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.
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.
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.
It's not about stuff, people. It's about leisure time, power, social recognition and, ultimately, freedom to do whatever you want.
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.
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.
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.
In the 1900, you better get to work funding all the medical science and debunk hypothesis that are wrong.
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.
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.
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.
Middle-class and alive, or rich and dead? Easy choice to make.
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.
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.
So a more interesting question would be, if you didn't have insulin, would your answer change?
Definitely rich and healthy.
Would you rather have a great-grandfather who made $70k/year in 1900, or a great-grandfather who made $70k/yr in 2010?
I think that would be a dealbreaker for a lot of people.
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 few years ago I took a stab at extending the thought experiment at http://www.questioningchristian.com/2006/03/progress_hope_a.....
Another question: would you rather be rich now, or middle-class in 2120? (No singularitarians, please, we already know your answer.)
Would I trade that for 21st century medicine or dentistry? Doesn't matter, really--nobody's offering me the trade.