The Rosett Report

Happy New Year, in the Age of Light

Scarcely has 2008 begun, and if you’ve picked up a newspaper, flipped on the TV, or gone online, it’s right back to those ancestral voices prophesying war, conflict, doom, gloom, mud-slinging, blood-letting and those endless cycles of creative destruction, destructive creations, you-name-it. The bad news is, there’s much to it.

But before returning to the hub-bub, let’s take a moment for some of the really good news. America, and much of the rest of the world, has never had it better. We live in an age of astounding inventions, which thanks to our free society have been devised, improved and made available at such speed that it gets easy to forget just how good it all is. If you’re in the mood to take a short wander away from the mad rush of daily news, here’s a lovely, eclectic item to print out and peruse for perspective — one of my favorite essays by a modern economist. Richly worth reading, it goes by the unenticing title of “Do Real-Output and Real-Wage Measures Capture Reality? The History of Lighting Suggests Not.” The author is Yale economist William Nordhaus, and while I might differ with some of his views on more mundane matters of policy, with this article he gets at something deeply important, and he does it beautifully.

Nordhaus’s subject here is the price of light, and what that tells us about the astounding improvements in quality of life that some of our modern inventions have brought us. He notes that in the 1.4 million years since our Australopithecus ancestors began using fire, or the tens of thousands of years since the introduction of the fat-burning lamp, the truly mighty innovations have taken place within the past 150 years – and our measurements of the benefits fall far short of the realities. Skip the equations if those are not your cup of tea. Nordhaus writes with a clarity that belies his training as an economist, and he lays out step by stop how it happens that the average Joe today, with a few minutes of work, can afford many times the quantity of light once available only to emperors and kings.

And as the winter night falls on Jan. 1, 2008, and we switch on our lamps, very best wishes to all Pajamas readers for a happy new year, in this miraculous age of light.