Mississippi was hit by epic thunderstorms the other week. Like thousands of other people across the state, perhaps you were left without electricity?
For me, no electricity meant trying to work without air-conditioning. Not having any AC was not a productive experience. As I sweltered in the heat, I was left wondering how people in Mississippi managed before the advent of AC?
Invented in 1902 by Willis Carrier, within living memory, there were plenty of homes and offices in Mississippi that did not have any AC. For a start, it was once very expensive. According to the website HumanProgress.org, the cost of AC units has fallen by 97 percent since the early 1950s. AC only became ubiquitous in cars and shops within the past two or three decades.
Imagine what life would be like in Mississippi without refrigeration? As late as the 1950s, that was how a significant number of people in our state lived.
When the first self-contained refrigerator, the Frigidaire, went on sale in 1919 it cost $775 – or about $12,000 in today’s money. Today, you can buy a vastly better refrigerator for only a fraction of the cost.
It’s not only the costs of keeping cool that have come down.
In 1979, to buy a 14-inch television, the average American earning the average wage would have needed to work 70 hours to earn enough. Today, a vastly better TV can be purchased for the equivalent of 4 hours of work.
The other day I re-watched Wall Street, that classic 1980s movie starring Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko. In the movie, Gekko uses one of the first commercial cell phones, a DynaTec. Apparently, Gekko’s phone retailed for almost $4,000 at the time, or over $10,000 in today’s prices. It needed re-charging after 30 minutes.
Today, even someone on the minimum wage in Mississippi could afford a vastly better cell phone than anything available to Wall Street billionaires a generation ago.
Among those officially classified as ‘poor’ in America, 99 percent live in homes that have a fridge, 95 percent have a television, 88 percent have a phone and over 70 percent own a car.
1996, the real cost of household appliances has fallen by over 40 percent. The cost of footwear and clothes by 60 percent. Indeed, the average American home is full of gadgets, entertainment systems and labor-saving devices many of which had not even been invented when Ronald Reagan was in the White House.
As my friend the author, Matt Ridley puts it, “Our generation has access to more calories, watts, horsepower, gigabytes, megahertz, square feet, air miles, food per acre, miles per gallon, and, of course, money than any who lived before us”.
And here’s another remarkable thing. We get all this extra stuff without having to work as hard. In 1913, the average American worker put in 1,036 hours that year, compared to less than 750 hours a year now.
Often, I hear people talking about there being ‘too much technology’. It is fashionable to say that we should turn away from technology and get back to a pure and simple past. Really? I’ve heard anyone express that sort of opinion in the poor places, such as Uganda or Kenya, that I’ve lived in. If anyone ever tells you that we have too much technology, you might want to suggest that they switch off the air-conditioning for a few hours and think about it.
Thank goodness for modern technology – and the free market that makes it available at an affordable price for everyone.
Douglas Carswell is the President & CEO of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.