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The Great Fact

My latest column in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review continues my discussion of Deirdre McCloskey’s compelling and (as many of my students might now say) ‘majorly’ important book Bourgeois Dignity.  Here are the first several paragraphs:

Economist and historian Deirdre McCloskey calls it “the Great Fact” — the humongous increase in humans’ standard of living that began about 200 years ago.

And what a Great Fact it is! It’s great not only in the sense of being amazingly, resplendently good for ordinary men and women, but also in the sense of being the single most surprising and astounding change that we humans have experienced in our 70,000 or so years on this planet.

For 99.7 percent of the time that we bipedal, scantily haired, language-blessed apes have trod this globe, we did so under material conditions that you and I from 2011 would find utterly intolerable. As another economist, Todd Buchholz, correctly noted, “For most of man’s life on earth, he has lived no better on two legs than he had on four.”

Then all of a sudden, starting a mere 200 or so years ago in northwestern Europe, boom! Material riches start pouring forth not only into the castles and manor houses of royalty and the nobility, but into the humble homes of peasants, of hoi polloi, of human creatures who, generation after generation — tracing back all the way to their single-celled ancestors — lived lives poor, nasty, brutish and short.

What did our great-great-great-great-grandparents do to suddenly deserve access to new and remarkable goods such as underwear made of tightly woven cloth that could be vigorously washed without unraveling? What did our great-grandparents do to deserve access to “Tin Lizzy” Fords?

What did our grandparents do to deserve access to antibiotics and televisions? What did our parents do to win access to air conditioning and inexpensive jet travel? What did we do to deserve access to cellular telephony, GPS driving directions and supermarkets that routinely stock 50,000 different items?