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Saturday, June 09, 2007

The total greatness of modernity 


I admit it, I love modernity. I've never been one to hanker for days of yore when life was simple, teeth were rotten, and lifespans were short. I remember thinking this way at least as far back as junior high school, when I read an essay by Isaac Asimov on the subject. He recounted having encountered somebody who said that he wished he lived in ancient Athens, to whom Asimov replied "Why would you want to be a slave in the Athenian silver mines?", or words to that effect. His point was obvious -- unless you are an aristocrat, there really is no better time and place than modernity.

Writing behind The Wall Street Journal's subscriber wall, Steven Landsburg, the author of More Sex Is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics, makes essentially the same point. Fair use excerpt:

Modern humans first emerged about 100,000 years ago. For the next 99,800 years or so, nothing happened. Well, not quite nothing. There were wars, political intrigue, the invention of agriculture -- but none of that stuff had much effect on the quality of people's lives. Almost everyone lived on the modern equivalent of $400 to $600 a year, just above the subsistence level. True, there were always tiny aristocracies who lived far better, but numerically they were quite insignificant.

Then -- just a couple of hundred years ago, maybe 10 generations -- people started getting richer. And richer and richer still. Per capita income, at least in the West, began to grow at the unprecedented rate of about three quarters of a percent per year. A couple of decades later, the same thing was happening around the world.

Then it got even better. By the 20th century, per capita real incomes, that is, incomes adjusted for inflation, were growing at 1.5% per year, on average, and for the past half century they've been growing at about 2.3%. If you're earning a modest middle-class income of $50,000 a year, and if you expect your children, 25 years from now, to occupy that same modest rung on the economic ladder, then with a 2.3% growth rate, they'll be earning the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $89,000 a year. Their children, another 25 years down the line, will earn $158,000 a year.

Against a backdrop like that, the temporary ups and downs of the business cycle seem fantastically minor. In the 1930s, we had a Great Depression, when income levels fell back to where they had been 20 years earlier. For a few years, people had to live the way their parents had always lived, and they found it almost intolerable. The underlying expectation -- that the present is supposed to be better than the past -- is a new phenomenon in history. No 18th-century politician would have asked "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" because it never would have occurred to anyone that they ought to be better off than they were four years ago.

Rising income is only part of the story. One hundred years ago the average American workweek was over 60 hours; today it's under 35. One hundred years ago 6% of manufacturing workers took vacations; today it's over 90%. One hundred years ago the average housekeeper spent 12 hours a day on laundry, cooking, cleaning and sewing; today it's about three hours.

As far as the quality of the goods we buy, try picking up an electronics catalogue from, oh, say, 2001 and ask yourself whether there's anything there you'd want to buy. That was the year my friend Ben spent $600 for a 1.3-megapixel digital camera that weighed a pound and a half. What about services, such as health care? Would you rather purchase today's health care at today's prices or the health care of, say, 1970 at 1970 prices? I don't know any informed person who would choose 1970, which means that despite all the hype about costs, health care now is a better bargain than it's ever been before.

The moral is that increases in measured income -- even the phenomenal increases of the past two centuries -- grossly understate the real improvements in our economic condition.

Many Westerners, including most modern leftists (as opposed to the original Marxists), do not believe in "progress" in the sense that they believe that the human condition has changed rather than progressed. Worse, they often regard change as a bad thing, usually for reasons that strike me as romantic rather than thoughtful. This leads them to be cavalier about the value of such things as economic growth, the spread of technology, and the modernization of social institutions in the parts of the world that have not yet modernized. That leads them to campaign for social and economic policies that propose to slow down progress. Opposition to the idea of progress unites anti-globalization activists, "hair shirt" environmentalists, and ideological anti-Americans. This thinking explains, for example, why many left-wing environmental activists advocate solutions to climate change that will obviously crush economic growth.* They just do not value it.

