Why 2014 Is Better

“Feeling nostalgic for the good old days? Then think back to the late 1970s. Gas lines stretched for blocks at service stations thanks to a revolution in Iran and an energy crisis. Gas-guzzling cars were common: The midsized 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass we (Consumer Reports) tested got 11.8 mpg in city driving. Inflation sat at an uncomfortable 7.6 percent, compared with about 2 percent today.

“The last 35 years have seen a revolution in consumer rights, protection, and choice. There has been an explosion in the variety of products available, the complexity of those products, and the speed with which they hit the shelves.”

These paragraphs open an article in the July issue of Consumer Reports magazine, and they offer a reminder of how far we’ve come since 1978. Back then telephone service was monopolized by Ma Bell. Airlines were highly regulated, which meant little price competition. While generic drugs had been around for a long time by 1978, in the ensuing years their availability skyrocketed, which has saved consumers billions of dollars. In 2012 77% of drugs prescribed by American pharmacists were generic brands, a record high. Home appliances are now safer, as are the foods on our table.

And, to move from the kitchen to geopolitics, let’s remember that Germany was split in two in ’78. Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and other (now thriving and democratic) “East Bloc” states were governed by politburos. Relations with Russia are very bad right now, but in ’78 the USSR ruled ALL of Ukraine and missiles bristled from silos in Russia and the United States. Would anyone in 1978 imagine that the East-West divide would melt away eleven years later, bringing down the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain?

“The good ole days” is an inviting fallacy. Sure, “back in the day” things were simpler, but they weren’t better. Nostalgia for the past is a poor guide for public policy given the abundant (but oft overlooked) progress we’ve made, especially since the end of the Cold War.

 

Significant Poverty Rate Drop in Latin America

The BBC reported that “More than 56 million people have been lifted out of poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean in recent years, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

“A new UNDP report says poverty levels in the period from 2000-2012 fell from 41.7% to 25.3% of the population.”

While the BBC reported that progress was uneven, a 16% decrease in poverty in 12 years is staggering. When I think of dramatic poverty reduction in recent years, China and India first come to mind. Progress in many African countries also stands out. Yet Latin America’s unheralded improvements are remarkable.

The Rise of DAD

When I was a kid–do I sound like my last post?–my father was an affable, sweet-hearted yet somewhat distant, usually benevolent parent. However, Mom did most everything. When Dad came home from work we kids ran to the door and regaled him with our love. I remember him hoisting me on his shoulders as he walked through the house to greet Mom. I also remember the five o’clock stubble against my cheek; it was a good feeling, despite the rough scratchiness, ’cause it was Dad.

But except for fishing trips on vacations and occasional help with Pinewood Derby cars and other projects, Dad was kind of in the background. I don’t think he changed any diapers. And he didn’t have much of a clue about what I was doing in school, with friends, etc. It’s sad, isn’t it? But he did provide for the family, as he was expected to do. I believe he was following the training of his parents and the norms of the era. His mother immigrated to America in her early 20s, and his father lived with relatives because his father, my great-grandfather, was a hardcore alcoholic. It’s a cliche but I believe it: They were doing the best they could. Dad did the best he could.

Nowadays fatherhood is worse in some ways and better in others. There are plenty of dads in the background…or not around at all. In fact, many more kids grow up without a dad in the house than kids did in the 60s. According to a Pew study that gleaned its findings from US Census data, “only 11 percent of children younger than 18 in the United States were living apart from their fathers in 1960, compared with 27 percent in 2010.” 

But the kind of dads I see all over the country hearten me a great deal. I see more fathers snuggling, playing with, schlepping, talking to and walking with their children in a way that most fathers did not do very often when I was growing up. Pew research backs up this perception:

“Pew also reported that fathers who do live with their children are spending more time with them and taking part in a greater variety of activities with them. The amount of time that married fathers spent with children living in their household rose from an average of 2.6 hours per week in 1965 to 6.5 hours per week in 2000, the Pew researchers noted, referencing statistics from “Changing Rhythms of American Family Life,” (Russell Sage Foundation, 2007).

That’s nearly a threefold increase in time fathers spent with their children.

Fatherhood today is a mixed bag. It would be better if more fathers lived with their children. But the dramatic increase in the time dads spend with their kids is a very good thing. It is no longer rare to see stay-at-home dads taking care of their children full time. And for the kids today, engaged fatherhood is a new normal.

 

Teen Drinking & Smoking at or Near “Historic Lows”; Drug Use Declining

The kids today! When I was a lad…

Every generation of old people gripes about the youngin’s, how they are lazier today and don’t know how good they got it.

Of course that’s rubbish, and it’s been rubbish for most of the history of elder complaints of the younger generation. Does Socrates sound familiar when he says this?–

“Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.” 

Well, when I was a wee whippersnapper, children were not as smart, had worse health, lived shorter lives, were less literate and numerate, lived in a country that had just legalized racial equality but was still hostile to gays. Oh, how I pine for the golden days of yore!

In yet another demonstration of progress, researchers find that kids today smoke and drink less. The also don’t do drugs as much (though marijuana use is increasing; more on that below).

“Every year, the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey measures drug, alcohol, and tobacco use and related attitudes among 8th, 10th, and 12th graders.” The MTF is done by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Many of the results of the 2013 MTF were quite heartening.

Drug trends

However, the 2013 MTF did note that marijuana use is increasing. This isn’t surprising as marijuana is now legal in some states and will likely be more and more accepted, both by the law and society. Therefore I am not optimistic about future trends in teen marijuana use. Also, the abuse of prescription drugs and over-the-counter medicines is quite troubling. Ironically, it’s the adults that fuel these trends, not our miscreant children. As prescription drug use increases by parents, abuse increases with children stealing these medications for “recreational use.” And the grown-ups in state houses relaxing marijuana laws are a primary cause of teens thinking marijuana is neither harmful–the governor signed the bill into law, right?–or illegal.

Nonetheless, historically low levels of tobacco and alcohol use among teens is quite heartening.