In the past year, educational circles have seen the rise of calls to “teach the truth.” They have held rallies, made pledges and launched social media campaigns. In principle, ‘teaching the truth’ is a good idea. In practice, the problem is that it is championed by teachers’ unions and progressive groups with a very specific idea of what ‘the truth’ is. Indeed, their ‘truth’ often seems to boil down to claims that the US is a white supremacist ‘slave nation’, that capitalism is exploitative and that working people in America cannot progress.
Look, these observers are entitled to their opinion. But the ‘truth’ turns out to be more complicated than they seem to think. Americans face real challenges. America has always fallen short of our ambitions in important ways. And it is also it is true that American life is better and richer than the education observers are inclined to admit.
In that regard, it is worth considering a new book that should provide information about how we teach the ‘whole truth’. In Abundanceeconomists Gayle Pooley and Marian Tupy show how extraordinarily better Americans are today than they were a few decades ago — and how remarkably our well-being has improved over time.
Now, even as economists show how wealth has grown over time, it can be too easy to say, “Now what?” After all, those numbers don’t really tell you how much better (or worse) someone is really off. And things can get confusing when we start calculating inflation-adjusted salaries and prices. To avoid all this, Pooley and Tupy use the nifty trick of converting wages and the costs of various goods into “time prices” – figuring out how long a person would have to work to make a purchase at a given time.
To give a simple example, Pooley and Tupy calculate that a quarter of a century ago, an unskilled worker in the US was earning $7.49 an hour. At that time, 1997, a 42-inch LCD TV was selling for $15,000. So an unskilled worker would have to work about 2,000 hours (or 40 hours a week for 50 weeks) to make that purchase. In 2019, the average unskilled worker made $13.66 an hour and (much better) 42-inch TVs cost $148. In other words, 11 hours would now pay for the purchase that would have taken a year’s work 25 years ago.
TVs are a pretty banal example, but Pooley and Tupy offer plenty of other rafts, including breakfast, pickup trucks, air travel, calculations, housing, air conditioning, and so on. And when you look at the differences over a much longer period of time, the results really start to be dazzling. In other words, even as the population has exploded — nationally and around the world — we’ve experienced a growing glut of, well, pretty much every goods and services you can think of. Remarkably, this was not only the case in the US, but in much of the world.
Pooley and Tupy discuss the forces responsible and point out how societies escaped short-sighted ‘zero-sum’ assumptions by engaging in free, cooperative trade and embracing (even disruptive) innovation. They note the importance of adopting silver as a common currency, for example by explaining: “For the first time in history, there was a universal medium of exchange. That made bartering in the long-distance trade obsolete, making trading much easier and more profitable.” They note that trade liberalization “allowed industrialization to spread globally. Trading volumes increased, costs fell and, as evidenced by the price convergence process, markets became global.”
America’s current ills and shortcomings are part of the truth. But so is the extraordinary abundance that today’s youth have inherited – and that by 2022 even a family of modest means will have access to transportation, communications, health care, sanitation, food and entertainment that would have surpassed the wildest dreams of a renaissance. frost. Oh, and understanding the forces that helped produce these gifts is also part of “teaching the truth.”
In the end, it would be a lot easier to take “teach the truth” to the fore if the self-proclaimed observers seemed more interested in examining the whole truth, even the bits that don’t conform to their politics.