Guest Post: Are our Lives Really Getting Better?
Our society has progressively gotten richer and richer, yet has our quality of life improved? Let’s dive in.
Taking a side on such a loaded question feels wrong, so as my hero Ben Gates says before leaping off of the observation deck, “I’ve found door number three, and I’m taking it.” Therefore, my answer is yes and no.
Let’s start with all of the ways living today is the best thing ever.
Childhood mortality has steadily decreased across all income levels. Here is a graph showing the improvements:
Today, the US and nearly all of Europe have an infant mortality rate of under 1%. Going back to just 1900 in the US, that rate was 16.5%. Rewinding the clock even further, the numbers are even more shocking. For most of human history, in good times, 20% of people died before the age of one, but in “severe times, a majority of infants would die within one year.”
Imagine what that would do to a society. How would we be different? “So great was the pre-modern loss of children’s lives that anthropologists claim to have found groups that do not name children until they have survived a year.” Well, I guess that’s what it would do. Best to not get too attached to any single child. PBS
With vaccines, we have essentially eradicated entire diseases. According to the World Health Organization, “at least 10 million deaths were prevented between 2010 and 2015 thanks to vaccinations delivered around the world.”
How fortunate are we to grow up not once worrying about getting polio, or measles, or mumps, or rubella, or Hepatitis B, or Diphtheria, or any of the other ones that we aren’t vaccinated for because of herd immunity? How many of these do we know anything about? We don’t have to.
Before the 1940s, if you had a serious bacterial infection, you might die. Now, you pop a few amoxicillin (on a consistent schedule for the full period of the prescription, please) and you live.
Surgery but without the pain part. Here’s a gruesome video.
Surgery but with clean hands. One of the best ways to prevent the spread of disease, yet people still forget this step.
Thirsty? Did you know that Louisville has the best water in the world? Even Jack Harlow agrees.
For brevity’s sake, everything else: MRI, X-Ray, Ultrasound, minimally-invasive surgery, to name a few. All of these advances and improvements occurred pretty much in the past 200 years–incredible.
Other aspects of life are pretty cool, too.
The knowledge of the entire world in our pockets
If there is something we don’t know, we can change that in about a minute. Google helps us find anything. Soon, all of the world’s knowledge will be connected to the internet as the major tech companies compete to cover everyone. If such an effort succeeds, we will live in a world where we can instantaneously communicate with 99% of people at any given time.
Freedom and Luxury
For those of us fortunate enough to reside in a Western democratic country, we have the freedom to do anything we want at any time. In under a day, we can travel across the world and back for less than the price of a Super Bowl ticket. We can watch any movie or read any book for the price of coffee. We are shrouded in comfort and convenience like never before.
We wake up in our beds personalized to our bodies in a room programmed to our exact temperature and humidity specifications and open our closets with more clothes than we’ll ever get around to wearing. Without even thinking twice, we push a button on our phone, and a car takes us wherever we want to go thanks to generous investors willing to lose money for years!
*Quick digression: This investing phenomenon is illustrated well in Matt Levine’s “Money Stuff,” in which he talks about how the price war between Didi and Uber in Mexico city creates huge subsidies for consumers; in other words, their battle for market control makes our shared rides artificially cheap.
At one end, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia plows gigantic piles of money into SoftBank’s Vision Fund. At the other end, Mexico City’s ‘legendary late-night snack spot El Moro’ can have someone ‘deliver its churros and hot cocoa to takeout customers across the capital’ well below cost, subsidized by the Vision Fund. The King of Saudi Arabia is sending hot chocolate to everyone in Mexico City. Here, have this nice hot chocolate, on the King of Saudi Arabia. Modern capitalism is always so much stranger than you expect.
Even our shoes are better. Thanks to better foam and a custom carbon fiber plate(s), the first human broke the 2-hour marathon mark. (Watch out for more broken records in Tokyo).
Progress is incredible.
On nearly every conceivable physical metric, our lives are better than those of royalty a few hundred years ago. I mean, their toilet seats were made of velvet. Velvet.
Alexa, can you clean velvet?
I’ll take my indoor plumbing and Clorox wipes, thank you. So living today really is the best thing ever.
But we still face many challenges… Actually, some things are terrible.
This is a real thing:
Tucked inside the O2 entertainment/shopping complex in London is the Selfie Factory, “The UK’s First Instagram™ Inspired Funhouse For Selfies.”
Authoritarianism is on the rise, our criminal justice system is broken, our sense of community is falling apart, climate change threatens much of the habitable land on this planet and wipes out species at an extreme rate. The glaciers in Antarctica store enough water for about 200 feet of sea-level rise, and it is having t-shirt weather. The doomsday clock is approaching midnight!
While an increase in total wealth has made us all better off, wealth inequality threatens the entire system. Depression and anxiety in teens are far too prevalent. More than 100,000 Americans die each year from poor air quality.
But most of all, quality of life seems to have stalled. Despite all of these massive improvements, our daily life and happiness are relatively unaffected. According to a 2019 survey, the majority of Americans struggle to make ends meet: 60% of Americans do not have the savings to cover an unexpected $1,000 expense.
Every day we lose more jobs to automation, and the cost of living is increasing. Televisions, computers, and all of these “tech” products are cheaper, but the essentials keep getting more expensive. The prices of education, housing, childcare, and healthcare are all moving in the wrong direction.
So things are pretty bad… But then we read something like this,
and we realize how good we have it now, at this moment. 10% of the humans on earth were on lockdown. Ten per cent.
Our grasp on prosperity is so tenuous. We could wake up tomorrow in a completely alien world.
The end is always near. Let’s appreciate where we’ve come from but also recognize how much is left to improve.