“The 140 years from 1870 to 2010 of the long twentieth century were, I strongly believe, the most consequential years of all humanity’s centuries.”
So argues Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century, the new magnum opus from UC Berkeley professor Brad DeLong. It’s a bold claim. Homo sapiens has been around for at least 300,000 years; the “long twentieth century” represents 0.05 percent of that history.
But to DeLong, who beyond his academic work is known for his widely read blog on economics, something incredible happened in that sliver of time that eluded our species for the other 99.95 percent of our history. Whereas before 1870, technological progress proceeded slowly, if at all, after 1870 it accelerated dramatically. And especially for residents of rich countries, this technological progress brought a world of unprecedented plenty.
DeLong reports that in 1870, an average unskilled male worker living in London could afford 5,000 calories for himself and his family on his daily wages. That was more than the 3,000 calories he could’ve afforded in 1600, a 66 percent increase — progress, to be sure. But by 2010, the same worker could afford 2.4 million calories a day, a nearly five hundred fold increase.
This looks like a very interesting book, as Delong’s interview with Dylan Matthews linked above makes clear.
Here I just want to note an extremely basic but not sufficiently appreciated point: throughout all of the many thousands of years of recorded human history, the most salient difference between social elites and everybody else almost everywhere was that the former weren’t living on the verge of starvation, while everyone else was.
As Delong’s statistic illustrates — and note that England in 1870 was an extremely wealthy country by historical standards up to that point — this has really changed only over the course of the past four generations or so in the developed world, and over the past half century everywhere else.
I don’t think it’s exactly a coincidence that the moral panic over “obesity” arose at the exact historical moment when having enough to eat ceased to be society’s most critical status distinction. In other words, the sight of fat poor people is upsetting not merely because it elicits aesthetic disgust among people for whom thinness has for the first time in human history become a positive status marker, but also because it represents a fundamental shift in the nature of the most basic economic fact there can be in any society.