Bryan Caplan  

What You Have That George Vanderbilt Didn't

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I just returned from the Biltmore, America's largest home.  Built by George Vanderbilt between 1889 and 1895, the Biltmore is a symbol of how good the rich had it during the Gilded Age.  I'm sure that most of the other visitors would answer "very good indeed." 

But how many would actually want to trade places with George?  Despite his massive library, organ, and so on, I submit that any modern with a laptop and an internet connection has a vastly better book and music collection than he did.  For all his riches, he didn't have air conditioning; he had to suffer through the North Carolina summers just like the poorest of us.  Vanderbilt did travel the world, but without the airplane, he had to do so at a snail's pace. 

Perhaps most shockingly, he suffered "sudden death from complications following an appendectomy" at the age of 51.  (Here's the original NYT obituary).  Whatever your precise story about the cause of rising lifespans, it's safe to say that George's Bane wouldn't be fatal today.

Vanderbilt clearly had it better than most of the people in his era.  But the world has improved so much that, all things considered, the average American is now better off than this prince of the Gilded Age.  I can't be sure, but I bet that George would have agreed.  How much do you think he would have paid to live for a single day in your shoes?


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COMMENTS (46 to date)
ziel writes:

How much do you think he would have paid to live for a single day in your shoes?

Oh I don't think very much. He'd have figured out within a half hour where I sit in the pecking order and how much more wonderful stuff were possessed by the truly successful in our times. While he might be impressed by trans-continental flight, would he really consent to fly coach? Would he be happy driving himself to work, even in one of our nifty horsless carriages? Would he put up with having multiple layers of bosses and a 12x10 office? Unless it were offered to him on his death bed, I'm pretty sure he'd have turned it down.

david writes:

How much of happiness is driven by positional/status goods vs. material wealth?

Darf Ferrara writes:

Babbage (26 December 1791 – 18 October 1871) said that he would give up the remainder of his days to live three days five hundred years hence with a scientific guide to explain the discoveries of the intervening years. I don't think he would be disappointed by the progress of the last 150 years.

rapscallion writes:

I think it's an important and true point that even the relatively poor nowadays are better off than the ridiculously rich of yesteryear.

Nevertheless, one problem I have with arguing that the past rich were much worse off because none of us would trade places with them is that it seems to me that the counterfactual ought to be expectations-adjusted, which is very hard to do mentally. That is, one must imagine oneself in George Vanderbilt's shoes, but not really knowing that better things are possible. This is particularly difficult because even when trying to imagine an ethereal version of oneself behind the veil, choosing between the two possibilities, just knowing that the future is possible will likely affect one's judgment of happiness in the past.

It's also interesting to speculate as to whether or not this sort of reasoning should make one glad not to have been born in past, or curse the heavens for not being born in the future.

student writes:

bryan,

i think you're missing the point of having vanderbilt-size wealth. it has very little to do with the basket of consumption goods available to you. it has everything to do with the freedom money gives you.

sure, george didn't have an ipod or the internet. but i would still likely trade places with george in a heartbeat because his wealth afforded him something my 9-to-5 will never allow me to do: the freedom to do what he wanted, when he wanted.

Matt writes:

A key element missing from the consideration--at least to my thinking--is the day-to-day relationship GV had with beauty. I wonder if he could begin to understand how we are seemingly content to lead lives so starved of beauty of the type he enjoyed. We still marvel at his home, not just for its scale, but for its beauty. What, if anything, in our daily lives, will inspire such aesthetic awe 100 years hence?

Hyena writes:

How much do you think he would have paid to live for a single day in your shoes?

Everything he had, were it the day of his appendectomy.

I think a neat version of this game would be to try to imagine which developing country he'd be willing to endure before saying "no" to the swap.

infopractical writes:

"Despite his massive library, organ, and so on, I submit that any modern with a laptop and an internet connection has a vastly better book and music collection than he did."

How in the world do you know about the size of his organ?

agnostic writes:

Others have already pointed out that only gadget-worshipers would rather be the average or slightly above-average person of today than a prince of an earlier time where the standard of living was still pretty nice.

So let me just add one concern that I never see addressed in these golly-gosh arguments about how much better the poor have it today than the elite of before --

Would you rather enjoy a sultan's harem -- or more covertly, an endless stable of young mistresses who your wife grudgingly tolerates -- or at most 1 partner per year, and probably not too great looking or exciting to be around? Today's superstars have it much better, but we're talking about the average male or poorer.

