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March 31, 2004

Timothy Taylor

Dear Friedrich --

Iíve raved before about the economics professor Timothy Taylor, whose lecture series for the Teaching Company Iím a huge fan of. (Hereís his page at the Teaching Companyís website.) Iíve been through a ton of intro-to-econ products, and if I were to recommend the best way for a non-math-y person to get started with econ, it would be with Taylorís series. (And when theyíre on sale, theyíre fabulous bargains.)

Taylorís about as good a teacher of intro-to-econ as I can imagine. He's clear; he's organized; he's likable and enthusiastic; and he has an amazing gift for turning this material into plain, vivid, even fun English.

Iíve been through all his series but one, his History of the U.S. Economy in the 20th Century. Iíd been putting it off for the sheer retentive pleasure of anticipation. But the other day I caved and finally began listening. Very pleased to report itís just as top-notch as the others.

Taylor kicks off the series with a review of what life was like in the U.S. in the year 1900. Hereís a sampler of some of the facts Taylor supplies:

  • Total U.S. population in 1900 was 76 million people, less than a third the population we have now.

  • The U.S. was the wealthiest economy in the world. Per capita income was on a level with Britain and Australia, was twice that of France and Germany, and was quadruple the standard of living in Japan and Mexico.

  • Still, most Americans in 1900 were living in what we today would consider poverty. In present-day dollars, per capita American income in 1900 averaged around $5000, less than a fifth the current level. In other words, the typical American in 1900 had about the same income that a typical Mexican has today.

  • Only three percent of American homes were lit by electricity.

  • Only about a third of American homes had running water; only 15% had flush toilets; and half of farm households didnít even have an outhouse.

  • Most people lived within a mile of where they worked, and depended on their feet to get them around. Only one urban household in five owned a horse.

  • Half of all people lived in spaces where they averaged more than one person per room. Taking in lodgers was common.

  • Half the population drank alcohol; half didnít. The half that did averaged two hard drinks and two beers a day; wine consumption was minimal. In Europe, by contrast, people drank twice as much beer, and averaged more than four glasses of wine a day.

  • Life expectancy at birth was 47 years, and infant mortality rates were high. Of every 1000 babies born, 140 died in their first year. These days, fewer than 10 do.

  • Flu, pneumonia, typhoid, gastritis, and whooping cough were common causes of death.

  • 10% of the American population was completely illiterate, and the average adult had an 8th grade education. Only 7% of students would ever complete high school.

  • A manís typical on-the-job work week consisted of 60 hours of work spread over six days. Pensions were rare; men generally worked until they were too feeble to go on doing so. 2/3rds of men over 65 had fulltime jobs.

  • Women were 18% of the paid work force. They mainly worked in fields like textiles, apparel, shoes, canning -Ė fields where you were paid according to how much you produced.

  • At home, women spent around 40 hours a week on meal preparation and meal cleanup, seven hours on laundry, and another seven hours on housecleaning. The average housewife baked a half a ton of bread -- about 1400 loaves -- a year.

I donít know about you, but part of what I enjoy about this list is the way it reminds me to shut up about how much the world has changed since you and I were kids. Desktop computers? Air travel becoming commonplace? Chickenfeed. Compared to how much the world changed during the lifetimes of our grandparents, you and I have lived through nothing. To illustrate: my grandparents were born before cars were in common use; by the time they died, man had landed on the moon.

You can buy this terrific Timothy Taylor lecture series here. It's currently on sale for the really astounding price of $15.95.



posted by Michael at March 31, 2004


Just a small example...I have a can of Bon Ami, a powdered cleanser. Its trademark is a picture of a newly hatched chick with the slogan, "Hasn't scratched yet." Then there's some text that explains it (chicks don't scratch for food for a couple of days after hatching). The product has been around since 1886, when there probably wasn't a housewife in the country who wouldn't have known exactly what was meant by the slogan. It would be interesting to find out when the manufacturers realized they would have to add an explantion to the label...

I was born in 1952, and I'm pretty sure that things have not changed as much in my lifetime as they did during my grandparents' lifetimes. (I wanted to see colonies on Mars and all I got was this dad-blasted computer that makes me want to be a Luddite...) The mass migration from the farms to the towns and cities was alone an enormous change. If things haven't seemed to change so much since then, maybe it was because that was the biggest possible change and now that it's over nothing comparable is likely to come along for a while. Judging from what I remember my grandparents saying about it, the people who lived through it were well aware at the time that a momentous transformation was going on. Part of it was technological, too: "horse-and-buggy" became a derisive adjective for anything considered old-fashioned or un-modern. You see that a lot in books from the '30s, say.

Posted by: Dwight Decker on March 31, 2004 1:54 AM

This post brought a smile, and the book has been added to my list, although right now I am fortunate enough to hear about it all first-hand from my father, who is ninety-two. It amazes me how much he has seen in his lifetime, how much the world has progressed in that particular span of almost a century. $6.00 a week was take-home pay. You couldn't buy a car today for what a ten-room home on five acres cost back then. I learn and listen, from one who has seen so much.

