For Thankgiving 2018: Yes, You Are Probably Better Off Than Your Parents*

On social media, I sometimes try to "referee the internet".  That's what I call engaging in political debate or argument. I like dialectic. Constructive argument is better than smile-and-wave, or sweep-under-the-rug, etc. If you have the right touch, the friendship survives.

One of the arguments that is ongoing is over the pessimism vs. optimism for globalisation.

Other species, and the environment, I'm tragically not optimistic about.  My optimism about human lives is actually, in part, to get us to focus on worrying about things that really matter.  Also, I think that unnecessary panic and pessimism, whether to Trump or Bernie, distracts us from making investments that might really matter.

So here goes. When we look at an optimistic video, like GapMinder (Hans Rosling), about more girls going to school, fewer diseases, less poverty, the statistics and facts are clear.  Here is an interesting graphic - The World Poverty Clock.

57,913 people escaped poverty today (income levels increased)
11,508 people fell into poverty (especially in places like Venezuela, Nigeria, Syria and Yemen)

World Poverty Clock Screenshot

The graphic shows red (newly poor) and black (newly rich) stick figures, and shows countries in red or black according to how their own population is faring.  I have some funnier videos at bottom.

Here's the argument people most often push back. Many people believe that the current generation of AMERICANS or EUROPEANS is less likely to be better off than their parents generation.

But there are two ways to pose the question. Are we living better than a previous generation? And if so, how did we afford it?

Extinction is the Crisis, Not Jobs

Let me explain what you are seeing. Two generations ago, my grandfather never ever took debt to buy a car. He was a subsistence farmer in the Ozarks - he literally plowed his fields with a mule, and built every home himself. We found "nails" in the wallboard that were made of clothes hangers snipped into one inch pieces. At the end of his life (91), his debt was zero.

It's about the compound interest.  Subsequent generations have been living better, but saving less, and borrowing more. And that trend goes back a long ways.

Personal debt to GDP 1947-2015
Grandpas kids were better off. My mother and her 3 siblings had nicer homes, and sometime bought new cars (and at least never bought cars with a problem they knew how to fix, like Grandpa).  So their standard of living was higher.  But here's the thing - they all had MORTGAGES and BORROWED money to buy cars.

I had to borrow money to go to college.  And it scared the hell out of me. At 17 years of age, millions of Americans are making their first major 5-digit-figure financial decision, and it is to go into debt.

So, I would say that at 56 years old, I still have a better standard of living than my parents did, and my parents had a better one than their parents. But it would be completely irresponsible of me to tell my own kids that they are worse off without disclosing the amount of debt my generation accrued to enjoy this lifestyle.

It's disgusting the amount of national debt being left to our kids. But the good news is that the economy has been growing... thanks to globalization and world trade.

Africans like Emmanuel Nyalete believe in the Circular Economy. But like Copernicus, don't think it revolves around You

Please, spare me the romanticized stories about how happy the 70 year old was on an assembly line, making shoes. The fact is that those jobs were not that great. The USA shoe and textile industry tried raising the price of Levis enough to pay people to come to those jobs, but it wasn't working. Young people found more pleasant jobs with better hours. The shoe factories then tried using immigrant labor, but the 70 year olds didn't like that either. So the factories were shut down, "tens of thousands of assembly line jobs were lost", and the shoe factories moved to Mexico, China, Bangladesh, Viet Nam, etc.

Shoes got cheaper, and people who used to work at shoe factories are now available to work at Gillette or Google or Amazon. The tens of thousands of people who lost their jobs certainly included many who did not find better work.  Like the poverty clock shows, there were losers.  But when Asians and Latin Americans were able to make shoes instead of working in rice paddies or picking coffee beans, they made more money.  Instead of selling electronics with Windows, Android, or Apple apps to 300M Americans, American high-tech firms sold electronics to a billion people. The price of the goods fell.  And my kids don't have the option to work at a factory making $70 blue jeans or $200 a pair shoes... but they can buy $20 blue jeans and $50 shoes and a $200 cell phone.  And they can meet peers from Bangladesh, Viet Nam, Mexico and China who wear nice blue jeans and shoes and have cell phones with Android, Apple, or Windows programs made in the USA.

We have Star Trek Tricorders in our pockets, and even scrappers in Agbogbloshie can afford them (I got a video call from Yaro, Razak and Awal this morning).

People like to argue against me with examples. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders gave an example of a NAFTA era factory that moved to Mexico, which he visited in the 1990s, and found Mexicans living in cardboard boxes.  Bad, bad NAFTA, says Bernie.  I say, that was when the factory first OPENED. Check out how those Mexicans are living today.  And check out the jobs in research triangle in North Carolina, where the shoe factory closed.

There are painful examples of poverty. But the net effect is that most people are getting better and better off.  The wealth in emerging markets did not come at the expense of Americans.  American savings in affordable technology came because of trade.

Americans on the whole have a problem with debt.  And when I see my parents lived in a nicer house than their parents, I have to take into account their mortgage. People who didn't bought too much house, which led to the crash of 2008.

What we should be concerned about is that as more and more millions of people achieve a better standard of living, they consume more paper (especially toilet paper). Mines get bigger. They dig forests and ore out of rain forests. The mining and forestry isn't just bad on its own terms, but the roads and access they create leads to bushmeat trade, poaching, and extinction.

That's what generations 100 years from now will remember about our legacy.

Yes, You Are Probably Better Off Than Your Parents*

*But that depends primarily on how much debt your parents took, and how much compound interest they left you with.

I also like the following two videos:

The Four Yorkshiremen (Pre-Monty Python) Sketch

Louis CK on complaints about Air Travel

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