I watched the 1950 version of "A Christmas Carol" Christmas Eve. There is an interesting part of the story that I suspect few even notice. In the exchange between Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past, it comes out that both Scrooge's mother and sister died giving birth. Can you imagine a case in our society where both mother and daughter die in childbirth? Such a thing would so strange that we might look for some hereditary or environmental connection between the events.
Scrooge's mother likely died in the 1780s and his sister in the early 1800s, based on Scrooge's age and calculating back from 1843 (when the book was written.) While certainly tragic, you get no sense that this was especially odd. That's because in 1843 and prior it wasn't odd. Throughout world history many women died in childbirth and upwards of one in four children born alive died before their first birthday. Average life expectancy at birth was around 30 years old. (That doesn't mean that some people did not live much longer but so many died so early that the overall average from birth was quite low.) Today it is nearly 70 years globally and 80 years in advanced nations.
The interesting thing to me is how people of Scrooge's day would have seen our life expectancy today as miraculous. Yet once a society moves into the “new normal” of high life expectancy, the miracle is quickly forgotten and seen as the natural order. We are entitled to the new normal and we come to see those not living in the new normal as victims of some injustice or malady that caused their abnormal plight.
I see this over and over with a range of socio-economic problems. For instance, I’ve seen countless books that examine what “causes” poverty. Yet if you were to go back 300 years you would see that the norm was the overwhelming majority of people living just below or just above subsistence levels. By today’s standards, the difference between those below and above was marginal. Someone looking forward from 300 years ago would have seen many of the poorest communities in African or Asia today and not been particularly surprised. Their question would not have been what causes poverty. They would have wanted to know what caused the astounding rise in prosperity in other parts of the world.
As I see it, the human propensity to cocoon within “new normals,” losing all perspective on how change occurred, is one of the biggest challenges to creating a better world. It causes us to be ungrateful for the good we have inherited and to ask bad questions as we seek the welfare of others. Maybe what we need are ghosts of economic past, present, and future, to help us see more clearly.