Robert Samuelson's Cellphone Standard of Living

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Monday, 31 May 2010 05:57

Robert Samuelson invokes the cellphone standard of living in his column today which complains about the Obama administration's adoption of a new measure of poverty as an alternative to the official standard. The administration will use both.

Samuelson argues that we have failed to pick up all the gains for the poor over the last four decades noting, among other things, that 48 percent of poor households own cellphones. Needless to say, the reduction in price of many products in recent decades has made them accessible in ways that would not have been possible in the recent past, but it is not clear how much this tells us about living standards.

In China, there are more than 600 million cell phones in use. This means that roughly the same percentage of people in China have cell phones as do poor people in the United States. China's per capita income on a purchasing power parity basis is less than one-sixth as high as per capita income in the United States. By Samuelson's cell phone standard of living the average person in China has the same standard of living as do poor people in the United States.

There are a couple of other points worth noting about Samuleson's diatribe. The Obama administration did not just invent the measure that Samuelson denounces as a "propaganda device." This is a measure developed by the National Academies of Science based on research by many of the country's leading poverty experts. It is fine to criticize the measure, but Samuelson should have at least noted its origins.

Finally, Samuelson reports on research from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) that shows that spending on the poor from all sources may be as much as double their reported income. It is worth noting that much of this spending involves Medicaid expenditures, many of which may provide little benefit to the patient. For example, if a lab bills (or overbills) Medicaid for an expensive test that was not really needed, this would count as spending on the poor. For this reason, the AEI measure may not provide much insight into their well-being.