David R. Henderson  

Major Improvements in Our Lives

Mr Nutella and consumer sovere... Inconvenient truths...

Michael D. Thomas, an economics professor at the Heider College of Business at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, reported on Facebook an interesting conversation he had with a student this week. It led to a more interesting set of comments than the usual. With his permission, I'm quoting the conversation:

Student: "I just think the poor are worse off in the modern world."
Michael D. Thomas (MDT): "Compared to the Greeks?"
S: "Yea, they were much more equal..."
MDT: "Except for the slaves, right?"
S: "I guess we just don't talk about the slaves much in philosophy."
MDT: "Were things better for the poor in the ancien regime?"
S: "No."
MDT: "The biggest thing for me was when we got proper sewage in the last half of the 19th century, I'd say things got a lot better for everyone after that."
S: "I feel like you just undermined my whole argument"

Then various commenters got into a friendly competition to name the biggest improvements in our lives. Sewage is definitely a contender. Of the ones listed other than sewage, including mine (which I have corrected on further thought), I'll rank them in order from most important to least important. I'll quote the exact words used by the participants, with only slight edits.

I invite you to give your examples and say where they fit.

1. I mark the 1940s and the widespread use of antibiotics as the turning point. Plus that's roughly when global poverty began decreasing on a massive scale.

2. DRH: But another contender is the electric street car: it allowed us to avoid having thousands of tons of manure on city streets. [I originally identified the car, forgetting my late Professor George Hilton's point that it was the electric street car, not the car, that did this.]

3. Containerization and the container ship. [Someone else named this, and I pointed out that not only did those two reduce enormously the cost of cross-ocean travel, but also they reduced the cost due to pilfering on the waterfront. I also pointed out that many years ago, Paul Krugman went gaga, and rightly so, about the container ship. Here's a quote, and I can't figure out where it's published, from Krugman:

The ability to ship things long distances fairly cheaply has been there since the steamship and the railroad. What was the big bottleneck was getting things on and off the ships. A large part of the cost of international trade was taking the cargo off the ship, sorting it out, and dealing with the pilferage that always took place along the way. So, the first big thing that changed was the introduction of the container. When we think about technology that changed the world, we think about glamorous things like the internet. But if you try to figure out what happened to world trade, there is really a strong case that it was the container, which could be hauled off a ship and put into a truck or a train and moved on.

Also, for more on this, see Marc Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger.

4. Well, in the south it was the invention of air conditioning.

5. The wonderfulness of modern dentistry is hard to overstate. [To be fair, I don't think he was saying this contends with some of the others above, just that it's really a major improvement.]

Somewhere between 1 and 4, I would put electricity and, below it, the Internet.

How about you? What would you add, and where would you put it?

And please refrain from making fun of this student. She actually learned from the conversation.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (38 to date)
Dave writes:

What have the Romans ever done for us?

Dan writes:

Modern vaccines - In the latter half of the 20th century, Maurice Hilleman personally developed more than a dozen vaccines we use today which combined are estimated to have saved a billion people from premature death.

Scientific crop management - Norman Borlaug's development of hardier and more productive staple crops (and tireless commitment to promoting their use) is also estimated to have saved on the order of a billion people from starvation and even more from undernourishment since the 1970s.

Chemical fertilizers also belong on the list, as do condoms and birth control, and Hans Rosling makes a great argument that the washing machine is one of the next big steps up after getting electricity.

mickey writes:

I'm not sure where to rank it but I think the elevator is probably up there.

The 18th-century agricultural revolution might be a contender. For that matter the Industrial Revolution meant that a local famine would result in importing food temporarily instead of widespread starvation. (Yes, I am aware of the commonly-cited counterexample in Ireland. It was yet another case of government causing a problem by limiting food imports followed by people blaming laissez faire.)

The 18th-century agricultural revolution might be a contender. For that matter the Industrial Revolution meant that a local famine would result in importing food temporarily instead of widespread starvation. (Yes, I am aware of the commonly-cited counterexample in Ireland. It was yet another case of government causing a problem by limiting food imports followed by people blaming laissez faire.)

Tom Jackson writes:

How about the invention of the airplane? Most people have to work and can't afford to take off several weeks to have a chance to visit Europe by traveling on a ship. Thanks to modern fast transportation, average people can travel long distances at a reasonable cost. And before Internet, airmail was an important way to stay in touch and communicate.

Philo writes:

The contest is "to name the biggest improvements in our lives"--but compared with what, or since when? How about the invention of language, the bow and arrow, the plow, smelting of metals, domestication of animals? But I suppose you mean to confine us to the modern period, or perhaps to the last couple of centuries (?).

