One of the downsides of success is that people sometimes forget what it took to get there. It’s not usually the people who created the success in the first place who forget it, but rather their progeny or the people who experience the fruits of success without having to have actually achieved it…
Mankind has been on this planet for hundreds of thousands of years. To borrow Carl Sagan’s analogy, if the time mankind has been on earth was a calendar, the time the United States has been in existence might be just one day.
For most of the 365 days on that calendar most humans lived largely in conditions of scarcity, barbarity, poverty and war. For most of human history it was the sword that was the defining element of destiny… either by fighting on the battlefields or as a medium of control over other people.
If the Declaration of Independence is midnight on night of the 30th of December, then the year 1900 might constitute noon on December 31st. To put some perspective on today’s world, let’s look a few of things from the year 1900. At the turn of the century the average life expectancy in the world was 31 years and 35% of all babies never made it to their fifth birthday. Half of the American population worked on farms – one of the most dangerous occupations in the world – or in its ancillary industries and for most of the rest of the world that share was over 90%. Slavery still existed in 15 countries, Jim Crow laws existed throughout the south and the bubonic plague was killing 100,000 people a year worldwide. Flight, radio, and television, had not been invented (nevermind the computer and the Internet) and a three minute long distance call would cost five dollars.
Today most humans live in a different world if not necessarily on a different planet… this is particularly true for people living in the West. On that 365 day calendar the period from 2000 to today might only represent the last hour on the last day of the year. But during that hour life for almost every American would be exponentially better than it had been for our ancestress for the previous 99.99% of human history. Today the average life expectancy worldwide is 64 while in the US it’s 79 years and worldwide less than 5% of babies don’t reach their 5th birthday. War still exists, but it’s different. During the two wars the United States has been involved in since 2001 the number of fatalities is near 8,000 while over a period of just over a dozen years of war during the wars of the 20th century Americans lost over 600,000. Today 91% of Americans have mobile phones while 65% have smartphones that are more powerful than the computers that put a man on the moon. Today 95% of Americans work in areas other than farming… something for which we can thank a man named Cyrus McCormick. In 1831 McCormick invented the mechanical reaper that freed men from the soil and changed the world. McCormick made it so that so that rather than spending their lives toiling on dangerous farms most Americans could spend their lives as teachers, plumbers, programmers, golf professionals, accountants, actors, doctors, marketing executives, YoutTube stars, writers and pretty much anything they might want to do as they no longer were tethered to the farm.
Today we can fly virtually anywhere on the planet in less than 24 hours, we can video chat endlessly with anyone anywhere for free, we can fill up our gas tanks for the equivalent of two hours of work, we can order books or dinner or clothes or furniture online and have them delivered to our door in hours or days and watch new movies from our couches or make them on our computers. Ninety nine percent of American households have TVs, 87% have air conditioning and 86% of households have cars.
All of these random measures showcase why someone plucked from Rome from the year 100 B.C. would have much more in common with someone 2000 years later from Atlanta or New York in 1900 than either would have with the average American today a mere 100 years later. The United States today has enormous problems that must be faced and the world has even more. But we should not let those problems, as real as they are, divert us from recognizing exactly what we have and how far mankind in general and Americans in particular have come. As we celebrate the birth of Christ and look forward to a New Year we should take time to reflect on our good fortune to live in a world as wondrous as ours is in 2016… and perhaps that will give us the strength, confidence and desire to make it even better for our progeny.