Saturday, November 17, 2012

Hell in a Handbasket

In another sense...the critics are right: in many notable respects, pagan religious culture was immeasurably more "tolerant" than Christianity ever was--indeed, it could tolerate just about anything...[I]t was always the case that the sacred order of Roman society was nourished and sustained by certain acceptable forms of human sacrifice. The execution of a criminal, for example, was often quite explicitly an offering made to the god against whose laws the criminal had offended (hence Julius Caesar, in 46 B.C., could understand his execution of two mutinous soldiers as a sacrifice to Mars). And surely there was no grander sacrificial spectacle, and no more satisfying celebration of sacred order, than the entertainments provided during lunch on game days in the arena, between the morning's slaughter of wild beasts and the afternoon's gladiatorial matches, when condemned criminals of the lower classes, slaves, or foreign prisoners were executed by crucifixion, torture, or burning, or were committed to the mercy of wild animals.

- David Bentley Hart*

A couple years ago, I had a discussion with my wife regarding the famous question, "Is the world getting worse?" She apparently posed the question to several acquaintances, who all seemed to agree that the world was in moral decay. When pressed by my wife as to why they held this view, something about those in the 19th-century being "true to their word" was the answer (inspired, surely, by their recent reading of These Is My Words). My own answer was the king of all dodges: it depends. Are we talking worldwide? Western civilization? American culture? Are we talking about sexual purity or concern over poverty (the two are often linked)?

I can hear the moralists now: When the "damn" at the end of Gone With the Wind stirs controversy, but the language of Pulp Fiction does no such thing, does this not demonstrate laxed values? My verdict: It is easy to cite a decline in morality by pointing to, say, the increase of sex, violence, and vulgar language in media entertainment (though even pre-code Hollywood shows this narrative to be flawed). Yet, I think a violent film like Gladiator (which features a moral hero at its core) is a moral step forward compared to an actual gladiatorial match. 

I mention this because many are still disoriented and disappointed with the election results, leading to predictions of the Antichrist and petitions to secede from the Union. Given that Thanksgiving is next week, maybe we should take time to reflect on the fact that many things are getting better. Global poverty has seen considerable decline over the past three decades. The World Bank reports that 52% of the world's population lived on $1.25 or less a day in 1981. By 2008, it had dropped to 22 percent. Between 2005 and 2008, every region of the developing world saw a decline in their poverty rates. "Today, we estimate that there are approximately 820 million people living on less than $1.25 a day," writes the Brooking Institution's Laurence Chandy and Geoffrey Gertz. "This means that the prime target of the Millennium Development Goals – to halve the rate of global poverty by 2015 from its 1990 level – was probably achieved around three years ago. Whereas it took 25 years to reduce poverty by half a billion people up to 2005, the same feat was likely achieved in the six years between then and now. Never before have so many people been lifted out of poverty over such a brief period of time." According to Chandy and Gertz, the "broader trends" that led to this rise out of poverty are "the rise of globalization, the spread of capitalism and the improving quality of economic governance." Whenever poverty is discussed, rarely do I hear this research mentioned. 

The American poor and middle-class have also drastically improved, despite political rhetoric otherwise. A recent post by economist Mark J. Perry provides an excellent (and appropriate with Black Friday next week) example of such improvements:

The 1984 portable computer had only 64K of memory, no hard disk, and sold for $1,800, which would be equivalent to $4,000 in today’s dollars. Also advertised in the same catalog was an external 11.6 megabyte hard disk for $3,000, which would be about $6,700 in 2012 dollars.  Together, the 1984 “portable” computer and hard disk drive sold for the equivalent of more than $10,000 in today’s dollars. Measured in time worked at the average hourly wage, it would have required almost 1,200 hours of work in 1984 at $8.50 per hour to earn enough income to purchase the two items.

Fast forward to 2012...The HP Sleekbook laptops sell today starting at $500, and they weigh less than 4 pounds and have 4 gigabytes of memory, which is 62,500 times greater than the 64K of memory in the 1984 model. Adjusting for both price and quality, today’s laptop is 500,000 times cheaper than the 1984 model (62,500 times more memory and 8 times cheaper). A 32 gigabyte flash drive today sells for only $30, and has almost 3,000 times more storage space than the 1984 external hard drive.  That would be about 670,000 times cheaper adjusting for price and quality – today’s flash drive is 223 times cheaper in price and is 3,000 better in terms of storage space. And of course today’s flash drive fits on a key chain, whereas the 1984 hard disk drive wasn’t portable.

Measured in time worked, the average American in 2012 would only have to work about 27 hours (about 3.5 days) at the average wage today of $19.79 to purchase the HP laptop and the SanDisk flash drive, compared to the five months of work in 1984 to purchase the “cutting edge” portable computer and external disk drive of that era.  And today’s laptop is 6 times lighter with 62,500 times more memory than the 1984 portable computer, while today’s flash drives store thousands of times more data than the external drives in 1984.

Today’s computers, cell phones, and electronic products are mind-blowingly cheap and powerful compared to past decades, and reflect the overall trend throughout the economy towards better and cheaper products over time, especially manufactured goods.  If the dramatic price reductions and quality/speed improvements of computers and other electronic products happened suddenly all at once, it would probably be declared to be a miracle. But when the price reductions and quality improvements happen continually, we become immune and either don’t even pay attention, or tend to take the improvements for granted without appreciating the incredible progress that has happened in our lifetime. A comparison of today’s computer prices to 1984 also helps us appreciate how technological improvements elevate the standard of living of average and low-income American to levels that previous generations and wealthy households couldn’t have even imagined.  The computers of the 1980s were expensive and generally only available to the upper-income groups, whereas today’s computers are now accessible by even low-income households.

There is a reason that science writer Matt Ridley considers himself a "rational optimist."[1] Perhaps we should follow his lead and realize that we are living in a prosperous, exciting time.

*Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 120-121.

1. See Ridley, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (New York: HarperCollins, 2010); Ridley, "Humans: Why They Triumphed," The Wall Street Journal (May 22, 2010); Ridley's interview on Uncommon Knowledge.

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