David R. Henderson writes:

No strictures. I asked the question because I always learn from the commenters on such questions. All the ones you name are big. Thanks.

Xenophon writes:

Items listed In no particular order, and omitting many important things previously listed.

  • Printing, and the printing press, making large libraries first feasable, then affordable.
  • Chemical Engineering (broadly speaking), and its positive effect on the cost and quality of nearly every industrial product.
  • Sanitation and public health. Drawn broadly, this is rather more than sewers and vaccination — it also includes clean water, germ theory & quarantine (where useful), sewage treatment
  • Venture Capital in its modern form, which has democratized entrepeneurship to a degree not previously seen.
  • Power. Water & Wind, then steam, electricity, fossil fuels, etc. have enabled a standard of living that was unimaginable not that long ago (less than 200 years).
Alex writes:

I'd say agriculture.

Jeff writes:

I think chlorinated water has to be on the list.

MG writes:

The birth control pill. If all its positive effects can be truly uniquely attributed to it and if we tolerate or ignore the unintended consequences...

JLV writes:

Its probably closer to 4 than 1, but off-season availability of fresh produce (and generally more fresh produce available) is a pretty big deal, and its something that's much more recent than the other things on the list.

Kitty_T writes:

I'd have to agree with the agricultural revolution. Until significant numbers of people were freed from food production to do ... pretty much anything else, most other advances aren't possible.

Of course if sine qua non is the standard rather than eo ipso, tools/weapons and then language are probably it.

JLV writes:

A couple others:

- The advent of recorded music and video brought as large an increase in utility as anything on the list; the number of people able to listen to "Eleanor Rigby" is almost uncountably larger than the number who would have been able to had John and Paul lived in 1860.

- Inexpensive off the rack clothing, vacuum cleaners, dish washers, etc. Especially for poor women, this is a big deal. Much more potential leisure (or ability to work outside the home).

James Dunn writes:

I'm going to declare these two a tie which fits as they were both introduced in the same year.

The Declaration of Independence which improved the creation of governing bodies by articulating that all people have certain inherent natural rights, such as the right to private property, and that a government which does not secure these rights is not just.

The Wealth of Nations which improved the organization of national economies in many ways one of which was by helping people to understand that if they were free to keep the rewards of providing better mousetraps to the rest of society then even better mousetraps would be created.

Mark Barbieri writes:

Money and credit

Matthew Lesich writes:

You're forgetting the washing machine. 100 years ago, running a household was a full time job (clothes had to be washed manually, clothes irons had to be heated over a fire fuelled by coal). These inventions freed up women's time which allowed them to enter the workforce leading to changes to society.

JK Brown writes:

The cultivation and importation of tea - Alan Macfarlane proffered his hypothesis that the widespread, rich and poor, drinking of tea is what reduced the child mortality in mid-18th century England. Tea apparently has anti-microbial constituents that not only aid the drinker but are also passed to the breast-feeding infants. The change helped London become one of the first European cities to escape the death-trap feature of dense urban living, especially among the poor.

Just to hypothesize from Orwell's 'Road to Wigan Pier' and his observation of 1930's English working class and poor, the spread of indoor plumbing, hot water and cheaper heating energy. This eradicated communal open cesspools that necessitated going outside and often around the house along with sharing with 10-20 others. Not to mention removing exposure to chamber pots.

Hot water and heating facilitated baths which improves health and avoids the stigma of smell that caused the upper middle class to despise the poor/working class.

And even today, in the third world, the transition from open fire cooking and heating has very good effect on health with the removal of smoke from the home. (this is a mid-20th century improvement for the poor even in the first world)

The move away from open fires was facilitated by Henry Bessemer's more affordable steel making process. This brought stoves within the reach of even the poor making heating and cooking safer with the contained fire.

JK Brown writes:

If we are to include the Declaration of Independence, then surely we must include the Magna Carta? Although, both documents were just enumerations of liberties enjoyed by the English speaking peoples from time immemorial. The writing of the documents were necessary to assert these inherent liberties in the face of those in government kings who had usurped them.

BTW, 2015 is the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. Odd there is little evidence the Humanities departments in the US are using this celebratory year to reinvigorate their waning fields of study in Western Civilization?

Arthur_500 writes:

My vote goes towards the development of roads.

In the United States a young man called Eisenhower spent weeks travelling across the country. When he became a general moving men and materials around Europe he realized the importance of ground transportation. Later as President he created the interstate highway system.

Forget the nostalgia about Route 66 and recognize how much the country opened up to the movement of humans and materials. It created economic progress for all Americans regardless of Race, color, creed or gender.

