Last week I stumbled across the thought experiment posed a couple of years ago by economist Don Boudreaux. How much money would it take for you to change places with America’s then richest man, John D Rockefeller, at his prime in 1916. The conclusion to Boudreaux’s thought experiment is as follows:
Honestly, I wouldn’t be remotely tempted to quit the 2016 me so that I could be a one-billion-dollar-richer me in 1916. This fact means that, by 1916 standards, I am today more than a billionaire. It means, at least given my preferences, I am today materially richer than was John D. Rockefeller in 1916. And if, as I think is true, my preferences here are not unusual, then nearly every middle-class American today is richer than was America’s richest man a mere 100 years ago.
It is a nice piece of economist’s reasoning. Rockefeller had a lot of stuff, and lot of prestige/status. But he couldn’t take a plane to London or San Francisco. The quality of recorded music was poor. The best medical care in the world was far inferior to what almost all citizens in advanced countries today have access to – a few years later Calvin Coolidge’s teenage son died of an infected blister he got playing tennis on the White House lawn. Mortality rates in childbirth was soberingly high. Even heating and air-conditioning – for the richest – were nothing like they are today (something that matters a fair amount to residents of non-temperate climes). And, of course, although the United States wasn’t in World War One in 1916, it soon would be, with another ruinous war to follow only 20 years later. I’m pretty sure my own answer would be the same as Boudreaux’s: there is no amount of money that would make it that attractive to take Rockefeller’s place and give up my comfortable but modest life in New Zealand, one of the poorer of the advanced countries.
But as I toyed with Boudreaux’s question I was much less sure about how I’d answer if the choice was between 2017 and 1967 – fifty years ago, and a time I can (just)remember. In fact, the more I thought about that version of the experiment, the more I thought that, taken together, life in 1967 beats out that in 2017 in many respects. And that’s just looking at the perspective of someone like me – a middle-aged professional person. The richest person in New Zealand at the time probably quite easily beats the situation of a comfortable person like me.
For sure, there are things to be thankful for – that favour 2017 over 1967. Real per capita GDP, for example, is around twice what it was 50 years ago – that is the ability to consume more stuff. “More stuff” encompasses “better stuff” – cars that are better-built, that are air-conditioned; TVs that offer (in NZ) more than a single channel; a rich array of eating-out options; much more affordable overseas travel, and smartphones with the resources of the internet in our pocket. And yet in 1967 New Zealand most people had fridges, ovens, washing machines, TVs and radios, cars, and it is far from obvious how much real gain new and better gadgets have brought. Some no doubt, but much? People like to talk, for example, of the immediacy of news via the internet. But how many of us really need that immediacy that much? I look at some copies of Time magazine on my shelves from the late 1960s – sure it was only weekly, but the content was generally far superior to that in today’s newspapers or news magazines. I’m not suggesting I’d prefer the 1967 model in this respect, but how large is the gain? (In some ways, this is economist Robert Gordon’s point) After all, in 1969 I heard the broadcast of the moon landing live, played out into our school playground.
Life expectancy is quite a bit longer than it was too – infant mortality has dropped further, and life expectancy among the old has also improved considerably. And there are more work options for women in particular – if most discriminatory laws had gone by 1967, old models in which married women were typically out of the workforce either permanently or for long periods while children were around still prevailed. In many more-formal ways, options for Maori have considerably improved – witness the number of Maori MPs as just one small example. In 1967 people like me couldn’t find an audience with something like a blog.
This is the sort of narrative leading Harvard academic Steven Pinker offered in his recent Wall St Journal essay “The Enlightenment is Working” . His focus is the gains, across so many fronts, over the last 200 years, but he is quite explicit that the gains aren’t slowing down. And there are points in his favour
In most times and places, homicides kill far more people than wars. But homicide rates have been falling as well and not just in the U.S. People in the rest of the world are now seven-tenths as likely to be murdered as they were two dozen years ago. Deaths from terrorism, terrifying as they may be, amount to a rounding error.
