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!

Letter to a Friend about Free Trade, Unions, and the “Rise of the Rest”

A friend asked me what I thought about an email from MoveOn featuring Robert Reich. He shares his views on “the worst trade deal you’ve never heard of—the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).” Here are the first two paragraphs:

Dear fellow MoveOn member,

Recently, award-winning director Jake Kornbluth and I worked with MoveOn to put together a video about the worst trade deal you’ve never heard of—the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), often called “NAFTA on steroids.”

If the TPP doesn’t sound familiar, that’s no accident: This giant story has been almost totally ignored by mainstream TV networks. (Interestingly, most TV networks are owned by corporations that would rake in profits if the deal goes through.)

Here’s what I thought, and I’d like to hear your thoughts. I expect I’ll get some blowback as I’ve made some sweeping generalizations, but it should be fun to discuss these issues and defend my beliefs about these important issues:

Hi,

Interesting you should ask. I like a lot of what Robert Reich says and thinks, but I am for free trade. I’m definitely a non-professional economist, but I do believe that most of the “rise of the rest”–the rise of more than a billion of people out of poverty as well as the expansion of the middle class in BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and other countries–is because people in developing countries can participate in the global economy more easily.

NAFTA was mostly good but bad for people with high-paying industrial jobs who were out-competed by lower wage folks in the developing world. …I don’t put American jobs ahead of Mexican or Chinese jobs; I’m a utilitarian in this regard: “most good for the most people.” Nearly all forms of protectionism are bad, IMO. Even though I’m married to a highly paid union worker, I think unions are mostly bad nowadays except in low-paying industries where workers need protection. Nowadays “Old Labor” protects the already entrenched (not the neediest). The rights that unions fought for in the 20th century have mostly been granted by law.

There’s undoubtedly a squeeze on the middle and working class right now in the US. I’m all for tax increases on wealthier folks (like me, frankly, though I’d like to believe I’m middle middle class) and public health insurance, and a decrease in all the gov’t welfare the RICH get in this country. (I have no qualms with helping the poor with gov’t money, but not the rich!) That said, much of the squeeze on the middle and working classes is because the world is more fair. We in the US had huge advantages, and globalization is taking those away…which is fair! All the more reason to invest in infrastructure and education right now!

Thanks for asking and I hope you have a good week (despite much snow).

Best,

Henry

As I said, I made some sweeping statements (as did Robert Reich), but I’m happy to dig into them. Do you agree or disagree about unions, free trade, “The Rise of the Rest,” etc.?

Gender Equality: Highest Priority!

Today there are many engines for positive change around the world, including powerful and inexpensive technologies, near-ubiquitous vaccines, and improving NGO-private sector collaboration in developing countries. But if I had to choose the one most important driver for good, it would be the empowerment of women.

While it’s dangerous to generalize about men and women, science does point to some important differences. “Research tells us that women invest more of their earnings than men do in their family’s well-being—as much as ten times more. They prioritize things like healthcare, nutritious food, and education. When a mother controls her family’s budget, her children are 20 percent more likely to survive—and much more likely to thrive.”*

Imagine if men and women were equal. Trillions of dollars would go toward health, education, food and childcare. While technology gains, civil society and anti-corruption programs are important, the change in priorities that would flow in the wake of gender equality would transform the world for good.

And many trends bode well. All over the world walls are coming down that have kept women out of male-dominated professions. Girls’ participation in education has grown a great deal in recent decades (see chart below), but atrocities against girls in Pakistan and Nigeria remind us that there are misanthropic (and misogynistic) forces that violently oppose female empowerment.

12_fig_girls_secondary_sml

Chart: Female Secondary Education Participation, 1975 and 1997**

The Charlie Hebdo tragedy reminds us that we must stand for our values, even if our opponents are gun-toting nihilists. Like free speech, gender equality must be a highest priority.

*from “Why Development Begins with Women” by Melinda Gates

**http://www.unesco.org/education/tlsf/mods/theme_c/mod12.html?panel=1#top

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.

Millions of Children’s Lives, Simple Solutions

“In the category of stunning, heartening, woefully underreported good news: In 2000, an estimated 9.9 million children around the world died before age 5. In 2013, the figure was 6.3 million. That is 3.6 million fewer deaths, even as the world’s population increased by about 1 billion.”

