Brian Caplan compares his life with that of the richest of the Gilded Age:
I just returned from the Biltmore, America's largest home. Built by George Vanderbilt between 1889 and 1895, the Biltmore is a symbol of how good the rich had it during the Gilded Age. I'm sure that most of the other visitors would answer "very good indeed."
But how many would actually want to trade places with George? Despite his massive library, organ, and so on, I submit that any modern with a laptop and an internet connection has a vastly better book and music collection than he did. For all his riches, he didn't have air conditioning; he had to suffer through the North Carolina summers just like the poorest of us. Vanderbilt did travel the world, but without the airplane, he had to do so at a snail's pace.
Perhaps most shockingly, he suffered "sudden death from complications following an appendectomy" at the age of 51. (Here's the original NYT obituary). Whatever your precise story about the cause of rising lifespans, it's safe to say that George's Bane wouldn't be fatal today.
I made this observation several years ago, though, though I went west coast railroad entrepreneur rather than east coast. I showed pictures of a San Francisco mansion and a middle class home of a friend of mine in Seattle.
One house has hot and cold running water, central air conditioning, electricity and flush toilets. The other does not. One owner has a a computer, a high speed connection to the Internet, a DVD player with a movie collection, and several television sets. The other has none of these things. One owner has a refrigerator, a vacuum cleaner, a toaster oven, an iPod, an alarm clock that plays music in the morning, a coffee maker, and a decent car. The other has none of these. One owner has ice cubes for his lemonade, while the other has to drink his warm in the summer time. One owner can pick up the telephone and do business with anyone in the world, while the other had to travel by train and ship for days (or weeks) to conduct business in real time.
I think most of you have guessed by now that the homeowner with all the wonderful products of wealth, from cars to stereo systems, lives on the right (the former home of a friend of mine in the Seattle area). The home on the left was owned by Mark Hopkins, railroad millionaire and one of the most powerful men of his age in California. Hopkins had a mansion with zillions of rooms and servants to cook and clean for him, but he never saw a movie, never listened to music except when it was live, never crossed the country in less than a week. And while he could afford numerous servants around the house, Hopkins (like his business associates) tended to work 6 and 7 day weeks of 70 hours or more, in part due to the total lack of business productivity tools (telephone, computer, air travel, etc.) we take for granted. Hopkins likely never read after dark by any light other than a flame.
If Mark Hopkins or any of his family contracted cancer, TB, polio, heart disease, or even appendicitis, they would probably die. All the rage today is to moan about people's access to health care, but Hopkins had less access to health care than the poorest resident of East St. Louis. Hopkins died at 64, an old man in an era where the average life span was in the early forties. He saw at least one of his children die young, as most others of his age did. In fact, Stanford University owes its founding to the early death (at 15) of the son of Leland Stanford, Hopkin's business partner and neighbor. The richest men of his age had more than a ten times greater chance of seeing at least one of their kids die young than the poorest person in the US does today.
Hopkin's mansion pictured above was eventually consumed in the fires of 1906, in large part because San Francisco's infrastructure and emergency services were more backwards than those of many third world nations today.
Here is a man, Mark Hopkins, who was one of the richest and most envied men of his day. He owned a mansion that would dwarf many hotels I have stayed in. He had servants at his beck and call. And I would not even consider trading lives or houses with him. What we sometimes forget is that we are all infinitely more wealthy than even the richest of the "robber barons" of the 19th century. We have longer lives, more leisure time, and more stuff to do in that time. Not only is the sum of wealth not static, but it is expanding so fast that we can't even measure it. Charts like those here measure the explosion of income, but still fall short in measuring things like leisure, life expectancy, and the explosion of possibilities we are all able to comprehend and grasp.