Alex Massie

Our Age of Abundance

Text settings

Despite the tenor of the times, it is still the case that almost all of us have never had it so good. As Brad DeLong writes at The Week:

The current recession may turn into a small depression, and may push global living standards down by five percent for one or two or (we hope not) five years, but that does not erase the gulf between those of us in the globe's middle and upper classes and all human existence prior to the Industrial Revolution. We have reached the frontier of mass material comfort—where we have enough food that we are not painfully hungry, enough clothing that we are not shiveringly cold, enough shelter that we are not distressingly wet, even enough entertainment that we are not bored. We—at least those lucky enough to be in the global middle and upper classes who still cluster around the North Atlantic—have lots and lots of stuff. Our machines and factories have given us the power to get more and more stuff by getting more and more stuff—a self-perpetuating cycle of consumption.

Our goods are not only plentiful but cheap... Today, buttermilk-fried petrale sole with pickled vegetables and parsley mayonnaise, served at Chez Panisse Café, costs the same share of a day-laborer's earnings as the raw ingredients for two big bowls of oatmeal did in the 18th Century. Then there are all the commodities we consume that were essentially priceless in the past. If in 1786 you had wanted to listen to Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in your house, you probably had to be the Holy Roman Emperor, Archduke of Austria, with a theater in your house—the Palace of Laxenberg. Today, the DVD costs $17.99 at (The multiplication factor for enjoying The Marriage of Figaro in your home is effectively infinite for those not named Josef von Habsburg.)

Today we still spend about one dollar in five on food—down from the half of income that Americans spent in 1776....

Quite so. This last point, of course, makes something of a mockery of much of the talk of "food poverty" we hear. Yes, the poor may spend a higher proportion of their income on food than do the wealthy, but they spend much less than was the case even fifty years ago. And of course globalisation, for all that it may be an unfashionable concept right now, has been a boon to millions in China, India and elsewhere. Their lives and working conditions may not be so comfortable as to be envied by those of us secure in our western palaces, but they're mightily more comfortable for them than might otherwise be the case. And, of course, filled with greater opportunity and, however limited it may be by our lights, choice. There's a long way to go, for sure, but while we often hear about the gap between rich and poor now, we don't hear often enough about the gap between being poor now and being poor in the past.

And while we're at The Week, let me also recommend Will Wilkinson's column on necessary cynicism and Daniel Larison's on Afghanistan.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleSociety