Author Topic: Would you rather be a billionaire in 1916, or an average American today?  (Read 8485 times)

MustachianAccountant

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A bit of perspective (that most of us already have) on the advancements that make our average lives today better than an early-1900's billionaire's:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/thinking-youre-living-in-a-hellhole-today-try-being-a-billionaire-in-1916/2017/05/05/475d7370-30f9-11e7-9534-00e4656c22aa_story.html
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Linda_Norway

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Nice article. Puts things in perspective.
Antibiotics and anesthetics surely make today's life a lot better than year 1900. All the machines we use today also help a lot: washing machine, dishwasher, snow cleaner, cars! Just having electricity is a luxury.

We sometimes spend several weeks in a mountain cabin, with the luxury of electricity, but without running water. Then I wash clothes by hand. That is a lot of work and a lot of water to carry. Washing up by hand every day also requires quite some time. That's OK when you are on holiday and have the time, but during a normal working day, this would be challenging. We have a refrigerator, but the freezer is broken. This is already quite inconvenient, even for a place where we don't stay for a long time when visiting.

I sometimes think about cancelling the electricity in our hut, because it costs a lot to have it, even if we use very little. But that means that all heating must come from the wood stove. Rooms like bathroom and lo would be very would. No electric vent on the dry toilet. Needing to lit a candle when getting up in the dark. No options to load our phones. No TV. Managing has bottles for stove and refrigerator.

We who lived for a few decades also notice the big difference between today and our childhood. Just the convenience of having a mobile phone, almost all information in the world available on the internet, and now even on that same phone. That is totally incredible, compared to even a few decades ago.

Hargrove

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"Would you rather live a life at the top of the world, or wherever you are now?"

Uh, I don't know, top of the world doesn't sound, you know, bad.

"Oh, but what if that world doesn't have air conditioning?"

I don't... I don't actually care. I could buy an island in a more temperate area probably. I also wouldn't notice the missing air conditioning.

"What about no antibiotics?"

I mean, by this logic, we shouldn't want to live today because nanobots will eventually clear all our illnesses for us.

"You're three years away from a fridge!"

So whiskey and fresh meat until 1918.

Obviously no one had depression or bipolar disorder in 1915. Even shellshock was considered a myth by many. Plus, radiation would make you super strong, and could even be used to shave! You would live long enough to see the air-conditioned lawnmower prototype and the belly-shaker exercize device (but you would miss shakeweights, unfortunately). But birth control? Probably not Rockefeller's problem.

Biggest bump not yet considered: you could prove once and for all that the past was not limited to black, gray, and sepia, historical documents be damned!

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Do I get to take my 2017 knowledge with me?  Because I'd go back to 1917 and invent air conditioning.  Or, since I have (effectively) limitless money, I'd ship tons and tons and tons of ice to keep me cool in the summer.  I'd pay people to keep my house spotlessly clean.  Sure, modern medicine is a long way from where it was in 1917, but we also have learned a lot about how to prevent illness.

dude

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I'd take the 1916 bargain.  The world was so much bigger then and full of mystery.  My god, to think of seeing large swaths of the world in their pristine state way back then!

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I'd go with billionaire. I've seen some of the gilded age mansions. I could handle no air conditioning living in those. And my servants would take care of all the chores I have machines for now. and who cares there is no refrigeration? I have money to eat fresh.  I can afford to travel so I'd likely have a country summer home and then come to the city in the winter to stay warmer. Or maybe travel to somewhere exotic and more temperate.

I wouldn't want to be average right now. But I'm pretty happy sitting where I am.

NeonPegasus

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I'm a woman. Is there any question what time I'd prefer?

That reminds me of a podcast where Paula Pant (Nepalese woman) was speaking with the Stacking Benjamins crew (I'm assuming all white men) about what time in history they'd prefer to live, with money being a factor. The men all gave their answers for different eras, some quite a long time ago, and then it came to Paula. She said something like, I'm a brown woman and there's never been a better time in history for people like me. Well put, Paula. Well put.

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I'd take the 1916 bargain.  The world was so much bigger then and full of mystery.  My god, to think of seeing large swaths of the world in their pristine state way back then!

I am with dude on this one.

Also I am far from average, so billionaire it is.

kellyon

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great article. I like the life I live so I guess I'll choose to stay at present

iowajes

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great article. I like the life I live so I guess I'll choose to stay at present

Is  the life you live that of an average American?  I don't think most people on this forum are.

bridget

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I'm a woman. Is there any question what time I'd prefer?

