A 1917 Billionaire

We live in an extraordinary time. This was never made so clear to me as it was a couple weeks ago when I read a period piece on John D. Rockefeller.

The question was posed in the introduction: What is the minimum amount of money that you would be willing to accept to go back to live 100 years ago?

Would a million dollars do it?

Think about it for a minute before you answer.

In 1917…

  • Life expectancy for white American males was only 57.
  • Antibiotics, contact lenses, dental care, and modern birth control, along with hundreds of life-saving surgeries hadn’t been invented yet.
  • Music, art, and entertainment diversity was extremely limited. (Phonograph, anyone?)
  • There were obviously no television, computers, internet, or smart phones.
  • Air conditioning and central heating were just coming around. Your mansion may have it, but none of your friends’, or the restaurants your frequent would.

What about a billion dollars?

The article concludes with this stunning paragraph. It took my breath away the first time I read it.

Honestly, I wouldn’t be remotely tempted to quit the 2016 me so that I could be a one-billion-dollar-richer me in 1916. This fact means that, by 1916 standards, I am today more than a billionaire. It means, at least given my preferences, I am today materially richer than was John D. Rockefeller in 1916. And if, as I think is true, my preferences here are not unusual, then nearly every middle-class American today is richer than was America’s richest man a mere 100 years ago.

Wow. Like I said in the beginning, we live in an extraordinary time.

We’re rich! Why do we not feel that way? Why do we still want so much more?

Think about that the next time you complain about the price of avocados…