No one dreams about the internet, iPhones, air conditioning, etc. They want friends, lovers, influence, power, creativity, impressive skills, and so on. That's why when economists try to lecture people about how great the poor have it today compared to even the princes of before, they get laughed out of the room -- no one cares about how many toys they have, if all that other stuff is lacking.

Jeremy H. writes:

While the question of whether one would rather be a Vanderbilt in 1895 or an average (or a poor) person in 2010 is interesting, another more interesting veil of ignorance question can be asked: if you were *randomly* assigned to the body of a person in 1895 or 2010, which would you choose? On this measure it seems to me that 2010 would be preferred to any other year, especially if the random assignment is over the entire world rather than just the U.S.

Jacob Oost writes:

Hehehe, "organ." Good one. But it moves to mention a point Dr. C missed: money brings in the babes, in any era.

Of course, the babes of Vanderbilt's era were probably toothless hags with leathery skin at the age of 29, but still....

CBBB writes:

When economists realize that material goods are not the be-all-end-all of human existence maybe they'll be able to offer some useful insights about the world.

Liam writes:

@ Infopractical. That was funny.

@everyone else. I am very surprised how jaded everyone seems. Matt mentioned that we are starved of beauty comparatively and I disagree completely. If G.V came here his head would spin from the shear beauty of it all. Towers of glass and steel that rise above the skyline gleaming in the setting sun only to be lit with brilliant light casting the city into gothic nightscape? It’s breathtaking.

Student seems to think that the luxury of freedom would be something he would not wish to give up but we all have so much more freedom now than anyone ever did 100 years ago. Think of the hours of leisure we have in relative comfort. And anyone with huge wealth would more than likely not have the freedom that our instant age allows. When he wanted free time he would have to carefully arrange for it.

And I don’t think his awe of future technology would be quick to fade or that he would take it lightly. I am still amazed at the miracle of flight and I fly all the time.

I think a fair comparison would be “How much would Bill Gates give to be able to live for one day 100 years in the future?” I would bet that it would be very, very substantial. If it was me, I would give almost everything I have materially (granted I am going on the assumption that I will come back 24 hours later and my travel will have zero impact on the future)

David Henderson once made an excellent argument along the same vein as this in regards to healthcare. Someone was complaining about the rising cost of healthcare and he pointed out that it had declined considerably. For example, how much does a hip replacement cost compared to 50 years ago? Well they didn’t do hip replacements 50 years ago so the cost would be infinite. Any cost compared to an infinite cost is a great bargain.

The exact same line of thinking applies here. Sure G.V had it all in his era but how much would he have paid for the healthcare we all get now? Just look at his cost for minor surgery.

Evan writes:

@Everyone:
One thing I haven't heard anyone address yet is moral progress. The values of earlier time periods were sickeningly depraved. One reason I'd never want to have been born in the past, rather than today, even if my past status would have been higher, is that I enjoy being the kind of person who doesn't burn witches, own slaves, participate in pogroms, or bash gays. I think if you asked most poor people if they'd rather be a wealthy slaveowner in the past, they'd all look at you with horror.

@agnostic

Others have already pointed out that only gadget-worshipers would rather be the average or slightly above-average person of today than a prince of an earlier time where the standard of living was still pretty nice.
What about art lovers? Gourmands? Popular science aficionados? Bibliophiles? Anyone with any interest besides social status games?

I suppose there are some people who have no interests besides their social status relative to others. They might be happier in Vanderbilt's shoes. But it saddens me that anyone could be that shallow. Status games are a part of our monkey heritage, it's our other interests that make us human.

Would you rather enjoy a sultan's harem -- or more covertly, an endless stable of young mistresses who your wife grudgingly tolerates -- or at most 1 partner per year, and probably not too great looking or exciting to be around?
Since I recognize the fact that women have these things call feelings and minds, I would prefer the later. My conscience would bug me otherwise.
No one dreams about the internet, iPhones, air conditioning, etc. They want friends, lovers, influence, power, creativity, impressive skills, and so on.
I clearly recall dreaming about having a device to watch movies on my lunch break while I was younger. Sounds like an Ipod to me.

@student

but i would still likely trade places with george in a heartbeat because his wealth afforded him something my 9-to-5 will never allow me to do: the freedom to do what he wanted, when he wanted.
Which of you is freer to marry outside your race?

