The Greatest Century That Ever Was: 25 Miraculous Trends of the Past 100 Years

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There has been more material progress in the United States in the 20th century than there was in the entire world in all the previous centuries combined. Almost every indicator of health, wealth, safety, nutrition, affordability and availability of consumer goods and services, environmental quality, and social conditions indicates rapid improvement over the past century. The gains have been most pronounced for women and minorities.

Among the most heartening trends discussed in this study are the following: life expectancy has increased by 30 years; infant mortality rates have fallen 10‐​fold; the number of cases of (and the death rate from) the major killer diseases–such as tuberculosis, polio, typhoid, whooping cough, and pneumonia–has fallen to fewer than 50 per 100,000; air quality has improved by about 30 percent in major cities since 1977; agricultural productivity has risen 5- to 10‐​fold; real per capita gross domestic product has risen from $4,800 to $31,500; and real wages have nearly quadrupled from $3.45 an hour to $12.50.

During the course of this century, the affordability and availability of consumer goods have greatly increased. Even most poor Americans have a cornucopia of choices that a century ago the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts could not have purchased. Today more than 98 percent of American homes have a telephone, electricity, and a flush toilet. More than 70 percent of Americans own a car, a VCR, a microwave, air conditioning, cable TV, and a washer and dryer. At the turn of the century, almost no homes had those modern conveniences. And although Americans feel that they are more squeezed for time than ever, most adults have twice as much leisure time as their counterparts did 100 years ago.

By any conceivable measure, the 20th century has truly been the greatest century of human progress in history.

Stephen Moore and Julian L. Simon

Stephen Moore is director of fiscal policy studies at the Cato Institute. Julian L. Simon (1932�98) was a professor of business administration at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. Most of the research findings come from Simon’s lifetime of work showing how life on earth is getting better, not worse. The research assistance of Stephen A. Slivinski and Philip Kerpen is gratefully acknowledged.