We’re Not Doing Much, But We’re Nice About it

The blogosphere has been alight with discussion of ‘rising inequality’ (yes, scare quotes!) in the US and elsewhere.

What legitimizes the debate, to me, is the strong possibility that changes in income are capturing less and less of the social benefit of innovation.

I’ve linked to Tyler Cowen’s essay and kindle single before, but I don’t think I’ve gone in any depth.

Society underwent some ridiculous changes between, say, 1900 (horse  & buggy, no refrigeration, little electricity) and 1960 (cars, airplanes, antibiotics, microwaves, mechanized farming).

Since the 60s? Computers and the Internet. Apparently, median incomes mimicked the earlier transformations and subsequent quiet.

Moreover, the Internet economy is about employing a few very highly skilled folks and very cheap scaling (free things?!). But its impact on our lives is immense. Measurements of income growth miss this.

That’s Tyler’s story.

Here’s another thing calculations of income growth misses: psychological health.

Dan Carlin’s got this podcast that poses the question: “what were the parents of history like?” The answer (I’ll paraphrase): there may not be a single parent in history that wouldn’t, today, be put in jail for child abuse.

Infanticide, emotional abuse, physical abuse and sexual abuse… all common. And damaged kids some day become damaged adults who then, in turn, damage kids of their own. Nasty stuff.

Compare this to things people worry about today. Now, some of this is the ‘Kids These Days!’ phenomenon, of course, but I wonder how ancient parents would be able to condemn such acts as well as take their kids out to watch the local executions.

I watched a documentary recently (it was up for an oscar!) that followed an Iraq vet who suffered from PTSD. Man, that does not look like fun. And might not the vast majority of historical societies suffer from similar conditions?

Anyway, the incidence of such psychological trauma has surely abated, if only because there are fewer wars screwing up entire generations at a time. Why are we becoming nicer?

In a Russ Roberts podcast, George Will considers one aspect of this phenomenon (civil rights) and credits our fortune for MLK being born.

I don’t buy it.

I have little doubt that we’re probably the most psychologically healthy humans to ever have lived, but who knows why?