Killing the Goose for More Eggs

You’ve heard the fairytale about the goose that laid the golden eggs. Like most fairytales, there are many versions of the story. In Aesop’s telling, the “Countryman” who owns the goose grows rich as he sells one egg each day. But over time he grows impatient and cuts the goose open, hoping to find a lode of golden eggs. Of course he doesn’t, and he is much the poorer for it.

The story’s message is as true today as it was in ancient times. During the 2016 presidential campaign, the two most dynamic candidates were Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Sanders decried the 1% who pulled the strings, got rich, and made life bad for everyone else. It was us against the 1%. On the right thundered Donald Trump, who promised to Make America Great Again by promising to get tough on immigration, raising trade barriers, and strengthening the military. There is a goose and she lays golden eggs, but the 1% (in Sander’s version) or immigrants and foreign countries (in Trump’s version) steal them.

Everybody else running for president were hopelessly vanilla. In comparison to Sanders and Trump, they seemed to stand for the status quo, which of course is always bad. In Sanders/Trump golden egg speak, the status quo equals someone else getting America’s eggs.

Is the status quo bad? Yes, in certain ways. Opioid addiction and the deaths it causes are status quo, as is worsening income inequality. But by most measures, these are very good times. The status quo isn’t so bad. At the end of the Obama Administration, unemployment was 4.6%, which is half a point below what the Federal Reserve calls full employment. The stock market went through a healthy expansion from 2008-1016, and has done even better during the Trump Administration. Crime rates are near all-time lows, and high school graduation rates are the highest ever, at 82%. Teens are smoking less and having less sex. If that’s the status quo, that’s not so bad. It sounds like there are a quite a few golden eggs, but we don’t seem to notice them in our midst.

Despite many strong fundamentals, the voters elected the man least happy with the status quo. Since his election, he has shown an authoritarian streak, firing James Comey and attacking the press and dozens of individuals. Despite complaining about Obama’s executive orders, Trump signed nearly twice as many as his predecessor in the first 200 days. The President routinely badmouths agencies, like the Justice Department and the FBI, that are the backbone of the rule of law.

Trump is the Countryman in Aesop’s fable. Impatient as the goose’s owner, Trump lurches from one policy whim to the next. He may just take the axe to the system. He may take an axe to the goose. And what is the goose? Liberalism.

By this I mean the liberalism you learned about in high school government class: individual rights, rule of law, democracy, free markets. The stuff we’ve been breathing since the 1700s. John Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Adam Smith. But it’s like air. It’s there. We need it. But we don’t think about it much…

…until, I hope, it is threatened. And it is threatened right now. The voters who are energized, on both the right and the left, don’t think liberalism is working. Sanders and Trump—and even Hillary Clinton—were against the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, the kind of free trade policy the US used to champion. One reason the stock market is so high and unemployment and inflation are so low is because of, not despite, global trade. The only major drop in the stock indices during the Trump Administration have come after he slapped tariffs on Chinese goods. If we keep the new Trump tariff regime, other countries will retaliate. Goods will get more expensive and unemployment will rise as trade and commerce slow.

The past 30 years have been very good for the world, despite the bad news. And the number one driver of the good has been liberalism. But the liberal order is vanilla. It’s the air we breathe. It’s the stuff that sustains us but we don’t see how it sustains us. And liberalism is the goose that lays the golden eggs. Some liberals want to radically change the Constitution. Some conservatives are willing to suspend elections to stay in power. Faith in the goose—democracy, capitalism, rule of law, and institutions—is eroding. The axe is sharpened.

I’m happy to see that there’s a backlash against the pessimism. I encourage you to read Gregg Easterbrook’s It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear; Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress; and Hans, Ola, and Anna Rosling’s. Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. Very recent books like Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West and Edward Luce’s The Retreat of Western Liberalism take a closer look at the theme of this article. Both Goldberg and Luce recount the fable of the goose and the golden eggs because it is an apt metaphor for our current peril. We live in the richest, safest, and most democratic time in history, yet we are very close to ending it in a fit of pique. Let us turn our gaze away from the goose and focus on the real problems of our age, including climate change, inequality, global poverty, and the recent rise in authoritarianism. Spare the goose…and save civilization.

The American Future Will Be Better…But Not in the Same Way

For most of American history, there was a strong belief that our children were going to do better than we did. The story goes something like this: My grandparents were immigrants, and my father was a soldier in World War II. My dad was the first of his family to go to college. My sisters and I went to college. With each generation our horizons broaden and we earn more money.

But sometime in the late 20th century, this assurance that the next generation would do better started to disintegrate. Ronald Reagan was elected to make America great again, though he found John Winthrop’s shining “City Upon a hill” to be more inspiring than #MAGA. But by Reagan’s presidency, most Americans did not believe that their children would do better than they did.

I understand why the “my-kids-should-do-better-than-I” metric is a popular one. We all have stories of bootstrappers in our families. But I think this “better-than-I” metric is very problematic in the 21st Century.

A brief history of the last 400 years is in order. The Europeans (and later Africans and Asians) who colonized what’s now the US wiped out most of the natives and leveraged the bounty of the continent. The colonies that became the United States was able to avoid European wars and grow grow grow during the 1800s, in part thanks to the slave labor of Africans. While the two world wars of the early 20th century took a terrible toll on America, the toll in Europe and East Asia was much much much worse.

The US was able to grow on after the backs of Indians and Africans while it was protected from Europe’s frequent paroxysms of blood. In short, the white folks who pulled the strings in the US were very lucky. While our country grew through the luck and pluck of hardscrabble Americans, it also grew at the expense of others.

Part of the reason Americans find it harder to continue “my-kids-should-do-better-than-I” growth is that the world is much more fair. This fairness is very much a product of the expansion of America’s values of freedom, free trade, and equality (not that we always lived up to those ideals). After winning World War II and the Cold War, American (and European classical liberal) ideas predominated. China and other countries are now giving us a run for our money, (mostly) playing by the rules of capitalism, and we resent it.

This seems a little rich. China was savaged by civil war, famine, civil war, Japan, civil war, and Mao. They are trying to achieve their dreams just like Americans did in the 1800s and much of the 20th century. So it’s not surprising that while only 6% of Americans think the future will be better, a whopping 41% of Chinese are optimistic about their future. I think they’re experiencing the growth we experienced in our past. As a mature economy, we won’t grow like this. Sometime, probably soon, Chinese growth rates will decrease to levels resembling ours, just as they did in Japan in the late 20th century.

So are we doomed to a sad future?

No, because we’re measuring progress the wrong way.

Gross domestic product has been a favorite measure of economists and policy makers ever since Simon Kuznets did his groundbreaking work on national accounts in the 1930s. GDP grew explosively for much of America’s history. As a measure, it remains popular, but alternatives are starting to challenge it. The tiny Himalayan kingdom Bhutan famously made “Gross National Happiness” a goal of national policies. In the West, scholars are expanding national accounts of well-being, notably the European Commission and the Global Happiness Council.

I like GDP a lot, but I don’t think it works well for highly developed countries like the US. It works well for poor and middle income countries because GDP correlates with well-being. Life-expectancy, infant mortality, and other important measures improve lock step with GDP growth, especially in developing countries.

For the last 30 years, GDP growth in the US has been between one and four percent most years, far below the nine percent average in China. So is life there three times better than in the US? Of course not. China is undemocratic and citizens have few civil liberties, even as their living standards have improved. Our relatively sluggish GDP growth doesn’t reflect the fact that millions of LGBT Americans can marry, or that life expectancy keeps rising, or that the human genome was sequenced, or that international telephone calls are now free. (Remember long distance bills?)

To get a full sense of how inadequate economic growth is as a measure of life quality in a mature economy like ours, I will quickly reel off 26 aspects of life that keep improving regardless of GDP:

Lower crime rates, less air pollution, more forest coverage, more parks, better schools, rising IQ scores, better dental health, more cancer cures, less invasive surgery, fewer civil wars, fewer interstate wars, longer life, lower child mortality rates, less drug use by teens, less sex by teens, limitless free information via the internet, better weather prediction, lower rates of injury and death from natural disasters, low inflation, more gender equality, more rights for LGBTs, inexpensive food, safer cars, safer workplace conditions, higher high school graduation rates, and higher college attendance rates. I could go on. These are just ones that came to mind. Life keeps getting better in countless  small ways that are not captured by economic growth (i.e., GDP growth).

