Trading Cribs

Brian Caplan compares his life with that of the richest of the Gilded Age:

I just returned from the Biltmore, America's largest home.  Built by George Vanderbilt between 1889 and 1895, the Biltmore is a symbol of how good the rich had it during the Gilded Age.  I'm sure that most of the other visitors would answer "very good indeed."

But how many would actually want to trade places with George?  Despite his massive library, organ, and so on, I submit that any modern with a laptop and an internet connection has a vastly better book and music collection than he did.  For all his riches, he didn't have air conditioning; he had to suffer through the North Carolina summers just like the poorest of us.  Vanderbilt did travel the world, but without the airplane, he had to do so at a snail's pace.

Perhaps most shockingly, he suffered "sudden death from complications following an appendectomy" at the age of 51.  (Here's the original NYT obituary).  Whatever your precise story about the cause of rising lifespans, it's safe to say that George's Bane wouldn't be fatal today.

I made this observation several years ago, though, though I went west coast railroad entrepreneur rather than east coast.  I showed pictures of a San Francisco mansion and a middle class home of a friend of mine in Seattle.

One house has hot and cold running water, central air conditioning, electricity and flush toilets.  The other does not.  One owner has a a computer, a high speed connection to the Internet, a DVD player with a movie collection, and several television sets.  The other has none of these things.  One owner has a refrigerator, a vacuum cleaner, a toaster oven, an iPod, an alarm clock that plays music in the morning, a coffee maker, and a decent car.  The other has none of these.  One owner has ice cubes for his lemonade, while the other has to drink his warm in the summer time.  One owner can pick up the telephone and do business with anyone in the world, while the other had to travel by train and ship for days (or weeks) to conduct business in real time.

I think most of you have guessed by now that the homeowner with all the wonderful products of wealth, from cars to stereo systems, lives on the right (the former home of a friend of mine in the Seattle area).  The home on the left was owned by Mark Hopkins, railroad millionaire and one of the most powerful men of his age in California.  Hopkins had a mansion with zillions of rooms and servants to cook and clean for him, but he never saw a movie, never listened to music except when it was live, never crossed the country in less than a week.  And while he could afford numerous servants around the house, Hopkins (like his business associates) tended to work 6 and 7 day weeks of 70 hours or more, in part due to the total lack of business productivity tools (telephone, computer, air travel, etc.) we take for granted.  Hopkins likely never read after dark by any light other than a flame.

If Mark Hopkins or any of his family contracted cancer, TB, polio, heart disease, or even appendicitis, they would probably die.  All the rage today is to moan about people's access to health care, but Hopkins had less access to health care than the poorest resident of East St. Louis.  Hopkins died at 64, an old man in an era where the average life span was in the early forties.  He saw at least one of his children die young, as most others of his age did.  In fact, Stanford University owes its founding to the early death (at 15) of the son of Leland Stanford, Hopkin's business partner and neighbor.  The richest men of his age had more than a ten times greater chance of seeing at least one of their kids die young than the poorest person in the US does today.

Hopkin's mansion pictured above was eventually consumed in the fires of 1906, in large part because San Francisco's infrastructure and emergency services were more backwards than those of many third world nations today.

Here is a man, Mark Hopkins, who was one of the richest and most envied men of his day.  He owned a mansion that would dwarf many hotels I have stayed in.  He had servants at his beck and call.  And I would not even consider trading lives or houses with him.  What we sometimes forget is that we are all infinitely more wealthy than even the richest of the "robber barons" of the 19th century.  We have longer lives, more leisure time, and more stuff to do in that time.   Not only is the sum of wealth not static, but it is expanding so fast that we can't even measure it.  Charts like those here measure the explosion of income, but still fall short in measuring things like leisure, life expectancy, and the explosion of possibilities we are all able to comprehend and grasp.


  1. Roy:

    Been saying this for (literally) decades. Richest guy 100 yrs ago did not have what I've got in my refrigerator much less the variety of ice creams I've got in my freezer. Did not have the selection of spices my wife regularly uses in cooking (nor, since I do the washing while she does the cooking, the hot running water nor the dishwasher I use ;p). I suppose that very, very rich persons could have had a rail carriage filled with folks to read to them, sing to them, etc. But you think they wouldn't have changed places with me in traveling via climate controlled auto while studying or relaxing (depending on selection)of books on CD?

    I can (and do often) visit people significantly less well off in terms of income. But, given the choice, they also would not trade places with the richest of merely a hundred years ago.

    The recent post with the wealth and health vs time graph did not include adjustment for inflation, or, better, adjustment for hours worked to earn some amount. That sort of analysis one can do at least partly if not mostly objectively. Be interesting to see how this would have changed the beautiful graphic display.

    But what an incredible change that same display would have if, albeit subjective rather than objective, it incorporated the kinds of changes this post focuses on.

  2. Roy:

    Meant to add: think that difference is spices I noted has nothing more than slight effect? Recall that search for access to spices drove (at least initially) the huge expenditures involved in exploring the western hemisphere. And that when people knew of only some of the spices which we regularly enjoy.

  3. Mike Slater:


  4. Mike Slater:

    Brilliant, Warren. Thank you.

  5. Dan:

    I think the most poignant example of this phenomonon is that J. D. Rockefeller with his millions looked on as his youngest daughter died of waterborne typhus, which today could be prevented by a $2 dose of vaccine.

    (yes, a dose costs more than that today in the US, but only because the disease has become so rare that it isn't considered to be worth immmunizing against)

  6. DrTorch:

    Great things to keep in mind.

    And remember that envy is considered among the seven "deadly" sins. People aren't thankful for what they have today, they are envious of the next guy who seems to have more.

