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Would You Rather Be Rich In 1900, Or Middle-Class Now? (npr.org)
25 points by simonreed 2620 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 58 comments

> There's no right answer here.

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).

Do you really think having to work 40 hours per week to pay a mortgage is better than the life Louis XIV had, only because you have a SUV, a large TV and access to 4chan and reddit?

It's not about stuff, people. It's about leisure time, power, social recognition and, ultimately, freedom to do whatever you want.

Yes. Unequivocally so.

I think you aren't properly envisioning what Louis' day-to-day life was actually, physically like.

Edit: Additionally, if you think that maintaining power and social recognition doesn't require constant effort, you obviously have never known someone who was really popular in middle school.

Kings generally didn't get to be where they were through acclamation of their peers, they generally got there because at least one (and often many) of their ancestors was a spectacular badass.

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.

And I think you aren't properly envisioning what living like a real king was.

Yea, but imagine if you could say you built Versailles, patronized Molière and Racine, quelled the aristocracy, and slept with all the most beautiful women in France.

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.

But if you choose middle class today you can't expect to sleep with them all.

One of the money quotes of the podcast was, "[in 1910,] you step on a nail, you might die."

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.

People who need someone to wipe their ass for them can hire a home health aide. That's surprisingly cheap, and will run you between ten and twenty bucks an hour:


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.

I rather live today because we might be approaching the era of eternal youth.

In the 1900, you better get to work funding all the medical science and debunk hypothesis that are wrong.

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.

I have type 1 diabetes. Insulin wasn't medically available until 1922.

Middle-class and alive, or rich and dead? Easy choice to make.

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.

If we go that way I would have to answer the same thing.

So a more interesting question would be, if you didn't have insulin, would your answer change?

There is a high probability that you wouldn't have had diabetes in the first place. You would be living a very healthy life and more physical activities and oh yes, healthier non-GM foods.

Definitely rich and healthy.

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.

As fhars points out, type 1 diabetes is not based on diet or lifestyle. There is no reason to think that I wouldn't be diabetic if I were born a century earlier.

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).

Many people -- perhaps even most if they're being honest -- care more about relative status than absolute comforts.

Relative status has its benefits when seeking a mate.

This suggests an interesting reformulation of the original query:

Would you rather have a great-grandfather who made $70k/year in 1900, or a great-grandfather who made $70k/yr in 2010?

Think about it - with servants, how much time do you not have to spend cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, or a million other boring things?

I think that would be a dealbreaker for a lot of people.

I mean, if you want a servant, just go live in India or another developing nation...it's still customary in many places.

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.

A more difficult question - instead of $70k, what if it was $8k. Would you rather be middle class in 1900, or poor now?

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.]

(See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregg_Easterbrook#Wellness_and_...)

A few years ago I took a stab at extending the thought experiment at http://www.questioningchristian.com/2006/03/progress_hope_a.....

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?

@bradleyland, I responded in the edit.

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!

One thing to consider is that living in the 1900 means that you'll see at least one world war, and probably the great depression too. Not especially happy times.

Well, the 2010 version of me has the benefit of being able to weigh up the pros and cons of 2010 vs 1900, whereas the 1900 version of me has to make the decision with incomplete information.

Another question: would you rather be rich now, or middle-class in 2120? (No singularitarians, please, we already know your answer.)

I choose the Internet.

I've got to wonder if people who would choose the rich in 1900 option don't think they're capable of building big things? Take the modern $70k and start building and investing.

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.

I'd rather be poor in 2100.

I'd rather be middle class now, my wife would prefer to be rich 100 years ago (actually, in the 1930s, really). I prefer the mod-cons of today, she prefers the ritzy upscale-ness of back then.

Being rich is not about buying larger TVs and better cars. It's about freedom to do whatever you want to do instead of having to work to survive. Rich in 1900 beats middle-class now, for sure.

Who says you wouldn't have to work for the $70k in 1900? That's about $1.8m in today's money and plenty of people have to work very hard to earn that kind of coin, big TV or not.

Middle class now. The world is a much more interesting today. Of course, you'll be able to say the same thing about today 100 years from now.

An excellent illustration of how much the Federal Reserve has diluted the value of the dollar over the last century.

Well, it is.

I'd be so bored in 1900. I'd have to build my own internet. F* that.

Rich now!

Upvoted - I like your thinking - never assume the stated constraints are set in concrete!

That is a useful habit when dealing with the real world, and an annoying habit when dealing with a purely hypothetical question. In the latter case, it's called "missing the point".

there is a hidden liberal agenda here, right? ;)

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