The hard work of strangers

Image for post
Image for post

No man is an economic island. Each day, we use services and products that have been brought to us with the help of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people. In “A Streetcar Named Desire”, the great play by Tennessee Williams, Blanche DuBois remarked that she “depended on the kindness of strangers”. All of us depend on the hard work of strangers.

That is the message of my new book “More: The 10,000 Year Rise of the World Economy”, published today*. It takes the planet to fill your house with goods. Take the most mundane consumer item in your house: a tube of toothpaste. Its journey to your bathroom involves thousands of people and hundreds of processes. The titanium dioxide that whitens your teeth has to be mined, probably in Australia or Canada, the calcium carbonate that acts as an abrasive has been extracted from limestone, and the xanthan gum used as a binding agent comes from grinding up plants. The toothpaste in my bathroom lists 17 different ingredients and that doesn’t count the plastics that make the tube.

All those materials must be brought to the factory where they are turned into the finished paste, and packaged into cardboard with a logo that experts have designed to catch your eye on the supermarket shelf. Then the product is sent by truck to distribution centres and eventually stacked on shelves by retail employees. The whole process is an exercise in collaboration, conducted between people who may never know of each other’s existence.

The book takes the reader through all the components that make up the complex modern economy — the agriculture that feeds more than seven billion people, the energy that heats our homes and powers our vehicles and industry, the transport system that brings goods to market — and explains how they have changed over history and created modern prosperity.

It is the connections between people that allow us to live longer, grow taller and have many more choices than we ever had before. The story dates back 10,000 years and some long-distance trade seems to have occurred, largely in stone axes. It was also at around that time that agriculture seems to have started. While farming had many drawbacks — hard work, a more restricted diet, a greater susceptibility to disease — it supported a much bigger population. In turn a bigger population allows for specialisation (cobblers, blacksmiths, brewers and so on) and specialisation leads to trade.

For much of human history, long-distance trade was confined to luxury goods — the Romans acquired silk from China, for example. Economic growth was almost imperceptible by modern standards but technological changes like the horse collar, or the iron plough, made it possible to support a greater population.

But it was not until around 1500 that the conditions for more rapid economic growth started to emerge. European voyages to south Asia and the Americas led to the “Columbian exchange” as plants and livestock were transported to new areas of the world. Silver from Latin America was traded for Chinese ceramics and textiles. More shamefully, the Atlantic triangle involved trade in European manufactured goods, African slaves and American sugar and cotton.

When it occurred, the industrial revolution also led to suffering as humans were packed into towns, in poor sanitary conditions, working long hours. Life expectancy in Liverpool and Manchester in the 1850s was just 31–32. Small wonder that Karl Marx thought the treatment of those workers would lead to revolution. But living standards picked up in the second half of the 19th century, as steamships and trains brought cheap food from Americas to Europe and European workers headed to the New World in search of a better lifestyle.

This was the “great enrichment” that brought prosperity to Europe, North America and Japan. But in the last 40 years, the process has been brought to much of the rest of the world, first in south east Asia, but then in China and India. The number of people living in extreme poverty fell by a billion (and thus halved) between 1993 and 2011.

Of course much poverty still exists, and further economic growth may be constrained by the need to control our carbon emissions and tackle global warming. But think how far humanity has come. If you were born in Europe back in 1420, your initial battle was to survive the first year or two of life: infant mortality was 30% or so. The typical European peasant in the Middle Ages would have very little in the way of furniture but the odd stool to sit on (no upholstered armchairs), and a straw bed to sleep in (probably infested with fleas and lice); no privacy (all would sleep together, close to the fire, the only source of warmth); little in the way of cutlery (knives but not forks or spoons); and very little light at night (candles were very expensive).

The food choice was extremely limited and there was no refrigeration to keep it from spoiling. In premodern China, millet, wheat, rice and corn supplied more than four-fifths of all energy. Europeans survived on coarse bread and vegetables made into stews and soups. Meat and fish were occasional treats. Poor nutrition meant that people were smaller than they are today.

There was no running water and nor were there flushing toilets. Any water had to be carried into the house, normally by women, from the village well, or from a river. In terms of entertainment, there were no printed books. In any case, few could read and many had poor eyesight, in the general absence of spectacles. Of course, there was no radio or television.

People rarely washed and had very few choices of clothes. Medicine and dentistry were primitive, so woe betide those who got ill. Women had to have several children to ensure that one or two made it to adulthood, but each pregnancy was a high-stakes gamble. More than one in three women died during their childbearing years. Life expectancy was under 30.

If your house was robbed or attacked, there was no police service to protect you, and if the wood, or straw, in your house caught fire, there was no fire brigade to rescue you. If male, your working life would largely be spent on your own patch of land or the land of your social superiors. If female, you might be employed as a servant until old enough to get married. In marriage, as well as doing the housework, you would be expected to contribute to the crop- or livestock-rearing, or perhaps to earn a little money by sewing and spinning (hence the use of the term spinster for single females). Children would be put to work from a young age.

Most people would spend their lives within a few miles of the place of their birth; roads were rudimentary and there were no railways or planes. There were compensations, of course. Work was less intense. There were plenty of days off, although these were “holy days” rather than holidays; it was only in the last 100 years or so that most people, even in rich countries, could afford to head for the sun and stay in hotels. There was probably more of a sense of community than in modern societies.

The evidence is strongly in favour of modern life. More children survive to adulthood and they grow up to be taller, better educated, and have many more choices over how to live their lives than they did in medieval times. They have a far greater chance of dying peacefully in their beds of old age. These advances would not have been made without economic growth. “More” tries to tell that story.

* It will be published in the US next month with the title “More: From the Iron Age to the Information Age”

Economist columnist, opinions generally my own, typos always my fault. Author of Paper Promises, The Last Vote and The Money Machine

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store