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Billionaires All (Or Practically So)

This reality is so remarkable and so important – and, yet, also so easily overlooked – that I emphasize it again (here with some examples not mentioned in my earlier post).

Robert Samuelson rightly celebrates the immense improvement in living standards that occurred over the past 100 years (“The hard times Americans often forget,” March 2).  This improvement, however, is even more remarkable than Mr. Samuelson reveals: not only are ordinary Americans in 2016 much richer than were ordinary Americans in 1916, but ordinary Americans in 2016 are much richer, in many ways, than was even J.D. Rockefeller in 1916.

Of course, in some ways Rockefeller back then was richer than is a middle-class American today.  Rockefeller was by then virtually immune to financial ruin, he no longer had to work, and he could purchase choice real estate and original Gauguins.  But which ordinary American today would wish to trade places with him?

In 1916 even Rockefeller had little access to air conditioning; the range of cuisines from which he could choose his meals was drearily narrow; he was attached by wire to a wall or a floor whenever he spoke on the telephone; he could entertain and inform himself neither with radio nor television; forget about computers or tablets.  Every movie he watched was silent and in black and white.  Unlike us today, in 1916 it took Rockefeller days, rather than hours, to get from New York to Europe – or even to California.  Although he was chauffeured in his (un-air-conditioned) limousine, the ride he experienced was bumpier and more perilous than is any ride enjoyed today by an ordinary American.  Rockefeller’s fine Swiss watch was far less accurate than is today’s cheapest Timex.  Were he to need the services of a fire and rescue team, it would have taken that team longer to reach Rockefeller, and the effectiveness of their efforts to save his life or his property were much less than is the effectiveness of such teams’ efforts today.

If in 1916 Rockefeller or any of his children or grandchildren caught pneumonia or cut a finger on a rusty nail, the risk of death was much higher than it is today because antibiotics were unavailable.  Of course, Rockefeller also had no access to statins, hip- or knee-replacement surgeries, Lasik procedures, contact lenses, antihistamines, or even sunglasses that protected his eyes from ultraviolet rays.  Yet he was then one of the world’s richest men – deprived as he nevertheless was of many of the miraculous goods and services that we ordinary Americans today take for granted.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA 22030


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