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Donald Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux: We take so many modern marvels for granted

| Tuesday, April 3, 2018, 9:00 p.m.
Linda Jonczak looks through her Beatles 45s at her Brackenridge home.
Jason Bridge | Trib Total Media
Linda Jonczak looks through her Beatles 45s at her Brackenridge home.

Those of us alive today in the modern world are lucky to have so much that we take for granted. We take for granted many big advantages, such as the comfort of knowing we will escape the fate of many of our ancestors by never starving to death.

Another huge advantage of modern life, compared to life before the industrial age, is the very low chance of outliving any of our children. I can imagine no horror worse than having to bury one's child, yet that horror was commonplace before the modern age. A striking example is Great Britain's Queen Anne. When she died in 1714 at age 49, Anne had outlived all five of her children. Today, thankfully, this horror is rare. And among the marvels making it rare is another huge advantage that we today take for granted: antibiotics.

But most of what we moderns enjoy the luxury of taking for granted are, for us, relatively small things — but things, nevertheless, that we ought to pause to be thankful for, from time to time.

Consider recorded music. Not until 1877 was music recorded in a way that could be played back. Before then, every note of music ever heard by any human was performed live and within earshot of listeners, never to be heard again. Today, in splendid contrast, nearly all experiences of listening to music result from playbacks of music recorded in the past and well out of earshot of listeners. Just this morning on my way to work, I listened to John, Paul, George and Ringo perform “She Loves You,” recorded 55 years ago and an ocean away — and two of its performers have long been dead. Yet, despite being alone in a moving car, it was as if I were in the Beatles' presence as they performed.

Imagine how much drearier our lives would be without recorded music.

Likewise with more individualized communications. Who among us stops to marvel that we can pick up a small slab, press a few buttons, and within seconds converse in real time with a loved one or friend thousands of miles away? Each of us, every day of our lives, routinely talks with people who would have been impossible for us to speak to, in real time, just a few generations ago.

While we're reflecting on communications, reflect on the reality that there are people alive today who were born before commercial radio broadcasting. The first such broadcast occurred in 1920 (via Pittsburgh's KDKA). Yet no one today marvels at the ability to listen to the radio.

Being born and raised in New Orleans — and living now near Washington, D.C. — I have a special fondness for the amenity we call “air conditioning.” The combination of this modern miracle with central heating means that year-round, when indoors, we spend all of our time within a very narrow, comfortable temperature range (high 60s to mid 70s) and free of excessive humidity.

Finally, let's praise mundane electric lighting. While France's Louis XIV could snap his fingers to summon servants to light his chandeliers' candles, each of us — with mere flips of our own fingers — gets better, cleaner light more quickly than was available even to the Sun King.

Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics and Getchell Chair at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.

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