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Look at what has happened to the scarcity of salt over the past 100 years.

The top chart adjusts nominal salt prices to account for the general rise in prices since 1900 using a measure of the CPI’s broad inflation index. The bottom chart takes a different approach to adjust the salt data. It looks at the hourly wage of a typical manufacturing worker and asks how many hours would a typical worker need to work in order to secure a unit of salt.

Copper 1900-2009_140_image001

Copper 1900-2009_140_image002

(note, I imputed the hourly wages for 1915-1918). Salt data from USGS, CPI data from BLS and wage data from Historical Statistics of the United States and BLS.

By any metric, the scarcity of salt is no higher today (in fact, it is much lower) than it was over 100 years ago, even as human consumption of salt has rocketed with economic growth and population growth. In real terms, salt prices have fallen by over 48% since 1900 from $67.31 per metric ton to $34.54 per metric ton today. In 1900, it took a typical manufacturing worker 12.2 work hours to secure himself a ton of salt. Today, a similar worker would only have to work 1.8 hours to get it – a decrease of over 85 percent over the course of the century. And as I will show you, these are lower bounds for just how scarce salt really has become. Salt prices would have to rise to $244 per metric ton to make it just as hard for a typical worker to get it today as it was in 1900. Alternately, if salt prices remain unchanged, the typical worker would have his pay slashed to just over $2.82 per hour in order to be in a position that his 1900 counterpart was in.

I just saw a documentary on the History Channel about the formation of the Great Lakes. The entire area beneath Lake Michigan and most of Lake Huron and part of Lake Erie is an enormous salt deposit – including trillions of metric tons of salt. Each year less than 300 million metric tons of salt are produced and consumed around the entire world. Even if we tripled our salt consumption, the deposits beneath Lake Michigan alone would very conservatively last 1,000 more years. Furthermore, the actual oceans contain a virtually inexhaustible supply of salt and I am ignoring every other salt deposit around the world. There are far larger deposits in China, for example, than there are in the United States.

But this is just salt, right?

5 Responses to “On the Eleventh Day of Christmas”

  1. harry says:

    Right, it’s just salt.

    A paranthetical question: did you ever read Warren’s “Prices”? He used an index which might be helpful in your research. If it’s not in the U of R library, ask them to buy a copy.

    The graph makes your point, but it is nevertheless interesting. Why the big uptick after WWII? Never paid any attention to the price of salt.

  2. azmyth says:

    I’m guessing it was a price control that got relaxed. Never trust prices during wartime; they are unreliable.

  3. Harry says:


    I never knew that Harold Ickes ever paid attention to salt.

    Regarding prices during wartime, you must be referring to WWII, hardly a usual event, where the nation was consumed with winning the war. “Never trust prices during wartime” does not answer the question. Prices were unreliable then because they were fixed, or because goods were rationed according to the decisions of Wise Men, and we all know about their limitations.

  4. […] the interaction of scarcity and productivity, and the effects on the cost of twelve resources, from salt and tin to cobalt and […]

  5. Harry says:

    Mmmmm.Bacon — Sorry, friend, but it’s not helpful to post a sentence fragment as a complete idea. I hate to start food fights on the esteemed Wintercow’s blog, but it sounds like you had a brain jolt between too many bong hits, especially with the ellipses at the beginning and the end. If you have an idea, let’s know what it is. Clue: the idea has to have a subject and predicate.

    And I don’t care about the price of salt in 1947. I’ts just salt, right?

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