Real gains, for which we should be grateful, and not take lightly (or treat as secure for all time).
And yet, and yet. Pinker’s value are entirely secular: he celebrates a world that abandons faith, dogma, tradition. He celebrates the decline of traditional family, and notions of “equality” for practising homosexuals. In his model, so it seems, longer life-expectancy, and higher incomes (more stuff), is what pretty much everything boils down. On that score, no doubt he is right. We should rejoice that we aren’t in 1967, and look forward to – working towards – a better 2067.
But especially if you follow the God revealed in Jesus, crucified Saviour and Redeemer, if you recall – as Christians do today – that “dust you are and to dust you shall return” one can look at modern Western societies, 2017 vs 1967, in a much different light. We might still welcome the longer life-expectancy – at least among those with the good fortune to be born – and even the higher incomes: God created abundantly, and if excess can be a risk, there is little or no intrinsic virtue in involuntary poverty.
But what we’ll note will be:
- the sharp decline in Christian religion in all Western countries. Exposed to the gospel of Christ, nonetheless the bulk of our contemporaries knowingly turn the back on God, and put in jeopardy life beyond this life,
- the weakening of families, reflected in the rise of divorce, and in the marked increase in children born, and raised, outside wedlock,
- the general legalisation of abortion. We can be grateful numbers have been in decline lately (here, and in other countries) while still lamenting the society we’ve become, one in which our Prime Minister wants to make abortion – the slaughter of a living child – a “health matter”,
- at the other end of life, the looming legalisation of “euthanasia”
- the normalisation of homosexuality, now taken to the extreme of homosexual “marriage”, and the increasingly pressure on those who would seek to resist this agenda,
- the pervasive spread of pornography, degrading all involved, and corroding the institution of marriage,
- in all this, the growing difficult of raising children God’s way. A community influences children, for good and for ill,
- the alarming rise in the number of people with mental health problems,
- in a specific New Zealand context, one might also list staggeringly high rates of unemployment (and welfare dependence) among Maori (and to a less extent Pacific) people,
- at a simple material level, in New Zealand – as in so many other places (although not much of the south and midwest of the United States) – the scandalous unaffordability of houses and urban land (in countries with abundant land). 50 years ago, it was the norm for a young couple, perhaps in their mid 20s, to buy a first house, and service the associated mortgage on a single income (my parents did just a few years before that). These days, for most people, not a chance – even for the smaller simpler home of 50 years ago,
- one might even worry about the growth of the surveillance state,
- or the greater difficulty of keeping Sunday for God (societies buttress or undermine the practice of our values/inclinations: I couldn’t have got a part-time job on a Sunday as a teenager, whereas now I have to remind my kids why we won’t let them have one, even if their peers soon may have).
I’m not suggesting there is some sort of causal tradeoff – higher wealth and longer life expectancy have someone caused these blights. Almost certainly they haven’t. But when the question is posed which bundle would one prefer: 1967’s or 2017’s I can see good reason to prefer the old model, even without my smartphone and blog.
As I’ve reflected on this issue, and some related ones, loose parallels with the Tower of Babel spring to mind. The hubris of claims like those of Pinker (and of the society he celebrates) – things just keep getting better and better, and will only keep on doing so as we turn our backs on God – invite nemesis. Perhaps it never happens, but even if so there is still the reminder from Scripture that wealth and long life aren’t all there is: how we use them, how we use our talents and gifts matters – rather more in the longer-run. Do we build up treasures on earth – toys to amuse ourselves with, or even to deliver good stuff for others – or treasure in heaven. Can we say, with the Psalmist, that better to be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than to “live in the tents of the wicked”? I’m not sure I can, but it is my heart’s aspiration and desire to live that way. At the margin, I suspect it was a little easier – and little easier for my parents to raise me than for me to raise my kids – in 1967 than it is in 2017.