Quality Boosts in Sports Collectibles

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Sports cards from several brands on display at a store in Los Angeles.

There are good reasons to be skeptical of the claim that the average person is no better off than they were a generation ago. First, the “average person” is not the same flesh-and-blood human being from generation to generation. My father earned a lot more when he retired in the 2010s than when he started out in the 1970s. However, the “average person” rhetoric gives the impression that his standard of living didn’t change over forty years after adjusting for inflation. 

Second, demographics matter. Average income can fall even if everyone is strictly better off. Bryan Caplan explained this way back in 2005. If ten people earn $50,000 per year one year and $51,000 the next, but the group grows by another ten people entering the labor force and each earning $25,000, the group average will fall even though everyone is better off. Immigrants from Haiti routinely earn more in the US than they would back home but less than the average American worker. Low-skill, low-income immigrants can drag down the average and give the false impression of “stagnation” even though everyone is better off. Paradoxically, keeping immigrants out might mean higher average earnings in the US and Haiti, even though everyone is worse off compared to freer global labor markets.

I’m skeptical of the “stagnation” thesis for a third reason. Changing quality, variety, and assortment makes it harder to compare apples to apples. Many products today are simply better, and many things we take for granted today didn’t exist a generation ago. Comparisons between 2024 and 2023 aren’t that difficult, but largely due to changes in quality, we have to be cautious comparing 2024 to 1974. 

Maybe they don’t make some things like they used to, but other things are unambiguously better. Consider baseball cards and other sports collectibles. It might seem like a baseball card is a baseball card is a baseball card, but the quality change over time is simply astonishing. Today’s cards have much better photography and come on higher-quality card stock. A side-by-side comparison of a random card from the 1989 Topps set and a 2024 Topps card shows how much things have changed:

Most older cards are like the 1989 card: pretty ho-hum. They tend to feature posed shots of someone holding a bat or looking like they’re getting ready to throw a pitch or field a ball. It was easy to notice Carl Yastrzemski’s sideburns on the 1973 card Milhouse Van Houten wanted in the Simpsons episode “Three Men and a Comic Book” because there wasn’t much else going on. 

Things changed a bit when Fleer and Donruss entered the game in 1981 — the legal history is complicated and will likely be the subject of a future article — but quality really started to change in 1989 when Upper Deck entered the market and changed the game with spectacular action photography and high-quality card stock. Within a few years, other companies introduced premium lines like Topps Stadium Club and Fleer Ultra to compete with upstart Upper Deck. Consumers won. 

An hour of labor today might not buy many more baseball cards than an hour of labor a generation ago, but it would be a mistake to conclude that living standards haven’t changed much because the quality has improved so much. Today’s average card resembles yesterday’s premium card. Today’s premium card would have been unthinkable yesterday. The economists who compile the official statistics are well aware of this problem and try to adjust for it as best they can, but it is a notoriously difficult process that probably overstates changes in prices and, therefore, understates changes in living standards.

Official statistics on prices and incomes are important and informative; however, we should take them with a grain of salt because it is so difficult to account for changing quality over time. The difficulty of adjusting for changes in quality — which we can see in something as seemingly simple as the humble baseball card — means we probably shouldn’t be too quick to believe that the average person hasn’t shared the gains from economic progress.