There are numerous measures of inequality in income and wealth, like the Gini coefficient for instance. But I'm wondering about a different measure: the amount of labor, measured in man-hours, that is employed in the production of the goods and services that a given person consumes. Inequality of man-hours employed was clearly quite high in the United States in the early twentieth century, since rich people back then had servants, cooks, drivers, and the like, and they owned a lot of labor-intensive luxury goods. So I'm wondering what that measure of inequality looks like in the US today and in the recent past, and how it compares with the rest of the world.

Note that this isn't some metric I'm making up out of whole cloth; I think back in 2007 or so the New York Times ran a series of articles on class differences in modern America, and they said that one of the best indicators of someone's economic class is whether they have goods and services that took a lot of labor to make, or whether their daily life doesn't command a lot of human resources. And I think they said that judged in this way, class is more prevalent in American society than it might otherwise seem. So I'm pretty sure there's plenty out of data out there on this measure.

  • "amount of man-hours employed in the production of goods consumed" So, a person with a private tutor that puts in fewer hoursis less wealthy than a a person who goes to public school that has multiple teachers/administrators/etc. racking up hours. Same could be said for a personal chef. How do we measure things produced by machines? (every engineer that designed the machine, the maintanence, etc.) – user1873 Apr 25 '14 at 16:15
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    @user1873 - I would say that for teachers and other "group" situations, the teacher's time is divided by all students. So a 45 minute class(.75 hours) for 20 students accrues 0.0375 man-hours for each student. You could count administrator time this way too but spread across all students in the school it would be pretty minimal. This accounts for larger class sizes (i.e. worse student:teacher ratios) in poorer schools as expected. – Bobson Apr 25 '14 at 17:40
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    There is another issue, capitalism has made everything vastly cheaper. So, when I am comparing th0e labor cost of an item from 1950, how do I take into account that the cost may be a fraction of that today? – user1873 Apr 25 '14 at 22:22
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    I just mean that it implies that if rich people were mostly serviced by a mass of robots that gave them lives of luxury with little or no human employment, and if poor people received all their food, clothing, and shelter from co-inhabitants at their subsistence kibbutzim, then the "wealth means other people's labor" metric would say that society was very unequal and that the inequality benefited the poor people. – NL7 Apr 26 '14 at 3:19
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    @KeshavSrinivasan - But it's getting at the wrong relationship so it doesn't illuminate much. The meaning of wealth is consumption, not labor. – NL7 Apr 26 '14 at 3:32

It appears that you've independently rediscovered a Smithian or Ricardian version of a labour theory of value. In this mode of reasoning each hour of labour is equated with each other hour of labour. Has difficulty explaining the movement of value from non-capitalised to capitalised industries and thus for differential profit.

Marx's category of "value," as in embodied crystalised realised socially necessary average productivity labour theory of value. Marx's argument is in Capital, that prices will reflect the fluctuating value component, as expressed in average productivity socially necessary labour expended in their production.

While criticisms have been made of prices reflecting values ("The Transformation Problem"), these are still under continuous debate. Begging the question on whether transformation is a problem or not, and whether if a problem answers have been supplied or not, we can use market prices to approximate underlying value.

Rich people buy more things, and more expensive things. This would be your marker of a kind of stratification class. 1% vs the rest. Marx wasn't satisfied with this.

However, the issue with using Marx for this is that Marx discovered empirically that not all labour hours are treated the same, and that the level of capitalisation (unit productivity per labour hour), personal productivity (length of the working day, fatigue), and social utility produced an "average" social labourer. We could, for example, use CPI inflation as a time series reflecting what the bourgeoisie wish to pay the average social labourer and then do time series to work out the number of units of social labourer are consumed per rich person's wealth. So it isn't an exact model: if domestic servants value productivity differs from (say) video game programmers, the price of the commodities they contribute to won't express the actual number of human hours of labour, but only the number of hours of human labour that our society (through market, production, class war) deems socially average. (Marx argues this is why Sony is more profitable than a household cleaning firm: capitalisation productivity's affects on required hours of labour).

For Marx, class is best represented by how people control and relate to social production, not what their total volume of wealth is. Wealth and class correlate strongly, but you get some useful results from relationship to production that aren't achieved in wealth analyses. Like why first world workers go on strike.

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    If you think this answer is deficient, then please provide a comment so I can improve it. – Samuel Russell Apr 28 '14 at 3:50
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    I'm having a hard time following this answer. It feels like it addresses the question, but I'm not sure. – Bobson Apr 28 '14 at 13:09

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