That reminds me of a podcast where Paula Pant (Nepalese woman) was speaking with the Stacking Benjamins crew (I'm assuming all white men) about what time in history they'd prefer to live, with money being a factor. The men all gave their answers for different eras, some quite a long time ago, and then it came to Paula. She said something like, I'm a brown woman and there's never been a better time in history for people like me. Well put, Paula. Well put.

As a friend of mine likes to say - "time travel is a white man's game."  I agree with you - today is a significantly better day to be alive as a woman compared to pretty much any previous time in history.  I like voting, owning my own property, having an education, and generally being in charge of my own life.

If the prompt were different - would I rather be a 1916 billionaire (or probably more accurately, billionaire's wife or daughter) or a woman in abject poverty today (vulnerable to abuse and sexual exploitation), I might consider the billionaire.  But average American woman?  No brainer.

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steviesterno

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i would take some slow ass transportation to italy, buy a down town party house and a country estate. They have wine there, and salty meats. I could live indefinitely without the internet. I'll nap and ride one of those lopsided bicycles for amusement.

Done.

where do I sign up?

marble_faun

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1916 billionaire in a heartbeat.

Having tons of money could make a lot of the potential problems go away, and if you you chose, you could use your vast resources to attack political inequalities faced by your demographic.

Like yeah, women couldn't vote... but a well-connected lady-billionaire would wield a lot more actual power and influence than a poor white man at the time. You could join the women's suffrage movement, like Alva Vanderbilt!
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arebelspy

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Today, hands down.

Shocked how many people would go back then.  No thanks. The world today is AMAZING.
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marty998

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1916 billionaire in a heartbeat.

Having tons of money could make a lot of the potential problems go away, and if you you chose, you could use your vast resources to attack political inequalities faced by your demographic.

Like yeah, women couldn't vote... but a well-connected lady-billionaire would wield a lot more actual power and influence than a poor white man at the time. You could join the women's suffrage movement, like Alva Vanderbilt!

Women could vote in Australia by 1916.

It was not a great time to be a man though - high chance of being conscripted into WW1

arebelspy

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1916 billionaire in a heartbeat.

Having tons of money could make a lot of the potential problems go away, and if you you chose, you could use your vast resources to attack political inequalities faced by your demographic.

Like yeah, women couldn't vote... but a well-connected lady-billionaire would wield a lot more actual power and influence than a poor white man at the time. You could join the women's suffrage movement, like Alva Vanderbilt!

Women could vote in Australia by 1916.

It was not a great time to be a man though - high chance of being conscripted into WW1

I would guess zero billionaires got conscripted.
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One more vote in the camp of "woman therefore today over any other time in history, no matter how priviledged". I like the expression that time travel is a white man's game. Very true.
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I would totally take the chance to go be some Steampunk-Tony Stark; but yeah I am a heterosexual white man. 
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skeeder

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I think billionaire back then would be more fun.  Even if things are a little wonky...Most of the things you mention can be handled by manual labor.  Personal butler, personal chef, etc. 

Basically, you'd be a 1% forever if you invested correctly.
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arebelspy

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Most of the things you mention can be handled by manual labor.  Personal butler, personal chef, etc. 

Most are things not available.

The internet, foreign foods, quick travel anywhere in the world.

Basically, you'd be a 1% forever if you invested correctly.

A 1%er in a much worse time to live.

If Billionaire in 1916 was off the table, but you could be a 1%er in the year 1000 A.D., would you take that?  Say, the richest merchant in the country?

I sure as heck wouldn't.

If you would, what about a 1%er in, say, 2000 BC?  The richest man of the richest tribe in the country (if countries existed).

You say "you'd be a 1% forever"... but who cares?  That's relative to everyone else.  I'd rather take absolutely better, but relatively worse, than absolutely worse, but relatively better.
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Inaya

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Today. I have chosen to have a career. I chose to marry. I chose the man I married. I have chosen not to have children. I can vote. I don't need my husband's permission for anything. My wealth is in my name, not my husband's. My husband chose to take my last name.

All largely unheard of, if not impossible, in 1916.
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I think billionaire back then would be more fun.  Even if things are a little wonky...Most of the things you mention can be handled by manual labor.  Personal butler, personal chef, etc. 