Hyena writes:

Mr./Ms. Agnostic,

I'm not sure what you're using the Internet for, but a lot of people use it for random hook-ups. We're actually pretty good at it, too. We're also good at writing blogs, crafting websites and creating YouTube videos.

Name me any intangible you could have had in 1850, and I can name you a way in which the information technology alone makes it more abundant or higher quality.

student writes:

liam,

george vanderbilt was an heir. so he did not have a day job in the sense you or i may understand it. instead, he was able to pursue his own interests whenever he felt like (and those ranged from philosophy to horticulture). so I am pretty sure he had way more "leisure" hours than i currently enjoy.

i am also quite sure he was much more able to arrange free time than I am despite my access to much superior technology (i work 40 hours a week to earn a living and i go to school part time in hopes of earning a better living in the future).

now, sure, the internet age is great. and if i could have fabulous wealth AND modern technology, I would take both. but if I had to choose between the two? I would take Vanderbilt's lifestyle any day of the week.

PS* Just to re-iterate, i fully recognize that living standards are higher today at all income levels than they were 100 years ago. But that isn't the point of Brian's post. He asked if we would switch places with GV. And I would because like I said, having lots of money isn't about buying lot's of stuff, it's about having the freedom to do what you want to do whenever you want to do it.

student writes:

PPS* if i could not be a millionaire, i would probably be a professor at a state funded university.

as bryan has said many times, it is a great life. he's able to wax on about the economics of insanity, anarcho-capitalism, the importance of having children and other urgent topics without worrying if anyone would actually pay for the stuff he produces. why? because tax payers are fitting the bill.

not a bad deal if you can get it. though I am not sure if that puts him in a good spot to lecture other people about how good they have it.

Tracy W writes:

ZieL: While he might be impressed by trans-continental flight, would he really consent to fly coach? Would he be happy driving himself to work, even in one of our nifty horsless carriages? Would he put up with having multiple layers of bosses and a 12x10 office?

So you think that Vanderbilt was a status-obsessed man who would have cared more about whether he flew coach or not, than whether he could get decent medical care for his family?

Also, I note that Vanderbilt, as a capitalist, had millions of bosses - his customers.

Student: the freedom to do what he wanted, when he wanted

But he only had this freedom in limited ways. For example, I was in the UK, my brother had a bad accident in NZ, I got back in 3 days. Vanderbilt didn't have this freedom. I can travel to third world countries having had vaccines against diseases that could have killed him. I have the internet, if I ponder a question, I can get it directly. I can get in touch by voice with people on the otherside of the world.

Matt: We still marvel at his home, not just for its scale, but for its beauty. What, if anything, in our daily lives, will inspire such aesthetic awe 100 years hence?

Well, my Graham Sydney print gets crys of admiration from visitors to my home when they first see it. Perhaps it'll go out of fashion in the next 100 years, and will no longer get gasps, but the same could probably be said about many things from the 19th century.

Agnostic: Would you rather enjoy a sultan's harem -- or more covertly, an endless stable of young mistresses who your wife grudgingly tolerates -- or at most 1 partner per year, and probably not too great looking or exciting to be around?

You assume that the "you" is male, or lesbian. No, I don't want a sultan's harem, nor an endless stable of young mistresses. Way to be non-inclusive, Agnostic.

But, leaving that aside, would you like to be able to enjoy your sex life with medication for the STDs you pick up, and contraceptives so that you don't wind up with a stream of little ones? You know why there was such a big focus on "no sex outside marriage pre-antibiotics" and the pill? Yes, there was some treatment for syphillis but it wasn't an easy one.

No one dreams about the internet, iPhones, air conditioning, etc.

How do you think such things were invented in the first place, then? I'm guessing you don't know many engineers. Personally I think that air-conditioning is magical (yes, I know conceptually how it works, I have an engineering degree, I just think it's wonderful).

They want friends, lovers, influence, power, creativity, impressive skills, and so on

And this is generally what modern society gives them. Friends and family - see how much people fly nowadays to visit their friends and family. In Vanderbilt's time, ordinary Europeans who left for the USA would probably never see the people who stayed back in Europe again. Influence - democracy. Impressive skills - now the range of things you can learn is far wider than before, and if you want to practice 19th century arts there are reenactment soceities dedicated to preserving them. Creativity - we have all the arts we did in the 19th century, and all the computing arts we have now so options for creativity have gone up.

