Billionaire Next Door

Ken Cutler

JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER was the richest man in the U.S. in 1918, which happens to be the year my father was born. His $1.2 billion net worth at that time would have the buying power today of more than $24 billion.

Rockefeller, with his massive wealth, could purchase things most of us can only dream about, such as sprawling estates and gigantic yachts. Still, in many ways, today’s millionaire next door has more purchasing power than this billionaire of yesteryear. Consider the things that Rockefeller—despite all his riches—couldn’t buy at any price in 1918:

Internet access. Personal computers didn’t exist in 1918, let alone the internet. Today, we regular folks have access to an almost infinite array of knowledge, news and entertainment. Trillions of dollars of technological development since Rockefeller’s time have made this marvel possible.

Modern vehicles. Rockefeller had a collection of automobiles, but nothing he owned could come close to the performance, comfort and reliability of today’s vehicles. His cars weren’t equipped with power steering, anti-lock brakes or even air-conditioning—which debuted in 1940. Vehicles in 1918 were subject to frequent breakdowns, causing inconvenience even for rich people.

Cutting-edge health care. Medical science has advanced exponentially since 1918. Despite having what’s been termed a nervous breakdown in his early 50s, Rockefeller generally seemed to enjoy good health. Still, had he suffered from any serious health issues, the medical help available to him would have been far less advanced than what most Americans have access to today. If his appendix had ruptured, like mine did early in life, he likely would have died.

Entertainment options. The motion picture industry was in its infancy in 1918. Rockefeller died in 1937. Blockbusters like The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind were released a couple of years after his death. Today, just about everybody—in their own private home theater—can watch these movies and thousands more that were never available to our billionaire.

Rockefeller had a deep love of music. I hope he preferred getting his music fixes from live performances. The fidelity of music played on the scratchy phonographs of his day was far inferior to that from even the low-end stereo systems of our time.

Portable telephones. Not only did Rockefeller never have the opportunity to use a smart phone, he also didn’t have access to any kind of wireless phone network. Only about a third of U.S. households had phones in 1918. If Rockefeller wanted to call one of them, he would have used his landline and gone through an operator.

Jet travel. Today’s billionaires often own private jets. This wasn’t an option for Rockefeller. In fact, with all his money, he never took a single flight on a jet plane—they weren’t invented until after his death. Commercial jets weren’t in use until the 1950s.

What should we make of all this? We enjoy amazing material advantages simply by virtue of being alive at this time in history. We have many phenomenal options not available to the richest man in the U.S. a century ago.

Still, I don’t think our increased purchasing power and exponential increase in choices have resulted in a corresponding increase in life satisfaction for most people. Mental health problems are skyrocketing, as are deaths of despair. It’s not hard to find numerous examples of ultra-wealthy entertainers or sports figures living miserable lives. Often, it seems that a contented celebrity is the exception.

Some of this apparent paradox can be explained by hedonic adaptation. When I purchased my first computer with internet access in 1997, I was enthralled for months. I would stay up late surfing the web and exploring the wonders of cyberspace. Of course, I had a painfully slow dial-up connection, but that was just the price of admission to this exciting new online world. A year later, I still enjoyed my computer, but the initial thrill was gone. Today, my computer is an important tool, but one I usually take for granted—unless, that is, my high-speed internet connection goes out.

I’ve had a lifelong interest in radio. Before television and computers became widespread, radio was the most popular means of delivering news and entertainment. The 1930s are considered radio’s golden age. I’ve listened to some old-time radio shows and found them very entertaining.

My family listened to an excellent modern radio program called Adventures in Odyssey when our children were young. I strongly suspect that a family gathered around the radio to listen to a show in the 1930s was more entertained than people today flipping through endless TV channels and TikTok videos.

In his 50s, at the height of his empire-building efforts, Rockefeller was a depressed man afflicted by digestive troubles. After he stepped away from running his businesses and started focusing on philanthropy, it seems his health greatly improved. He lived to a ripe old age, passing away shortly before turning age 98. Could it be that true riches are quite different from what’s conventionally considered wealth?

Ken Cutler lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and has worked as an electrical engineer in the nuclear power industry for more than 38 years. There, he has become an informal financial advisor for many of his coworkers. Ken is involved in his church, enjoys traveling and hiking with his wife Lisa, is a shortwave radio hobbyist, and has a soft spot for cats and dogs. Follow Ken on X @Nuke_Ken and check out his earlier articles.

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