Yes, modernization is -- as a professor of mine once said -- "the universal social solvent." He meant that it blows apart traditional societies, and in that something is certainly lost. So much more is gained, though, that we should fight tooth and nail to sustain progress rather than put an end to it.
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*In Princeton, the door-to-door environmentalists argue for this overtly. Last summer the New Jersey Public Interest Research Group people came to my door arguing that climate change was a huge problem and that we needed to take strong steps to deal with it. A popular argument, to be sure, even if there is room to debate. Then it got weird. They were garnering signatures for a petition that included, in the fine print, elimination of nuclear power. I quizzed them on the apparent inconsistency in this demand, and the activist cheerfully explained that the point was that the United States had to revert to a "simpler" way of life. The problem, apparently, was less the source of the energy than the consumption of it at all.

9 Comments:

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Jun 09, 10:12:00 AM:

Paris Hilton starred in a reality TV show a few years ago called "The Simple Life."

We know how that turned out. A cautionary tale...  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Jun 09, 11:12:00 PM:

TH -- you are missing the whole point.

The Environmental movement, leftists etc. are all wealthy aristos.

OF COURSE they want everyone else poor. That's what all aristos once.

When you understand, Leftist = aristo, it all makes sense.  

By Blogger Minter, at Sun Jun 10, 10:49:00 AM:

Being an Any Rand fan (like you I believe), somehow I equate the thread of determinism with the seach of progress (perhaps just an auto-justification). Anyway, whether or not we believe in Global Warming (HOW CAN YOU NOT), nuclear power is very much an appropriate and modern source of energy. And to comment on Anonymous' post about aristo leftists, we have a term in Paris called "la Gauche Caviar"...which is alive and well here in France.  

By Blogger Assistant Village Idiot, at Sun Jun 10, 06:55:00 PM:

Anon's aristo comment is sadly on point. For some portion of the intense environmentalists, their romanticism comes from their unacknowledged identification with their predecessor class of clerks and other literates, who had high status, if not our material goods.

Another portion of the intense environmentalists are just hankering to have life be like summer camp again. Ah, life was so simple then - if you were a child.  

By Anonymous brierrabbit3030, at Sun Jun 10, 09:59:00 PM:

Has it ever occurred to you that maybe people from the past, might find this era strange? I'm sure they would enjoy the medical advances, etc, but they might find our noisy, crowded, world to be as unpleasant as we might think theirs was. We have Amish communities around us, and while they do occasionally use modern technology, they certainly don't miss it-most of the time. We THINK we have it better, and in many ways we do. But if you were to visit, say a New England town, oh, about 1830, and compare the close family, and lifetime friends ,that were there all your life, and the quiet pastoral life people led, along with the ability to actually hear yourself think, along with certainties of your place in society and time, you might wonder how good you have it today. We have more toys, we don't necessarily live better. Really, after better medical care, and food, etc, you can live quite well. We live longer, and healthier, but their are many more things than that to making a fulfilled life. But I do agree on one point. Many Leftist are total hypocrites about The Simple Life.  

By Blogger Larry, at Sun Jun 10, 10:26:00 PM:

Well, it is a little bit before my time, but in 1830m there elders in the family were what 40?

And the family, was that the ordinary folk, or was that the swells? (My guess is the ordinary folk were either hard at work on some survival matter, or were in bed asleep.

I've visited some reconstructions of those homes, and even the homes of the swells were missing things I find necessary, like room to stand up straight, a place to sit down comfortably, without regard to the month, places to store food, even food I had grown so it wasn't the most rotted apple in the barrel, or spiced highly so I would wouldn't notice how high it was.

Even we are going to remember the good old days, we need to remember all of them. the folks that lived in them didn't get to chose which to retain and which to replace the way we can.  

By Blogger ScurvyOaks, at Mon Jun 11, 12:19:00 PM:

I'm here with a conscience check, TigerHawk. When you read this part of Landsburg's article:

"For the next 99,800 years or so, nothing happened. Well, not quite nothing. There were wars, political intrigue, the invention of agriculture -- but none of that stuff had much effect on the quality of people's lives."

did what happened in first-century Palestine cross your mind?

Just a friendly nag from a fellow anglican . . .  

By Blogger Teri, at Mon Jun 11, 06:53:00 PM:

Average does not mean that everyone met that statistic. I don't know anyone working a 35 hour work week. If you went back to the 1830s you would find lots of old folks way over 40. The reason that the average lifespan is more today is because fewer children die in the first five years. And speaking of what we would like, do you really want to live to be 96 stuck in a nursing home?  

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