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.

Extra! Mainstream Media Downplays Hysteria!

I was happily shocked to see yesterday’s cover story in Parade Magazine, “What Are We Afraid Of?”

what-are-you-afraid-of-in-2015

What surprised me was that a mainstream, read-by-millions, middle-of-the-road, USofA kinda magazine was talking Americans out of their panic room mentalities toward a crazy thesis: You’re pretty darn safe.

Well, the article didn’t say that exactly, but nowadays we worry more about highly unlikely things like ebola and terrorism than real dangers (like texting while driving and the flu). People who should know better, like Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey*, think we live in a dangerous time despite the fact that death by tuberculosis, murder, natural disaster, smoking, fire, war, polio–even heart disease and stroke–are becoming less and less likely.

The Parade article breaks down in simple ways how we evolved for threats on the East African savanna–dangers that don’t exist for us anymore–not for our current threats, most of which are self-made (like obesity, being inside moving automobiles, and suicide). But if we don’t use the rational part of our mind, fear can rule us, especially with a media environment that can report every bit of bad (though rare) news in gory detail.

So remember that flu, not ebola, might kill you. Gluten won’t cause you health problems (barring celiac disease), but make sure you get enough fiber. And for heaven’s (and my family’s) sake please get all your shots. No one gets autism from vaccines.

*”I can’t impress upon you [enough] that in my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now.” from Cato Institute website

 

Murders Down Again in NYC (but will many people notice?)

“The number of murders in New York City has dropped to what years ago would have seemed like an impossible low: 328 killings recorded in 2014, the lowest figure since at least 1963, when the Police Department began collecting reliable statistics.  The New York Times

The cold-blooded murder of two police officers in Brooklyn, and Eric Garner’s choke hold death in Staten Island, will be what people remember about 2014. Many fewer will remember the record low homicide rate.

The deaths of Eric Garner, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were awful tragedies. I hope (and feel confident that) the problems of police tactics and police safety that led to the deaths of these men will be studied and debated. But these deaths account for less than 1% of NYC homicides. I fear that few will study what keeps going right in New York City public safety.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/01/nyregion/new-york-city-murders-fall-but-the-police-arent-celebrating.html?_r=0

2014: Bad Headlines, Good News

Ebola, ISIS, school shootings. Michael Brown and Eric Garner, Ukraine and Russia, Israel and Hamas. It’s been a bad year for many.

Nonetheless, life slowly gets better for most of us.

I’ll just make a passing remark about the US economy. Even in times of recession Americans have a quality of life that is better than that of kings 100 years ago, so the improving US economy and record highs for the Dow are just blips in the big picture.

The Ebola outbreak was tragic. Nonetheless, there were positive glimmers, especially Nigeria’s coordinated response. And overblown fears of a pandemic proved ludicrous.

People bemoan the state of Palestine-Israel relations, but few see recent times in the larger historical context. Before Camp David there were major wars in ’48, ’56, ’67 and ’73. Since then there have been missiles and terrorists, incursions and intifadas, but no all-out wars. The conflict seems intractable, but its scope continues to shrink.

Russia, such a nuisance through much of 2014, now seems a paper bear with gas prices and the Rouble tumbling.

The opening of Cuba bodes well. Communism, like mold, thrives in closed spaces. The feeble Castros can only hold on for so long.

ISIS’s luck is running out, especial as air strikes continue to weaken its infrastructure and the Iraq government shows some modicum of competence post-Maliki.

Tragedy will continue in Syria, and Venezuela looks ripe for some kind of change.

Alas, I’m starting to predict. “Mortals predict and the gods laugh.”

Obama has been criticized (often rightly) for his leadership, but his assessment of 2014 is spot on (if a bit awkwardly phrased): “We solved problems. Ebola is a real crisis. You get a mistake in the first case because it’s not something that’s been seen before. We fix it. You have some unaccompanied children who spike at a border. And it may not get fixed in the time frame of the news cycle, but it gets fixed. And…as we reflect on the new year — this should generate . . . some confidence. America knows how to solve problems.” (quoted from The Washington Post)

Despite cops and black men being unjustly shot, America and the world are actually getting safer. And richer, freer, more equal, more democratic, more literate, longer lived, better educated and healthier.

