Looking for something to be thankful for? Try this. You have it better than billionaire John Rockefeller (1839-1937) ever did.
He had more money. You have better stuff.
How many lights did you turn on today? Thomas Edison didn’t patent the incandescent light bulb until Rockefeller was in his 40s. There wasn’t an electrical grid, so small generators powered the first light bulbs. Today, electricity is an afterthought.
It’s cooling down now, but just a few months ago, Nevadans needed air conditioning to make it through the summer. Tough luck for Rockefeller. Willis Carrier didn’t invent it until 1902. The first public building to have air conditioning was Rivoli Theater in Times Square. In 1925. Rockfeller was in his 80s. The 1940 Packard was the first car to offer factory-installed air conditioning. Rockefeller died in 1937.
For most of Rockefeller’s life, you went to the butcher for meat, the baker for bread and a vegetable stand for produce. The general store was small, cramped and dimly lit. While Rockefeller could pay someone else do his shopping, you have access to more things than he did. The average grocery store today has around 44,000 items. If that’s not enough, Amazon has 400 million items available for doorstep delivery.
Even for $1 billion, Rockefeller couldn’t have bought an iPhone or computer or accessed the internet. The $500 phone sitting in your pocket contains instant access to more information than Rockefeller saw in his lifetime.
The average life expectancy for someone born in 1900 was 47 years old. Today, it’s almost 79. One big reason for that jump is that childbirth is much safer today, both for moms and babies. In 1900, almost 10 percent of children died in childbirth or within a year of being born. For every 1,000 births, six to nine women died of complications.
Today, the infant mortality rate has plummeted to just 0.7 percent. A mother’s risk of dying while giving birth has dropped 99 percent.
There’s so much more. Your car, medical care, refrigerator and ability to travel all surpass what Rockefeller had. It’s incredible, but it wasn’t inevitable.
Government agencies and central planners didn’t coordinate this dramatic improvement in human well-being. Instead, millions of individuals tried to make themselves better off by providing a superior good or service. Because the United States has had a relatively free economy, businessmen or women couldn’t force their customers to buy. The transactions occurred only if both parties benefited. These mutually beneficial transactions — the calling card of free-market capitalism — create value. They’ve created so much value that you have a better standard of living than the richest man in America had just 80 years ago.
This is why the left’s attacks on the “1 percent” or the “rich” are so misguided. Aside from those profiting via government coercion, the rich are rich because of how much they’ve improved the lives of others.
Just by living in 21st-century America, you are the “1 percent.” You have it better than 99 percent of the people who’ve ever lived on planet Earth. Poor John Rockefeller never had it so good.
Now that’s something to be thankful for.
Victor Joecks’ column appears in the Opinion section each Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Listen to him discuss his columns each Monday at 9 a.m. with Kevin Wall on 790 Talk Now. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4698. Follow @victorjoecks on Twitter.