Once Again: You’re Richer than Rockefeller

by Don Boudreaux on May 6, 2017

in Everyday Life, History, Standard of Living

Naturally, I’m pleased and honored that George Will built his most-recent column – to appear in tomorrow’s (May 7th’s) print edition of the Washington Post – around my blog post comparing the material wealth of an ordinary American today to the material wealth of J.D. Rockefeller a century ago.  Today’s ordinary American, in an absolute (although, obviously, not a relative) sense, is likely materially richer than was Rockefeller.  Here are the closing paragraphs of George Will’s column:

Last year, a Bureau of Labor Statistics paper described the life of workers in 1915. More than half (52.4 percent) of the 100 million Americans were younger than 25, life expectancy at birth was 54.5 years (today, 78.8) and less than 5 percent of Americans were 65 or older. One in 10 babies died in the first year of life (today, 1 in 168). A large majority of births were not in hospitals (today, less than 1 percent).

In 1915, only about 14 percent of people ages 14 to 17 were in high school, an estimated 18 percent age 25 and older had completed high school, and nearly 75 percent of women working in factories had left school before eighth grade. There were 4 renters for every homeowner, partly because mortgages (usually for just five to seven years) required down payments of 40 to 50 percent of the purchase price.

Less than one-third of homes had electric lights. Small electric motors — the first Hoover vacuum cleaner appeared in 1915 — were not yet lightening housework. Iceboxes, which were the norm until after World War II, were all that 1915 had: General Motors’ Frigidaire debuted in 1918.

So, thank Boudreaux for making you think about this: How large would your net worth have to be to get you to swap the life you are living in “hellhole” America for what that money could buy in 1916?

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