Sean writes:

Agriculture is the giant that dominates all others, bestriding modern civilisation like a colossus. An Atlas supporting the 7 billion people, creating as it does so modern economics - resources out are greater than resources in - still the most awkward concept to grasp in all of economics.
Property rights derive - surely - from agriculture.
Economic surplus derives from agriculture.

ted writes:

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Adrian Meli writes:

I had never thought of the container being such an important innovation. I pulled up the book you referenced on Amazon and it has very good reviews-sounds like it is worth a read. Lots of other good ideas in the comments, and I'll throw my hat in the ring for agriculture.

Roger Sweeny writes:

"The Box" is definitely worth a read. I did several years ago after a recommendation from Tyler Cowen. It impressed me so much that when I went to Los Angeles, I made it a point to visit the Port of Long Beach.

Ken from Ohio writes:

Agriculture Technology.

Agriculture Technology has relieved college econ professors of the burden of teaching about Malthus.

Now the econ professors have time to lecture about marginal utility,
and other world changing truths.

Thomas Lee writes:

I'm not sure how high I would rank this, but it's fun to think about how this innovation has changed things:

Weather Forecasting

Kevin McGartland writes:

What about lasers? It's a relatively modern invention but responsible for a lot of modern technologies, including reading barcodes, CDs, printing, fiber-optic (internet), and I'm sure the medical field has benefited from lasers and the like.

ColoComment writes:

Singer's mass-marketed sewing machine.

It not only released [primarily] women from the time-consuming chore of hand-sewing personal clothing, but also created a new industry (commercialized clothing manufacture) that provided a major employment source for U.S. immigrants to (i) financially support themselves, (ii) assimilate, and (iii) move upwards financially & socially (from piecework at home on a rented Singer machine, to factory sewing for hourly wages, to proprietorship / boutique bespoke fashion sewing, for example.)

Commercial sewing still functions as one of the primary ladders to generate first-level manufacturing, and thereby increase individual income and quality of life, in emerging countries like Vietnam, China, India, Bangladesh, etc.

Just one of the many innovations that changed the world.


LD Bottorff writes:

I would expand Number 2 to include the elimination of draft animals in transportation and agriculture. This allowed us practically double the amount of food available to us from farms.
Modern sewer systems and water supplies are part of an overall concept of separating out what is polluted from what is needed: thus, the smokestack made major improvements as it separated the exhaust gases that we need for heating and industry from the air that we need to breathe. The concepts have been around for a long time, but modern systems have provided incredible benefits to the entire society.
It is obvious to us that most of the developments discussed here have provided huge benefits to rich and poor alike. So, to link this to Bryan Caplan's recent post, did the interchange between MDT and S result in increased human capital for S?

David R. Henderson writes:

Thanks to all above for your thoughtfulness and creativity. Thanks also to Jeremy H. for the source on the Krugman quotation.
Re roads, check out my review of Alexander Fields’ book, in particular this paragraph:
But one of the most important technological improvements was not innovation per se: It was a countrywide network of roads. We are used to thinking of America as a country without serious roads until Dwight Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System that started in the mid-1950s. But remember that Ike got the idea after seeing how long it took to get an Army convoy across the country in 1919. A lot happened between 1919 and 1941. Field points out that the Interstate system’s routes were typically built alongside or on top of highways already completed. Think of I-95 and the old U.S. Route 1, for example. These roads were built primarily in the 1930s. Roads plus the earlier innovation of pneumatic tires led to a huge expansion of the trucking industry. That mattered because, notes Field, trucking was much more flexible than railroads, not just in routes but also in shipment sizes.

Brad S writes:

Not "my" example, but from my grandmother born and raised early 20th C on a remote farmstead with no utilities: running water into the house, and running water out (with the latter being the more important).

Hunter writes:

I would put at number one the steam engine.

Modern plumbing with clean water.

The Mccormick reaper is usually overlooked although some people above noted agricultural technology in general.

craig writes:

on the same line of thinking as the container, how about the pallet?

Mark Bahner writes:

Here's what a group of thinkers (scientists, economists, journalists) thought:

The 50 greatest inventions since the wheel

I'd quibble with one or two down on the list (Archimedes screw?), but printing press, electricity, and penicillin seem pretty solid.

Predictions going ahead (not in order, and without having much time to really think and research the question):

1) Computer-driven cars and trucks.

2) Genome editing.

3) Graphene. (Just the supercapacitors that will likely be able to be made from graphene will be huge.)

Seth writes:

Drilling for oil and water.

Trading markets.

Stock ownership of corporations.

It'd be nice if we could figure out more ways to apply the previous two to politics. Intrade was a good start, but politics didn't like it. Predictably.

Mauad writes:

Use of fossil fuels as a source of energy.

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