You're Rich and You Don't Know It

Today you are richer than 99% of the people who ever walked the earth.

That’s true even if you’re out of work, flat broke, your credit cards are maxed out, your car’s been repossessed and a sheriff’s deputy has already served your eviction notice.

I’m about to explain why – and share the best three words of advice you’ll ever get …

According to a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, Americans’ views on the general state of the country have hit an all-time low, with 81% saying the nation is on the “wrong track” – the worst-ever number for this barometer.

Some will say this simply reflects The Great Recession and the inevitable pain and suffering it has wrought.

But that’s not the whole story. Increasing numbers have been saying this – not just for years but for decades, with large majorities claiming that the country is going downhill, life is getting tougher, our children face a declining future and the world in general is going to hell in a hand basket.

Exactly why is pretty obvious…

We face the twin specters of terrorism and nuclear proliferation. American troops are bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. TV programming is trash. Taxes are high. The federal deficit is ballooning, home prices are falling, the currency is weak, food and fuel prices have jumped, credit is tight, and the stock market just experienced its worst year since 1931.

Of course, the national media delivers the world through a highly distorted lens. It does this to attract attention. It takes viewers to sell advertising.

And you don’t draw a crowd talking about buildings that don’t burn, planes that don’t crash, or companies that are hiring instead of laying off.

Yet despite all the negative news, our general lot is getting better, not worse. As Greg Easterbrook of the Brookings Institution recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “Living standards are the highest they have ever been, including the living standards for the middle class and the poor. All forms of pollution other than greenhouse gases are in decline; cancer, heart disease and stroke incidence are declining; crime is in a long-term cycle of significant decline, education levels are at all-time highs.”

Our ancestors just a few generations removed would marvel at life today. In the first half of the 20th century, for instance, most people earned a subsistence living through long hours of backbreaking work in forestry, mining, farms or factories.

Today we work roughly half as many hours, physical toil has ended for most wage earners, and we have more purchasing power with far more leisure.

In the first half of our nation’s history, most Americans lived and died within a few miles of where they were born. Nothing – neither people nor news – traveled faster than a horse. And, as far as we knew, nothing ever would. Today we have instantaneous global communication, 24-hour broadband Internet access and same-day travel to distant cities.

Formal discrimination against women and minorities has ended. There is mass home ownership, with central heat and air-conditioning – and endless labor-saving devices: stoves, ovens, refrigerators, dishwashers, microwaves, cell phones and computers.

Medicine was almost non-existent 80 years ago. In 1927, for example, President Calvin Coolidge’s sixteen-year old son Calvin Jr. developed a blister playing tennis without socks. It became infected. Five days later, he died. Before the advent of antibiotics, tragedies like this were routine.

Advances in drugs and technology have eliminated most of history’s plagues. There has been a stunning reduction in infectious diseases.

We complain about the rising cost of health care. But that’s only because we live long enough to need more of it. The average American lifespan has almost doubled over the past century.

We have low-cost access to information, art and literature. We have almost every imaginable political and economic freedom.

True, the federal government is a sprawling, metastasizing leviathan that needs to be beat back with a stick. But compare it to most governments in most countries down through the ages.

In short, we enjoy economic and political freedoms that millions throughout history have risked theirs lives for. We live a long time, in comfortable circumstances, and enjoy goods and services in almost limitless supply. By almost any measure, we are living better than 99% of the people who have come before us.

Yet Americans routinely tell pollsters that life is hard and things are getting worse. In short, we risk becoming the moping caricature that comedian Steve Martin creates when he grumbles, “the only joy I know is a dishwashing liquid.”

Seldom do we take a moment to appreciate our incredible good fortune being alive.

As Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins writes:

We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here…

And none of us knows how long he’s going to be here.

Take Eugene O’Kelly, former Chairman and CEO of accounting giant KPMG, for example.

Four years ago, he was diagnosed with inoperable, late-stage brain cancer. He was told he had three to six months to live. He was 53.

Suddenly, the life of this rich, powerful and privileged man, whose days were filled with executive meetings and business appointments, became something very different.

He was left with less than 100 days to live.

“No more living in the future,” he wrote in his memoir. “(Or the past, for that matter – a problem for many people, although a lesser one for me.) I needed to stop living two months, a week, even a few hours ahead. Even a few minutes ahead. Sixty seconds from now is, in its way, as elusive as sixty years from now, and always will be. It is – was – exhausting to live in a world that never exists. Also kind of silly, since we happen to be blessed with such a fascinating one right here, right now. I felt that if I could learn to stay in the present moment, to be fully conscious of my surroundings, I would buy myself lots of time that had never been available to me, not in all the years I was healthy…”

With the clock counting down, O’Kelly made a list of his closest friends and colleagues and planned a final encounter with each one:

“I stopped at each name and made myself recall, in the closest detail possible, all the moments the two of us had enjoyed together. How we met. What made us become friends in the first place. The qualities in them I particularly appreciated. The lessons I learned by knowing them. The ways in which having met him or her had made me a better person.”

His friends were touched – usually overwhelmed – to know how much they had meant to him. “Enjoy every sandwich,” he writes.

Most of us promise ourselves that one day – not too long from now – we’ll slow down. We’ll spend more time with our family. Enjoy a lazy day out with friends. Or just take a walk alone in the woods or on the seashore. Some day…

If – like me – you’re one of the millions who has often deluded himself this way, O’Kelly has three words of advice: “Move it up.”

Eugene O’Kelly died on September 10th, 2005.


Alexander Green
for The Daily Reckoning

Editor’s Note: Alexander Green is Investment Director of The Oxford Club. He also writes Spiritual Wealth, an e-letter about the pursuit of the good life and what it means to be truly wealthy. Just this week, Wiley & Sons published a new collection of his essays, The Secret of Shelter Island: Money and What Matters.

The Daily Reckoning