I disagree. In 1900 you get two things: more land, and servants. In every other way, the middle class of today live like the kings of a hundred years ago.
We have abundant access to as much food as we want, whenever we want it, from nearly anywhere in the world. We have instant access to almost any kind of entertainment we can dream, most of it free or almost free of charge— and even for live entertainment, we can pick and choose from a fabulous array, and it costs almost nothing to participate.
We roll around in self-powered, ultra-secure bubbles that separate us almost entirely from the outside world, personal transportation that can take us across Europe or the continent of North America in a couple of days, and in another ten years those conveyances will be self-operated as well.
We have the capability to instantly communicate with nearly anyone most anywhere in the world as if they were standing right there in the room, and access to sometimes literally up to the minute information about the latest developments in science, technology, and politics. Not only that, we can afford to personally benefit from most of those developments.
And for those of us who live in what were once named the "temperate" regions, we even have the nerve to be outraged when we have to put up with the somewhat too-warm or too-cool nature of the natural environment, so used we are to having it exactly set to our tiny band of maximum comfort.
Of course, because there are so many people living like kings today, you wind up having to share most of those things with millions of other people, and it's easy to forget that you are living like a king. But regardless of that, giving it up because you're rich enough to pay someone to wipe your ass for you is pretty clearly the wrong answer in a couple of ways.
Living like a king is more about power and prestige (both among other people) and less about physical comfort. Human beings are social creatures, not robots, and we are predisposed to care more about what the people around us think than whether we are maximizing our lifetime and minimizing discomfort. In fact, we trade discomfort for social status all the time - have you ever been in a nightclub? It's hot, sweaty, and loud as hell in there...and people pay 20 bucks to get in.
On a more extreme scale, many people trade entire lifetimes of discomfort for the chance to "be a king". Think of an astronaut in space, without the benefit of even gravity but knowing that what they are doing is special and unique, and an inspiration to millions... or other examples like Jackass 3D, football, marathons, etc.
Yes. The power! The prestige! The early death of easily curable disease! The paucity of knowledge and culture! Muhuhuahaha!
But seriously though... I'd rather be middle class now. That starts to change for me around 1950. At that point it starts to be better to be rich.
Interestingly, that gives you a picture of the adoption curve. I feel like being rich in 1950 could buy you what being middle class will buy you now. But all the money in the world couldn't buy that in 1900.
Even granting that some kind of intangible "power" over others is more valuable to most people than being warm at night and cool during the day, getting fresh and 100% clean meat and vegetables all year round, enriched flour and iodized salt and fluoridated water not even starting to mention antibiotics -- which I remain highly skeptical of -- the prevalence of social media and blogging and increased specialization means that it is now even easier than ever for someone to become known and respected millions of people (especially in the abstract and mostly irrelevant way their subjects used to "know" and "respect" the kings of yore).
And only then if they had a sufficient power base that would endorse said claim. Many are the apparent heirs that died without a crown on their head despite having a legitimate claim to the thrown.
You're underestimating how much effort went into maintaining said power and how much effort was required to keep those people supporting the king happy. Surely, a king has many options in how to play these power games and come up ahead but his life hardly consisted of cruising along doing what he pleases like many rich people today.
I think you're greatly underestimating the impact of proper nutrition, clean water and dental hygiene. There are probably more objectively beautiful women at most state colleges than were in all of France in the time of kings.
It's a good quote, but I don't like how it makes it seem like medical technology is the only thing that's advanced in the past hundred years. The truth is that the same thing applies to every area of life. In terms of real quality of life, not dollars-adjusted-for-inflation, we have better lives in every way.
For that matter, I think I have to amend my previous statement— you can hire someone to wipe your ass today. My guess is it would be around $50/hr, and you shouldn't need more than an hour a day. That's more than some of the other benefits of modern life cost your average American, but not by a lot.
If you don't need it, and want your ass wiped for some perverse thrill, I suppose they'd probably refuse to work for you. On the other hand, if you want it for a perverse thrill you can probably find someone on craigslist who'll do it for free.
There is no evidence to support this statement. With all the hype it might appear to be approaching but we aren't any closer today. More people live to an older age but we're still getting older at the same rate. John Adams, the 2nd US President, for example, lived to 90. 200 years later and most of us won't live that long.
In my opinion this has deeper ramifications than just the effect on the person. I chose rich in 1900 because I feel that the impact of being rich at that time would carry forward... "Them thats got shall, get". A family line wealthy in 1900 would give many opportunities for their descendants. That, in my mind is one of the most important things that makes being super rich attractive... That and the obvious power to push projects forward quickly without having to posture and beg for funding.
On the one hand, being middle class now is perfectly good and comfortable, aside from probably working a 40 hour week.
On the other hand being rich in 1900 not only gives you the freedom to do what you want (within the more conservative boundaries of society and technology back then) but also allows you to travel and see cultures in a way that isn't possible now.
If you go to a developing country, people wear t-shirts with slogans on them. Advertising is everywhere. If you went to New York in 1900 it's be completely different to the New York of today, as would Paris, London, Shanghai, Buenos Aires, Istanbul and so on. The cultural differences would be so much greater than they are now, as would the dress, the traditions and so on (perhaps less so for the traditions). Then you start looking further afield, away from the cities. Places like Fuji, Rhodesia, India, the near east etc.
To experience those things would be somewhat incredible, perhaps moreso than the global, homogenous McDonalds/Starbucks in every town world we see today.
Then there's the experiences you could have. You could watch Sandra Bernhard perform. Go to see the Kitty Hawk's maiden flight. Go to Paris and meet people like Claude Debussy, or to Holland and meet Vincent Van Gogh. Visit Sigmund Freud in Austria, watch the birth of Hollywood and meet people like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Stan and Ollie.
