Happy Thanksgiving!

Today in the United States, we’re celebrating Thanksgiving.  If you’re celebrating this holiday, whatever that means for you, whether it involves giving thanks to a deity, or to your family, or to our society, or just having a nice day off and an excuse to feast, I hope you have a great day.

If you’re not in the US, or not celebrating it, I hope you have a great Thursday.

And, given all the latest news, if you’re wondering what there really is to be thankful about, Michael Shermer has a nice piece at Time Magazine pointing out how lucky we are to be living in these times.

Overall, there has never been a better time to be alive than today. As I document in my 2008 book The Mind of the Marketand in my forthcoming book The Moral Arc, if you lived 10,000 years ago you would have been a hunter-gatherer who earned the equivalent of about $100 a year — extreme poverty is defined by the United Nations as less than $1.25 a day, or $456 a year — and the material belongings of your tiny band would have consisted of about 300 different items, such as stone tools, woven baskets and articles of clothing made from animal hides. Today, the average annual income in the Western world — the U.S. and Canada, the countries of the European Union, and other developed industrial nations — is about $40,000 per person per year, and the number of available products is over 10 billion, with the universal product code (barcode) system having surpassed that number in 2008.

The full piece isn’t too long and is worth the read.

Happy Thanksgiving!

17 thoughts on “Happy Thanksgiving!

  1. “Overall, there has never been a better time to be alive than today.”

    Funny thing is, people have said that in almost every era.

    I would actually dispute Shermer on the basis that we live in extremely (overly) complex times, with serious confusion and loss of identity, plus we are working on killing off the species. My guess is that the general happiness level is lower than in times past.

    Maybe Shermer defines “good to be alive” in terms of income, but I define it terms of happiness.


    1. It’s more than just income. In the full article, Shermer looks at a variety of standards (life expectancy, crime rates, leisure time, etc), and finds us better of by every one of them.

      Of course, given the relative nature of happiness, someone can always claim that poor virtuous societies were happier. But then, recent surveys show that the most developed countries are the happiest.

      We definitely don’t live in a utopia, but many people alive in 1500 would’ve probably thought we did, if they could have seen us.


      1. Exactly. And 500 years hence they may look back at us (comparative) barbarians and think exactly the same thing.

        There is just too much wrong with the world for me to agree this is a great time in which to be alive, especially given my perception that we’re sowing the seeds of our own doom.


        1. I don’t think Shermer is claiming that there will never be a better time than now (a GoT quote comes to mind but I’ll spare you 🙂 ), only that now is better than all previous times. I’ve read enough of his stuff to know he wouldn’t argue that we don’t have serious problems today. He’s just arguing for perspective, and I mostly agree with him.

          But this is probably another agree to disagree item.


          1. Very likely. 🙂

            “…only that now is better than all previous times.

            I understand, but given all the people who long for a return to simpler times, I still dispute his assertions. The material part of life is better, I agree with that, but I don’t measure the quality of life in terms of the material.


    2. I think people always yearn for the golden age of yesteryear. If people actually were able to return to those “simpler” times, I suspect they would be shocked by how claustrophobic they’d find it, and yet how complicated life still was.


      1. Oh, no doubt many would be shocked if they actually got their wish. And the further away from their own experiences they wish, the more likely they would be shocked at the differences between their wish and the reality.

        The point is that they yearn for something else. I’m sure that to Mr. Shermer, a successful white man in the USA, the world does look pretty great. I think there are entire other groups of people who might disagree.

        (It depends on the yardstick, really, and all I’m saying is I disagree with his. Full disclosure: I don’t have a very high opinion of Shermer, and no doubt that colors my opinion of what he has to say.)

        I’m curious about your use of “claustrophobic” and “complicated” … what most yearn for is the opposite of that in contrast to the tightly packed and hugely complicated modern world. I would have said many would be shocked by how dirty and physically grueling their hoped for life actually is.


