Arnold Kling  

How Far Back Could You Go?

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Following up on an earlier post about hypothetical travel back in time, Tyler Cowen writes,


I don't think 1700 would be so much easier for me than 1000. Even if I fell into London, patronage would be hard to come by and I would expect that I would end up earning the subsistence wage.

The problem with the subsistence wage is that it covers 2/3 of the calories that modern humans are used to. Tyler thinks that other people would take care of him out of sympathy, but they would be staggered by how much he eats. Unless he happens to arrive during a bountiful harvest and can put his calorie intake to good use helping bring in the grain, I think that the family has no choice buit to boot out the ravenous monster.

Fortunately, Tyler and I are normal-sized by the standards of hundreds of years ago. Many of you would be big enough to scare the living daylights out of folks--perhaps that would enable you to survive, more likely they would kill you sooner out of fear.

Go back even 85 years, and your everyday skills are remarkably worthless. Do you know how to hand-wash clothes and iron them? How to make your shoes fit? How to keep rugs, beds, and floors sanitary without modern chemicals and appliances? Who you can trust if you have a toothache or a stomach ache? How to start an automobile vintage 1923? How to buy food that will last a week when all you have is a small ice box? How to plan a trip from Fairfax, Virginia to Paris?

Of course the rate of depreciation of everyday skills is accelerating. For those of you over 40, just look at how often you or your spouse end up needing help from your children.


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CATEGORIES: Growth: Consequences



COMMENTS (5 to date)
Bryan Caplan writes:

Doesn't Greg Clark claim that pre-modern people ate lots more calories than we do today? Not only did they need them for manual labor; calories were also an important substitute for decent clothes and heating.

Arnold Kling writes:

I think that Robert Fogel's view is that people ate fewer calories. They could not work as long as people do today, both because work was more demanding and because less food was available.

Unit writes:

But Tyler can read books at an amazing speed, wouldn't that skill be worth something?

R. Pointer writes:

Upon reading, I first thought that this was Bryan writing. It was so humorous, and then I saw that it was Arnold. I was going to say that this was one of Bryan's finest posts, but clearly it is Arnold's funniest.

mobile writes:

Arnold's argument also suggests that it might be easy to identify the time travellers among us -- they may appear intelligent but lack any currently marketable skills. Heck, maybe most of those homeless guys are actually from the future.

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