Posted by: susan on March 31, 2004 7:39 AM

"Half of all people lived in spaces where they averaged more than one person per room. Taking in lodgers was common.

Half the population drank alcohol; half didnít. The half that did averaged two hard drinks and two beers a day; wine consumption was minimal. In Europe, by contrast, people drank twice as much beer, and averaged more than four glasses of wine a day."

What do you want to bet that they half who had less than a room to themselves were the half that drank? :) Plus, when do you think current definitions of alcoholism were formalized: if someone drank 2 beers and 2 hard drinks every day today, the words "I think he's got a problem..." would be whispered...Of course, their legitimate answer may have been: "and the problem is 1400 loaves of bread a year and 60-hour workweeks with no pension! Gimme a beer!"

Posted by: annette on March 31, 2004 11:47 AM

1400 loaves of bread a year? What would Atkins have to say about that?

Posted by: Nate on March 31, 2004 11:54 AM

So what happened? Why has progress slowed from the early part of the 20th Century? Why are the skies still nearly devoid of traffic, and the rest of the Solar System completely deserted?

I figure we should have stuck to late 19th Century policies and let progress continue unchecked. Who knows where we'd be by now?

Posted by: Ken on March 31, 2004 12:01 PM

I can't speak to this lecture but I took Michael's advice some months back and heard the lectures on The Odyssey and it was an enormous treat. I look forward to another long drive so I can buy some more tapes!

Posted by: David Sucher on March 31, 2004 12:47 PM

It seems to me that it's awfully hard to compare the standard of living now to what it was at the turn of the (19th to 20th) century.
It's true that a substantial part of the working class, including skilled workers, lived a close to the bone existence (though to judge from the continuous waves of immigrants,it was better here than in Europe). But if you made it into the equivalent of today's upper middle class, you lived a very solid life indeed. It was standard for the income of a business or professional man to support (without the help of a wife's income, because at that level the wife NEVER worked outside the home) a household that included not just his nuclear family, but often grandparents, a maiden aunt or two, as well as the family ne'er-do-well; while employing at the very least a maid; often maid, cook, nanny and stableboy.
The house in which they all lived was more often than not a huge two or three storied gabled affair.
Most significant of all, this comfortable life was lived in an atmosphere of stability and security that gave it a copious expansive feel that is all but gone today.

Posted by: ricpic on March 31, 2004 2:39 PM

Right, and lived very well with all that cheap labor to allow "often maid, cook, nanny and stableboy."

When I hear people complaining about, say, the cost of housing and how to make it affordable, I think that the solution is really simple:
ē cheap immigrant labor and
ē no environmental laws.

By and large I think we in the USA (& first world in general) are incredibly lucky and I hope we have the wisdom to keep on doing whatever it has been that we have been doing -- and aye, therein lies the debate! -- to grace us with such ease.

Posted by: David Sucher on March 31, 2004 3:55 PM

Alas, I am sold and clicked to buy.

But there is nothing left in my vast collection of electronics that will play an audio cassette.

This may be the stealth reason for the astounding price. If they offered it in vhs, cd or dvd I'd buy even at a premium.

Posted by: Van der Leun on March 31, 2004 5:49 PM


I think the standard of living has grown much better for all of us since the turn of the last century and beyond. My father, who was born in 1931, lived with his mother in the heart of Brooklyn in a coldwater flat. His older sister remembers him crying from hunger as a young child, and there was no more food forthcoming.

Great changes have taken place since then. For instance, my father's mother, a single parent, who was a proofreader by trade found it very difficult to compete against men who got the higher paying jobs.

Also, if houses were bigger then, that may be because people had larger families and/or extended families as you suggested. Also the availability of cheap labor made keeping such a house clean a less onerous task. There is also the question of taste. In the sixties, or perhaps earlier, tastes changed and people began building smaller houses. Now, it seems, houses are getting bigger: Think of the McMansions the elite are always fretting about. Where I live, you can see hundreds of these behemoths in various stages of construction.

Posted by: Rachel on March 31, 2004 6:55 PM


When you say, "the equivalent of today's upper middle class", you are making a rather misleading comparison. The professional class of 1900 was vastly smaller than that of 2004, just as the working class was vastly larger.

It's easy to wax nostalgic about the past, but though my grandparents were professionals, factory owners, and the like, I don't recall them ever expressing much longing for the old days.

Posted by: David on March 31, 2004 7:59 PM

I too agree that the change in daily life from, say, 1830 to 1930 was far more profound than that from 1930 to now.

What I find interesting is how easily people living through that change adjusted to all the innovations.

Take my grandfather. He was born in 1869 and as a young man joined the high-tech railroad industry. After losing a foot in a train accident, he became a telegrapher. By the time he died (in 1963), he was watching astronauts blasting off via his TV set, and took it all in stride.

Another note: One difference between now and 100 years ago was that there was no income tax, so what money you earned, most of it you got to keep for your own uses.

Don Pittenger

Posted by: Donald Pitttenger on March 31, 2004 8:40 PM

I agree very strongly with MvB's comment that our grandparents (or more precisely, our great-grandparents) experienced far more radical changes than in their lifetimes than we or our parents in ours.

