The title of America’s richest person doesn’t go to Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates or Warren Buffett. Instead, it goes to the late John D. Rockefeller…
About a century ago, Rockefeller was the wealthiest American to ever live. Yet, he would have likely traded his fortune for the technologies and opportunities that the average person has today. So, let’s look at some powerful advancements and trends. Next time you think you’ve got it rough, you can use recent history to help put things in perspective.
This message I’m sharing today is powerful and many people will benefit from hearing it. We unfortunately live in a world where most news and media sources paint a negative picture of our world. But in reality, by almost all measures, our lives have improved and are continuing to improve. With the research I’m about to share, it’s hard not to be more optimistic…
Why You’re Living Better Than America’s Richest Man…
There’s still food scarcity in many parts of the world, but we’ve come a long way. In America, food stamps, food shelters and other programs give people who can’t provide for themselves – or choose not to – more than enough to survive. In America, obesity is now running rampant among the poor. Even though, there’s often access to healthier food that costs less (one of my 30 Frugal Living Tips).
This is thanks to improved agriculture and the invention of cheap plastics, refrigeration and better supply chains. One luxury we all take for granted is access to fresh fruit from around the world. Bananas from Ecuador. Avocados from Mexico. And oranges from Florida year-round.
Rockefeller might have been able to order some fresh fruit from different countries… but the options were much more limited and would have cost an arm and a leg.
Around the World in 80 Days was first published in 1872. In the story, the main character attempts to travel around the world in 80 days. That’s based on a £20,000 wager or in today’s terms, over £2 million. And as good stories go, winning the wager was a close call.
This is a great example that shows how far we’ve come. Over a century ago, traveling was much slower moving and cost a fortune. On top of that, comfort and safety were lacking. Some places we can access today weren’t even an option back then.
Thanks to modern marvels – that only continue to get better – people can now travel around the world in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost. For a few thousand dollars and in less time than a week, you could travel around the world. If planned well, that could even give you time for longer layovers to explore.
In 1902, an American inventor built the first electrical air conditioning unit. It then took another 50 years before home unit sales really took off. If you live through warm summers, I’m sure you appreciate cooling innovation. It also spurred population growth in Florida and other Sun Belt states by making it a little more comfortable.
Another overlooked luxury we have today is plumbing and showers. In 1940, almost half of houses in the U.S. didn’t have piped hot water, flush toilets, or a bathtub or shower. As a result, these amenities were often seen as status symbols. Fast forward to today and now the majority of people living below the poverty line in the U.S. have these amenities in their homes.
Plumbing, cooling, heating and other technologies have made housing cheaper, safer, and more comfortable. We’ve got it much better than our grandparents but we rarely think twice about these great inventions that have improved all of our lives.
Life expectancy in the U.S. has climbed from 47 years in 1900 to about 80 years today. That’s a 70% increase in only a few generations. And it’s thanks to a wide range of health research and medical innovation. So, let’s look back 150 years to see how far we’ve come.
In the 19th century germ theory was just an obscure idea. Doctors and surgeons didn’t wash their hands between patients. As a result, infections spread and led to millions of preventable deaths. Then not long after, we started understanding bacteria. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928 and it was the first antibiotic. That discovery along with other inventions such as the x-ray have helped prevent deaths and improve our lives.
Jumping back to current day, gene sequencing and editing, surgery robots, artificial intelligence, and other breakthroughs are continuing to improve longevity. Also, an important piece to our improved longevity is the quality of life. Anesthesia and other pain prevention and management tools have improved as well. Also, how we spend our extra days is improving with access to better education and entertainment…
Gutenberg invented the printing press almost 500 years before Rockefeller’s heyday. This led to sharing information on a scale that the world had never seen before. Fast forward a few hundred years and public libraries started to pop up. Most sources claim that Boston provided the first public library in the early 1700s.
Around that time, public schools also started to appear. People were becoming more educated. Now, jump forward to the last century. Most of our grandparents had access to public schools and libraries. Although, even their education experience was a big difference compared to our ability to learn today. If they wanted to research a certain topic, they’d have to trek to the nearest library. If the library didn’t have it, they’d have to give up or continue on to the next.
Today, the internet has improved our ability to learn by leaps and bounds. We have answers to millions of questions at the tips of our fingers. Treating ailments, finding recipes, checking the weather, etc. And finding and sharing information continues to improve each year.
For entertainment, Rockefeller could have had company over, gone to plays and sporting events, or read books. And towards the end of his life, he could also have bought a gramophone for music. The invention of television was also in its infancy. But overall, Rockefeller didn’t have access to the vast entertainment tools and libraries we have today.
At low-to-no cost, you can stream millions of entertaining songs and videos online. And the quality is starting to become indistinguishable from real life. With Google Maps, you can also explore the world from the comfort of your home. On top of that, video games are a favorite pastime for nearly half a billion people around the world.
Now, some people will argue this entertainment isn’t as good. But here’s my response… you can still have company over, go to plays and sporting events, or read books. Though, there’s a big difference today. You can do all of these things in more convenient ways than in the past. But still, most people opt for other enjoyable entertainment that has popped up over the last few decades.
In 1920, women gained the freedom to vote in the U.S. That’s thanks to the suffrage movement and the 19th Amendment. Since, women’s rights have come a long way. Gender equality in the work world and elsewhere still isn’t perfect but it continues to get better.
When it comes to race and other factors, there’s been big improvements as well. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination based on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Since then, we’ve come a long way. For proof, Americans elected Barack Obama for two presidential terms.
Now unfortunately, there’s still discrimination today but I’m optimistic that things will continue to improve. As the general public continues to become better educated, they become more tolerant of different cultures and beliefs.
One underlying theme in all of the following categories is improving wealth. People measure wealth in many ways but today, we can exchange our time and efforts for more than any point in the past. For example, in 1960 about 17% of the average American’s disposable income went towards food. Today, it’s dropped just below 10%. And it would even drop a little further if eating out didn’t become as popular.
On top of this, there’s a much bigger wealth safety net today. By signing the Social Security Act in 1935, Roosevelt was the first president to advocate federal help for the elderly. The Act was also intended to help Americans through poverty and unemployment. Now fast forward to today… Social Security is much broader and the government has created over 80 means-tested welfare programs. On top of this, there might soon be a Universal Basic Income. Click that link to see some powerful trends leading to a new economic system.
People today can survive completely off of government assistance. It’s not a luxurious lifestyle but that’s a luxury our ancestors didn’t have.
More Problems and Progress Ahead
With the research I’ve shared, I hope you can walk away with a more optimistic view of our world. Progress is a bit bumpy in the short-term. There are setbacks. But overall, our lives are continuing to improve. And keep in mind that progress tends to disappoint in the short-run and surprises us in the long-run.
There are no longer easy problems to solve. We’ve already solved them and with new progress comes more problems. But once again, I’m optimistic that we’ll find solutions. There will always be doubters, necessarily, even educated naysayers. But with history as a guide and enough time, they’re proven wrong again and again.
In 1968 a Stanford professor published his book, The Population Bomb. He predicted worldwide famine in the 1970s and 1980s due to overpopulation. But to all of our benefit, that didn’t happen. We developed better plants and agricultural systems to feed the growing population.
This professor and so many others undervalue the potential of human innovation. There are a lot of serious problems today such as global warming. Although, I’m optimistic that we’ll find solutions. Our world has more minds – more intelligent minds – to solve new problems.
Now, I want to leave you with one final thought. As an investor – not a short-term speculator – I have to be optimistic about the future. Otherwise, what would be the point of investing for the future?