Arnold Kling  

Growth in Flour

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Back in December, Virginia Postrel marveled at being able to buy a 5-pound bag of flour for 69 cents. In response, Brad DeLong on his weblog calculated the cumulative gain in productivity over the last 500 years, using flour as the unit of measurement. I used this as an opening anecdote in a talk that I recently gave on economic growth (I brought along a bag of flour as a prop), and it went over well.

Now, readers of Wired can enjoy DeLong's story.


The 7,500 calories in today's bag of flour would equal the diet of a four-person peasant family for a whole day; the difference is that it would take three days of medieval work to afford.

...By the bags-of-flour standard, we are some 430 times wealthier than our typical rural ancestors of half a millennium ago.

For Discussion. If you were to trade places with the richest person living in 1903, would you regard your standard of living as having improved or deteriorated?


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CATEGORIES: Growth: Consequences



COMMENTS (5 to date)
David Thomson writes:

We must be cautious not to get too carried away. The world’s richest person in 1903 was better off than myself a hundred years later. I am, though, almost certainly more affluent than 99% of the world’s population living at that time. Anybody who is modestly successful today possesses wealth unheard of in the first half of the last century. Denesh D’Souza cites a fellow Indian immigrant in his fairly recent “What’s So Great About America” saying he desired to move to a country where even the poor people are fat! Countless lower income citizens smoke cigarettes and eat at fast food restaurants. Ironically, a well to do person might be more inclined to dine on an inexpensively put together salad. When is the last time that Bill Gates purchased a tobacco product for his own enjoyment?

The only significant troubling aspect continues to be medical costs. That remains the economic achilles heel for most Americans. Still, we must not forget that exponential improvements in modern medicine have placed us in a historically peculiar Catch 22 position. Our ancestors died from ailments that barely cause us minor discomfort.

Arnold Kling writes:

Going back 100 years would mean giving up the Internet, airplanes, automobiles, antibiotics...you couldn't compensate me enough to make me do that

Bernard Yomtov writes:

I agree with Arnold (!!). Not close. Just the medical improvements alone are enough to make the case. One hundred years ago the things you couldn't buy at any price included not only antibiotics, but most vaccines, bypass surgery, chemotherapy, a billion different kinds of medications, etc.

The first question to ask yourself when addressing this question is whether you would even be alive given the state of medicine in 1903. I know I wouldn't be.

David Thomson writes:

"The first question to ask yourself when addressing this question is whether you would even be alive given the state of medicine in 1903. I know I wouldn't be."

That is indeed a valid point. I also almost certainly would have died in childhood. However, I am still tempted by the idea of being the world’s richest person. One could do so much good with that much wealth. Oh well, it’s only an abstract question. At the end of the day, we must make do with the world we were born into. And yes, it’s indeed nice to have internet access.

Mark Bahner writes:

David Thompson writes, "That is indeed a valid point. I also almost certainly would have died in childhood."

But then adds, "However, I am still tempted by the idea of being the world’s richest person."

Hmmm...the world's richest dead child? Somehow, that doesn't tempt me. ;-)

This reminds me of the biography, on PBS, of Sam Clemens (Mark Twain). He had 4 children.

His first child, his only son, was born premature. His wife's sister came to help out. She died in the Clemens' bed...I think of typhoid fever. (Whatever it was, I remember it was curable/preventable in today's world.)

At age 18 months, his firstborn only son died of diptheria. (Clemens always blamed himself, as the boy was riding in a open carriage on a cold day, shortly before he died. Clemens thought that the boy becoming partially unwrapped had caused the disease. This was circa 1870...so the bacterial cause of diptheria wasn't even known.)

Of three daughters, Twain's favorite was said to be one who also was an author, who wrote a biography of the Twain household at 14 years old. When she was in her early 20's, while the Clemens were in Europe earning money to pay debts, she died of spinal meningitis.

Of his two remaining daughters, one was an epileptic. She moved back into the Clemens household in her 20's (I think after her mother died). On Christmas eve, she had a seizure in the bathtub, and drowned.

So Twain had 4 children, and suffered through seeing 3 of them, and his sister-in-law, die. All of preventable causes, in today's terms. I'll bet if you'd asked him if he'd trade away his ver-r-r-y fancy house in Hartford, CT, for the chance to see his children/grandchildren, he wouldn't have any doubt about the better deal.

http://www.hannibal.net/twain/biography/family.shtml

Oh...and Clemens' brother died when Twain was in his early 20's, several days after his brother had been burned in a riverboat boiler explosion. Twain blamed himself for that too, though I forget the details. There are hardly any boiler explosions today...and if his brother survived for several days in the 1860s, he certainly would have lived today, with modern burn care.

"At the end of the day, we must make do with the world we were born into."

At the end of my days, I *thank* whatever-Gods-may-be, for being born in the U.S., in 1958, into my wonderful (middle-class) family.

http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa364.pdf

See this paper, and check out the infant mortality rates, and death rates for diptheria, typhoid, and tuberculosis. (Not to mention heart disease.) Oh, and don't forget flush toilets, electricity, and air conditioning. (I certainly wouldn't be here in North Carolina without that last item!) ;-)

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