Though the world is still far from perfect, nearly everything is more affordable, not always in dollar terms, but always in the amount of human effort required to possess them.
Now wait just a gosh-darn minute you say, what about the price of gasoline?
You’re right, in 1950 it took the average person 8 minutes of labor to purchase a gallon of gas, today it takes 9 minutes.
Oh woe is us.
Take away the taxes at the pump, and even gasoline is cheaper now than then, and your car goes further on it.
Africa is following Asia out of poverty as the Internet, the mobile phone, and the container ship are enriching peoples lives like never before.
Yet the pessimists who dominate the news and public policy, say we are at a turning point, and things are going to become worse—much worse.
They have been saying this for hundreds of years, and for hundreds of years they have been wrong. The sky is not falling, porcupines are not going extinct, and our little blue planet goes round and round.
In just the past 50 years, there are billions more of us, and the vast majority are better fed, sheltered, entertained, able to communicate, and better off in nearly every imaginable way.
Even allowing for the hundreds of millions who still live in abject poverty, this generation of human beings has more access to calories, watts, gigabytes, gallons, bushels, light-years, Velcro, and iPods than any before it.
And yet, there are people who seriously think that life was better in the past.
They argue that we have lost our ability to live in harmony with nature and that the earth is dying because of all our success.
Life may very well have been more in tune with nature in peasant times, but life was also short and brutal.
Even just a few hundred years ago, life expectancy was less than 40, most children died before their teens, fruit was a luxury item, and it was ‘lights out’ after sundown, because few could afford lights.
This rose-tinted nostalgia of the past is generally limited to rich Western nations.
It is very easy to glorify “living in tune with nature” when you have indoor plumbing, electricity at the flick of a switch, and a supermarket down the street.
The millions of people who still exist “in tune with nature,” or what we usually call abject poverty, would rather have electricity and a supermarket.
Even compared to the “golden age” of the 1950’s, it’s hard to find one region of the world that is worse off now.
Real income is lower in only six countries, life expectancy is down in three, and infant survival in none. In the rest they have skyrocketed up.
There were some places during the past 50 years when conditions were atrocious. All victims of governments who thought that they knew best:
Bad luck for those who found themselves in those unhappy places, but overall, most people’s lives have dramatically improved.
Nigerians are twice as rich, the Chinese ten times as rich, and despite the world population doubling since 1950, the percentage of people living in absolute poverty has dropped by more than half—to 18 percent.
That number of course, is still too high, but the trend is moving in the right direction.
Good job, humans!
Among “poor” Americans today, 99 percent have electricity, running water, and a refrigerator. 95 percent have a television, 88 percent a telephone, 71 percent a car, and 70 percent air-conditioning.
Kings and millionaires had none of those in the 19th century.
Well all right, says the pessimist, but at what cost? Surely the environment must be deteriorating as a result of all this despicable human improvement.
Maybe in Shanghai or a few other places where prosperity and the pollution that accompanies early stages of growth is new, but in America, Canada, and Europe rivers, lakes, and air are getting cleaner all the time.
A car today emits less pollution travelling at full speed than a parked car did in the 1970s. Lake Erie’s water snakes, on the brink of extinction in 1960, are now abundant.
And as farming becomes more efficient, forests are increasing all over the world.
Okay, says the pessimist, what about fairness? I don’t like that the rich have so much while some are still poor.
But an increasing income gap is a natural consequence of an expanding economy. When many people become a little bit richer, a few people become very much richer. That’s the way it works.
Sam Walton became the richest man in the world because his company—Walmart—improved the lives of so many poor people. Good for him. And good for the people who want, or produce, all the stuff that fill his stores.
But as “stuff” becomes more plentiful, do people actually get happier?
According to one famous study, beyond a certain level of income, money did not seem to increase people’s happiness.
That study set off a landslide of spiritual leaders and commentators happy to see that the rich were unhappy. Books and articles glorifying peasant life poured off the presses. As one excited columnist put it, “The hippies were right all along.”
Then politicians latched onto the idea. The King of Bhutan famously replaced Gross National Product with Gross National Happiness.
There’s just one problem with all the happy talk.
It’s not true.
The original study has since been proved to be wrong. All other things being equal, increased prosperity also increases happiness. No one was surprised to learn this, so no big headlines resulted.
Of course it is possible to be rich and unhappy, as Hollywood celebrities so enthusiastically remind us. The desire for more, or envy of others is a powerful human instinct, and money cannot sooth a bankrupt character.
Some people will just be unhappy no matter how rich they are, while others will be cheerful no matter how poor.
More recent studies seem to show that the big gains in happiness are made from being free to make choices about lifestyle – about where to live, who to marry, how to work, worship, and so on.
In 45 out of 52 countries measured, it was the increase in free choice that was responsible for their increase in happiness.
When people are free to choose their own path, life gets better.
China, Cambodia, Russia, Congo etc. all had to learn this the hard way. Let us hope that we may avoid the same hard lesson.