So America, and the rest of the world, is getting better at an increasing speed. Politics are ugly. So is the news. But politics and the news are not proxies for the state of the world.

I’ll close with words spoken by Bobby Kennedy fifty years ago:

 

The Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and … the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl… Yet [it] does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play… the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages… it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

Robert Kennedy, 1968

Monkey Business: What We Should Worry About

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Are you smarter than a chimp? Hans Rosling has been asking this question for many years. He’s found that most people aren’t.

Rosling quizzes people about the state of the world, asking questions about topics like extreme poverty, education attainment by girls, and deaths by natural disasters. He then compares human responses to those a chimp would generate if answers were written on bananas and the chimp chose at random. Nearly everyone quizzed by Rosling does worse than our simian cousins.

Why? Because we have an out-of-date worldview. We think most girls in developing countries become child brides. We think natural disasters are getting deadlier when they’re really killing fewer people. We think poverty’s never been more widespread when in actuality rates are at their lowest ever.

One advantage chimps have is they don’t watch the news, which is full of images that feature humanity at our worst. People see these pictures and unconsciously think that the news is a proxy for the state of the world, when really it reflects our ability to film everything that goes wrong (due in part to the billions of pocket video recorders we carry thanks to human technological progress).

Our survival psychology also plays a role. We pay attention to, think about, and remember things that are frightening, gory, and tragic. This is our negativity bias. It kept us focused on threats in our ancient past, but today it still pulls the strings despite the safety of the modern world.

What is the state of the world? And what should we pay attention to?

In a new book, Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World, Rosling,* co-authoring with his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna, uses humor, statistics, and stories from personal experience to show us a different way to see the world. First, the authors make a compelling case that the present is the best time ever. They tell stories about the poverty in Sweden that was widespread just a few generations ago. The speed of progress has accelerated in the rich world and spread to the poor countries, but most people still think the developing world is the same place they learned about back in grade school.

The authors also direct us to turn our attention away from the smoke and toward the fire. Since 9/11, terrorism has been the obsession of policymakers here in the United States. Even though its impact is tiny (though still tragic) when compared to the flu, gun violence, auto accidents, opioid addiction, and dozens of other problems, terrorism gets pushed to the top of the public agenda by a frightened populace and the political class. The Roslings argue that we should focus on five problems that dwarf terrorism, yet get too little attention: global pandemics, financial collapse, world war, extreme poverty, and global warming.

Three of these problems–global pandemic, financial collapse, and world war–have happened before. We know how catastrophic they will be if they return.  Two other problems are happening in slow motion: extreme poverty and climate change. The good news about extreme poverty is that it has been going down. The bad news is that extreme poverty is the handmaiden of terrorism and war. Places that serve as safe havens for terrorism–Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria, Palestine–are also havens of poverty. If we want to suck the oxygen out of the terrorism ecosystem, we should end global poverty. This will likely happen but it needs to be hurried along. Look at rich countries. They once had terrorism, fueled in part by the Cold War. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, European terrorist organizations like ETA and the IRA have laid down their arms. Barring renegade individuals, rich countries no longer harbor terror. If we end poverty we will likely suffocate terrorism too.

Unlike poverty, global warming is getting worse. The political will to combat the production of greenhouse gasses is getting stronger, but, barring the participation of the US, turning the corner will be tough. But we have reason to hope. The two other global atmospheric challenges that threatened us–the ozone hole and acid rain–were solved by international cooperation. The United States took a lead on these and the world overcame this catastrophic environmental challenges. Currently the US is not leading the charge against global warming, which means progress is in doubt.

So I encourage you read Factfulness, and check out Rosling’s TED Talks. They are hilarious, insightful, and an optimistic balm in a pessimistic world.

*Hans Rosling died of pancreatic cancer last year, so his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna continue his work at Gapminder.

Famished, Fat, Fit: Global Health in a Nutshell

What is the future of global health?

