On Thanksgiving

Tomorrow is the U.S.’s Thanksgiving holiday. It is a fine time to reflect on the bounty that the productivity increases brought by capital accumulation and technological improvements have brought to us.

The cost of the ingredients of a Thanksgiving feast for ten are now said to cost an average worker their wages for under 2.25 hours of labor. A 16 pound turkey now costs less than what an average worker earns in an hour.

We live lives of such astonishing wealth that we scarcely notice it. Only a fool would rather be an Emperor in 1600 than a poor person living today. Compared to a king of several centuries ago, poor people in the developed world live in astonishing luxury. In the developed world, we eat fresh vegetables in midwinter, our homes are heated toasty warm in the winter and cooled and dehumidified in the summer, we travel in enormous comfort (no wooden wheeled carriages without shock absorbers for us, and indeed, we can fly to the other side of the world for a quite modest sum of money), our medical care is incomparably better, our beds more comfortable, our entertainment options beyond any potentate’s wildest dreams. This is true even of quite poor people, at least in developed countries.

Whence comes this bounty? It is not because of union organizing, or minimum wage laws, or the triumph of the proletariat over the evil factory owners. Indeed, a few centuries ago, there were few mass production factories to triumph over.

No, the source of this bounty is productivity, and the engines of productivity are deferred consumption being invested in improved infrastructure (that is, capital accumulation), improved technology, and specialization. Thanks to our better means of making things and the sacrifices needed to construct those means, productivity per worker is orders of magnitude higher, and thus there’s more stuff to go around.

Centuries ago, it required something like 750 hours of human labor to produce a simple tunic; today it requires minutes of human labor. Almost no one is capable of truly internalizing this change. The shirt on your back once was a valuable capital good requiring four months of constant labor to produce. Now it’s not even worth repairing if it tears, it’s too inexpensive to replace it. Because of this change in productivity, even quite poor people in developed countries own many sets of clothing.

Centuries ago, there was barely enough food to go around, and often far too little, as a result of which starvation was common. It required constant labor by most of the population to produce enough food. Then, mechanization of agriculture set in, and the production of synthetic fertilizer, and pest control, and improved breeding methods; today, it requires very few people to grow more than enough food for everyone. There is so much food, in fact, that obesity has become a disease of the poor, an unprecedented development in human history.

So it is across the span of consumer goods. The amount of labor it requires to produce enough light to read at night has gone down by orders of magnitude, and the quantity of light produced by an ordinary lightbulb is 100 times greater than that of a candle at a tiny fraction of the price. Many goods didn’t even exist before; in my father’s youth there were no televisions, and now people can by 4k 130cm flat screens.

We were assured by Marx in his writings that the unavoidable result of capitalism over the long term would be the persistent reduction in the quality of the lives of poor people. This was inevitable because capitalists would be forced to engage in greater and greater extraction of the surplus value of the production of their workers. As with essentially all of Marx’s predictions, this did not come to pass; indeed, the opposite has been true.

Marx’s views were based in an entirely counterfactual set of theories of how the world works. Sadly, even though essentially everything Marx claimed about economies and society has proven false, and although essentially every prediction he made has been falsified, and even though his ideas led to the deaths of at least 100 million people in the 20th century, Marx is still wildly popular with the supposed educated classes of our society. (Indeed, even though Marx’s vicious bigotries were the cause of as much or more horror than those of the fascists, it is still respectable for academics to call themselves Marxists. Calling yourself a Nazi will rightfully cause you to be ejected from polite society, but call yourself a Marxist and you can get tenure. But I digress.)

Sadly, the myriad of capitalists that have kept us fed, warmed, clothed, entertained, and healed are largely forgotten. Like fish forgetting they live in water, we forget most of the time that we owe so much to the market economy we are surrounded by, to the vast number and diversity of producers, bringing to bear astonishing specialization and division of labor, creating an incomprehensible number of goods.

We owe so much to people in the past denying their current wants to carefully invest in the future that they might have more tomorrow. It has been the capital they slowly accumulated for us over centuries that has made us all so comfortable. The resources carefully husbanded by capitalists looking to the future were converted into capital equipment of all sorts, from house insulation to computer networks, from injection molding machines to automated teller machines, from to MRI scanners to torque wrenches.

Ultimately, we owe everything to them, and to the never-ending quest for higher productivity among selfish people desperately trying to out-compete their brethren. To quote Adam Smith:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

So tomorrow, when I, as with millions of others sit down to have an unnecessarily large meal with my family, I’ll try to be mindful of how hard the struggle was to move from caves and huts to comfortable modern homes, from bare subsistence to feasts that can acquired by trading less labor than it used to require to make a chair leg, from a world lit and heated only by fire to one where I can sit in shirtsleeves reading comfortably at night while a freezing wind howls outside.

What’s even more amazing is this: if people cease to try to prevent the world from getting better, our descendants may pity those living today for our astonishing poverty, for they may someday be vastly richer than we are.