This stat, from Michael Gerson’s article in the Washington Post, reflects the continuing avalanche of positive health trends of the last few decades. Gerson gives a shout out to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, an organization that supports vaccinations for some 60% of the world’s children. Gavi does what government programs try but usually fail to deliver–a successful program with low overhead that shuts down when the job is done. Gavi tapers off its subsidization of vaccines over time as local vaccination infrastructure scales up.

We all know how deep and detailed the reporting of the Ebola crisis was. (Now that it’s getting under control we hear much less.) But this much more important story–think of the thousands of children saved from death for every Ebola death–yet stories about vaccinations saving millions never make it to the front page.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/michael-gerson-a-global-conspiracy-of-health/2014/12/18/dc79da7c-86f9-11e4-9534-f79a23c40e6c_story.html#b12g22t20w14

Inequality: What’s Goin’ On?

Income inequality, especially in the United States, has been a hot topic. It seemed to peak with the publication this year of Thomas Pinkatty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The upshot? Income inequality has gotten worse.

But it’s not that simple. If you look at the big picture, inequality has decreased.

Hans Rosling, a prominent Swedish statistician and TED Talk regular, paints a different picture in this Tweet*:

Hans Rosling Inequality

In the past 4o years world income distribution has transitioned from a bimodal distribution (two humps) to a normal distribution (a “bell curve”). In the 1973 histogram the high peak to the left represents the disproportionately high rates of world poverty.  The peak to the right means that a disproportionately large amount of wealth was held by the wealthiest. Note the gap–the trough–between rich and poor. That’s a statistical representation of inequality.

In the past 40 years the distribution has migrated toward the center, which represents the meteoric “rise of the rest,” especially China and India, and the unprecedented expansion of the world middle class.

Income inequality in the United States is a problem. I’m for unpopular measures, like taxing inheritance much more because, with some exceptions such as family businesses, inheritance is a massive transition of unearned wealth from the privileged to the privileged. Let’s spend that money on education. Our government’s priorities are dominated by untouchables like Medicare and Social Security–investment in those who no longer earn money–instead of education and poverty reduction, which are real investments that pay off in years to come. I’m an optimist about most things, but I’m not optimistic that there will be a “future focus” shift where we choose invest in tomorrow’s workers and the poor instead of the retired.

*This link takes you to the study from which Rosling bases his ideas: https://ideas.repec.org/p/ucg/wpaper/0001.html

More and More Little Wins

Since I read Nudge by Richard Thaler a few years back, I’ve been happily surprised how quickly the idea of “nudges” is spreading around the world. In a recent New York Times piece, David Brooks catalogues many successful nudges, notably in places like Kenya and Zambia. David Cameron is a noted supporter of using the gleanings of behavior economics to get citizens in the UK to “do good by default.”

The way nudges work is that governments and organizations set up “decision architecture” such that the default option–or an easy option–has a socially beneficial outcome. A well known nudge is making the default option in organ donation “yes.” (In the past the default option was nearly always “no organ donation.”) A more whimsical one is to put some kind of target–say a picture of a fly or seashell–inside men’s urinals to induce them to aim better.

The most important findings of behavioral economics are that humans often do not make rational decisions…but they’re predictably irrational (in the words of scholar Daniel Ariely).  Scientists like Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnemann pioneered studies that showed subtle biases and decision-making “errors” that humans make in some situations. That said, just as we are sometimes led astray, we can use behavioral economics to unconsciously guide people to make prosocial decisions while allowing individuals freedom and control to make decisions.

Brooks’ examples from Africa were most intriguing to me:

“Too many people die in auto accidents. When governments try to reduce highway deaths, they generally increase safety regulations. But, also in Kenya, stickers were placed inside buses and vans urging passengers to scream at automobile drivers they saw driving dangerously.”

“In Zambia, hairdressers were asked to sell female condoms to their clients. Some were offered financial incentives to do so, but these produced no results. In other salons, top condom sellers had a gold star placed next to their names on a poster that all could see. More than twice as many condoms were sold. This simple change was based on an understanding of the human desire for status and admiration.”

Now these behavioral economics inspired nudges are not going to end malaria or cure cancer, but this kind of clever policy making can have an impact. Nudges like these can get well-meaning programs–like the female condom scheme in Zambia–to perform better. And while I don’t think that a sticker encouraging Americans to yell at drivers would work in our culture, I do like how the Kenya government encouraged its citizens not to stand for dangerous behavior. At their best, nudges get people to make small, prosocial decisions at the grassroots level. Like the improvements in life that this blog chronicles, nudges bubble up from the bottom and make the world a better place.