–Are global famines right around the corner, as Paul Erhlich and other eco-pessimists predict?
–Are we all going to be fat blobs by the year 2100?
–Or will we finally going to get fit, live long, and prosper?

Well, we certainly know the past. Most people lived lives of food insecurity. Hunter-gatherers were subject to the whims of mother nature. Later on, the first farmers survived one locust (or human) invasion away from starvation. Until the Green Revolution of the 20th century, a Malthusian future appeared to be our destiny.

But instead of starvation, we got the opposite: fast food, sugary sweets, and a glut of carbohydrates. Today, obese people outnumber starving people. This seems an ironic twist in the human story. We lived on the edge of starvation for most of our history. Now we’re all going to die of heart disease and metabolic disorder.

Except we aren’t.

Medical progress has meant heart disease rates in rich countries have been cut in half by cholesterol medicines and improved medical procedures. For those who do have heart attacks, medical breakthroughs have sent survival rates higher and higher.

But too many of us are still too fat. What’s going to happen?

Here in the States, we have a saying that most trends start in California. I suggest a more global statement: Most trends start with the rich. A century ago only rich people had cars, and now billions drive. Air conditioning was first installed in the mansions of the wealthy. Today even the poor in rich countries have air conditioning, and it’s becoming commonplace in middle and low income countries. Today the global rich go to the gym, sweat through Zumba or Barre classes, and eat lots of vegetables. Tomorrow everybody will be in the gym and eating vegetables.

I’m pretty confident. Why?

Because eventually, most everybody gets everything. When smartphones first came out, only the rich had them. Now farmers in poor countries use smartphones to get information about the weather and crop prices. TVs were once curiosities in the homes of the wealthy. Now people in favelas, barrios, and slums around the world watch TV.

If you think my argument’s dubious, just do a quick historical review of all the curiosities that the rich bought first and everyone else wanted. If the technology had legs–think transistor radios, TV, smartphones…not Segways and Furbies–then eventually these popular products were made and marketed for the masses.

But eating less and exercising more is a behavior, not a product.

Smoking provides the best example of the pattern I describe. Lots of people smoked a generation ago. As laws and customs in wealthy countries become more smoker unfriendly, the culture started to shift. Who were the first adopters of a new smoke-free lifestyle? The rich and highly educated. Income and education attainment have a strong reverse correlation with smoking. So as more and more people get better educated and earn more, they will smoke less. Similarly, as education and income go up, obesity goes down. The same process that gets people to eat less and exercise more is the one that got folks to smoke less.

Here’s how the Population Reference Bureau put it: “(R)esearchers found that activities such as reading, attending cultural events, and going to the movies were associated just as much as exercise was with a lower BMI. On the other hand, people who participated in activities such as watching TV, attending sporting events, and shopping had higher BMI. These patterns were most consistent in high-income nations….” More and more people are moving toward high income…and nerd-dom. Yes, part of growing wealthy is becoming boring: reading books, going to cultural events, etc. But that’s where people are heading, on an upward income and education escalator, what economist Steven Radalet calls “The Great Surge” and Nobel-prize winner Angus Deaton calls “The Great Escape” from poverty.

So I’m not a health economist, but I’m going to say this anyway: Humans go through three stages: Famished, Fat, and Fit. For 99% of history most of us have been living one really bad day (or event) away from famine. For the last couple generations, folks in rich countries have been getting fat. Most recently, the rich and middle classes of rich countries have been eating more vegetables and exercising (just like they stopped smoking 30 years ago). The income and education escalator will bring the rest of the world up to the Fit stage someday, and probably sooner than we think. It took less than 10 years for the iPhone to go from plaything of the rich to global ubiquity. Invest in gym memberships and health food!

My Story of Getting to “Better”

I grew up very, very privileged kid. I was born in a hospital, and a doctor was present at my birth. I had excellent neonatal care, vaccinations, and regular visits to a pediatrician. I had access to clean water and ample nutritious food. I attended elementary school and did not have to work as a child. There was physical safety: a house with walls, a locked door, a roof, heat. How many of you had a childhood like this?

Over the course of history, only a tiny percentage of humans have had these privileges. If you are like me, you won the human history lottery.

