From fiction to reality in 30 years
Among the Christmas gifts that my 19-year-old son, Thomas, received this year is one that he bought for himself: For $129, he got a Google Home device. Physically, it’s a nondescript item that’s shaped and sized like a soup can. But its powers are impressive!
Say “Hey Google” — then ask a question, such as “When was the first newspaper published in America?” A pleasant female voice answers. (“The first newspaper published in America was in Boston on September 25th, 1690.”)
With Google Home in my home, I feel very much like Captain Picard on the starship Enterprise. The only difference is that Capt. Picard prefaced each question that he asked his fictional 24th-century supercomputer with “Computer,” while I preface each of my questions with “Hey Google.”
Some of the finest science-fiction fantasies of the 1980s are today affordable realities for ordinary Americans. Yet we continue to be told by pundits and politicians — left, right and center — that ordinary Americans’ material standard of living today is no higher than it was when the late Gene Roddenberry first revived his famed TV-show franchise. (“Hey Google, when did ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ first air?” Answer: “September 28th, 1987.”)
Google Home is no mere toy. It’s got an amazingly high-quality speaker, making Google Home also a great music system. But even if you insist on regarding Google Home — or its competitor, Amazon’s Echo — as little more than an elaborate knickknack, the very fact that our economy makes such knickknacks available at affordable prices testifies to our economy’s astonishing wealth. Only an extraordinarily wealthy society can afford to devote significant amounts of resources and human creativity to the development and production for mass distribution of elaborate knickknacks.
Yet ironically, Americans’ immense prosperity in 2017 is revealed most vividly in riches that are difficult to see if you aren’t looking for them. Most of what makes Americans today materially far richer than Americans of 1987 are things that are so familiar now that we take them for granted. Consider just some of the goods and services that were unavailable to ordinary Americans 30 years ago: individual-serve coffee-makers (“Keurigs”), high-definition televisions, downloadable and streaming music, movies and TV shows, Lasik surgery, Viagra, smartphones, GPS navigation, laptop computers, the Internet.
Each of these items was attention-grabbing when first introduced. But they all became so widespread so quickly that they are today part of our landscape.
Even more hidden from view are smaller innovations that were either nonexistent or very rare 30 years ago. One of my favorites is plastic garbage bags, each with its own internal drawstring.
An even better relatively small innovation involved beer. Most beer in 1987 was mass-produced stuff that, brewed with a taste to be drinkable by nearly everyone, had a taste that was distinctive and interesting to no one. Today, of course, store shelves bend under the weight of a seemingly infinite variety of delicious craft-brewed beers and ales.
So grab your favorite brew and raise a glass to the human ingenuity and free markets that continue to increase our prosperity.
Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics and Getchell Chair at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.