Basically, you'd be a 1% forever if you invested correctly.

You can't butler away a Spanish flu pandemic or polio.

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+1 lady, never a better time to be alive. Even billionaire's wives or daughters would face an uphill battle for anywhere near the amount of freedom I have today. Do I romanticize the hell out of the beautiful things produced in the past? yes. But freedom is everything.

Hargrove

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A 1%er in a much worse time to live.

If Billionaire in 1916 was off the table, but you could be a 1%er in the year 1000 A.D., would you take that?  Say, the richest merchant in the country?

I sure as heck wouldn't.

If you would, what about a 1%er in, say, 2000 BC?  The richest man of the richest tribe in the country (if countries existed).

You say "you'd be a 1% forever"... but who cares?  That's relative to everyone else.  I'd rather take absolutely better, but relatively worse, than absolutely worse, but relatively better.

Many ancient Greeks had surgical medicine we only recently discovered, lived very long lives, had access to chemicals we never completely figured out, created unbelievable works of art we don't really value if they're made today, and served as the birthplace of much of the foundation of western thinking in a collaborative democracy (the likes of which is nearly unmatched in longevity). Homeric myths were probably being generated around that time.

I'm too fascinated by history to write off all of the past as objectively worse to live in. Seeing Michelangelo work or chatting with Socrates or seeing the Colossus or a Shakespearean play would be incredible, and you wouldn't need future knowledge to know it when you were there.

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Move to Australia - women could vote here in 1916 - in fact they could get elected... Want to be Prime Minister as well?

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I'm too fascinated by history to write off all of the past as objectively worse to live in.

We glorify history.

In 100 years, no one will be talking about the millions of children starving and dying when they talk about the history of 2017.
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I'm too fascinated by history to write off all of the past as objectively worse to live in.

We glorify history.

In 100 years, no one will be talking about the millions of children starving and dying when they talk about the history of 2017.

Maybe.  I am not sure.  Now we have lots of pictures of the starving that can be used to make good narratives along with average peoples documented experience in the suffering.  We have countless Ann Franks FB Walls to humanize the suffering.  This may not be getting us in 2017 to stop the death but it will be available (probably) to future historians. 

On the other hand we are now in the middle of a seismic shift in human history to a time where everyone in the world can have instant communication and machines will/may out think us.  Or civilization will implode.  So the suffering of our time might get overshadowed.

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Hargrove

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I'm too fascinated by history to write off all of the past as objectively worse to live in.

We glorify history.

In 100 years, no one will be talking about the millions of children starving and dying when they talk about the history of 2017.

We glorify everything. We glorify the future infinitely. We glorify what we like, and even much of that we don't, the moment we can't reach it. We glorify what we like in the present, too (that's basically the self-serving bias).

There isn't a period in history at all which wasn't a total hell for the entire lives of some group somewhere. As only one person, I find it easy to imagine a period where I and most of those I knew would have had pretty amazing lives (you're not in that group if you're a top 1% unless it's during a coup), and as a billionaire, I could do overwhelmingly more to help those whose lives weren't so great.

Wouldn't you read a novel about a person who took the deal and sponsored a young artist in Germany in 1908?
What about the novel where you discover belatedly that Tesla was a guy who actually had taken the deal? /eeriemusic

And whether you agree that the deal allows you to change time or not, we can forget today, on the cutting edge of Presentland, that the same euphoria we may feel about revolutionizing technology all the time was a euphoria they experienced throughout the 20th century, too. Objectively better lives are hard to measure, because happiness over time (or the fulfillment inherent in a life) is not revolutionized so easily as technology, nor do I assume modern technology is synonymous with happiness.
« Last Edit: June 29, 2017, 04:00:21 PM by Hargrove »

bridget

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Another practical impediment I always think about re: time travel - wouldn't I be even worse off in terms of diseases than the [historical] natives?  Diseases mutate super quickly; the immunities I've built up in my lifetime are to totally different variants of diseases.  I'd be as vulnerable to the germs of historyland as Native Americans were during the Colombian exchange.  All the fascination in the world doesn't matter much if I catch tuberculosis and keel over.

That's not to mention the fact that I'm totally not immune to diseases that have been so eradicated in the modern world that I haven't had any exposure or vaccination at all (polio, smallpox). 

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Do I get to improve? Or am I stuck in the incredibly unhealthy body of the average American no matter how much I exercise?