  7. Paavo Ojala:

    But the human brain doesn't work like that. Happiness is more about status than running water. But is good to frame things like this. I win quality of life competition with this Vanderbilt guy, so I win. Plus, if is was so great, how come he is dead.

  8. L Nettles:

    To add to the list James Deering (1859-1925) of the Deering Harvester fortune and the extraordinary Vizcaya Mansion on Biscayne Bay, suffered from pernicious anemia, a disease now easily treatable.

  9. Bearster:

    Geat piece Warren.

    But it has become a dogma, a religious belief, that "the poor get poorer and the rich get richer." It's a package-deal. Sure, the rich get richer...

  10. Gil:

    Then again are people better off than the 1970s? So people then didn't have the Internet, DVD players and "The Simpsons" reruns but they have the option of buying heavy (safer for some) cars, incandescent light bulbs and CRT TVs.

  11. markm:

    Gil, those 1970's cars broke down all the time. It wasn't just the old clunkers that were within my budget back then; everyone I knew who bought a new American-made car had to take it back to the dealer for repairs, multiple times. Once all the manufacturing defects were repaired, the not-quite-new car still was far less reliable than a well-maintained 1995 vehicle is today. And when it broke down (or slid into a ditch - rear wheel drive handles abominably in snow, and 4WD was barely available and outside most people's budgets), you didn't whip out your cell phone to call a tow truck, you hiked or thumbed a ride to a telephone.

    That 1995 Dodge has needed a few expensive repairs, but it never left me stuck on the side of the road. I swapped it to my son for a Jeep he couldn't make payments on this summer, and he drove it about 2,500 miles home with no problem. That used to be something you could not count on no matter how good of a condition your car was in to start, and it didn't matter whether you had a Chevy or a Cadillac.

    CRT TV? I don't see the advantage in screen quality, aside from units so big you had to hire movers to get them home, and so expensive that added cost was trivial. But the picture is never better than the signal, and most of the time that stank.

    Medical care is also far better than in the 1970's. My wife's cousin, born about 1950, had childhood leukemia and was expected to die within a year. A new treatment was discovered and kept him going a few years, by which time, another new treatment was available. Repeat several times. He lived to see his disease finally cured, but died in his forties, basically of a self-destructive lifestyle. Psychologically, he was a mess; believing you are about to die the whole time you are growing up can do that. But a kid born now who gets the same disease will have a chance of dying, but a better chance of a cure, with fewer painful treatments.

    And many other things. Air conditioning was rare in the northern states in the 1970's, although we still had at least 6 weeks of weather that was too scorching hot to move. It was available, but few people would pay for it in their car or home.

    Long distance telephone calls cost about $1 a minute - and that is *not* corrected for inflation. A common problem in the Air Force in the 1980's was servicemen with phone bills they could never hope to pay out of their salary, because they or their wives just had to talk to Mommy. I don't mean just the E2's and E3's, but sergeants with stripes all the way down their sleeve and sometimes the lower officer ranks, too. We'd stage an exercise - e.g., simulated war starting in the Middle East, everyone to show up at the squadron in one hour, packed to go - and a quarter of the phone numbers listed on the recall tree were no good.

  12. dearieme:

    My father took me through this argument in the late 50s: his comparison was with King Henry the Eighth. Mind you, he did say "I might feel differently if I wanted to chop your mother's head off."

  13. jayh:

    "those 1970′s cars broke down all the time. It wasn’t just the old clunkers that were within my budget back then; everyone I knew who bought a new American-made car had to take it back to the dealer for repairs, multiple times."

    Well, without disputing much of your comment, I'd take a 60s era (pre CAFE) car over a modern one. Pure visceral mechanical simplicity, in some ways the peak of engineering before complexity, regulations and gimmickry took over. No sensors, no computer controls (a frequent source of expensive problems), no 800 dollar cats, you won't trash one of those engines by using a slightly wrong grade of oil (there are engines that can be seriously messed by simply running 5-20 vs 0-20 oil). You can actually service those things. And there's a reason why most racers are either rear wheel drive or all wheel drive (not front wheel drive).

    My 47 Jeep still kicks right over no matter how cold. I may finally retire my 71 Chevy truck because I don't need it anymore.

    Just a rant.... no back to our actual discussion.

  14. markm:

    JayH: If *racing* is what you're concerned about, rather than getting to work, then there is a lot to be said for the 1960's muscle cars - IF you like spending lots of time working on them, and if you can get the suspension re-tuned properly. As built from the factory, my '64 Pontiac Bonneville rode like an overstuffed sofa, and was effing dangerous anywhere over 80mph, but it sure reached that speed in a hurry. It was also treacherous on snow or ice, and needed repairs nearly continuously. That might be a characteristic of racer-tuned cars of any era. But in my experience with cars built for adults with family responsibilities rather than hotrodders, they've gone from needing repairs every six months to about every 5 years, as long as you keep up the oil changes and other PM.

  15. Allen:

    Markm, they don't even need the oil change if you're going for 5 years. Those sort of problems that could cause aren't likely to show up that soon in a modern engine with modern motor oil. Sure it's going to do some damage but you're probably going to get away with it.

  16. L Nettles:

    Every Man a King

    Could yesteryear’s Great Society have promised nearly all Americans that they would soon have instant information at their fingertips on almost any topic imaginable, from treating migraines to wiring a house to understanding Dante’s Inferno? Surely the kings, corporate magnates, and Wall Street fat-cats of earlier times would have paid fortunes for the knowledge that is now accorded to almost anyone with a computer at home, work, school, or a library, without the need of expensive specialists, scholars, or books.