The exception is power. Power is a zero-sum game, unless we are talking in the engineering sense. Take for example the difference between a patriachical society, where the head of the family had all the money and all the legal power, and nowadys in a more egalitarain society. The women and the younger men in this society have a lot more power, and thus the guy-who-would-have-been-head-of-the-family has less. My father can't threaten to cut his children off without a cent, we earn our own livings. He has to put up with whomever we decide to marry. He can't take his wife's money, Mum has not only her own bank account, but her own company. On a country-wide level, more power for the people means less power for the king, and vice-versa.

That's why when economists try to lecture people about how great the poor have it today compared to even the princes of before, they get laughed out of the room -- no one cares about how many toys they have, if all that other stuff is lacking.

I think you are being too harsh on non-economists here. Yes, there are many people who are as arrogant and as close-minded as you describe, but there are people who are willing to listen, and to learn, and have their original conceptions challenged.

CBBBWhen economists realize that material goods are not the be-all-end-all of human existence maybe they'll be able to offer some useful insights about the world.

What is it about critics of economics that they feel free to just make stuff up about economics? If you had bothered to read an Econ 101 textbook, you've have noticed the leisure-labour trade-off, which describes that, if hourly wages rise, it's theoretically undetermined whether people will work more or less hours in response. This argument is based on that people value both goods and leisure, it doesn't make any sense if people only valued material goods. But nope, you couldn't be stuffed. A perfect example of the closed-mindedness that Agnostic refers to.

Telnar writes:

Student,

It might be possible to have both depending on your utility function. If you're able to be happy with a consumption bundle that is relatively low in positional and fixed supply goods compared to others with similar income (with land being the most obvious example), then it will probably be possible for you to save enough money in the extra lifespan that you get from living in 2010 rather than 1871 to enjoy more hours of freedom than Vanderbilt did.

Most people in 2010 don't have the freedom you want, but they also value it less than you do, so they aren't willing to make the consumption sacrifices required to get it. If you put yourself on a path where you're saving 50% of your after tax income, everything changes.

Tracy W writes:

Student: the freedom to do what he wanted, when he wanted

But he only had this freedom in limited ways. For example, I was in the UK, my brother had a bad accident in NZ, I got back in 3 days. Vanderbilt didn't have this freedom. I can travel to third world countries having had vaccines against diseases that could have killed him. I have the internet, if I ponder a question, I can get it directly. I can get in touch by voice with people on the otherside of the world.

Matt: We still marvel at his home, not just for its scale, but for its beauty. What, if anything, in our daily lives, will inspire such aesthetic awe 100 years hence?

Well, my Graham Sydney print gets crys of admiration from visitors to my home when they first see it. Perhaps it'll go out of fashion in the next 100 years, and will no longer get gasps, but the same could probably be said about many things from the 19th century.

Agnostic: Would you rather enjoy a sultan's harem -- or more covertly, an endless stable of young mistresses who your wife grudgingly tolerates -- or at most 1 partner per year, and probably not too great looking or exciting to be around?

You assume that the "you" is male, or lesbian. No, I don't want a sultan's harem, nor an endless stable of young mistresses. Way to be non-inclusive, Agnostic.

But, leaving that aside, would you like to be able to enjoy your sex life with medication for the STDs you pick up, and contraceptives so that you don't wind up with a stream of little ones? You know why there was such a big focus on "no sex outside marriage pre-antibiotics" and the pill? Yes, there was some treatment for syphillis but it wasn't an easy one.

No one dreams about the internet, iPhones, air conditioning, etc.

How do you think such things were invented in the first place, then? I'm guessing you don't know many engineers. Personally I think that air-conditioning is magical (yes, I know conceptually how it works, I have an engineering degree, I just think it's wonderful).

They want friends, lovers, influence, power, creativity, impressive skills, and so on

And this is generally what modern society gives them. Friends and family - see how much people fly nowadays to visit their friends and family. In Vanderbilt's time, ordinary Europeans who left for the USA would probably never see the people who stayed back in Europe again. Influence - democracy. Impressive skills - now the range of things you can learn is far wider than before, and if you want to practice 19th century arts there are reenactment soceities dedicated to preserving them. Creativity - we have all the arts we did in the 19th century, and all the computing arts we have now so options for creativity have gone up.

