It was about 100 years ago, in 1917, that Coca-Cola introduced its current formula to the market. It was also the year that the first Boeing aircraft flew. Electricity was absent from most homes. But it was becoming commonplace and was an expected commodity in many public spaces for the first time in America, much like WiFi is suddenly an expectation today.
But at the same time, only about 6% of Americans graduated from high school, compared to over 80% this year. Only about 8% of homes had a telephone, compared to over 80% of Americans today owning a smartphone1 and nearly all of the rest having a personal cell phone. Hell, forget your cell phone: the television hadn’t even been invented by 1917, and commercial radio broadcasts didn’t begin until 1920. So things were different.
On September 29, 1917, John D. Rockefeller became the world’s first billionaire. Adjusted for inflation, his net worth was about four times that of Bill Gates today. And yet…
You are almost certainly richer than Rockefeller!
You may find that hard to believe. The richest man alive 100 years ago – who had a higher net worth than the top three richest people alive today combined – had less material value to his name than you do!
Your technology enables you to do so many things that were impossible and unimaginable to poor Johnny. You can video chat with your grandma 2,000 miles away.2 You can drive a cheap, beat-up car at 80 miles per hour – and not on a privately reserved race track, but on a public road alongside hundreds of other barely-trained adult and teenage drivers.3 You can trade stocks on a whim with the click of a mouse…and you know what the fuck a mouse is, other than a potentially disease-bearing rodent which in 1917 easily could have killed you no matter how much wealth you had, since the only medical care available to you was 1917 medical care. You can spend all day in a completely temperature-regulated environment regardless of the conditions outside, and you don’t need to have a group of common riff-raff in your basement shoveling tinder into a furnace for it!
That smart phone that over 80% of us carry around in our pockets and sometimes carelessly drop out of a moving car?4 It would be immeasurably valuable in 1917. Hell, it would probably have immeasurable value in 1977. No matter how many dollars John D. Rockefeller had, he never had a cell phone or anything half as valuable on the scale of devices created by humanity over time.
This is the idea behind “trickle-down economics.”5 It is not assumed that reduced taxes on businesses and the wealthy will result in all people becoming insanely wealthy in relative terms; rather, it is understood that such incentives generate room for those with the most capital to use it in efficient ways to try to generate more capital for themselves, which generally6 requires investment in expansion, invention, and innovation. This should make us all better off, since employers compete with one another for ideas and people who are productive. Eventually, with continued invention and innovation, even the most common contraptions available to the most common Joes is better than the stuff which was available to the richest among us only a few short generations earlier.
Which brings us to the best way to know how great you have it compared to John D. Rockefeller. Consider this question: Given access to a time machine, how much money would you need to be willing to go back and live as John D. Rockefeller did in 1917? Would you take a million 1917 dollars? A billion, like Rockefeller? A thousand?7 Ten thousand?
You’re probably hesitant to go back at all, knowing that all kinds of conveniences you take for granted would be lost. (Will be lost? Will have been lost? Time travel is confusing.) But why is it still a little bit compelling to consider a dollar tradeoff for the lack of modern conveniences? Why does it feel like there might be a number that would make you step into the Stargate?8
It comes down to how you measure wealth.
Despite the hardships that everyone – regardless of wealth – faced in 1917, one thing remains consistent. And this one thing is actually one of the central tenets of minimalist-inspired lean FIRE: True wealth isn’t necessarily measured in stuff, but rather in the luxury of free time. Because even though we’re almost all far “richer” in stuff than Rockefeller, most of us are not nearly as free as Rockefeller.
Sure, there was only one Boeing plane available for Johnny to get a seat on. But did he really care? He could build ten more planes at a moment’s notice and fly anywhere he wanted. He need not alert anyone of his intention to do so; What boss would be on his ass for not showing up in the morning? He may have – and should have – felt an obligation to be there for those who worked for him, but if he wanted to end that obligation and live out his days sipping old fashioned’s on the beach, he could easily have done that on a moment’s notice, too.
Rockefeller was liberated in a way that few others have experienced in all of human history. Aside from the kings and queens of old, few have ever been able to live a life of leisure and/or work that is chosen rather than mandatory. This is why you don’t feel as rich as Rockefeller.
But that is a life ripe for the taking today. All it takes is a little bit of saving and a little bit of time, and you can have the freedom of a Rockefeller and the technology of the average Joe today. So what would it take for you to give it up and step into the time machine?
* Actual old-timey name for a room that contained a toilet.
For a juxtaposition to this post, check out this Bloomberg opinion piece that argues The Average Person Today Really Isn’t Rockefeller Rich, and it’s all some right-wing think-tank conspiracy to suggest that we are. But note an important distinction: The Bloomberg piece literally tells you how to measure wealth to make the reader draw a certain conclusion (“We measure our economic well being by looking at our peers”). I’m just asking you to think about which wealth measurement matters to you. Magically, when you think for yourself rather than accepting the Bush Doctrine fallacy, as Bloomberg hopes you will do, you’re allowed to feel richer and poorer than Rockefeller, at the same time, for different reasons – no political nastiness necessary!
- Not necessarily the same exact 80% who graduated from high school. But interesting correlation, init?
- Well, once grandma figures out how to turn on her webcam.
- Plus, you know what a “teenager” is – apparently, in 1917, the word was scarcely used, if at all, because so few kids were doing anything but working that there was no distinct “teenage” culture and thus no need for the word. This distinct time in human development is something that has only recently formed due to the age group spending more time in school, away from parents, and forming their own beliefs and interactions with one another.
- Not based on real-life experience, no.
- A concept which I am neither supporting nor detracting here. You could also check out this YouTube video which is an accurate, short, and simplified review of the concept, and really has only one major fault: mispronouncing Keynes repeatedly. If you hate helping rich people, feel free to watch this Bernie Sanders explanation, instead, which removes tax incentives from the context of tax law at the time – a pretty useless way to examine data. Feel the Bern?
- Absent government-induced barriers to entry resulting in monopoly power!
- Still roughly $1 million in 2017 dollars, and probably enough to support your indefinite retirement if you were close enough or connected enough to the stock market to make a few purchases.
- Ok, not typically a time-travel device. But there was an episode one time with a solar flare causing the team to go back 30 years, so I’m not pulling this entirely out of my ass. I assume it happens in the real stargate, too.