Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Good Ol' Days

I got a whiff of pessimism bias yesterday. Someone said to me something along the lines of, "people have to work so much these days", as if the amount of time people spent working was somehow beyond their control. I tried to explain to him the benefits we enjoy now as well as the fabulous, nearly opulent wealth virtually everyone in the secular West has access to. I'm not sure how successful I was with this explanation.

The way I like to look at it is that there is an interesting list of things I can do that my parents were unable to do at my age. I then substitute "grandparents" for "parents", then "great-grandparents" for "grandparents", etc. Here are some off-the-cuff samples:

Things I can enjoy at my age:
  • Good CGI in movies
  • Cheap whole bean coffee in the local grocery store
  • Encyclopaedia Dramatica
  • Easy air travel to St. Petersburg (the one in Russia: who wants to go to Florida?)
  • Hundreds of television channels in vibrant digital color

Things my parents could enjoy at my age:

  • Good set design in movies
  • Premium ground coffee in the local grocery store
  • USENET trolls
  • Easy air travel to St. Petersburg (the one in Florida)
  • Dozens of television channels in technicolor

Things my grandparents could enjoy at my age:

  • Good dialogue in movies
  • Yuban
  • IRL trolls Lenny Bruce and Richard Nixon ("I am not a crook" is pretty much his way of saying "YHBT")
  • Easy road travel to St. Petersburg (the one in Florida)
  • Less than a dozen television channels in monochrome

Things my great-grandparents could enjoy at my age:

  • Newsreels
  • Joe black drip coffee for a nickel
  • IRL trolls Hitler and Helen Keller (probably the lulziest American communist to have ever lived)
  • Difficult road travel to St. Petersburg (the one in Florida)
  • Radio

Things my great-great-grandparents could enjoy at my age:

  • Silent film
  • Joe black drip coffee for a nickel
  • IRL trolls Woodrow Wilson and V.I. Lenin
  • Difficult sea travel to St. Petersburg (the one in Russia)
  • Barn dances

And so on it goes. The interesting thing is that I am free to choose from anything on any one of those lists. Yes, even joe black coffee for a nickel, once we adjust for inflation. Well, okay, I guess I can't be trolled my Chairman Mao anymore, but the very nature of lulz is that they are fleeting. I have a vastly richer, more varied set of choices available to me than any of my ancestors had when they were my age, no matter what their income. I have the ability to enjoy the massive stock of public goods we now have, I have access to the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of thousands of years of human endeavor quite literally at my fingertips, and I can enjoy it in the comfort and peace of my own home.

Importantly, I have the ability to opt out of the sea of choices I have arrayed before me. For example, I have opted out of the hundreds of channels of television. I own a set, but have no service. Similarly, I do not avail myself of the countless millions of consumer products available in my area, nor do I subscribe to the many fine print publications available at my local tobacconist. Indeed, should it be my wont, I am very nearly able to reproduce the living standards enjoyed by almost any one of my ancestors either near or distant. Furthermore, I could do so and by working fewer hours. Oddly, I choose not to. Why might that be?

Because that would suck.

Have you ever done laundry by hand? I have. It sucks. Have you ever had to bake your bread from scratch, every time? I have. It's admittedly delicious, but it's a lot of work, and once I found a decent baker, I have to admit that I'm nowhere near as good as a lifelong professional. Have you ever had to slaughter, clean and dress livestock? This I haven't done, nor would I have the first clue how to. If you really pine for the good old days, you might want to figure that out, because you might not be able to find a competent butcher near your den.

How about getting around without major highways? Eating only local food and only when it's in season? How about chucking comfortable shoes or clothes or furniture? How would you like to do without penicillin or tampons or aspirin or skilled surgery or adequate police and fire protection or the comfort of knowing you're not under the constant threat of conscription?

The truth is, the past just wasn't as great as our romantic imagination might like to think. I'm not saying the present is perfect, far from it. However, looking over your shoulder to see where you're going is a good recipe to fall on your face. The complement to this is that hand-wringing over an imagined future decline can be counter-productive if channeled improperly. I think I'll save details on that for another post. This one is already tl;dr enough.

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