In 1870, except perhaps in England, the vast majority of the population lived on farms. Animal power was the standard; machine power was rare. Electricity was a cutting-edge novelty used only for telegraphs. Medicine was ineffectual, fatal epidemic disease was common. Wars were fought with muzzle-loading black-powder guns. Music and drama were live-performance only. There were almost no paved roads outside large cities.

By 1930, in any advanced nation, most people lived in concrete and steel cities - same as today. Animal power was gone. Cars and trucks with internal combustion engines were commonplace - same as today. Antisepsis and sanitation had all but eliminated epidemic disease and reduced infant mortality to a fraction of its historic level - same as today. The commonest illumination was an incandescent bulb - same as today. That bulb was powered by 60Hz AC from coal-fired steam turbine generators - same as today. Soldiers carried automatic weapons - same as today. (US soldiers now in Iraq are very fond of the "Ma-Deuce" - the M2 .50 caliber machine gun, first produced in 1921!) Recorded or broadcast music and drama had largely displaced live (especially home) performance - same as today. The countryside was covered by a network of paved roads - still in use today.

That's why science fiction has been stagnating since the 1960s. Science fiction was born in the 1920s, at the end of the era of rapid fundamental change. The founders of science fiction expected a future where that rate and kind of change continued; what they imagined is still a common idea of the future (vide Star Trek/Star Wars) even though it's been obvious for decades that that future wasn't going to happen.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on March 31, 2004 9:02 PM

What amazes me is how quickly we humans absorb change and incorporate into our lives even the most remarkable new conditions:
The future may be more ordinary than we can possibly imagine.

Posted by: David Sucher on March 31, 2004 9:29 PM

It is interesting that even though our predictions about the future tend to be exaggerate (the future is more ordinary than we imagine) and that we learn this early in life (when we experience our first breakup), research shows that we continue to make biased predictions. We exaggerate the impact of changes: we think we will enjoy or suffer more than we do when something good or bad happens. But an even more interesting phenomenon is our tendency to view the past as idyllic and to exaggerate the impact of changes in hindsight.

Posted by: Isaac on April 1, 2004 12:58 AM

One thing I find really weird is that the future we were promised keeps not happening, and no one seems especially disappointed about it.

Maybe I'm the one who's weird, but I look up at the empty sky with no traffic to speak of, and I can't help but see what not only might have been, but should have been.

Posted by: Ken on April 1, 2004 9:57 AM

The lectures on music by Prof. Greenberg may be the best of all.

Posted by: LowLife on April 2, 2004 1:09 PM

What lectures?

Posted by: andalucia on April 3, 2004 12:59 AM

I'm with LowLife -- Greenberg's lectures are terrific. He's put together about a half-dozen lecture series about western classical music for the Teaching Company. Visit their site, then look for him -- they'll list all his series. I don't know of a better way to learn about the subject.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 3, 2004 1:12 AM

"10% of the American population was completely illiterate, and the average adult had an 8th grade education. Only 7% of students would ever complete high school. "
High school graduation rates are much higher, the average level of education is much higher, yet literacy rates are 80 %.
It's not all progress you know.

Posted by: Tim Worstall on April 3, 2004 4:31 AM


I'm glad the skies aren't full of people. If something goes wrong, where do they go? Down. With lousy consequences for themselves and anyone or anything that is underneath.

Now this might be worth doing anyway, if it was cheap and easy (like cars). But overcoming gravity is always going to take a lot of concentrated energy--and I don't think that's ever going to come cheap.

Posted by: Roger Sweeny on April 4, 2004 12:23 PM

"I'm glad the skies aren't full of people. If something goes wrong, where do they go? Down. With lousy consequences for themselves and anyone or anything that is underneath."

If skycars were in general use, how close together do you think people and things would be? Not very, would be my guess; people who can commute hundreds of miles generally wouldn't bother cramming themselves into the sorts of urban and suburban landscapes we see today. Just about anyone who got into a jam would have his pick of empty spots to come down in.

"Now this might be worth doing anyway, if it was cheap and easy (like cars). But overcoming gravity is always going to take a lot of concentrated energy--and I don't think that's ever going to come cheap. "

It had better. Unless you like the idea of eternal stagnation. I sure don't.

Posted by: Ken on April 4, 2004 3:43 PM

It would be fascinating to start anew somewhere uninhabited, with a nifty cheap individual flying technology. People would certainly live further apart than they do now. Though I really wonder how low the preferred density would actually be. People like to get together in various ways. Would stores and schools go away? I doubt it.

In any case, we are stuck now with a very large "installed base" of buildings and infrastructure.

I don't like "eternal stagnation." And I haven't noticed any recently. But there are some things that do seem pretty constant: the power of gravity, the second law of thermodynamics, etc.

Posted by: Roger Sweeny on April 5, 2004 9:41 AM

nwa can you sssssssssssssssssse.

Posted by: NWAMUGU on May 20, 2004 5:28 AM

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