Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Are you better off than a Vanderbilt?

Bryan Caplan, of the Library Of Economics And Liberty, just returned from the massive Biltmore estate, George Vanderbilt's massive North Carolina palace.

But how many  (of us) would actually want to trade places with George? Despite his massive library, (pipe) organ, and so on, I submit that any modern with a laptop and an internet connection has a vastly better book and music collection than he did. For all his riches, he didn't have air conditioning; he had to suffer through the North Carolina summers just like the poorest of us. Vanderbilt did travel the world, but without the airplane, he had to do so at a snail's pace.

Caplan goes on to write that Vanderbilt died at age 51 because of complications from an appendectomy.  Yeah.  An appendectomy.  He continues:

Vanderbilt clearly had it better than most of the people in his era. But the world has improved so much that, all things considered, the average American is now better off than this prince of the Gilded Age. I can't be sure, but I bet that George would have agreed. How much do you think he would have paid to live for a single day in your shoes?

Here's Radley Balko, commenting on his own trip to the Biltmore estate a few years ago....

Hackneyed libertarian observation: I couldn’t help but think that in most ways the average American today lives better than a baron like Vanderbilt did just a century ago, even by Biltmore standards.

Okay, so I don’t have awesome mountain views and milion-dollar tapestries in my one-bedroom Alexandria apartment. But much of what made the Biltmore so modern for its time — a swimming pool, a bowling alley, plumbing, a “fitness room,” elevators, refrigeration — most all of us at least have access to today. There aren’t many periods in human history when you can say that within a hundred years, that average man will live as “royalty” does.

Let's combine that with some census data about what the poorest Americans own:

Households with:
Poor 1984Poor  1994Poor
All 1971All 2005
Washing machine58.271.767.068.771.384.0
Clothes dryer35.650.258.561.244.581.2
Color TV70.392.596.897.443.398.9
Personal computer2.97.436.
Air conditioner42.549.677.778.831.885.7
Cellular Telephone

One or more cars64.171.872.8 (2001)

These numbers were compiled by The Austrian Economists.  Here are more observations from The Austrians:

I think these data largely speak for themselves. The only categories where the poor have become "worse off" are in freezers (likely due to more being built into fridges) and now telephones, which is, of course, explained by the gains in cell phones. Stoves are down slightly, but that too could be due to swapping regular stoves for microwaves or even toaster ovens. In any case, it's a pretty small decline.

The overall lesson is clear: lives for Americans below the poverty line continue to get better in terms of what they are able to put in their households and have to make use of everyday. And do note that the average American household in 2005 was doing much better than its 1971 counterpart. MUCH better - and this doesn't even count medical advances and the like. So whatever one hears about stagnating wages and the like, the bottom line is ultimately what we can afford to buy and have in our households to improve our lives. By those measures, life for the average American is better today than 35 years ago, life for poor Americans is much better than it was 35 years ago, and poor Americans today largely live better than the average American did 35 years ago. Hard to square with a narrative of economic stagnation or decline.

What the current policy regime holds for the future remains, of course, to be seen. But to use Pete's terms: as long as the Schumpeterian horse of innovation and the Smithian horse of the gains from trade outrun the Government horse of stupidity, the winners will continue to be you, me and our children and grandchildren, even if the stupid horse is running a bit faster than it used to.

So the next time one of our government employees starts talking about the widening gap between the lowest 20% and the highest 5%, remember this.....

1) With every new innovation, somebody got to own it first.  This applies to iPads, microwaves, video cameras (once the $35,000.00 Christmas gift in the Neiman-Marcus catalog), televisions, cell phones and plumbing. 
2) You can't prevent the top 5% from owning something without slowing its eventual use by the bottom 20%.
3) Free Market Capitalism has done more to improve the lives of more people than any Statist scheme ever devised. 


SnoopyTheGoon said...

I was nodding at every word. Till you mentioned iPad...

Anonymous said...

I would trade back in a heartbeat for one huge reason... free time. The Vanderbilts had the time to spend enjoying what they had. It's not the things that I have that make my life enjoying but my ability to spend my time doing what I enjoy and for that reason alone George is far richer than any of us.

The Whited Sepulchre said...

And what are the things that you enjoy?
Do they envolve electronics? Travel to see family?
Exotic food from all over the world?
Taking a dump on a flsh toilet?
And are you (unlike poor George Vanderbilt) older than the age of 51 ?

TarrantLibertyGuy said...

Interesting: Andy Warhol died in 1987 of complications from an appendectomy at the age of 58.

I have a big revolting scar on the side of my stomach from a surgeon who tried using suture staples for the very first time. I was 19 and didn't give him permission to test out his cool new gizmo on me. It was for an appendectomy.

If we could just evolve out that friggin' appendix, how much better our lives would THEN be!!!