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I prefer to be a part of the idle rich in 1916, rather than someone of average income today. In 1916 there was steam ship and rail transport almost anywhere in the world, electric power, telephones. Medicine was not bad, infection was understood and primitive anesthetics were available.

I see myself living in east coast America or Canada for the northern summer, then travel to Argentina for the southern summer, and then back again. If I lived in northern Europe, I would winter in the south of France, or Italy, or in South Africa. WW1 was raging in 1916, so a better year would be 1913 or 1919.

I agree that being a rich man 1000 years ago, or 2000 years ago, would be much less attractive. Medicine was much less advanced, and travel to other countries was not easy.


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Rockefeller 97
Carnegie 84
Henry Cabot Lodge 74
Henry Ford 84

Doesn't look like modern medicine is a huge benefit over billionaires in the earlier time period.  You may still choose to live today, but not sure that should be why.  They seemed to live as long or longer than an average American does today.  I formed this opinion by quickly googling 4 rich dead white dudes, so you can be pretty certain I'm right about this:) 

I think I'm taking billionaire in 1916.  A lot of the proposed awesomeness of living now is stuff that if we are being honest, the 'average' american doesn't enjoy.  Sure, we can travel the world on a time, but the average american can't afford to do it frequently and can't enjoy it with the same peace of mind.  The average american has to work all year round, whereas the billionaire in 1916 is FI ten thousand times over.  infinite time do pursue your own interests trumps anything new gadget listed in this thread of the average american today. 

The kicker for me is the ability to pull the levers of society in ways that you want.  The coolest part of being Elon Musk or Bill Gates isn't their ability to drink $10,000 bottles of wine, or travel quickly around the world.  It's their ability to influence the world.  Ford and Lodge and Rockefeller and Carnegie had the ability to push history in a different direction.  What a fascinating opportunity..way cooler than internet IMO. 

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As an outspoken, extremely unconventional woman, today, hands down. I have read historical romance novels and even though I enjoy them, I always think to myself I would be in trouble in another era. Even in this time period, I would be leery of being born into a couple of the other predominant cultures so no thank you.

Not to mention, I am only alive today due to modern medicine. I would not have survived my childhood without it. I love to travel, I love to learn and I like my modern toys.

Now if the choice is now or in the future, I would probably choose the future since they will have even more advances and neat things to check out. Hopefully they will make some social progress as well.

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Rockefeller 97
Carnegie 84
Henry Cabot Lodge 74
Henry Ford 84
...

Human maximum life span has changed relatively little in modern times.  It is just ever more people are getting into the higher numbers than in ye olden times.  The average age of death might be increasing but the limit - not so much.
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arebelspy

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I'm so shocked at the number choosing billionaire.

On a site where most people get that more money does not equal more happiness.

Funny.  :)
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Hargrove

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If the comparison were a 75k salary modern American 20-something with no debt vs the billionaire, the billionaire might just be "more money" on the utility-of-money scale (with its diminishing returns).

But the average American is in debt, which is not just less money, it's money working against you.

Money doesn't buy happiness, but debt can buy a whole lot of sadness.

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I'm so shocked at the number choosing billionaire.

On a site where most people get that more money does not equal more happiness.

Funny.  :)

My first instinct was billionaire, for both the spending and the amount of impact you could make for generations to come. But I'm admittedly less mustachian than most here.

But then yours and other posts got me thinking. If it's just the idea of having servants do all of these chores for you, could you not choose today and just move to a central/south american or asian country with a drastically lower cost of living? Like I said, billionaire was my first instinct, too, but you could have all the paid help you want AND internet/flights/modern medicine, etc.

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I'm so shocked at the number choosing billionaire.

On a site where most people get that more money does not equal more happiness.

Funny.  :)

Is this an absolute?  I tend to think of this as a diminishing returns curve, where the difference in happiness between 1 million and 1.25 million is comparatively small but 1 billion is way the fuck at the end of the curve.  Add into that some sense of adventure for a different world. 

Also I think some of this site is about seeing the cost benefit trade off of higher spending and longer career vs lower spending and shorter career.  Retiring with 0.5 million less might cost me some small happiness but retiring 5 years earlier will more than make up for it in terms of sum total of life time happiness. 
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I'm so shocked at the number choosing billionaire.

On a site where most people get that more money does not equal more happiness.

