Michael D. Thomas, an economics professor at the Heider College of Business at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, reported on Facebook an interesting conversation he had with a student this week. It led to a more interesting set of comments than the usual. With his permission, I’m quoting the conversation:

Student: “I just think the poor are worse off in the modern world.”
Michael D. Thomas (MDT): “Compared to the Greeks?”
S: “Yea, they were much more equal…”
MDT: “Except for the slaves, right?”
S: “I guess we just don’t talk about the slaves much in philosophy.”
MDT: “Were things better for the poor in the ancien regime?”
S: “No.”
MDT: “The biggest thing for me was when we got proper sewage in the last half of the 19th century, I’d say things got a lot better for everyone after that.”
S: “I feel like you just undermined my whole argument”

Then various commenters got into a friendly competition to name the biggest improvements in our lives. Sewage is definitely a contender. Of the ones listed other than sewage, including mine (which I have corrected on further thought), I’ll rank them in order from most important to least important. I’ll quote the exact words used by the participants, with only slight edits.

I invite you to give your examples and say where they fit.

1. I mark the 1940s and the widespread use of antibiotics as the turning point. Plus that’s roughly when global poverty began decreasing on a massive scale.

2. DRH: But another contender is the electric street car: it allowed us to avoid having thousands of tons of manure on city streets. [I originally identified the car, forgetting my late Professor George Hilton’s point that it was the electric street car, not the car, that did this.]

3. Containerization and the container ship. [Someone else named this, and I pointed out that not only did those two reduce enormously the cost of cross-ocean travel, but also they reduced the cost due to pilfering on the waterfront. I also pointed out that many years ago, Paul Krugman went gaga, and rightly so, about the container ship. Here’s a quote, and I can’t figure out where it’s published, from Krugman:

The ability to ship things long distances fairly cheaply has been there since the steamship and the railroad. What was the big bottleneck was getting things on and off the ships. A large part of the cost of international trade was taking the cargo off the ship, sorting it out, and dealing with the pilferage that always took place along the way. So, the first big thing that changed was the introduction of the container. When we think about technology that changed the world, we think about glamorous things like the internet. But if you try to figure out what happened to world trade, there is really a strong case that it was the container, which could be hauled off a ship and put into a truck or a train and moved on.

Also, for more on this, see Marc Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger.

4. Well, in the south it was the invention of air conditioning.

5. The wonderfulness of modern dentistry is hard to overstate. [To be fair, I don’t think he was saying this contends with some of the others above, just that it’s really a major improvement.]

Somewhere between 1 and 4, I would put electricity and, below it, the Internet.

How about you? What would you add, and where would you put it?

And please refrain from making fun of this student. She actually learned from the conversation.