My daughter Senay, now 17, is looking at colleges (I'm pretty sure she was eight yesterday!). She has a friend who attends the University of Colorado and speaks highly of the school, so we went on an adventure.
Boulder, CO, is a long way away. It took us eleven hours from when we left our house in Sarasota to when we got to the hotel in Boulder. This is making both my wife and I nervous. We don't know how we feel about our daughter living that far away.
Unfortunately, she really liked it. It is a beautiful campus, and the town of Boulder is delightful. It was the perfect autumn day. The leaves were brilliant, and the sun was shining. "It's not like this during the winter," we warned her.
When we saw the ludicrous tuition cost, we nearly passed out. Can you guess what one-year costs? $60,000. That is not a typo. How can anyone afford this? I think this is why there is a student debt crisis. This is why kids are walking around with $200,000 in debt.
The world seems more unstable than it has in recent memory. It is so easy to focus on all the bad in the world. This is a good time to remind ourselves how lucky we really are.
Imagine the following scenario. It is 1723, and you are invited to dinner in the beautiful New England countryside, still clean and quaint, away from the pollution of the Industrial Revolution. There, you encounter a family of English settlers who left the Old World to start a new life in North America.
The father, muscles bulging after a vigorous day of work on the farm, sits at the head of the table, reading from the Bible. His beautiful wife is putting the finishing touches on a pot of hearty stew. The son, a strapping lad of 17, has just returned from an invigorating horse ride, while the daughter, aged 12, is playing with her dolls. Sounds like the good life, doesn’t it?
This setting sounds like Gone with the Wind or the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But in reality, it is rubbish, balderdash, nonsense, and humbug. More likely than not, the father is in agonizing and chronic pain from decades of hard labor. His wife’s lungs, destroyed by years of indoor pollution, make her cough blood. Soon, she will be dead. As the family is too poor to afford a dowry, the daughter will spend her life as a single woman, shunned by her peers. And the son, having recently visited a brothel, is suffering from a mysterious ailment that will make him blind in five years and kill him before he is 30. (Sorry this is getting so graphic.)
For most of human history, life was very difficult for most people. They lacked basic medicines and died relatively young. They had no painkillers, and people with ailments spent much of their lives in terrible pain. Entire families lived in bug-infested homes that offered no comfort or privacy. They worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset, yet hunger and famines were common. Ignorance and illiteracy were common. The "good old days" were, by and large, very bad for most of humankind. Since then, humanity has made enormous progress, especially over the last two centuries.
How much progress?
Two hundred years ago, life expectancy was between ages 25 and 30. Today, the global average is 73 years old. It is 78 in the United States and 85 in Hong Kong.
In the 1800s, 40% of children died before their 15th birthday. That was not unusual. Far back in history, the average child mortality among hunter-gatherer societies was 49%. Today, global child mortality is 4%. It is .3% in the U.S.
Most of the people who survived into adulthood lived on the equivalent of $2 per day, which is a state of extreme poverty. This was present from the start of the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago until the 1800s. Today, the global average is $35, adjusted for inflation. Put differently, the average inhabitant of the world is 18 times better off.
With rising incomes came a massive reduction in poverty, which fell from 90% in the early 19th century to 40% in 1980 to less than 10% today. As the Brookings Institution said, "Poverty reduction of this magnitude is unparalleled in history."
Along with poverty came hunger. Famines were once common, and the average food consumption was 2,000 calories per person per day in the 1820s. The global average is approaching 3,000 calories today, and obesity is a bigger problem than starvation.
Almost 90% of people worldwide in 1820 were illiterate. Today, over 90% of people are literate. As late as 1870, the total length of schooling at all levels of education for people between the ages of 24 and 65 was 0.5 years. Today, it is nine years.
These are the basics but don’t forget other conveniences of modern life, such as antibiotics. President Calvin Coolidge’s son died from an infected blister he developed while playing tennis at the White House in 1924! Four years later, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin.
Or think of air conditioning. Could you imagine living in Florida without air conditioning?
Slavery can be traced back to the Middle East, where it flourished between 4,500 BC and 1,900 BC. For the next 4,000 years, every civilization, at one point or another, practiced slavery. Today, it is banned in every country on Earth.
In ancient Greece and many other cultures, women were the property of men. They were deliberately kept confined and ignorant. In 1893, New Zealand was the first country to allow people to vote. In the Western world, women, for the most part, now enjoy the same freedoms as men.
And don’t make the mistake of believing all men enjoy privileges just due to their gender. Most men in history never had political power. The United States was the first country on Earth where most free men could vote in the early 1800s. Before that, men were mostly oppressed peasants, whose job was to feed the aristocrats and die in their wars.
Strange though it may sound, considering the current state of the world, data suggests that humans are more peaceful than they used to be. Five hundred years ago, great powers were at war 100% of the time. Every springtime, armies moved, invaded the neighbor’s territory, and fought until wintertime. War was the norm. Today, it is peace. In fact, this year marks 70 years since the last war between great powers. No comparable period of peace exists in the historical record.
Homicides are also down. In the 1800s, some 73 out of every 100,000 Americans could expect to be murdered in their lifetimes. Today, it is less than one.
Overwhelming evidence shows that we are richer, live longer, are better fed, and are better educated. My point is a simple one: this is the best time to be alive.