The exception is power. Power is a zero-sum game, unless we are talking in the engineering sense. Take for example the difference between a patriachical society, where the head of the family had all the money and all the legal power, and nowadys in a more egalitarain society. The women and the younger men in this society have a lot more power, and thus the guy-who-would-have-been-head-of-the-family has less. My father can't threaten to cut his children off without a cent, we earn our own livings. He has to put up with whomever we decide to marry. He can't take his wife's money, Mum has not only her own bank account, but her own company. On a country-wide level, more power for the people means less power for the king, and vice-versa.

That's why when economists try to lecture people about how great the poor have it today compared to even the princes of before, they get laughed out of the room -- no one cares about how many toys they have, if all that other stuff is lacking.

I think you are being too harsh on non-economists here. Yes, there are many people who are as arrogant and as close-minded as you describe, but there are people who are willing to listen, and to learn, and have their original conceptions challenged.

CBBBWhen economists realize that material goods are not the be-all-end-all of human existence maybe they'll be able to offer some useful insights about the world.

What is it about critics of economics that they feel free to just make stuff up about economics? If you had bothered to read an Econ 101 textbook, you've have noticed the leisure-labour trade-off, which describes that, if hourly wages rise, it's theoretically undetermined whether people will work more or less hours in response. This argument is based on that people value both goods and leisure, it doesn't make any sense if people only valued material goods. But nope, you couldn't be stuffed. A perfect example of the closed-mindedness that Agnostic refers to.

Steve Miller writes:

For those who haven't been to the Biltmore, you need to see it to understand what Bryan is talking about. It's a big house with a lot of rooms, and it's been very carefully decorated. But by our modern standards, life in that house would suck. Gadgets, schmadgets. Vanderbilt had gadgets, which is what makes a visit so striking. He had all of the pointless gadgets and luxury goods of his era, but very little in the way of things that actually make life tolerable in 2010. Sneer at iPods if you must, but don't pretend that modern communications and transportation technology are mere "gadgets".

Tracy W writes:

Sorry about double post.

George Vanderbilt writes:
don't pretend that modern communications and transportation technology are mere "gadgets"
While we're at it, let's not overlook the fact that your modern laparoscopes aren't mere frivolities, either.
Mike writes:

Like George Vanderbilt and Tracy W. and others, I wouldn't trade my life, as much as I sometimes feel like it sucks (this is only a fleeting condition), for George's back in the day. We have it way better. And student, I know I am far wealthier and have far more freedom today than someone of similar social status of 150 years ago.

I would also like to point out that I would have far more freedome if I had never borrowed money. I'm 50, keep that in mind student.

Coyote has an awesome post on this from a couple of years back.

Slocum writes:

Oh I don't think very much. He'd have figured out within a half hour where I sit in the pecking order and how much more wonderful stuff were possessed by the truly successful in our times.

I'm repeatedly amazed at how singularly status-obsessed those on the left are. The pecking order is everything and all wealth, health, comfort and material progress are (relatively) nothing (even including the progress that has meant not dying of now easily-treatable diseases).

It seems to me that the truly rich have virtually no wonderful stuff at all that I don't also have. The wonders of our age are mass-produced and so they fundamentally can't be reserved for the wealthy. The most that can be done is to create (silly, from my perspective) gold-plated, diamond-encrusted versions that offer little or no additional utility.

JP98 writes:

On the "beauty" issue ...

George Bernard Shaw wrote (somewhere) in the 1930s that, thanks to the radio and phonograph, the average person could hear more good music, well performed, in one year than a wealthy Londoner could have heard in a lifetime back when Shaw started writing music criticism (around 1890).

NZ writes:

David D. Friedman has a page on his website devoted to story ideas that he's come up with but which he "open sources" so others can develop them. I think Vanderbilt traveling into the future would make a great short story.

student writes:

my use of the word "freedom" must be unclear.

saying "g.v. didn't have access to modern airplanes, therefore he did not have the 'freedom' to travel oceans in a matter of hours" is just redefining the word freedom so that it is indistinguishable form saying "g.v. had fewer consumption possibilities than we do today".

that is no different than what bryan said in his original post, and it is not at all what i am talking about.

maybe "freedom" is too ambiguous? i'm talking about the fact g.v. could spend his days reading books or overseeing agricultural experiments or chatting about art or traveling the world (slowly)--all without scheduling time off with a boss, meeting quotas, having his efforts submitted for review. i call that "freedom".

you can call it something else if you like, but whatever you call it i don't have it today. and none of our current technological marvels alone would be enough to provide it for me. you need *money* to have that kind of freedom (either your own or someone else's).

maybe kanye west said it best. "wait till i get my money, right. then you can't tell me nothin', right?"

