Friday, July 8, 2016

‘Everything is amazing right now and nobody is happy’ or ‘Americans forget how good they have it’

From Mark Perry.
"I’ve featured comedian Louis CK’s famous rant above previously on CD (“everything is amazing right now and nobody is happy”), which took place during an appearance in the fall of 2008 on the Late Night with Conan O’Brien Show. That was around the time when the latest technological breakthrough was the availability of Internet on commercial flights. Louis CK tells the story of flying on a plane when the Internet connection suddenly stopped working causing a nearby passenger to become visibly annoyed, causing CK to respond “Like how quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only ten seconds ago.”

That’s what psychologists call habituation, as we learn from a recent related Reason article by A. Barton Hinkle (“Americans Forget How Good They Have It“), which reminded me of the Louis CK video above and inspired this post. Here’s an excerpt from Hinkle’s article:
When desktop computers were first available you had to assemble them yourself with a soldering gun and spare parts from an Erector set. Then you had to program the thing, in FORTRAN or COBOL or some other language that sounded like an alien planet in a 1950s sci-fi movie. And if you wanted to store any information, you had to write over your favorite Van Halen casette tape with your dad’s cassette recorder.
Eventually Steve Jobs had a brilliant idea: People might want to buy computers already assembled and programmed. Apple was born. Then along came Commodore and Sinclair and a few others, until IBM horned in on the market and PC clones proliferated. By 1990 you could get your hands on a 386 with a 33-megahertz microprocessor, four megabytes of RAM, and a 200-megabyte hard drive for the low, low price of $5,299 (only $9,739 in today’s dollars).
Today, less than $400 will get you a run-of-the-mill machine with a 2-gig processor, 8 gigs of RAM, and a terabyte of hard drive space in case you want to store movies on your PC. All of the movies.
Most people don’t, though, because they can live-stream everything in high-definition over connections so fast that the end of the movie arrives before the middle does. A few years ago people Googled “free wi-fi” a lot because there wasn’t much of it. Now 89 percent of the public thinks free wi-fi is listed in the Bill of Rights, and if the YouTube video of the kid falling off the swing buffers for more than a picosecond they’re never going to set foot in that McDonald’s again dammit, because what an outrage.
This is what psychologists call habituation—the tendency to get used to things, no matter how good or bad. You buy a new car and for the first few weeks you absolutely love it, but then one day you find the shine of it has worn off and it’s just a car.
A few decades ago rich people could buy encyclopedia sets on the installment plan. Now most of us walk around with a little box in our pocket that gives us instant access to nearly the entirety of human knowledge. And it’s like that in field after field.
Robert J. Samuelson recently noted that the middle class is shrinking—not because people are getting poorer, but because they are getting richer. The share of the populace that qualifies as upper middle class has more than doubled since 1979. But you listen to Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump and you’d think America has been sliding downhill since the Johnson administration. Don’t believe it for a second.
Here’s my version of that demographic shift over time in the chart below, showing the increase over time in the share of high-income US households making $100,000 or more (in constant dollars) – from 8.1% of households in 1967 (about 1 in 12) to 24.7% in 2014 (about 1 in 4).

MP: Thanks to A. Barton Hinkle and Louis CK for a few much-appreciated messages of optimism to counteract the habituation that sometimes makes us numb to the amazing cornucopia of technological marvels that surround us, and which improve our lives so significantly. If the advances of the last 20 years had magically happened all at once, we would be in awe of those technological miracles. But when those same monumental innovations take place gradually but consistently over several decades, we sometimes lose sight of how transformative and amazing those technological gains really are. To paraphrase AEI president Arthur Brooks writing in the Wall Street Journal in 2008, “If you’re not grateful to be living in 21st century America, you’re not paying attention.”"

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