Better living through charts

Well, maybe just one chart; I don’t want you to pull a muscle on a Friday morning.

I saw a link through the Acton PowerBlog that referenced a post by James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute. It is humbly titled “The most important economic chart in Western civilization — and how it happened.” Here is the chart:


If you’re unfamiliar, GDP per person is basically average personal income. Now there’s a hockey stick graph I can get behind!

When did it happen? You could simply say “the Industrial Revolution,” but you’d then have to step back and ask…

Why did it happen? To a large extent, I think the credit should go to those individuals, Adam Smith being the most notable, who realized that people and countries benefit when left free to exchange and trade with whomever they wish.

Pic by dingatx

This being a blog about religion, I’ll entertain the suggestion that I’ve often encountered that capitalism and free trade is synonymous with corruption, materialism, consumerism, greed, and all other manner of sin and vice. I challenge a theologian to present a convincing case that a graph of “sins per person” over the same time period would demonstrate the same trend. Sure, the average person in 1000 AD couldn’t fritter away disposable income on video games. A king in 1300 AD couldn’t buy extravagant yachts or Ferraris and indulge their consumerist itch by checking the Robb Report. But I don’t recall the gravity of sinfulness being measured by the dollars spent.

This chart tells me, a Catholic, a few things:

  1. We have only relatively recently figured out ways to wipe out most causes of poverty, disease, and death. We have much better lives and life expectancies because of how we’ve used our God-given intellects in areas like science, health, medicine, agriculture, biology, and (yes, even) economics.
  2. Even though there still are people in the world who live in dire conditions, the result of economic growth is that we are much better equipped to tackle this problem. We can care for our neighbors much more ably than we could in the past.
  3. While people lament the lack of free time in modern societies, it is unmistakable that we work less than we used to (and produce much more even though we work less). We get to enjoy much more leisure now than our ancestors did, which is beneficial to not just our physical health but our mental and spiritual health as well. While we may romanticize an agrarian past, there is a reason it is in the past; people didn’t like it. It was hard, long work. When technology provided an opportunity to leave the difficult work behind, we did.

So, go, spread the good news of the Most Important Economic Chart. Email it to your friends and family. While you’re doing so, contemplate how amazing it is that you can spread this information (which inherently requires a level of education the vast majority of our ancestors couldn’t enjoy) to many people around the country (which is incredible since in the past you probably didn’t know anyone outside of a ten-mile radius) and to your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents (who likely couldn’t survive past age forty).

While you’re doing all that, contemplate also how you have access to the very same grace and sacraments that our ancestors did. We should remain humble about the many (even material) graces that God has given us as we improve in our ability to feed and clothe ourselves, and we should never forget the ideas, philosophies, and policies that made such improvements possible.

Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more. (Lk 12:48)