Would you live in the Nineties for a million dollars?

by Matthew Shaffer


The question is not entirely ironic.

Like most of you, I thoroughly enjoyed this video, in which The Fund for American Studies asks passersby, “Would you give up the internet for a million dollars?” The (mostly younger) respondents are certain they would not — even for much higher sums.

The takeaway is that in the internet, as professor Michael Cox says, “What the market has done is created a tremendous gap between worth — how much you pay for it — and cost.” I agree with Cox and Tyler Cowen that this is a very important truth. The web has allowed us to make an enormous leap in the last decade in well-being that isn’t reflected in GDP.

But that gain is certainly not worth a million dollars per person. And so this video should not serve as much consolation for our failure to significantly raise wages or enjoy 1960s-levels GDP growth for the past four decades. There’s a basic problem in the question’s frame.

As is, it’s analogous to asking “Would you give up your ability to speak English for a million dollars?” I certainly wouldn’t. But that’s not because it is so much more mellifluous and logical than French that life in English is at least a million dollars better. It’s just that English happens to be the hegemonic language right now, so my ability to get on in life and interact with others is dependent upon my facility with it.

Same with the internet. The FAS’s question biases each respondent to imagine what his life in today’s world would look like without the internet. And that is pretty grim. Since so many of our interactions, party invitations, apartment- and job-findings, conversations, etc., are mediated over the internet, any one person who gave up the web would miss out on a lot. But that’s just because the internet moved these goods and services online, not because it created or necessarily improved them.

The more interesting question would be “Would you live in the Nineties for a million dollars?” And that’s an obvious yes. Allowing a few weeks for desensitization to acid-wash jeans and leviathan lapels, the prospects of economic security (until it’s time to send the kids to Harvard) and travel to posh locales, would more than outweigh the inability to reach one’s co-workers on the weekend. Even ten percent of a million likely would.

Is life today better for the median-wage earner, despite stagnating wages, thanks to the internet? Probably. Should we be as optimistic about it as the video proposes? I doubt it.