Funny.  :)


I don't believe that more money equals more happiness . . . but think it would be fun to be a billionaire a hundred years ago.  I can easily see where it would be a great life for many white guys in decent health.  The stuff that would ruin it for me personally basically comes down to worse quality glasses, a dearth of good sci-fi, and social unacceptability of me being married to a Chinese woman (and having a mixed race kid).

arebelspy

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I'm so shocked at the number choosing billionaire.

On a site where most people get that more money does not equal more happiness.

Funny.  :)

Is this an absolute?  I tend to think of this as a diminishing returns curve, where the difference in happiness between 1 million and 1.25 million is comparatively small but 1 billion is way the fuck at the end of the curve. 

But way out at the end, because it mostly flattens, is barely different. Probably 1MM to 10MM back then is the same growth difference on the curve as 10MM to billions. I.e. not much difference at all.
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Average American today, no question.
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Cassie

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Interesting article.  I think I prefer now. As a woman that was very fertile when young without birth control that was reliable I probably would have had a million kids-ugh!   I love my boys but also loved controlling my family size. Even if I was rich my husband would get to boss me around, no chance for a career, etc-no thanks.

aceyou

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I'm so shocked at the number choosing billionaire.

On a site where most people get that more money does not equal more happiness.

Funny.  :)

If there was a third option where I could have been carnegie and just quit after I got a million or two, then I'd have taken it!!!  But given the two choices, I values freedom and the ability to make an impact, and I believe I'd have more of both as a billionaire in 1916 than as an average american today. 

ender

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I am happy with my life now.

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A rational part of me says pick the average American, because he has the objectively better life, but a niggling part of me wonders wouldn't it be awesome to be a .001%er.

But this exercise reminds me of Dan Ariely talking about how people would prefer a salary higher than their coworkers rather than an overall higher salary that is less than their coworkers. I.e. People would rather make $90k in a company where most people make $80k, than $100k where most people make $110k.

This plays into our politics too. Do we just worry about raising our floor? Or do we worry about the gap between the floor and the ceiling? Both perspectives have some validity. I want the poor to eat, but I care less if they can watch cable TV. But there's also a sense of injustice that some receive outsized rewards from society compared to what they put into it.


Leisured

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I'm so shocked at the number choosing billionaire.

On a site where most people get that more money does not equal more happiness.

Funny.  :)

If there was a third option where I could have been carnegie and just quit after I got a million or two, then I'd have taken it!!!  But given the two choices, I values freedom and the ability to make an impact, and I believe I'd have more of both as a billionaire in 1916 than as an average american today.

+1. 

I assume I would inherit an enormous sum when I turned 21 in 1916. Cost of living, in real terms, was much higher in 1916 than it is now, that is, an average worker would need to work much longer to get the food and accommodation he would get today. Being rich eliminates that problem. Same applies to transport. Moving from steam ship to steam train needs money.

Being very rich allows me to make an impact, to quote aceyou. I would put a large part of my fortune into a tax free charity, and donate to worthy causes. A Mustachian today cannot compete with huge inherited wealth when it comes to philanthropy.

Some female Mustchians have mentioned the lack of female suffrage in 1916. I am a man, and from what I have seen in political opinion polls, upper class women vote much the same as upper class men, middle class women vote much the same as middle class men, and working class women vote much the same as working class men. Female suffrage means we double the number of votes cast for much the same political outcome.

The main difference I see for the rich today compared to the rich a century ago is much improved medial treatment.


AlanStache

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Quote from: Leisured
...
Some female Mustchians have mentioned the lack of female suffrage in 1916. I am a man, and from what I have seen in political opinion polls, upper class women vote much the same as upper class men, middle class women vote much the same as middle class men, and working class women vote much the same as working class men. Female suffrage means we double the number of votes cast for much the same political outcome.




edit: corrected citation in quote.
« Last Edit: July 18, 2017, 10:39:56 AM by AlanStache »
Be the person Mr. Rogers knows you can be.

FINate

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Children had about a 15% chance of dying before reaching age 5 in the early 20th century. Maternal death risks were also much higher.  Most families experienced the pain of losing a child or mother or father.  The rich were not immune to this.

So part of the deal for going back as a billionaire should include a 15% chance that you die on arrival, and a 15% chance that each of your kids die, etc.

I'll take the present thank you very much! Already know I wouldn't have survived a bout of meningitis when I was a kid without modern medicine.