Who wants to be a bil­lion­aire (in 1916)?

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - GE­ORGE F. WILL georgewill@wash­post.com

Hav­ing be­stowed the pres­i­dency on a can­di­date who de­scribed their coun­try as a “hell­hole” be­sieged by mul­ti­tudes try­ing to get into it, Amer­i­cans need an an­ti­dote for so­cial hypochon­dria. For­tu­nately, one has ar­rived from Don Boudreaux, an econ­o­mist at Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity’s Mer­ca­tus Cen­ter and pro­pri­etor of the in­dis­pens­able blog Cafe Hayek.

He has good news: You are as rich as John D. Rock­e­feller. Richer, ac­tu­ally.

Some his­to­ri­ans es­ti­mate that on Sept. 29, 1916, a surge in the price of Rock­e­feller’s shares of the Stan­dard Oil Co. of New Jersey made him Amer­ica’s first bil­lion­aire. Others say he never reached this mile­stone and that Henry Ford was the first. Never mind. If Rock­e­feller was the first, his bil­lion was worth $23 bil­lion in to­day’s dol­lars. Boudreaux asks if you would ac­cept this bar­gain: You can be as rich as Rock­e­feller was in 1916 if you con­sent to live in 1916.

Boudreaux says that if you had Rock­e­feller’s riches back then, you could have had a pala­tial home on Fifth Av­enue, an­other over­look­ing the Pa­cific, and a pri­vate is­land if you wished. Of course, go­ing to and from the coasts in your pri­vate but un-air-con­di­tioned rail­road car would be time-con­sum­ing and less than pleas­ant. And com­mu­ni­cat­ing with some­one on the other coast would be a slug­gish chore.

Com­mer­cial ra­dio did not ar­rive un­til 1920, and 1916 phono­graphs would lac­er­ate 2017 sen­si­bil­i­ties, as would 1916’s silent movies. If in 1916 you wanted Thai curry, chicken vin­daloo or Viet­namese pho, you could go to the phone hang­ing on your wall and ask the oper­a­tor (di­rect di­al­ing be­gan in the 1920s) to con­nect you to restau­rants serv­ing those dishes. The fact that there were no such restau­rants would not bother you be­cause in 1916 you had never heard of those dishes, so you would not know what you were miss­ing.

If in 1916 you suf­fered from de­pres­sion, bipo­lar disor­der, a sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­ease or in­nu­mer­able other ail­ments treat­able in 2017, you also would not know that you were miss­ing an­tibi­otics and the rest of mod­ern phar­ma­col­ogy. And don’t even think about get­ting a 1916 toothache. You can af­ford state-of-the-art 1916 den­tures — and prob­a­bly will need them. Your arthritic hips and knees? Hob­ble along un­til you can­not hob­ble any more, then buy a wheel­chair. Birth con­trol in 1916 will be prim­i­tive, un­re­li­able and not con­ducive to plea­sure.

You could en­joy a smat­ter­ing of early jazz, but rock-and-roll is decades dis­tant, and Net­flix and Google even more so. Your pas­times would be lim­ited, but you could mea­sure the pas­sage of time on the finest Swiss watch. It, how­ever, would be less ac­cu­rate than to­day’s Timex or smart­phone.

As a 1916 bil­lion­aire, you would be ma­te­ri­ally worse off than a 2017 mid­dle­class Amer­i­can; an un­healthy 1916 bil­lion­aire would be much worse off than an un­healthy 2017 Amer­i­can of any means. In­tel­lec­tu­ally, your 1916 range of cul­tural choices would be pal­try com­pared with to­day’s. And your moral tran­quil­ity might be dis­turbed by the con­trast be­tween your bil­lion­aire’s life and that of the nor­mal Amer­i­can.

Last year, a Bureau of La­bor Statis­tics pa­per de­scribed the life of work­ers in 1915. More than half (52.4 per­cent) of the 100 mil­lion Amer­i­cans were younger than 25, life ex­pectancy at birth was 54.5 years (to­day, 78.8) and less than 5 per­cent of Amer­i­cans were 65 or older. One in 10 ba­bies died in the first year of life (to­day, 1 in 168). A large ma­jor­ity of births were not in hos­pi­tals (to­day, less than 1 per­cent).

In 1915, only about 14 per­cent of peo­ple ages 14 to 17 were in high school, an es­ti­mated 18 per­cent age 25 and older had com­pleted high school, and nearly 75 per­cent of women work­ing in fac­to­ries had left school be­fore eighth grade. There were 4 renters for ev­ery home­owner, partly be­cause mort­gages (usu­ally for just five to seven years) re­quired down pay­ments of 40 to 50 per­cent of the pur­chase price.

Less than one-third of homes had elec­tric lights. Small elec­tric mo­tors — the first Hoover vac­uum cleaner ap­peared in 1915 — were not yet light­en­ing house­work. Ice­boxes, which were the norm un­til after World War II, were all that 1915 had: Gen­eral Mo­tors’ Frigidaire de­buted in 1918.

So, thank Boudreaux for mak­ing you think about this: How large would your net worth have to be to get you to swap the life you are liv­ing in “hell­hole” Amer­ica for what that money could buy in 1916?

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