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Why Progress Doesn't Always Feel Like Progress

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”
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I flew from New York to Chicago on Monday evening. It went smoothly enough.

It wasn’t a lot of fun, though. Still spooked by articles I’ve read about terrible congestion at the construction site that is LaGuardia Airport -- even though my actual experiences have been fine so far -- I caught a cab near my apartment almost two hours before the scheduled departure time. Traffic wasn’t bad because of the holiday, and thanks to TSA PreCheck I was through security in about two minutes, which left more than an hour of waiting in cramped, pre-makeover Terminal B. It was a full flight with the usual edgy jostling before boarding, but there was room for my suitcase in the overhead bin. I had a window seat, for which I had paid a little extra, so I didn’t feel too cramped, although the distance between my face and the seat in front of me can’t have been much more than a foot.

The actual flight, despite rain at both ends, left on time, took less than two hours in the air and was plagued by only the slightest of turbulence. At O’Hare, there was a long taxi to the gate, but no real delays. After getting off the plane I walked for what seemed like a mile (although it was surely a lot less), weaving around packs of slow-walking travelers, to the Chicago Transit Authority station, where I got on a train that after about 40 minutes deposited me two blocks from my hotel. I had left home at 2 p.m. New York time, and was in my hotel room by 7 p.m. Chicago time.

In other words, I really have nothing to complain about. And I’m not complaining -- much. Still, when I come across a passage like this, in the book I was reading on the plane,  I do find myself sighing with envy:

In the dining car of the Limited, white-coated waiters served woodcock, prairie chicken, and “the best ham what am” from the Chicago packinghouse of Morris and Company on tables set with Belgian linen and fine English China. And in the passenger wing of the composite car, a traveler could have his hair cut and curled for half a dollar, a shave for a quarter, and a bath for seventy-five cents. The smoking compartment contained “an excellent selection of current literature,” the daily papers of the major American cities, stacks of engraved stationery, and a discriminating stock of wines, strong spirits, and mineral beverages.

That’s a description, from Donald L. Miller’s wonderful “City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America,” of what it was like to travel from New York to Chicago in autumn 1887, a few months after the Pennsylvania Railroad inaugurated its Chicago Limited Express service. The train departed Jersey City, a quick ferry ride from downtown Manhattan, at 9 a.m. and arrived on the edge of downtown Chicago 25 hours later, at 9 a.m. local time. Its four sleeping cars, dining car and composite car (which held luggage, mail bags and sleeping berths for the train workers as well as the amenities described above) were the property of Chicago’s Pullman Palace Car Company, which, in Miller’s words “almost singlehandedly … had made land travel comfortable for the first time in history.”

The fare, including sleeping berth, was $28. That’s approximately $700 in today’s dollars -- more than twice what my round-trip airfare to Chicago cost, and also more than twice what Amtrak charges one-way for a Viewliner Roomette on its Lake Shore Limited service from New York to Chicago. That trip takes 19 hours when all goes well,  and while there’s no woodcock on the Lake Shore Limited dining-car menu, there is “Fork Tender, Slow Cooked Beef Short-rib,” not to mention “Healthy & Flavor Forward Vegan Selections”  that surely weren’t available in 1887.

Also, the modern equivalent of the Chicago Limited Express is not so much the New York to Chicago journey as intercontinental air travel, at least in business or first class. I flew business from Los Angeles to Sydney once, and while there was -- again -- no woodcock, I do remember not only excellent meals served with fine wines and spirits and a spectacular array of movies, but also my very own set of Qantas pajamas. The 15-hour flight also cost a lot more than $700, but it took me halfway around the world, not less than a third of the way across the continent.

In short, great progress has been made in transportation since 1887! So why do I pine for the 1887 travel experience? This feels like a question of broader significance these days, given the widespread feeling in the U.S. and many other countries that life is getting worse, despite ample evidence that it isn’t. Professional optimist Max Roser, in a Vox article last month that offered “Proof that life is getting better for humanity, in 5 charts,” blames this disparity on the news media, which “does not tell us how the world is changing; it tells us what in the world goes wrong.”

That’s a big part of it, I’m sure. But I can think of some other reasons. The biggest is that progress doesn't necessarily make the world better for everybody. This goes back at least to what Yuval Noah Harari, in his book “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” calls “history’s biggest fraud”: the Agricultural Revolution of circa 10,000 B.C.

Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease.

What the Agricultural Revolution did was enable many, many more people to enjoy the gift of life -- however impoverished and disease-ridden -- than had previously been able to do so. Something similar can be said for the spectacular economic, social and medical progress of the past two centuries. It has clearly improved the lot of humanity, in part by enabling far more humans to be alive, but when we envision ourselves in the 1800s we (or at least I) tend to imagine that we weren't among those who died in infancy, were wiped out in a cholera epidemic or spent their lives sweeping up blood in a slaughterhouse, never earning nearly enough to afford a ticket on the Chicago Limited Express. Instead, we imagine that we lived like the Bennets in “Pride and Prejudice.”

There’s also the question of relative progress. It’s been almost 58 years since the advent of daily sub-two-hour passenger jet flights from New York to Chicago. In 1830, 57 years before the launch of the Limited, the journey took almost three weeks. It’s not just travel -- for living standards in general, the pace of improvement has clearly slowed in the developed world over the past few decades. That great strides have continued to be made elsewhere, most dramatically in China, may actually make people in the U.S. and Western Europe feel worse about the direction the world is headed, not better.

Finally, there’s the factor of time. Many -- perhaps most -- of the productivity improvements of the past couple of centuries have involved sharply reducing the amount of time it takes to do something. That’s certainly true with travel. But while this has left more time for leisure, in the U.S. in particular, among white-collar workers in particular, we’ve also done a remarkable job of filling up the time with more work. The main appeal of the Chicago Limited Express for me may just be the opportunity that it gave for 25 straight hours of reading, conversing, thinking and sleeping. Well, that and the woodcock, of course.

  1. Disclosure: I came across this passage the day before the flight. But I was definitely still thinking about it on the plane.

  2. The train that Cary Grant sneaks onto in “North by Northwest” is the 20th Century Limited, a faster competitor launched by the New York Central Railroad in 1902.

  3. Which was only 56.3 percent of the time over the past 12 months, mainly because freight trains now take precedence over passenger ones, the opposite of the pecking order that prevailed in the 1880s.

  4. Pad Thai or black bean enchiladas.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Justin Fox at justinfox@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net