Mark Plus writes:

This Vanderbilt apparently died in 1914, around the time the Federal Reserve System started. According to the anti-Fed propaganda, George's fortune consisted of "real money," which couldn't buy him most of the health and dental care we take for granted in 2010. I'd rather live now with what our allegedly "collapsed" Federal Reserve dollars can buy.

Jacob Oost writes:
When economists realize that material goods are not the be-all-end-all of human existence maybe they'll be able to offer some useful insights about the world.

When CBBB realizes economists don't just write about material goods but about this thing called "utility" then he might have some useful insights about the world. :-P

Mark Plus writes:

@Tracy W:

Also, I note that Vanderbilt, as a capitalist, had millions of bosses - his customers.

A lot of the superwealthy who make their fortunes in business want to remove themselves from this vulnerability as soon as they can afford it. Do you think Tom Monaghan worries now about what people think of his Catholic zealotry after he sold Domino's Pizza and freed himself from serving his former pizza-buying customers who might not share his controversial beliefs?

Jethro writes:

@student

"having lots of money isn't about buying lot's of stuff, it's about having the freedom to do what you want to do whenever you want to do it."

I have been in 10 countries and probably about the same number of states within the last 9 months alone. That's on a substitute teacher's income mind you. What if George Vanderbilt would have wanted to do the same? What kind of time commitment would he have had to make for such travels? My month abroad probably consisted of 36 hours total travel time and the rest was what I wanted to do (sightsee, relax) Vanderbilt's trip would have had months worth of travel time necessary before he could do what he really wanted to do.

I turn on the faucet and have hot water in a matter of seconds. He would first have to call someone to heat it. If I wanted some fresh cheese from say France, I could have it from World Market in an hour, while he would have had to put in an order and wait a month.

I think you're overlooking the amount of hassle and time spent waiting there was in the past. I would bet that the free-time gap between you and Mr. Vanderbilt is much smaller than you imagine.

T writes:

Hate to fog up your rose colored glasses & all but:

In 1900 the world's population was about 1.65 billion people. How many were utterly destitute? Well today, there are about 1.1 billion people who are utterly destitute. Since not everyone in 1900 lived in extreme poverty, we can conclude that all the wonders of modern life have left about as many people without safe drinking water and adequate nutrition today as did the horse & buggy world of 1900. But that's not all. Many who are merely poor (but not destitute) are still miserable today. So we can conclude that global misery has most likely increased quite a bit thanks to the wonders of modernity. Go figure.

Oh and before you start to calculate percentages, remember every life is precious and should be thought of individually.

Ref: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=can-extreme-poverty-be-el-2005-09

Cryptomys writes:

How much would you pay to live at the average standard of living for someone living in the 24th century?

Maybe you should freeze yourself?

student writes:

see previous comment:

"saying "g.v. didn't have access to modern airplanes, therefore he did not have the 'freedom' to travel oceans in a matter of hours" is just redefining the word freedom so that it is indistinguishable form saying "g.v. had fewer consumption possibilities than we do today".

that is no different than what bryan said in his original post, and it is not at all what i am talking about"

scroll up for my attempt to better define what i mean by "freedom"

student writes:

woops, that post was directed @Jethro

Lord writes:

I would be happy to trade lives with George. Don't want to do the laundry? Have your maid do it. Don't have an ipod? Let the orchestra play. Don't have air conditioning? Visit Canada in the summer. No flight? Take a cruise. On your own yacht. Status isn't merely your pecking order but your command over the resources of society. Once a technology like air conditioning comes along we wonder how we ever got along without it and how we ever could, but what we forget is that people could and did, and were accustomed to it. They knew the pleasures of swings under a shady tree, lemonade and ice, and a dip in the pond, and had the time to do it, at least if you were at that level. A doubling every 30-50 years is still only 4-8 times in wealth, about an even match.

rapscallion writes:
Don't have an ipod? Let the orchestra play.

