what are you worth?

by Hugh

I’ve been thinking a fair bit lately about the disconnect between the “wealth” of the West in the past 30 or 40 years, and actual “reality.” I argued here that our wealth is a fantasy because: it is based on unsustainably cheap credit (most famously the subprime mess, but endemic throughout the economy), and “exporting” poverty and cheap labour/manufacturing to other countries, notably China. And my larger point was that the fundamental principle of our modern economy, limitless growth, can’t be viable in the long term. I don’t know what that means, but it’s scary.

There has been some work done that establishes the geographic footprint of the average North American, that is, the amount of land (including land for water, food, energy etc) needed to support your average North American life. This data suggests that in 1900 the average was about 2 acres per person, by 1950. 5 acres per person and in 1995, 12 acres per person. I’d be willing to be that in 2008 we’re up around 18-20 acres… does anyone have any recent data?

One thing I notice just in my family is how little value things have compared to when I was a kid. We buy things now with the intention of throwing them out; that wasn’t the case 25 years ago; certainly not 50 years ago. So what’s changed? Culture plays a role, but the underlying reason for the cultural shift is that the relative cost of “things” compared with our incomes has been dropping steadily. Part of that has to do with better technologies, the efficiencies that come with global trade, but just as significant is the cheap credit and exportation of poverty/cheap manufacturing that’s been fueling our economy recently.

That got me thinking about the people behind all this. And I have a question: how many people work full time to sustain the average North American individual.

That is, given, say a yearly income of, say. $70,000, what is the equivalent number of people working around the world to produce all the things that such an individual buys in the course of a year?

For instance:
-Joe buys 10 shirts, 5 pairs of pants, 2 pairs of shoes, and one jacket a year.
-For each item, what is the total number of human hours of work that went into the item that he buys?

This includes a number of stops along the production chain. For one shirt that would be: cultivation and shipping of cotton, manufacture, dying and shipping of textile, design and manufacture of shirt, shipping of shirt, storing and selling of shirt, and the taxi Joe takes to and from the store.

So for the purchase of one shirt, probably something like 8 people (and likely many more) would be involved in getting that shirt from cotton seed to Joe’s closet. But Joe’s shirt would be only a tiny fraction of their yearly work. If you talley up all those fractions, for each of Joe’s shirts, and all his pants, shoes, and all the food he eats and TVs he buys and trips in the car he makes and furniture he purchases etc etc…

So, add all that up, and what would be the total hours of human work that went into sustaining Joe’s life? What is the equivalent number of people working full-time to sustain Joe’s lifestyle?

I bet it’s much higher than you’d expect, and here’s the question I ask: is Joe’s contribution to the world valuable enough that he should be able to (effectively) employ a full-time staff of X people?

Has anyone seen any numbers like this? I’m curious to see what they look like.