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2011 vs. 1973

By Taylor Marvin

There’s an interesting though experiment going around the internet: would you rather live with your current income in the present day, or be transported back to 1973 where your income would be much more valuable?. The difference in your standard of living would be considerable- the real value of a dollar has fallen by about 5 times since the 1970s, making an average modern income in 1973 dollars a considerable fortune. The question basically boils down to how much you value modern technology and culture. Commentators who wouldn’t take the trade voice how much they value the internet and other computer-type technologies, while those who would point out that a wealthy person in 1973 could enjoy most of the pleasures of modern life: television, air travel, most of the health advancements of the modern era, among others. The question was originally intended to draw attention to the much debated stagnation in the rate of recent technological advancement- while a good amount of people would take being transported to 1973, almost no one would chose to be taken back to 1900 even though an average current income at the turn of the last century would be unimaginable wealth. Living at 1900 technological levels, with few entertainment options, no air conditioning, and no real medicine would be so miserable that the income gain wouldn’t be worth it. This is still true for more recent periods- I can’t believe very many people would be willing to live with 1930s technology as well.

I think there’s an important aspect of this question people are neglecting. Most commentators have addressed this question from a mostly technological angle, while social changes around the world since 1973 has been much more drastic. Aside from computers, consumer technology in 1973 was broadly similar to what’s available now, but the social and economic conditions most of the world’s population lived under in the 1970s were truly awful. Until the 1990s, the large majority of people lived under authoritarian regimes. Think back- in 1973 Spain, South Korea, Brazil, and all of Eastern Europe were ruled by awful repressive governments. Until the large-scale democratization of Latin America and East Asia in the 1980s and early 1990s and the collapse of communism the only even moderately decent large governments in the world were the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and parts of Western Europe. Today 45% of the world’s population lives in free societies, and even in authoritarian countries human rights abuses are a fraction of what they were in the 1970s. This progress extends to consumption as well- rising incomes have lifted billions out of absolute poverty in the last two decades, and the majority of the world’s population now lives under at least moderately free-market systems. The global middle class, which hardly existed in 1973, is rapidly growing. The same goes for basic human rights. Even in democracies the 1970s were an awful time to be a minority or gay, and this is only beginning to change for the better. This is an enormous gain for human welfare, and today is by far the best time to be alive in the world.

These incredible gains in human welfare don’t affect my own personal consumption, but it does affect my view of the question. I personally get a lot of utility from knowing that more humans live better lives than ever before, and the utility of my higher income in the 1970s would be significantly offset by my knowledge of the miserable state of most of the world. This is a big part of why I wouldn’t take the deal. Yes, being wealthy in 1973 would allow me to travel to many exotic places, but given history’s epidemic of awful government there weren’t many places my modern self would want to visit.

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