Have things gotten better in the last 100 years? Hint: there’s no better time to be alive than today.
This is a continuing review and commentary on The Price of Everything (introduced here and here). At one point the characters discuss how much better off we are today than 100 years ago. The main character, Prof. Ruth Lieber, makes a guess on the improvement in overall standard of living:
A good guess is that we’re somewhere between five and 15 times better off in terms of material well-being than we were 100 years ago. Maybe more.
A good point estimate is that our standard of living has increased tenfold in the last century. Not 50% better. Not 100% better. But perhaps something range of 1000% better.
The characters argue about whether we are really better off or not. The professor’s monologue, with a few of my comments:
America’s success since 1900 isn’t really about money. It’s about using that indoor toilet and having penicillin so you don’t die from infection. It’s about women not dying in childbirth. In 1900, the chance of a woman in America dying during childbirth was about eight out of a thousand, almost one percent. Today, it’s about eight out of 100,000. Childbirth is 100 times safer than it was 100 years ago. Think that’s about money?
One out of 100 women dying in childbirth versus about 1 out of 10,000! In my reading of Civil War history, I’ve noticed frequent comments of some general who was in his second marriage, having lost his first wife in childbirth. That was a common situation. Has anyone reading this blog ever heard of a mother dying in childbirth in the last two decades?
Or infant mortality. In 1900, one out of every ten – ten! – babies died in the first year of life. Today the mortality rate is under one out of 100. That’s a tenfold improvement. It’s about ridding the world of polio.
Walk through a really old graveyard some time. In a cemetery of 100 or 150 years of age, you will find several headstones that say something like “Baby Jones / August 15 – September 8.” I cannot imagine an environment where you don’t even bother naming your baby because of such a great chance of losing your little one in the first month or three of life.
I have a good friend who contracted polio just as the vaccine went into wide-spread distribution. I am very glad we are rid of polio. I am very glad that American and Russian scientists have to intentionally work at keeping a live sample of smallpox in storage, since that vicious killer does not exist anywhere on planet Earth outside those two laboratories. Do you grasp the wonderful joy that smallpox is gone and polio is astoundingly rare? That is wonderful!
It’s about painkillers. Try getting a tooth pulled in 1900 if you want to have some fun.
No thank you.
There were about 6000 books published in 1900. Today, about 300,000 books are published every year.
I have published 3 books. Even 25 years ago that would either not have been possible or would have been prohibitively expensive. I hope to publish five e-books in the next six months. Maybe they will be widely popular or maybe they will be flops. I don’t know. But I have the freedom, technology, and resources to publish them.
Today, Russell Roberts (author of this book) is publishing not just books, but podcasts and videos. He does so with low production costs, negligible distribution costs, and no gatekeeper stopping him from publishing.
Do you grasp the radical change that you or I can publish a book if we feel like it?
If I had a choice between living in that wonderful, closer-to-nature, no-preservative, less-frantic life of 100 years ago or living today, there’s no doubt what my choice would be.