A few weeks ago, I finished reading Robert Samuelson’s The Good Life and its Discontents. The basic idea of the book was that despite the enormous gains in material wealth for every economic class in America over the past few decades, people are increasingly dissatisfied with their lot in life and expect more and more entitlements. Even though I have a working refrigerator that is relatively energy efficient with more than enough space, I am disenchanted because my neighbor has two refrigerators that are huge. This makes me upset.
His whole point is the increasing sense of “entitlement” in American society. Things that weren’t dreamt of generations ago – like world class healthcare, college education, immunity from any sort of financial hardship – are now being considered “rights”. The book was mostly good.
I thought of Samuelson’s book in my recent flight from America to the United Kingdom. As I do twice a year, I was flying from Chicago to Edinburgh, with my initial starting point my house in a northern Chicago suburb and my final destination St Andrews, a town 50 or so miles away from Edinburgh. The whole journey takes about 13 hours door-to-door.
As I was nearing the end of my journey, I was realizing how amazing what I just did was. I was flown in a metal tube across an ocean in less than seven hours that also happens to be statistically the safest mode of transportation. Only decades ago, the Chicago to Edinburgh flight would have taken longer, cost three times as much, and been less safe. A hundred years ago, it would have taken days or even weeks to make the trip by boat.
I’ll be honest, the flight makes me nauseous and I get pretty badly jet lagged. But think of how much people complain about delayed flights, lost luggage, or pricey tickets. Instead of marveling at the amazingness of innovation, business, and entrepreneurship that created the system of transportation we have now, many people define air travel by its imperfections and see airlines as an unethical business.
I relate this ungratefulness and sense of entitlement to a lot of other areas. Example: The profit-driven American pharmaceutical industry creates about 99% of drugs in the world. They need to make money back for their billions spent on research, so the pills have high prices. Lots of old people take tens of pills a day to extend their lives to historical lengths. Instead of recognizing the brilliance that these drug companies are keeping them alive, drug companies – “Big Pharma” – are seen as evil and price-gouging in America. This relates to my previous post about people not appreciating the wonder of businessmen.