        1. I can’t remember if Shermer pointed it out, but it’s worth noting that, at least in western societies, there’s never been a better time to be a minority of just about any type. Women, ethnic minorities, gays, religious minorities, nonbelievers, and just about anyone outside of the cultural norm, are far better off than they were in any past society you could point to. None of that is to say we’ve achieved utopia by any stretch; there remain many intolerable injustices and serious problems. But the broad arcs of history, for many measures, are moving in the right direction.

          By “claustrophobia” I was referring to how narrow and limited their world would be. They’d have little knowledge of what was happening beyond their immediate horizons (literally). Most of them would also be astounded by the lack of any appreciable opportunities to improve their situation, and by how rigid society’s role for them would be.

          By “complexity” I was referring to the fact that life is always more complicated than it appears from a distance. How many people today know how to make soap? Or butter? Or butcher a pig? Make their own shoes? Sew their own clothes? Build a sturdy barn or house that doesn’t leak? Interpret weather and seasonal conditions to know when to plant crops? Find a spot to dig a well? Anyone who has ever tried to do any of these things will know that they take substantial skill and knowledge.

          In general, I think most people complaining about how complicated life is today and yearning for a simpler time are really wishing for an idealized and somewhat fairy tale version of that past. Golden ages only exist in retrospect and with poor memories.

          I’m not an unmitigated fan of Shermer myself, particularly his libertarian leanings, but on this I do mostly agree with him.


          1. The traits you assign to “claustrophobia” are exactly what some seek. They don’t want knowledge beyond their horizons, and a form of stasis is exactly what is desired. It’s a real-life version of the “internet bubble” — don’t bother me with things I don’t want to think about!

            I know what you mean, but is “complexity” the right label? Most of the things you listed are simple enough once you have the knowledge. Complexity is about the number of “moving parts” in a thing, and those things don’t have that many.

            Look at it this way: 10-20 guys can raise a barn in a day (and hold a square dance in it that night 🙂 ). Compare that to the architects, construction crew and months of labor involved in building a modern apartment building (and no square dancing 😦 ).

            A view I have these days is that the rising complexity (as defined above) of modern life is a big part of the problem many people have dealing with modern life. There was a time a clever person could fix their own washing machine or car. Not really true anymore.


    3. On people desiring a limited life, perhaps, but there are communes that can provide that kind of life for people who really want it. (Or they could start their own.) I think many people like fantasizing about it, but don’t really want the reality. My point was that reality wasn’t as simple for people in the past as many assume. They would be bewildered by our life, but most of us would be bewildered if dropped into their life.

      I’d imagine barn raisings were immensely satisfying events for the participants. But I wonder how much success those outside of the cultural norm had recruiting people to help them, if they weren’t lucky enough to live in a like minded community. Historically, people turned to paid help by the end of the 19th century. You have to wonder why if barn raisings were the joyous events portrayed in the movies. Modern apartment buildings are far more complicated, but have electricity, air conditioning, communications, and many other amenities, and meet many safety standards, that I think people would miss.

      That said, I’ll grant that many people do feel overwhelmed. I suspect every generation has since the beginning of the industrial revolution, where the rate of technological change has ensured that the environment you live in later in life is different (and subjectively more complicated) than the environment you grew up in. Notice that kids rarely feel overwhelmed by the current environment.


      1. “My point was that reality wasn’t as simple for people in the past as many assume.”

        Few things are, but it was certainly considerably simpler than modern life. Each new era of society is a superset of what has come before — we constantly add new things. Therefore, life becomes more complex over time. Complexity grows with time.

        Consider swapping you (or me) for someone from 1814. We would find it far easier to adapt (because nothing would be new) than would that poor soul we moved forward 200 years — they would have to cope with all that is new in the last 200 years plus a vastly faster pace of life. Merely riding in a car at 60 MPH could be overwhelming. (Remember that when trains first came around, some were certain that humans couldn’t withstand the blinding speeds of 30 MPH.)

        “You have to wonder why if barn raisings were the joyous events portrayed in the movies.”

