The richest person in history (plus or minus a few billion)

Originally published in ConsumerAffairs

An old proverb says that “The rich man has his ice in the summer, and the poor man gets his in the winter.”

Of course, that proverb predates the Industrial Revolution, discovery of electricity and invention of refrigeration, not to mention the other technological and economic reasons why, in early 21st-century America, things like refrigerator/freezers aren’t “rich-person luxury items” but actual legal requirements — if you’re a landlord renting out residential properties, local tenant and zoning codes almost certainly require that you equip those apartments with a working refrigerator and the electrical infrastructure to power it, among other things.

I first came across the “rich man’s ice” saying as a little girl, during whichever summer I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. Like most young kids, even those whose parents provide all necessities, I was absolutely rock-bottom “poor” in terms of “How much money do I, personally, have to spend?” (Usual answer: None, unless I’d recently received some as a gift.)

But that summer, reading library books about American pioneer life in the 1870s and ’80s, was the first time I ever felt rich. Ice in the summer? Anytime I wanted; I didn’t even need to ask permission first. In one scene, Wilder described how excited she and her sisters were the day Pa came home with a very special (and expensive) present for the whole family: little panes of window glass, so natural light could enter the house and the family could see outside even when the weather was too cold or rainy to leave the window open. That was a red-letter day in the Ingalls household, even better than when Pa put smooth wooden boards down over the house’s original packed-dirt floor.

Sunday best

PhotoThen I read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Mark Twain describing Tom’s getting ready for church: “Mary got out a suit of his clothing that had been used only on Sundays during two years—they were simply called his ‘other clothes’ — and so by that we know the size of his wardrobe.” Laura Ingalls and her childhood friends had wardrobes roughly the same size: a regular outfit and a “Sunday best.”

By contemporary American-kid standards my financial status had always been average-to-poorish, but I’d have been the richest character by far in any of my “life in olden times” storybooks. And the further back in time I go, the richer I become. In fact, if you exclude “everyone who lives or has lived these past hundred years or so,” I’m richer than any person who has ever existed.

Consider these random facts: in late Elizabethan England (a peaceful and prosperous place by the standards of the day), a single loaf of bread cost twopence (2d), when the average unskilled laborer’s income was only 3 to 4d per day, and 12d per day was the high end of a skilled laborer’s pay scale.

Queen Elizabeth I had an enormous income — 60,000 pounds per year (at 240d to the pound) — but for all her wealth she had no access to basic dental care, which is why foreign ambassadors at the time noted that several of the English Queen’s teeth were missing, and the remainders rotted to pure black.

As for Elizabeth’s subject William Shakespeare, historians think he wrote his plays (at least his early ones) while sitting in a pub — not because writers prefer noisy, distracting environments, not even so he could eat or drink while writing, but because the pubs were illuminated, and lighting was too expensive for ordinary people, let alone struggling writers, to afford much at home.

There’s some dispute over exactly when and where “glazed ceramics” and “glassware” were first invented, but everyone agrees they were extremely popular innovations mainly for eating and drinking purposes: when you eat and drink out of unglazed pottery, some of its sediments will blend in with your food.

Everyone who lived in ancient Egypt, even the rich and powerful Pharaohs, had horrible tooth problems because the food-processing methods of the time resulted in bits of sand or stone mixed in with your bread, grinding the teeth down so badly that those of most Egyptian mummies were “worn down to the pulp.”

Impossible luxuries

So, yeah — technology, cheap manufacturing, agricultural innovations and countless other advances since Ye Olden Days mean even a poor American today has what would have been literally impossible luxuries for most of history.

That slummy one-room off-campus apartment where I lived while attending Cheap State U … still bigger than the claim shanties where Laura Ingalls lived with her family of six, and equipped with everything from non-dirt floors and glass windows to indoor plumbing and all the light I wanted.

Paying for my own food was a rude shock after a lifetime of parents providing it — but even the most overpriced loaf of handmade artisan bread wouldn’t cost me two-thirds of a day’s pay. I bought cheaper bread, still much better than what Pharaoh had because it didn’t wear down my tooth enamel.