But for some weird reason, I took all this privilege for granted. As I moved into high school I obsessed about America’s hypocrisy and the evils of capitalism. Beneath the surface of affluence, I saw a rotten core to America–materialistic, expansionistic, superficial, gaudy…bloated both physically and metaphorically. I read a book called Ishmael that likened our civilization to a flying craft that has launched itself from a cliff. It is in the air, so there is the appearance of flight, but it is tumbling toward the ground, headed for the sharp rocks below.

I developed a declinist mindset, a belief that humanity is doomed. Like many millions of people throughout history, I thought that the end was near and closer than most people thought. I imagined we would all die in nuclear war or from overpopulation.

My view of the world mirrored my psychology: depressed, anxious, pessimistic. This view abetted my burgeoning addiction to alcohol. But thanks to my birth to extreme historical privilege, I had many routes out of my misery. The first was psychology. My father’s death–late at 59 by historical standards, but early by our modern ones–exacerbated my anxiety, depression, and alcoholism. My therapist helped me to recognize my addiction and seek help through a healing community of fellow recovering alcoholics. In recovery we emphasize an “attitude of gratitude,” defined as “the habit (of expressing) thankfulness and appreciation in all parts of your life, on a regular basis, for both the big and small things alike” (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/andrew-merle/how-to-have-an-attitude-of-gratitude_b_8644102.html).

This attitude of gratitude, this daily attention to big and small gifts in my life, made me see my prejudice against the world. Why did I think it was so screwed up, so bound for failure.

I began to see my life not as a suburban desert, but a rich heartland of assets and opportunities. I stopped seeing America as irredeemably evil and started seeing its dark and bright sides, its atrocities in Vietnam and Chile, and its Marshall Plan and the Peace Corps. It made me think, “What other good things am I missing?”

I started asking different questions. How are we doing in other ways? Is there less poverty? Are we getting dumber? Is the world more or less peaceful? In short, are we making progress?

This led me to read books like Desert Solitaire and Sand County Almanac, which saddened me about our relationship to our planet. But I also read The Better Angels of Our Nature and Abundance. The mountain of evidence these latter books presented convinced me that we have never been this peaceful, democratic, literate, safe, and free.

As I dug deeper, I saw that the pessimists focused on the problems, but the optimists focused on the problems and the progress. While the pessimists saw nothing good in the big picture, the optimists acknowledged the problems and the progress. It was the optimists who told the whole story.

Meantime, I noticed that my heart was being lifted. I became more optimistic, and I began to see all the things that are working in the world. When I looked around I observed the vast infrastructure of modern life as connective, not alienating. I also made sure to see the blue sky, birds, and mountains. I changed my view of humankind as parasites on the earth to a view that we’re the first species to try to decrease our impact and rewild the earth. I was heartened by our success stories, how the once-burning Cuyahoga River in Cleveland is today much cleaner and is again home to wildlife. I discovered that people from all over the earth had come together to make the world a better place. We were solving global problems like acid rain and the ozone hole. Maybe we can find a way to end global warming. Maybe there are reasons to be optimistic.

The best news I found on my search was about human life. As a child in the 1970s, we feared three doomsday forces: Communism, nuclear weapons, and overpopulation. The deadlock between East and West seemed perennial, and tensions ramped up when Reagan demanded that Gorbachev “tear down this wall.” The Day After TV program brought a post-nuclear world to screens across America. Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb prophesied massive famines and supported sterilization programs. The future looked bleak.

But instead of getting worse, things got better. The fall of Communism led to a massive reduction of nuclear weapons. With the undeniably frightening exception of North Korea, the likelihood of a nuclear war has decreased. We are not one international crisis away from Mutual Assured Destruction. Population growth has slowed, and the Green Revolution had meant that–contrary to Ehrlich’s predictions–we have never had so much food for all of humanity.

If we were wrong about these predictions, might we be wrong about global warming?

First, let’s acknowledge that there is ample evidence that global warming is happening, and it might  be catastrophic. Therefore, I believe it should be one of humanity’s top priorities.

That said, let’s look at our record at predicting global calamity.

