06 December 2010

You couldn't pay me enough to be George Vanderbilt

EconLog | Bryan Caplan | What You Have That George Vanderbilt Didn't

I just returned from the Biltmore, America's largest home. Built by George Vanderbilt between 1889 and 1895, the Biltmore is a symbol of how good the rich had it during the Gilded Age. I'm sure that most of the other visitors would answer "very good indeed."

But how many would actually want to trade places with George? Despite his massive library, 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.

Perhaps most shockingly, he suffered "sudden death from complications following an appendectomy" at the age of 51. (Here's the original NYT obituary). Whatever your precise story about the cause of rising lifespans, it's safe to say that George's Bane wouldn't be fatal today.

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?
Special Lady Friend and I were at the Met in NY after Thanksgiving, and there was a portrait bust of Marcus Aurelius' co-emperor Lucius Verus.  I was reminded that Verus (as well as Aurelius) probably the two most powerful people in their hemisphere, were both killed by the Antonine Plague.  We're not sure what exactly the plague was, but the leading contender, AFAIK, is measles.

Two of the most powerful men history has ever known were killed by what is essentially extinct in the developed world.  That's progress.*

* And that progress has been compressed into the last fifty years, give or take.

PS A commenter to Caplan's post notes that
Babbage (26 December 1791 – 18 October 1871) said that he would give up the remainder of his days to live three days five hundred years hence with a scientific guide to explain the discoveries of the intervening years. I don't think he would be disappointed by the progress of the last 150 years.
Babbge is my man. I wish I had a source for that story though.

Do not wade to further into his comments. There lies sophistry.  The progress Caplan notes is not limited to gadgets and gewgaws.  It's not about iPods and DVDs.  It's about living to see your children reach adulthood.  It's about being able to stay in contact with far flung friends.  It's about being able to get in out of the heat or the cold.  It's about not having to be surrounded by the smell of horseshit. It's about travel and health and communication and education and yes, entertainment as well.  Those are not trivialities.

PPS Coyote Blog covered similar ground several years ago, but subbing out Vanderbilt for Leland Standford Leland Standford's partner at the Central Pacific, Mark Hopkins.

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