We live in an age of miracles. Throughout all of human history, material progress essentially didn’t exist until around 1800. The economic trajectory was flat until the human lot began to improve in ways that would have been unimaginable in prior millennia.
This change gave us the world as we know it. In her brilliant book on the transformation, “Bourgeois Dignity,” Deirdre McCloskey writes how the average person in the world subsisted on roughly $3 a day during humanity’s long economic stasis. Then, with the breakout, countries that experienced modern growth over the past couple of centuries saw their material well-being increase by at least a factor of 16 — a transformational leap ahead for nearly everyone living in those countries.
“No previous episode of enrichment for the average person approaches it,” McCloskey writes, “not the China of the Song Dynasty or the Egypt of the New Kingdom, not the glory of Greece or the grandeur of Rome.”
Thanksgiving is, in part, a festival of abundance, and despite the steep recession and grindingly mediocre recovery, we still are better situated to celebrate it than people in any other age or place.
America has always been materially blessed, relative to other parts of the world. In the Colonial period, American men and women were already taller than their British counterparts, thanks to a better standard of living. “Americans achieved modern heights by the middle of the 18th century,” according to economic historian Robert Fogel, and had already “reached levels of life expectancy not attained by the general population of England or even by the British peerage until the first quarter of the 20th century.”
Life was nonetheless still characterized by deprivations almost completely alien to us. A chapter in a book by Fogel is aptly titled, “The Persistence of Misery in Europe and America before 1900.” Across the 20th century, the routine misery lifted. Life expectancy increased by about 30 years — and is still increasing — and we witnessed the profusion of almost all of the things we now take for granted.
Between 1900 and 2000, indoor toilets, telephones and automobiles in the U.S. went from rare to practically universal, according to the study “Century of Difference.” In 1920, about a quarter of Americans owned an automobile. Now, 57 percent of households own two or more cars.
McCloskey catalogs the other indicators of progress. In 1875, people spent roughly three-quarters of their income on the basics of food, clothing and shelter. By the mid-1990s, the figure had shrunk to 13 percent. Meanwhile, spending on recreation doubled. (The author Gregg Easterbrook points out that in 2001, Americans spent a greater amount on recreational watercraft than the gross domestic product of South Korea.) In 1910, about a quarter of houses in America had bedrooms accommodating more than three people. By 1989, it was only 1 percent of houses. Just a quarter of urban homes had running water in 1890, but by 1989 almost all of them did.
The bounty of consumer comforts and goods has extended to poor households. In 2010, 80 percent of poor households had air conditioning; only about third of all Americans had it in 1970. Even poor households have televisions (96 percent), computers (58 percent), and washers and dryers (68 and 65 percent, respectively). None of this is to deny that material deprivation exists, or that countless Americans live in blighted and dangerous neighborhoods. What once were the hallmarks of middle-class life, though, are now widely diffused.
The American public’s economic discontents are justified, with the job market not yet healed, with incomes stagnant, and with income mobility too limited. But the epoch of the nearly inevitable $3- a-day livelihood is past. Compared to most of human history, when, in the words of Deirdre McCloskey, “illiteracy, disease, superstition, periodic starvation, and lack of prospects” were the norm, we live in the sunlit uplands. For that, we should be grateful.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.