        If the pleasures of self-sufficiency and community aren’t immediately apparent, I’m not sure I can explain it. Not long ago I had a leaky shower valve that needed replacing. It gave me enormous pleasure to do it myself.

        The growing complexity of modern life forces us to use specialists, but if you know anything about “country folk” the ideals of self-sufficiency and independence are crucial.

        “Modern apartment buildings are far more complicated,”

        The rest of that sentence is accurate but irrelevant. We seem to be reaching an agreement that, yes, modern life is more complicated.

        “I suspect every generation has [been overwhelmed] since the beginning of the industrial revolution…”

        Agree. Totally. Just imagine how that has built on itself since then.

        And I think kids do feel overwhelmed today. No, not by the technology itself, but by what that technology has wrought. Consider the problems of catfishing, online bullying, the sense of inferiority brought on by reading about the (supposed) lives of others, the blurring of lines between work and home, the growing realization that cell phones and internet are addictive behaviors, and many other woes of our beloved technology we’re beginning to recognize.

        Or consider that the “American Dream” is dead and that parents can no longer expect their children to do better than them. The next generations will need to deal with the economy, broken government, climate change, political polarization, disease and many other issues of globalization.

        How could anyone not feel overwhelmed?


        1. On 1814, rather than rehash, I think I’ll just let what I said above stand.

          When you say “the pleasures of self sufficiency and community,” I suspect what you mean is the appeal of a small community. For most of our species’s existence, we lived in small self-sufficient homogeneous hunter-gatherer bands, and for most of our history since leaving that life, we lived in small homogeneous self sufficient farming communities. Any other life will likely always feel instinctively wrong, even if few of us would want to make the trade-offs to return to that type of life.

          We should bear in mind the benefits of modern communities, such as online ones allowing people (like us) separated by thousands of miles, to converse. I regularly have conversations with people on other continents. I’m old enough to still occasionally marvel at that.

          On your chopping of my sentence, I think that goes to the heart of our disagreement. Everything is a tradeoff, and ignoring the benefits of the modern world while focusing on its ills, is not doing a fair evaluation of it.

          Every society has problems, and as I’ve agreed several times, ours is certainly no exception. (Although I do have to say that I think the phrase, “the “American Dream” is dead,” is overwrought rhetoric.) If you measure our world against an idealized utopia, then we certainly fail. But if you measure us against any prior period in history, which is what Shermer’s piece did, then on balance, I think we have much to celebrate.

          None of this is to say that we should be complacent about our problems, many of which still produce appalling suffering in the world. On that, I’m pretty sure we agree.


          1. “When you say “the pleasures of self sufficiency and community,” I suspect what you mean…”

            There is no need to “suspect” or second-guess what I meant, since I said exactly what I meant. Please show me the respect of taking what I say at face value.

            Are we disagreeing about whether modern life is more complicated than it was in the past? Since I see that as self-evidently true, I’m not sure where we can go from here.

            “(Although I do have to say that I think the phrase, “the “American Dream” is dead,” is overwrought rhetoric.)”

            (There is a whiff of ad hominem there. Can we avoid characterizing each others rhetoric and stick to points?) I think it’s verifiable fact. The “American Dream” is that kids will do better in life than their parents and that work hard and keeping your nose clean will lead, eventually, to retirement. For much of the life of this country that was basically true. It isn’t anymore.

            (In fact, when I compare the circumstances of my own retirement last year to those of folks who retired 10 years earlier, there is a substantial decrease in quality. Compared to folks who retired 25 years ago, the difference is stark and dismaying.)

            We agreed to disagree about Shermer way up there [points]. We’re been kind of doing a riff on “complexity” ever since, and if you really believe life 200 years ago was just as complex as it is today, I guess we’ll have to disagree on that, too.

            We can at least end on agreeing per your last paragraph.


          2. Wyrd, I’m sorry if I offended you. It wasn’t my goal. At this point, I think we understand each other’s position. So I’ll just thank you for a spirited discussion and look forward to our other discussions.


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