You're an extreme outlier if you really wouldn't mind only being able to listen to orchestra music regularly relative to what's available with an ipod. And even then, GV would've endured scorn for being an extreme weirdo if he had a complete orchestra follow him around all day so that he could hear music on a whim.

Don't have air conditioning? Visit Canada in the summer.

Temperature fluctuations can be pretty random. Canada can still be hot on occasion during the summer unless you go way North (and you would still have a not insignificant amount of planning and preparation). Also, obviously, you've still got the temperature variation throughout the Spring, Fall, and Winter: if you are really comfortable with just about every temperature within, say, a 40 degree range, then you are an extreme outlier.

No flight? Take a cruise. On your own yacht.

And get there in months instead of hours, which would be even more costly than it sounds because of your reduced life expectancy.

It's true that having a maid would be nice, but with modern washers and driers laundry isn't that much of a burden anyways.

Really, I'm amazed at how many people claim they would be fine with a greatly reduced life expectancy and radically fewer amenities and comforts. I suspect a great failure of imagination.

Tracy W writes:

T: You forget that life expectancy has gone up, and child mortality has declined, worldwide (see http://www.wri.org/publication/content/8453). You also appear to be assuming that a life spent living on less than $1 a day is a miserable life, that would be better off if someone hadn't been brought into existence (or even not worth living), this seems doubtful. (I've read a bit of thinking looking at the question of what obligations we owe to unborn people who could be born, I don't see any clear obvious answer in those).

Oh and before you start to calculate percentages, remember every life is precious and should be thought of individually.

I don't know where you're going with this. Firstly, yes, every life is precious, so you should count the people who have happy lives as well as the ones who have miserable lives. Otherwise you're ignoring some of those precious lives.
Secondly, even if I should think of each life individually, I'm not able to. My ability to imagine individual numbers fades out before 100.

Gil writes:

On the other hand, if Vanderbilt was to go on a world tour he would be better than today in the sense that he would see a great many flora, fauna and indigenous tribes that are now extinct (or nearly so). Imagine seeing the U.S. Passenger Pigeons and Carolina Parrots in the flesh. Or Australian Paradise Parrots and Night Parrots in the flesh. One of advantages of the "good old days" is the amount untamed wild that young people could explore. And don't forget the lack of government intervention in peoples' lives. Whether it be the right to start a business with little or no regulation and taxes or to own guns and fireworks without restrictions.

On the other hand, does this mean anyone who was claimed to be "wealthy" in the distant past wasn't? Was any Pharoah really wealthy? Life in early Ancient Egypt doesn't seem particularly good for anyone. Who cares about King Charlemagne owned most of Europe - his living standards wouldn't be particularly brilliant despite being a top dog.

thebastidge writes:

JP98 writes:
"George Bernard Shaw wrote (somewhere) in the 1930s that, thanks to the radio and phonograph, the average person could hear more good music, well performed, in one year than a wealthy Londoner could have heard in a lifetime back when Shaw started writing music criticism (around 1890)."

Back then they needed critics to know whether a show would be worth the high cost of admission. Now we "need" them because the sheer volume produced is too much for anybody to know everything. This doesn't hurt us at all, it's a major benefit to everyone, that the only barrier to our consumption of the best quality in art, music, etc is merely a matter of knowledge and not a matter of access.

Most people who are dismissive of modern luxury clearly have not spent any significant time in a third world country. If you don't understand about not only the freeing luxury of technology, but also the looser cultural strictures of being ina society where the cost of life and life's mistakes has been lowered so much, then you don't understand much. Someone above mentioned birth control, treatment for STDs. There's so much more to this even below the level of conscious thought.

The leisure argument cannot be overstated. A few weeks ago, I packed all the posessions I believed I would need for a year or two, into a duffle bag and came to Afghanistan. I knew I would be issued more stuff, and that I could have stuff sent to me. But my point is that when the sum total of your posession, for all practical ppurposes, have to be hauled around on your back, without powered vehicles to assist, you will start to appreciate our lifestyle. If I told someone, no matter how rich, from the past that they would rarely if ever have to carry a heavy load more than from the front door to the street again, I bet they would take that deal in a heartbeat. The ability to study the arts (and there truly is so much more art being produced these days, at all levels) and to abandon the responsibility to support one's family at the expense of one's own ambition.

