The Singularity is in our past
This is the title of a post by Brad Delong (Professor of Economics at Berkeley), about Buying Power of 14th Century Money, posted by Will Mclean at A Commonplace Book — Deeds of Arms and Other Matters Medieval and Otherwise, 3 July 2008. As the economy slides backwards, it is important to remember how far we have come. Almost every American is rich compared to the average person of 1776 — and perhaps even richer than almost everybody in the 14th century.
What was 14th century money worth in today’s dollars? That’s tricky, because it depends on what you were buying. In the second half of the 14th century, a pound sterling would:
- Support the lifestyle of a single peasant laborer for half a year, or that of a knight for a week.
- Three changes of clothing for a teenage page (underclothes not included) or
- Twelve pounds of sugar or
- A carthorse or
- Two cows or
- An inexpensive bible or ten ordinary books or
- Rent a craftsman’s townhouse for a year or
- Hire a servant for six months
It should be obvious from the above list that the conversion rate depends a great deal on what you buy. A husbandman or yeoman servant spent most of his budget on food and clothing, which have become relatively cheap since the industrial revolution. For that basket of goods, a pound sterling might buy $300 worth of goods today.
On the other hand, a knight or noble might spend half of his income on servants, and much of the rest on handmade luxury goods, things that were relatively cheap then and expensive today. For that bundle of goods, a pound might buy $3,000 dollars worth of goods today.
Another post about the comparison of past costs with ours today: One Hundred Interesting Mathematical Calculations: Number 16: How Rich Is Fitzwilliam Darcy?, 13 November 2003 — The comments are esp fine! More comments on this are at this follow-up post.
Update: making this even clearer is “The Singularity in Our Past Light-Cone” by Cosma Shalizi (asso professor of Statistics at Carnegie Mellon).
For more information
Posts about the singularity:
- Good news: The Singularity is coming (again), 8 December 2007
- What comes after the Consitution? Can we see the outline of a “Mark 3″ version of the United States?, 10 November 2008
- Everything written about the economic crisis overlooks its true nature, 24 February 2009
- A look at the new world – after the downturn, 19 March 2009