A Theory on the Rise of Modern Affluence

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August 09, 2007 | 31,714 views

Dr. Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California, believes he has deciphered the cause behind the rise of modern affluence.

For thousands of years, most people on earth lived in abject poverty, first as hunters and gatherers, then as peasants or laborers. But with the rise of the Industrial Revolution some societies managed to change from poverty to wealth.

Historians and economists have long struggled to understand how this transition occurred, and, what‘s even more of a puzzle, why it took place only in some countries.

Dr. Clark believes that the Industrial Revolution occurred because of an evolutionary change in the nature of the human population, rather than a change in the way modern institutions operate.

It’s true that the rise of affluence that followed the Industrial Revolution occurred when the efficiency of production finally accelerated, growing fast enough to outpace the automatic growth in population, which allowed average incomes to rise. But there have been unsatisfactory explanations for exactly how, or why, this spurt in efficiency occurred.

Dr. Clark’s research found that, generation after generation, the rich kept having more surviving children than the poor. He states that as the rich took over a wide variety of positions within society, what we now call “middle-class values” began to take root, and people’s behavior changed.

Work hours increased, literacy and numeracy became more common, and the level of violence dropped. People also began to save for the future -- delaying their gratification -- rather than focusing on instant consumption.

These middle-class values, which were needed for productivity and efficiency, could have been transmitted either culturally or genetically, according to Dr. Clark. But he leans toward evolution as the explanation.

Although many applaud Dr. Clark’s research, many are highly skeptical about his explanations, stating that tests of most social behaviors show that they are genetically inheritable only to a very slight degree.

New York Times August 7, 2007


It is quite an interesting exercise to ponder the possibility of genetic evolution spurring the changes in human behavior, leading to greater wealth.

Of course, no one knows for sure why Americans developed “the middle-class values of nonviolence, literacy, long working hours, and a willingness to save,” which may have contributed to the rise of affluence.

One thing's for sure, there's a lot of money floating around the United States.  While I am a firm believer in the free market and capitalism, sadly today much of the wealth in the United States is geared toward promoting the profit-hounding agendas of big business -- from junk food manufacturers to pharmaceuticals, and everywhere in between.

Meanwhile, it's really pathetic that even though America is a generally affluent nation, we now rank lower than some third-world countries when it comes to child mortality rates and longevity. The United States currently ranks number 42 for longevity, down from number 11 a mere two decades ago.

Poor food choices and an over-prescribed abundance of unnecessary,potentially toxic pharmaceuticals are a big part of this problem. Just imagine if the United States’ affluence could be used for positive measures, like growing healthier food and making it easily obtainable, rather than promoting the very things that contribute to poor health.

Fortunately, you are still in charge -- you have the choice of what foods you eat, what medications you take (or don't take) and whether or not you participate in some form of regular exercise. All of these things can help you lead a much healthier, if not wealthier, life since you won’t have to spend everything you earn on a flawed, corrupt, and ineffective medical care system.

Of course, it's also important to keep things in perspective. Even all the wealth in the world can't buy you happiness or guarantee your health the way taking care of yourself, emotionally, spiritually, and physically, can.

Subscribing to this newsletter is one way to ensure you have the latest information available, on everything from emotional wellness to the healthiest foods, and the most effective types of exercise, no matter what your level of wealth. So share it with others that you care about -- let’s spread the wealth!