The Quagmire: Are We Better of Now?
As some loyal readers have rightly pointed out, proving we are worse off today than we were in the 70’s is tough to do in a convincing way.
It would be silly and wrong to claim that everything is worse today than it was forty years ago, and from a political, social, and fashion perspective, few would want to go back.
It’s true, there have been lots of improvements, mostly technological, to our lives since the 70’s. However, the discussion about whether a specific changes make us happier or not, can become a never ending debate over hedonics — the academic study of what makes us happy from an economic and technological perspective. A debate that quickly becomes “hedonic quagmire,” which is something I’d rather avoid if possible.
To accomplish that, let’s take a look at the changes to daily life we’ve seen over the last forty years. I’ve found these improvements fall into three categories:
- Negligible. Alternatives to things that we used to do differently. Changes that offer uncertain advantages in prices, quality, or experience. For example, we use the Internet to get our news today, it’s fast, but given its uncertain quality, it’s difficult to make the case that its actually better than the TV news and newspapers of forty years ago.
- Absolute. Changes that are definitely better than the past. Technological improvements that make things less expensive or faster. Changes that allow us to do what we’ve never been able to do before. For example, interpersonal communication is better now than it ever has been. It’s also much easier, faster, and less expensive to acquire a book, movie, or song than it used to be.
- Pyrrhic. Advances that have come at a great cost. For example, in medicine we’ve seen a considerable amount of improvement over the last forty years. Advances have added four years to our life expectancy. However, during this same period, the cost of basic medical care has gone through the roof. Medical care is now so expensive, it’s very difficult to afford the everyday care that is, and continues to be, the most important care we get.
That last part — the “Pyrrhic improvement” — is actually the path out of the hedonic quagmire.
It focuses the mind on the only question that matters. Have the technological improvements we’ve seen over the last forty years made it easier for the American household to pursue the American Dream?
The answer to that question is no. Most of the advances we’ve seen have fallen into the Pyrrhic category.
Here’s why. Based on the financials of the families alone, it is EIGHT times harder to achieve the American Dream than it ever was, even without considering the costs of fragility.