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

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