Humans have always had a tendency to view the past as better and the future as worse. Hinduism had the doctrine of yugas, or ages, and our current yuga is the Kali Yuga, one of depravity. Hesiod, the ancient Greek mythologist, believed in five ages: Gold, Silver, Bronze, Heroic, and Iron. We live in the Iron Age of war and lesser men. Even the Bible saw humans as cursed, having started in the paradise of the Garden of Eden that we were kicked out of.

To these dismal views of the present are added an apocalyptic future, and end time when humanity will be destroyed. Often this is a Sodom and Gomorrah punishment for iniquity. Our current iniquity is pollution in the form of CO2. Will we change our wicked ways, or will we end in karmic self-destruction?

By one rough count, humans have been wrong about the end of the world at least 170 times. And some very impressive people have made these predictions, including Martin Luther, Isaac Newton, Cotton Mather, and John Wesley. More recently, Paul Ehrlich and other eco-pessimists thought that the world would be beset with global famines. Instead, hunger rates plummeted to their lowest of all time.

In short, we are poor predictors of Armageddon.

The way forward is to use the optimistic realists’ approach, which is to look at the broad picture. We are very good at looking at the threat, our negativity bias, but we also need to look at the assets. By looking at the whole picture, we are more likely to solve our problems.

I end by noting that there is a worldwide epidemic of anxiety, depression, and suicide. The causes are many and complex, but I propose an additional cause: pessimism. We are progressing rapidly on many fronts. Meanwhile, people see the problems but not the progress. I believe people think that the world’s fundamentally a broken place, and some even see humans as unwelcome parasites on an otherwise eco-eden of earth.

I don’t see the Earth as broken. I see a resilient planet that is home to a species that has reached intelligence and consciousness of itself. This species has produced the Pyramids and Angkor Wat, the Colosseum and the Forbidden City. We’ve composed The Iliad and The Tale of Genji. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the polyphonic songs of Pygmy music. We have been warlike and now are turning toward peace, democracy, and human rights. We are even advocating for expanded animal rights. Finally, humanity is waking up to the damage we are doing to our home. We have started to heal the wounds and change our relationship. From the creation of Yellowstone as the first national park, to the cleaning up of the Cuyahoga River, to the repair of the ozone hole, we have reasons to be optimistic. Global warming is our greatest current challenge, but I think humanity has a good track record. Let’s keep moving for≤ ward!

Finally, let’s cultivate a mindset of progress. The earth is a good place, our resilient home. We are capable of good and evil, but lately we have been mending our ways. We are working hard to repair the earth, and to bring more food, education, safety, peace, prosperity, and rights to all people. We can solve our biggest problems because we’ve done this in the past. Let’s be optimistic. Let’s get to work!

Are You Better Off Now?

Ronald Reagan famously asked this question during the 1980 presidential campaign. It was a winning slogan.

It’s a great question to ask yourself. Are you better now? Is life better now?

Well now you can check! Go to yourlifeinnumbers.org, which is part of the Cato Institute’s Human Progress initiative. Here’s what you do:

  • Step 1: Select your country of birth.
  • Step 2: Select your birth year.

So do you think life expectancy, infant survival, income per person, food supply, years of schooling went up or down. I think you know the answer. Of course these stats don’t portray the whole picture, but it gives you a sense. Crime’s lower. Civil rights are greater. Travel and communication are easier and better. And so on.

What was most interesting for me was doing Step 3, which you’ll find below the bar graph generated from your information. In Step 3 you can compare life in the United States to other countries (or if you aren’t an American, compare your country to the US). What you find is that most other countries have grown more than the US. This should not be surprising. Remember that the US possessed half of the world’s industrial output at the end of 1945 because much of it–think Europe and Japan–had been destroyed in World War II. There’s really only one way to go for most of the world, and that’s up. The developing world has gone up up up in the past half century since decolonization, the end of the Cold War, and globalization.

I’m an American who’s been to every state. I feel I know the country pretty well, though I’m sure I’m full of bias, incomplete information, and misinformation. But I don’t suspect that most Americans get that the US probably won’t grow like China, India, and the developing world. There’s not much slack in our system. So when people want to “make America great again,” I have a thought. America is greater than it’s ever been. Better educated, longer lived, healthier, freer, more affluent. But rosy retrospection makes many pine for bygone days that exist only in their reconstructed memories.

