A couple of years ago at a dinner table I listened to two highly educated and very intelligent Britons lamenting that the next generation would be poorer than us. I differed from their perspective, not least because they were underestimating the importance of technological change in fields such as computing, robotics and medicine.
The problem is that our wealth measurement tools are not very good, even for changes taking place over short periods of time. For example, as recently as ten years ago, only the global elite had Blackberry devices. To clarify the point, I want to make a comparison stretching not over decades but millennia.
Am I richer than Pharaoh Ramesses II (1303BC – 1213BC)? I have chosen him specifically because Egypt’s pharaoh was regarded as the richest and most powerful man in the known world, and Ramesses II is regarded as the greatest pharaoh of them all.
How do we compare me and Pharaoh?
One obvious answer is to convert our wealth into a common currency such as gold. On this measure, obviously Pharaoh would beat me hands down! However money matters only because you can buy things with it. For example, an extra ton of gold would have been of less value than some more woodworking tools to Robinson Crusoe on his desert island. What Pharaoh’s money and my money could buy is dramatically different.
What Pharaoh had
In a word, Pharaoh had power. The words of Leonard Cohen’s song “Came so Far for Beauty” come to mind: “men to do my bidding, and broken bones to teach, the value of my pardon”. This power in turn meant an endless availability of concubines and a limitless supply of food. But how many sexual partners can one person cope with? How much food can one person consume?
What Pharaoh didn’t have
The medical treatment and dentistry available to Pharaoh were extremely limited. That is why in ancient Egypt, although Ramesses II fortuitously lived until 90, life even for pharaohs (let alone ordinary Egyptians) was relatively short and often painful in the absence of modern dentistry and medicine.
The variety of food available to Pharaoh was extremely limited compared to what you would find in any British supermarket. We consume foods that Pharaoh never knew existed from countries which themselves were unknown to ancient Egyptians.
Travel opportunities – the ordinary Briton can travel the world in a way that was unimaginable to ancient Egyptians.
The culture available to Pharaoh was immensely limited. Pharaoh never watched “Hamlet” because it had not been written when he lived. The same would be true of almost every literary work we treasure.
With every year that goes by, the entire human race becomes richer because more books, songs and films are produced which eventually become part of the shared heritage of mankind. Exactly the same point applies to the scientific knowledge available to Pharaoh. Knowledge has value in itself; I was made richer by Albert Einstein explaining the failure of the Michelson Morley experiment, even ignoring any commercial benefits from mankind’s understanding of the special theory of relativity.
The singer Al Jolson died in the year that I was born. Despite that I have been able to enjoy his acting and singing due to technology that Pharaoh could only dream about.
I would not swap my life for that of Pharaoh. Being able to read great literature, watch great films, listen to wonderful music and play games such as chess and go (neither of which were available to Pharaoh) far outweighs for me any pleasure that might come from being the absolute ruler 3,000 years ago of a country that was in reality impoverished by modern standards.
All of us should be much more positive about the future. There is clearly a great deal for all of us to do collectively to prevent wars, avoid economic failures, and ensure we do not suffer a climate change catastrophe. However as we face these challenges we should remember that every year we produce a cornucopia of new cultural assets and new scientific knowledge, both of which then belong to all of mankind.
Cheerful politicians who make us feel better about ourselves are more likely to win elections. Think of Ronald Reagan’s great political advertisement “It’s morning again in America. Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country’s history.”
David Cameron’s proposal for an index of Gross National Happiness appears to have disappeared from the political debate. It needs to come back. Optimism and pessimism are both contagious, but only one of them is associated with achieving better outcomes.