Compared with our distant ancestors – whose lives Thomas Hobbes famously described as “nasty, brutish and short” – the lives of most of us today are peaceful and prosperous.
But you wouldn’t know it from watching the evening news.
Each day we hear fresh stories of war, terrorism, crime, corruption, natural disasters and other depressing developments.
By definition, of course, newsworthy events are exceptions to the norm.
Yet hearing a steady drumbeat of negative developments distorts our perception of the big picture.
Take, for example, the ongoing wars between Russia and Ukraine and Israel and Hamas.
These are terrible developments in which many thousands of innocent people have been killed, injured, kidnapped or displaced.
There is much suffering in these areas and other hot spots around the world.
Yet it is worth recognizing that the number of wars between nations, civil wars, terrorist attacks and violent deaths has been declining not just for years but for decades.
(If you want a thorough examination of this phenomenon, I encourage you to read The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker. Bill Gates calls it “one of the most important books I’ve read… ever.”)
Upon learning that violence is in a long-term cycle of decline, some shrug and say that may be true but rarely have people treated each other so poorly.
Steven Pinker begs to differ…
Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution – all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. But, today, they are rare to nonexistent in the West, far less common elsewhere than they used to be, concealed when they do occur, and widely condemned when they are brought to light.
It can seem uncaring or out of touch to note that – despite the ongoing violence in some parts of the world (including some cities in the U.S.) – life today is far safer and more peaceful than it was throughout most of human history.
But that doesn’t stop it from being true.
And if people tend to misunderstand how much less violent the world is today, they tend to really underestimate our rising affluence.
True, inflation has risen faster than incomes in the past two years. But that has not been the case over the longer term.
This is clear when you look at time prices.
A time price is the length of time the average blue-collar or unskilled worker must work to afford something.
Prices are expressed in dollars and cents. Time prices are expressed in hours and minutes.
This is important because while we buy things with money, we pay for them with time.
For example, if a barrel of oil costs $75 and you earn $15 an hour, the time price is five hours.
If the cost of a barrel of oil rises to $80 and you earn $20 an hour, the time price is four hours.
Even though the nominal cost is higher, the time price is lower.
Time prices are an excellent way to measure increases or decreases in abundance over time for three reasons:
- Time prices cannot understate or overstate inflation because current prices and wages are used at every point on the timeline.
- Time prices are independent of currency fluctuations. (They can be measured in euros, yen or any other currency.)
- Time prices provide a standardized way of measuring changes in well-being.
In their excellent book, Superabundance, authors Marian L. Tupy and Gale L. Pooley measured the costs of 50 commodities between 1980 and 2020.
They didn’t just find that the time prices of some of them went down. The time prices of all of them went down. And not by a little.
The average time price decline of those 50 commodities – including oil, natural gas, wheat, cotton, soybeans, beef, corn, pork and sugar – was a whopping 75.2%.
Put differently, a blue-collar worker had to work 75% less to afford the same amount of those commodities.
Of course, unless we’re at the gas pump or the grocery store, we don’t generally buy commodities but rather finished goods.
Yet the time price decline in these was just as dramatic. And in many cases, more so.
Over the same 40-year period, the time price of a utensil set declined 51%, a dishwasher declined 62%, a washer declined 65%, men’s clothing declined 72%, a bicycle declined 74%, a vacuum declined 83% and a food processor declined 86%.
And that’s just for blue-collar workers. White-collar workers – especially those with a college degree – saw the time price drop even more dramatically.
It’s impossible, of course, to measure the 40-year time price decline in things like laptops, smartphones and flat-panel TVs because none of these were even imagined in 1980.
The time price is not declining for everything, of course. College education, healthcare and mortgages are notable exceptions.
But our affluence is growing.
U.S. household income and net worth hit record levels this year.
Novel drugs and medical devices are extending and improving our lives.
New technologies are making our communications faster, our transportation safer, and our working and recreational lives easier.
Our quality of life is improving. And so is global prosperity.
That’s good news for investors.
And here’s even better news…
Despite all the dystopian forecasts, artificial intelligence will dramatically increase our standard of living. And faster than ever before.
In my next column, I’ll explain how.