I’m fine with reconstructed memories. Just don’t vote or base public policies on reconstructed memories.

50 Years Ago. Better or Worse?

Compared with 50 years ago, life for people like you in America today is….

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“Worse” say most Trump voters in a recent Pew Research Center Survey. Eighty-one percent said as much (above). Only 19 percent of Clinton voters said that.

Trump’s biggest supporters were white men, nearly two-thirds of whom voted for him. Life for white men may have felt better because they had privileged access to higher education, social stature, political office, and good employment. These good things in life were limited for everyone else.

I argue that life’s better for even the privileged white men of the 1960s. To compare 1966 with 2016, let’s start with a sentimental journey. It feels worse in 2016, right? There were no mass killings in 1966, yes? …except for sniper Charles Whitman who killed 13 and wounded 31 at the University of Texas. And don’t forget Richard Speck, who murdered eight student nurses in their dormitory. And Valery Percy, a Senator’s daughter, was stabbed and bludgeoned to death in the family mansion on Chicago’s North Shore. And there were race riots in Lansing, Michigan. Oh, the simple days before wanton violence! We could also talk about the 6143 young men who died in Vietnam in 1966.

Okay, so maybe things were pretty sordid in 1966.

Here are some of the many ways that life is better in the US than it was 50 years ago:

Communications: Remember that thing called long-distance? You can call anywhere for free now. And communicate in most any way, to anyone, anywhere. For free.

Economy: Despite much fear, the economy is flying high. Unemployment is low, the stock market is high, home ownership is not far from its all-time high. The middle class is smaller than it used to be, but this is mostly due to growth in the high income category.

Education: In 1966 about 50% of whites and 30% of blacks graduated from high school. Today 87% of whites and 73% of blacks graduate. This is only one measure, but it reflects incredible educational progress in my lifetime. You can complain, with some justification, about the state of American education, but it has never been better.

Environment: 1966, nestled between Silent Spring and The Population Bomb, is about the time when the modern green movement took shape. The The Cuyahoga River was once the most polluted river in the United States, made famous because it caught fire in the 60s…that is, the 1860s. Over the next century it would catch fire at least 12 more times, leading to the infamous 1969 fire that launched the environmental movement. People think pollution is a new thing, but pollution was much worse in the 1800s and most of the 1900s when there were few environmental regulations. Today, across America, air and water quality are better than they were in 1966.

Food: Suffice it to say that food is so cheap and abundant that obesity, not starvation, is the bigger health threat. There’s no strong proof that legal pesticides or GMOs cause health problems. You can even get fruit in winter shipped from across the planet. People may complain about “food miles,” but maybe they should complain about “clothing miles” or “natural resource miles.” Just about everything is from everywhere else, and we seem to be doing all this trade with less and less pollution.

Transport: It’s easier, safer, and cheaper. The chart below shows how many commercial airplanes crashed around the world each year. The decrease in crashes is more than threefold, even though air travel has increased a great deal.Looking globally, the improvements are much greater. Here’s a comparison of then and now, from yourlifeinnumbers.org.

  • In 1966, average life expectancy was only 56 years. Today it’s 72. That’s an increase of 29 percent.
  • Out of every 1,000 infants born, 113 died before their first birthday. Today, only 32 die. That’s a reduction of 72 percent.
  • Median income per person rose from around $6,000 to around $16,000, or by 167 percent – and that’s adjusted for inflation and purchasing power.
  • The food supply rose from about 2,300 calories per person per day to over 2,800 calories, an increase of 22 percent, thus reducing hunger.
  • The length of schooling that a person could typically expect to receive was 3.9 years. Today, it’s 8.4 years – a 115 percent increase.
  • The world has become less authoritarian, with the level of democracy rising from -0.97 to 4.23 on a scale from -10 to 10. That’s an improvement of 536 percent.

Here and overseas, life is much better. It may feel worse, but that’s probably just your rosy retrospection calling the tune. We tend to think the past is better, especially as we get older and memories are recast in a glowing light. But it’s not, and making major political, economic, governmental, and social decisions based on false assumptions might just undo the progress we’ve made.