As for things to see in 1900, you could travel to a still Victorian London and see Queen Victoria's visit. You could go to Australia for the first time (Australia was 'created' in July). You could see the opening of the Paris Metro, and while sipping a bol du Café read about the Boxer rebellion in China. Or you could meet Mark Twain as he comes off the docks back to the U.S. then go to the first Automobile show in Madison Square Garden. It's not as clean cut as you might think.
Personally I'd rather be middle class now for various reasons, but I wouldn't rule 1900 out just on the grounds of health or technology.
I didn't assume that it meant be rich in 1900 and have full knowledge of the future. How would a rich person in 1900 know to go to Kitty Hawk? Or that Hollywood would be what it was? Rich people today are similarly missing out on what will be remembered as the greatest moments (and greatest people) of our times. Where was Bill Gates when Google was founded? Hindsight is 20/20 as they say.
Plus, $70k in 1900 is about $1.8m today. You'd never have the clout to do half the things on your list. Not to mention the time, it takes a long time to cross the Atlantic.
You are of course completely right about the former. I wasn't suggesting that someone would or wouldn't have knowledge of the future, simply that you'd have the opportunity to witness such events. I'm sure there are plenty of events now that are worthy of attending, and just down the road too (LHC switch-on maybe) but damned one-temporal-directional memory gets in the way.
The things I put forward were suggestions of ideas for things to do, not that I'd suggest you attempt to do them all and you're right in that you'd probably end up running out of money if you tried.
I'm trying to remember a set of films I saw, from a pair of then extremely rich people who largely lived on cruise lineers during the inter-war years. They filmed all kinds of stuff, like pre-war france and germany and the ceremonies of various south and east asian islands. I can't remember their names though but I'm fairly sure the video is public domain.
Of course, I digress. Thankyou for your comment, it's always good to be challenged and I think you raise a number of good points.
My wife and I were talking about something similar while walking the dog this morning. I'd said 60 was the new 40; she said there are still a lot of ways aging can and does kill you, like Alzheimers (her mother died of it). I responded "but they're working on that."
Then it dawned on me: These days, an integral part of our mental framework is the dollop of optimism that comes with "they're working on that." I wonder whether people 100 years ago had the same feeling.
I have thought about this too. It would be bizarre if all of us thinking "they're working on that" had some kind of society-wide placebo effect to actually cause people to live longer and healthier.
Now that's a self-reinforced feedback-cycle I can get behind!
I think this way of thinking is rather new, especially considering how many more people believe this than 100 years ago. Back then modernity was in full rising force, so there certainly was a social notion of progress happening to everything on a wide scale, and expectations of Western civilization's eventual achievement of some kind of utopia. But back then they were so limited by what they didn't even know about, so their vision of what modernity would become pales in comparison to what post-modernity actually has been.
The probability that a person with type I diabetes would have had type I diabetes (and so died a painful death before 35) if born a hundred years ago is close to one, as type I is inherited.
And most food was considerably less healthy and safe then, too, only more scarce and expensive. The problem with GM and processed food is not that it is less healthy than what came before it, but considerably less healthy than what can be produced today, which is the relevant reference point.
It absolutely astonishes me that 1/3rd of people choose to be rich 100 years ago. I think it's a matter of not appreciating what life was really like back then, and not appreciating just how amazing the world has become (although I could be wrong too, considering I didn't live back then either).
There's no real definition of middle class, and when one is usually offered, such as $70,000, it's a higher income than 95% of the people in the world.
So if the question is whether you would choose to be wealthier than 99.9% of people in the world in 1900, or wealthier than 95% of the people in the world in 2010, I'd say it was a sickeningly decadent question.
But, I'd also say that the lifespan gains between 1900 and now are overstated due to a drastic reduction in infant and child mortality, plays and live music are nicer than video and audio recordings, and instant long-distance communication hasn't significantly improved the quality of my life, just alienated me from my neighbors. The math and intellectual culture was just as interesting then as it is now, if not more, and PR was just a twinkle in Mr. Bernays' eye, so I'd be able to avoid the advertising saturation of modern culture. With the addition of being able to replace any device with an actual person or team of people, there's no doubt to me that life would be better as a rich person in 1900. Just avoid nails.
This dovetails with the thesis of writer Gregg Easterbrook's 2003 book, The Progress Paradox. He proposes a thought experiment: Would you permanently trade places with a random person who lived, say, 100 years ago? His view was that your answer would probably be "no." [EDIT: Easterbrook's point was that this is a quick, back-of-the-envelope demonstration of the following proposition: Overall, life for the human race has indeed been improving, albeit unevenly and non-monotonically to be sure. His book was a response to the doom-and-gloom crowd who complain that life is going to hell in a handbasket.]
That's kind of a puzzling question to me. I wouldn't permanently trade places with a random person who is alive today. I can't see what incentive there is to trade places with someone who lived 100 years ago?
I see, so the point becomes even more clear when you contrast it to the question of whether you'd trade with some random person in today's world. Imagine you were forced to trade lives with some random person. I'd much rather it be today than 100 years ago.
1900 wasn't that long ago. Many people in American cities live in homes built then.
You'd have the wealth and social standing to pick and choose practically any mate you'd like. Plus it was an interesting time, the birth of the modern world. Rich then!
Leisure is one thing that 1900-style riches bought. Winters on the Nile, summers or seasons in Europe, for example. Now for a great deal of humanity, leisure fairly quickly becomes boredom, and booze or philandering are required to maintain sanity. But for the occasional born artist, historian, etc, the Henry James, the Edith Wharton, that can be tremendously productive.
Would I trade that for 21st century medicine or dentistry? Doesn't matter, really--nobody's offering me the trade.