Tyler Cowen wrote an interesting article in the New York Times yesterday called, Innovation Is Doing Little for Incomes. In it, he talks about how much people’s lives changed over the course of the first half of the 20th century, but not so much the second half. (That isn’t the main point of his article, but it is is what I’m most interested in.) This has been on my mind for a long time. I’ve tried to make the argument (mostly to conservative- or libertarian-minded people) that life just isn’t getting any better for most people.
I like to use my older sister, Mary, as an example. She drives a car that is pretty similar to the car she drove twenty years ago. She eats the same food. She listens to the same music, although now she listens to it on CDs instead of records, cassettes, and 8-tracks. She watches TV programs that are generally of a lower quality than the ones she watched twenty years ago. Her life is pretty much the same as it has been.
For me, things have changed more, but not all that much more. I have a cellphone now that I didn’t have twenty years ago (but I had one 15 years ago). That hasn’t really improved my life, though. I listen to music when I am out and about on the MP3 player in my phone; twenty years ago, I listened to a Walkman. Big deal. The biggest change in my life has been the Internet (which I have been on since 1988, but I’ll let that slide because it is better organized and more useful than it was then). Even here, however, the Internet has not greatly improved my life. I still do the vast majority of my research offline—mostly with books. (And people are even better; I had a three hour lunch with Latin scholar Justin Shannon where I learned things about Roman, Latin, and Horace that I’m not sure I would have been able to learn any other way.)
So I think we have stagnated—and for good reason. For the last two centuries, we’ve been following the wrong path to happiness. Yes, it is important that we all have food to eat, places to live, and medical care. But once those basic needs are filled, we need things to laugh at, ideas to wonder about, and most of all, people to love (in the Greek sense of the word). The stagnated path we have chosen to follow has resulted in the path we should have been following stagnating.
Now go call your mom!