Here’s to an even better 2015.

Fear Mongers in High Places

In February 2012 Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared, “I can’t impress upon you [enough] that in my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now.”

One year later, he upped the ante: “I will personally attest to the fact that [the world is] more dangerous than it has ever been.” But General Dempsey is hardly alone. Dire warnings about our uniquely dangerous world are ubiquitous. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified in early 2014 that he had “not experienced a time when we’ve been beset by more crises and threats around the globe.”

Members of Congress agree. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), born before World War II, explained in July 2014 that the world is “in greater turmoil than at any time in my lifetime.”

This lead to a Cato Institute article by Christopher A. Preble points out how leaders at the highest levels of American government are making statements about international security that directly contradict what data set after data set make clear: We live in the safest times in history.

Despite what the incessant barrage of bad news may portray, war, civil wars, armed conflicts, murder and violent crime are down nearly everywhere. Terrorism is less deadly today than it was before 9/11. There has been a recent uptick in war-related violence, because of Syria and ISIS, but these numbers don’t come close to negating the gains since WWII and, especially, the 90s and aughties.

I can only hope that Dempsey, Clapper and McCain were exaggerating for political effect. My deeper fear is that these men really do think we live in more dangerous times. If they don’t understand the forces that have caused this historically unprecedented peace–Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature gives an excellent explanation of the causes–then will they not build on this success?

Our leaders must understand reality–and our reality looks very good in many ways–but statements from Dempsey, Clapper and McCain make me fear for our gains and progress.

Of Peshawar and Picture Shows

Two stories have dominated the news in the last 48 hours, one tragic, the other pathetic.

The tragedy is of course the massacre of more than a hundred children in a Pakistan school. This, though a new low for the Pakistani Taliban, is not novel. Only the scale shocks anew.

The pathetic one centers on The Interview, Sony’s action comedy movie that just got scrapped because of threats from North Korea’s crypto-anachro Communist state.

What can anyone say to fully describe the deep misanthropy of the Taliban? Kill hundreds of children as a matter of policy?

And how insecure can Kim Jong-un be if he’s worried about a Seth Rogan adventure comedy?

The slimmest of silver linings in all of this Tarantino-meets-Kubrick surrealism is that “this is the enemy.”  It is utterly awful that the Pakistani Taliban murder hundreds of children every year. And North Korean hacking and terrorism threats are small potatoes compared with what Kim Jong-un and his minions do to North Koreans.

It is nonetheless clear that “this is not a winning policy.” There will be no groundswell of support in the wake of these actions. Communism and fascism had more appeal; one promised equity and the other unity. The Taliban and the North Korean government offer nothing. We know that they are doomed. The scary question is “How many innocents will die before they’re done?”

The Kids Are Alright

The kids today! They’re spoiled, ill-mannered, immature dunderheads!

If you relate to this (exaggerated) sentiment about today’s youth, you’re not alone. Ever since the first adult witnessed pubescent immaturity, great thinkers have dismissed the younger generation: “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.” Or so wrote Aristophanes in one of his plays.

Well, it turns out that the greatest generation didn’t defeat Hitler or invent the transistor. Today’s youth are the greatest generation. In a recent Washington Post article, David Finkelhor uses data to lay bare how great our children are. They’re less likely to commit crimes, bully others, commit suicide, engage in premarital sex, drink, and engage in risky behavior. And because of the Flynn Effect, which shows no signs of going away, each generation is smarter than the previous (at least as measured on IQ tests).

And if the world keeps doing what it’s doing, this generation’s children will be the next greatest generation.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-kids-are-all-right-after-all/2014/11/26/63b9e494-70fe-11e4-8808-afaa1e3a33ef_story.html