Average Americans today are better off than the spectacularly wealthy of yesteryear. After a visit to the 250-bedroom Biltmore Estate, built by George Vanderbilt at the end of the 19th century and still the largest private home in the United States, economist Bryan Caplan pondered the fact that life in America is better today than it was more than 100 years ago. Caplan observes:
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. Whatever your precise story about the cause of rising lifespans, it's safe to say that George's Bane wouldn't be fatal today.
This prompts libertarian journalist Radley Balko to recall that he had same epiphany at the Biltmore, commenting that "there aren't many periods in human history when you can say that within a hundred years, that average man will live as 'royalty' does."
That is a pretty cool thought, though it's worth noting that economic libertarians and economists rarely miss a chance to gush over the powers of economic progress. The core belief of economists is that as an economy grows, everyone benefits--the poor today may lead tough lives, but the fabric on their backs is of a quality Tudor queens could envy. Two weeks ago, Steven Horowitz at Austrian Economists examined data over the past 15 years of the presence things such as refrigerators, televisions, and phones in US households under the poverty line. "The overall lesson is clear: lives for Americans below the poverty line continue to get better in terms of what they are able to put in their households and make use of everyday." Horowitz makes the conclusion that "Life for the average American is better today than 35 years ago, life for poor Americans is better than it was 35 years ago, and poor Americans today largely live better than the average American did 35 years ago."
So although times are tough for average Americans, it might comfort some to know they would've been worse off in another time period.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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