Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Oops! Someone Doesn't Quite Get This Human Progress Thing


Oh dear! I'm afraid this bit of research from the Pew Research Centre, telling us that for most people there has been stagnation in the past 50 years, because "real wages have barely budged for decades", is wide of the mark. It was written by someone who sees a very incomplete picture. We see this kind of absurd claim made time and time again, but it's facile, not so much in the speck of truth it asserts, but in the plank of truths it omits.

It is too lightweight an analysis to forget just how our earnings are linked to the substantial changes in the quality of life we've seen over the past five decades. The number of hours it would have taken to acquire many of today's basic luxuries 50 years ago far exceeds that of today. Equally, there are countless luxuries available today that weren't available to people 50 years ago, not to mention increased knowledge and connectivity, scientific and medical capabilities, amount of leisure time and increased life expectancy.

To use but one example by way of illustration - consider the Smartphone you own, and on which you may even be reading this blog post. Depending on how much you earn, it probably costs you at most one, two or three hours' wages per month. Now try to imagine how many hours' wages it would have cost you 50 years ago to enjoy even some of the benefits your Smartphone brings to your life - you could have worked for a year in 1966 and not acquired even a third of all the things you could acquire at the touch of a button while waiting at the bus stop for your ride home.

Even putting aside the immeasurable increase in convenience to your life that the instant phone calls, texts, camera and video-camera, music, movies, flashlight, calculator and sat-nav provide, imagine how many people and hours it would take to get you information on the nearest Thai restaurant, tomorrow's weather in London, the price of mattresses cost in John Lewis, whether it's currently safe to travel to Tunisia, and the countless other things you may like to know. And all that's nothing compared with the thousands of lorries that would be required to transport all the books, magazines and newspapers' worth of information available to you on your Smartphone.

Further, ask yourself questions like, would you rather live in a 1966 apartment or a 2016 one? Would you rather drive in a 1966 car or a 2016 one? Would you rather make Sunday lunch in a 1966 kitchen or a 2016 one? Would you rather be treated for cancer with the medical technology of a 1966 hospital or a 2016 one? To those questions, and many more like them, you would always choose the 2016 option.

The upshot is, only a very sub-standard enquirer looks to compare real incomes over several decades and tries to insinuate that we've been stagnating. Pick a dozen goods from a catalogue in 1966 and do the same with a catalogue in 2016 and, as well as the improved quality, figure out how long you would have to work to purchase those dozen items in respective years. The answer will be, longer in 1966. And that, along with the things aforementioned, is what constitutes the improvement, and blows the idea of 'stagnation' out the water.

One final hypothetical, purely for the fun of it: Who would be more astonished: Isaac Newton being shown the technology of Roger Penrose in 1966, or Roger Penrose in 1966 being shown the technology of Roger Penrose in 2016? It's probably a closer call than you might initially imagine.

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