The Rise of Consumption Equality,” former hedge fund manager Andy Kessler writes:
Just about every product or service that makes our lives better requires a mass market or it’s not economic to bother offering. Those who invent and produce for the mass market get rich. And the more these innovators better the rest of our lives, the richer they get but the less they can differentiate themselves from the masses whose wants they serve.
“What does Google founder Larry Page have that you don’t have?” Kessler asks pointedly.
Page’s income is unimaginably larger than most of ours. But in terms of consumption, the differences are negligible — which is remarkable, given how much Page and Google have improved our lives.
All-time football great Tom Brady earns roughly $10 million a year. His diet made the news recently. Does Brady enjoy health advantages not available to Americans with a fraction of his income? Brady hires a cook. Our family doesn’t do that, but we eat much like Brady — organic vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, and fish make up the bulk of our diet. From May to October, a local organic farmer provides an abundance of vegetables that are picked fresh for us based on an order we place the day before. In the summertime, our produce may be fresher than Brady’s. Compared to any of us, what real dietary advantage does Tom Brady’s income afford him? It is his commitment to a healthy lifestyle, not his income, that makes the difference.
In 1900, Americans spent approximately 50 percent of their household income on food and clothing; today, we spend closer to 20 percent. Today, fresh produce from all over the world, not even available to a king a century ago, awaits common consumers when they enter the supermarket.
In 1900, only 25 percent of households had running water; fewer still had flush toilets. It would be decades before such wonders as electricity, automobiles, and indoor plumbing were ubiquitous. The faucets in the famed Hearst Castle in California may have been gold plated, but was the water any better than what the average household received? The water running in my home comes from an artesian well over 400 feet deep. More evidence of consumption equality: my water is every bit as good, if not better, than a billionaire’s in a big city penthouse.
Wealth is not a good predictor of a rich life. Psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky found that only 10 percent of the variance in Americans’ happiness is due to income and other circumstances. “Happiness more than anything,” she writes in her book The How of Happiness, ”is a state-of-mind, a way of perceiving and approaching ourselves and the world in which we reside.”
And what of the elements of emotional intelligence that make life richer? In the book Big Magic, best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert observes:
If money were the only thing people needed to live rich creative lives, then the mega-rich would be the most imaginative, generative, and original thinkers among us, and they simply are not. The essential ingredients for creativity remain exactly the same for everybody: courage, enchantment, permission, persistence, trust — and those elements are universally accessible. Which does not mean that creative living is always easy; it merely means that creative living is always possible.
The same universally accessible elements are essential ingredients for entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs persist, driven by their vision and by the equality of opportunity that capitalism affords. The entrepreneur’s choice to be persistent and courageous is the not-so-secret engine that drives success.
The essential consumption goods we couldn’t even imagine a hundred years ago are almost universally available in the United States today. The marketplace, aided by many creative, pioneering entrepreneurs and every person who strives to put in a good day’s work, is generating consumption equality.
Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore. He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership. He blogs at BarryBrownstein.com, Giving up Control, and America’s Highest Purpose.