I’m not trying to impress you by bragging about my vast wealth, here — glass windows, stone-free bread, a bathroom — because in modern terms they’re not really considered “wealth” anymore; you can have all this stuff and still be poor. Your house’s being infinity times nicer than any pioneer shack is irrelevant when you can’t afford the payments to keep it.

Why is the cost of living so expensive, when food and clothes and so many other luxuries and necessities are so unbelievably cheap by world historical standards?

Higher standards

PhotoBecause we have higher living standards, for starters; the Ingalls’ claim shanty on the American frontier would be condemned as unfit for human habitation today. And for all the ways technology has made certain things cheaper than ever before, that doesn’t mean all necessities are cheap, or even affordable.

Plus there’s all the ways people’s finances can collapse for reasons beyond their control: if you need some expensive medical procedure your insurance won’t cover, there’s nothing much you can do about that.

Wages have been falling while the price of food, fuel and other necessities keep rising — not much you can do there, either. And the cost of higher education, mandatory for most career paths, has risen faster than inflation every year for more than a generation now.

Technology hasn’t helped costs there. Despite all this, there’s a definite subcategory of financial problems directly caused by making bad financial decisions, or overlooking the modern necessity vs. luxury distinction.

For just one example, if you want a new television, waiting until you have the cash to buy it is much cheaper in the long run than patronizing a “rent-to-own” or “lease to buy” center — even if you do have to wait rather than get the new TV right now. The cheapest, smallest new TVs are still better than anything you could get only 10 or 20 years ago. If you need a new refrigerator, a basic no-frills model from your local “scratch and dent” outlet works better than the top-of-the-line models from when you were a kid.

Still insecure

Bear in mind, I’m not trying to say, “You have more and nicer things than the average Elizabethan or frontiersman, so quit complaining.” Indeed, you must be careful not to mistake technological improvement, or historic standards of wealth, for financial or any other form of security.

In 2011, for example, the Heritage Foundation put out a study, “Understanding poverty in the United States,” which has become notorious among critics who interpreted it as saying “Poor people in America actually have it pretty good, and shouldn’t complain.”

In response to the Census Bureau’s report that over 46 million Americans qualified as “poor” in 2010, the Heritage Foundation noted that most poor American households do indeed own a variety of useful material possessions: “In 2005, the typical poor household, as defined by the federal government, had … a refrigerator, an oven and stove, and a microwave.”

True. Of course, as mentioned earlier, the typical American municipal building code requires a refrigerator, oven and stove for a dwelling to be legally habitable — and a new microwave oven can be had for less than $50, roughly one day’s pretax pay for a minimum-wage earner.

When Laura Ingalls and Tom Sawyer were kids, owning more than two sets of clothes was enough to make somebody rich. Nowadays a thrift-store shopper on a good day can buy an entire outfit with designer labels for less than an hour’s pay — lucky thing, since modern standards of dress have risen so that “wearing the same outfit every single day until you outgrow it or it falls apart” is no longer socially acceptable anyway.

So it’s true that even poor Americans are in many ways rich by historical standards, but those standards don’t always apply now. During my “poor years” — college and some while thereafter, until I paid off my damnable student-loan debts — when I worried about immediate or long-term financial matters, I never once thought “How can I buy a single loaf of bread?” or “I’ll never be able to afford a microwave of my very own.”

No, my concerns were bigger: debt and interest payments, health and medical costs, rent increases, hoping my rickety car held together because I couldn’t afford a repair bill that month.

But during those bleak days, when I was broke, indebted and had to practice a lot more self-denial than I generally do now, I could always afford to re-visit the literary friends of my childhood and remember that Laura and Tom and the rest of the gang would still be amazed by my opulent living standards, even in that one-room college apartment.

Staying out of restaurants was easier when I viewed my home-cooked meals through other people’s eyes: I ate lots of eggs because they were cheaper than meat, whereas Laura went years without seeing a single egg because her family couldn’t afford chickens.

Being poor, and taking the steps to be not-poor, were both easier for me to handle when I remembered the ways I was rich.