I challenge you all to think back to the last time you lugged a heavy suitcae around a large airport, without a cart, or the last time you carried something bulky and awkward the legnth of your city block, and imagine doing that all day, every day. Or even having to convince or pay someone else to do that for you. How much would that limit your lifestyle? We think servants are great, but imagine never having freedom from the prying eyes and ears of servants, judging your every move.

Imagine a loved one going off to war that would not be able to communicate home for months or years at a time, if ever.

Imagine a home that, no matter how rich you were, is never quite comfortable in the winter time. Where the richest people put on lap blankets during the day and wear nightgowns, not because of modesty but because the house would get COLD in the night and they needed the warmth. Summers where oppressive heat and mosquitos would sap the energy and will to live of the healthiest person. A life where infant mortaility was EXPECTED, not a rare tragedy.

The decisions that we make because technology makes it possible, blend seamlessly into the freedom to make all of our other decisions. Not to mention how these limitations force societies into more conservative mindsets because of the danger of a life without them.

Joshua writes:

You guys have it all wrong. Any starving child in the DRC would gladly change places with GV, therefore: Student is right!

Jason Pratt writes:

All this talk of whether technology improves our lot, or not, reminds me of Kevin Kelly's new book "What Technology Wants" which is a really highly recommended read.

Personally I think GV would not want to trade places with an average American, but once he did he would see that average 21st century Americans (like wealthy 19th century Americans) have it pretty good.

Jacob AG writes:

Sure, Vanderbilt would probably pay a lot for a day in my shoes, but he wouldn't pay much for a decade. In the long run there's something about utility that makes relative position more important than absolute position (at least once you've escaped extreme poverty). Even if his library was smaller than mine in absolute terms, he derived utility that I just don't--his library was among the top 1% of libraries, but mine is quite average.

In any case, I doubt that Vanderbilt and I got very different levels of utility. There are quickly diminishing returns to dollars earned, and neither of us are very poor (see CK, Louis: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8r1CZTLk-Gk&feature=player_embedded)

TomSwift writes:

"One thing I haven't heard anyone address yet is moral progress. The values of earlier time periods were sickeningly depraved. One reason I'd never want to have been born in the past, rather than today, even if my past status would have been higher, is that I enjoy being the kind of person who doesn't burn witches, own slaves, participate in pogroms, or bash gays. I think if you asked most poor people if they'd rather be a wealthy slaveowner in the past, they'd all look at you with horror."

IMO you are confusing economic progress with social progress. The crimes of the past are, IMO, greatly overstated. Slavery did not die out because people thought it was immoral but because capitalism proved it's ability to out produce it. If slavery out produced capitalism do you not think we would view capitalism as immoral and still be a nation of slave holders? Furthermore, the reason why we enslaved Africans was not to get some sick satisfaction out of whipping someone until they're deformed but to put enough food on the table to survive.

"moral progress" doesn't exist, we have clearly decayed.

Past: people wanted to leave a better country for future generations
Now: people do not care if social programs go bankrupt as long as it happens after they die

Past: Fathers tried to care for their children
Now: Some ~55% of people are born out of wedlock

The percent of income given to charity was once close to 10%

etc.

And, as measured by suicide rates, people were happier back then.

jeppen writes:

TomSwift:
"Slavery did not die out because people thought it was immoral but because capitalism proved it's ability to out produce it."

Slavery and capitalism are not opposing systems. The slave is simply another object/tool that can be traded and utilized under capitalism. So yes, it most definitely died out because people thought it was immoral, not because the slaves could be utilized more efficiently when free.

"Past: people wanted to leave a better country for future generations
Now: people do not care if social programs go bankrupt as long as it happens after they die"

Can you prove any of this? I think it paints a caricature of modern people and romanticize previous generations. A look at the tighter environmental regulation, the freedom of women, gays and so forth says that we have come a long way.

Btw, why do you think the US can't keep order in Iraq and Afghanistan, while it was simple for the British to keep most of the world in line using just a few thousand men in the past? Simply because the US, nowadays, can't be brutal arbitrarily. And that's because of improved morals (and improved media).

"Past: Fathers tried to care for their children
Now: Some ~55% of people are born out of wedlock"

Perhaps they care much better for them now, while unmarried, than married men did in times past?

"The percent of income given to charity was once close to 10%"

The fact that the church had the social control necessary to wrest this money out of people's hands isn't a testament to morality, in my view.

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