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


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!