For most of history, one of the main challenges was getting enough food to eat. Keeping your family alive through the winter until you can harvest the first crop in the spring has been a worry for thousands of years.
That point is important when considering ancient finances back in the days of the Roman legions or Viking raiders. The following discussion, which is cross-posted from my other blog Outrun Change, provides some context on food scarcity.
Johan Norberg describes the tremendous progress in the last several hundred years in so many areas, such as life expectancy, health, sanitation, liberty, education, and equality in his book Progress: 10 Reasons to Look Forward to the Future. Here are a few more tidbits I found fascinating.
Consider the scarcity of food in the past and the drop in cost to feed a family in the last 150 years.
Look at just a few of the statistics on availability of food, or rather the long running issue of scarcity of food:
(Article cross-posted from Outrun Change because it shows the radical change in per capita income over the last 200 years, which in turn illustrates the challenge of expressing ancient prices and incomes in terms of today.)
Here is an approximation of annual per capita GDP from 1 AD through 1913:
I’ve long been amazed at the radical growth in per capita wealth over the last 200 years. That means since the Industrial Revolution.
Living in dirt-eating poverty as the normal way of life for essentially every person on the planet changed about 200 years ago, give or take.
..in the two centuries after 1800 the trade-tested goods and services available to the average person in Sweden or Taiwan rose by a factor of 30 or 100. Not 100 percent, understand— a mere doubling— but in its highest estimate a factor of 100, nearly 10,000 percent, and at least a factor of 30, or 2,900 percent. The Great Enrichment of the past two centuries has dwarfed any of the previous and temporary enrichments.
Let me phrase that another way. The value of what is enjoyed today by an average person is roughly equal to what 30 or 100 people had two centuries ago. That means the constant dollar value of what is consumed and enjoyed has grown by a factor of somewhere between 30 and 100.
I suggest you are in fact richer today than John Rockefeller was 100 years ago. If it were possible for Prof. Don Boudreaux to switch places with John Rockefeller’s life and even if he could have a billion dollars after he arrived back in 1916, he would not make the switch. He would rather live as a comfortable professor today than be a billionaire 100 years ago.
Here are three posts to explain this strange idea: first, what life was like 100 years ago, why Prof Boudreaux would not make the switch, and then why Coyote Blog wouldn’t either.
(This post may seem to be out-of-place on my blog discussing accounting and auditing topics. This discussion is part of my enjoyable research on ancient finances and a related thread of how much life has improved over the last 200 years. Since I discuss finance at this blog, it actually fits.)
I will update a few of the stats in the Atlantic article where the author took a shortcut. When I browsed through the BLS report, I noticed some sentences which were repeated nearly verbatim in the article, which is okay since the report is a public document.
A few highlights:
Workers in factories averaged 55 hours a week. The fatality rate across the economy was 61 deaths per 100,000 compared to about 3.3 per 100,000 today.