50 Years Ago. Better or Worse?

Compared with 50 years ago, life for people like you in America today is….


“Worse” say most Trump voters in a recent Pew Research Center Survey. Eighty-one percent said as much (above). Only 19 percent of Clinton voters said that.

Trump’s biggest supporters were white men, nearly two-thirds of whom voted for him. Life for white men may have felt better because they had privileged access to higher education, social stature, political office, and good employment. These good things in life were limited for everyone else.

I argue that life’s better for even the privileged white men of the 1960s. To compare 1966 with 2016, let’s start with a sentimental journey. It feels worse in 2016, right? There were no mass killings in 1966, yes? …except for sniper Charles Whitman who killed 13 and wounded 31 at the University of Texas. And don’t forget Richard Speck, who murdered eight student nurses in their dormitory. And Valery Percy, a Senator’s daughter, was stabbed and bludgeoned to death in the family mansion on Chicago’s North Shore. And there were race riots in Lansing, Michigan. Oh, the simple days before wanton violence! We could also talk about the 6143 young men who died in Vietnam in 1966.

Okay, so maybe things were pretty sordid in 1966.

Here are some of the many ways that life is better in the US than it was 50 years ago:

Communications: Remember that thing called long-distance? You can call anywhere for free now. And communicate in most any way, to anyone, anywhere. For free.

Economy: Despite much fear, the economy is flying high. Unemployment is low, the stock market is high, home ownership is not far from its all-time high. The middle class is smaller than it used to be, but this is mostly due to growth in the high income category.

Education: In 1966 about 50% of whites and 30% of blacks graduated from high school. Today 87% of whites and 73% of blacks graduate. This is only one measure, but it reflects incredible educational progress in my lifetime. You can complain, with some justification, about the state of American education, but it has never been better.

Environment: 1966, nestled between Silent Spring and The Population Bomb, is about the time when the modern green movement took shape. The The Cuyahoga River was once the most polluted river in the United States, made famous because it caught fire in the 60s…that is, the 1860s. Over the next century it would catch fire at least 12 more times, leading to the infamous 1969 fire that launched the environmental movement. People think pollution is a new thing, but pollution was much worse in the 1800s and most of the 1900s when there were few environmental regulations. Today, across America, air and water quality are better than they were in 1966.

Food: Suffice it to say that food is so cheap and abundant that obesity, not starvation, is the bigger health threat. There’s no strong proof that legal pesticides or GMOs cause health problems. You can even get fruit in winter shipped from across the planet. People may complain about “food miles,” but maybe they should complain about “clothing miles” or “natural resource miles.” Just about everything is from everywhere else, and we seem to be doing all this trade with less and less pollution.

Transport: It’s easier, safer, and cheaper. The chart below shows how many commercial airplanes crashed around the world each year. The decrease in crashes is more than threefold, even though air travel has increased a great deal.Looking globally, the improvements are much greater. Here’s a comparison of then and now, from yourlifeinnumbers.org.

  • In 1966, average life expectancy was only 56 years. Today it’s 72. That’s an increase of 29 percent.
  • Out of every 1,000 infants born, 113 died before their first birthday. Today, only 32 die. That’s a reduction of 72 percent.
  • Median income per person rose from around $6,000 to around $16,000, or by 167 percent – and that’s adjusted for inflation and purchasing power.
  • The food supply rose from about 2,300 calories per person per day to over 2,800 calories, an increase of 22 percent, thus reducing hunger.
  • The length of schooling that a person could typically expect to receive was 3.9 years. Today, it’s 8.4 years – a 115 percent increase.
  • The world has become less authoritarian, with the level of democracy rising from -0.97 to 4.23 on a scale from -10 to 10. That’s an improvement of 536 percent.

Here and overseas, life is much better. It may feel worse, but that’s probably just your rosy retrospection calling the tune. We tend to think the past is better, especially as we get older and memories are recast in a glowing light. But it’s not, and making major political, economic, governmental, and social decisions based on false assumptions might just undo the progress we’ve made.


Earthrise at 48


Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty.

The now famous Earthrise photo was snapped on Christmas Eve, 1968, as Apollo 8 astronauts Bill Anders, Frank Borman, and Jim Lovell orbited the moon.

Borman: Hey, don’t take that (picture), it’s not scheduled. (joking)
Anders: (laughs) You got a color film, Jim? Hand me that roll of color quick, would you…
Lovell: Oh man, that’s great!

Anders snapped the famous picture, and our perspective changed forever.

They read from the Bible that day: In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth. After four verses of Genesis, Lovell took up the reading: And God called the light Day and the darkness he called Night. At the end of the eighth verse Borman picked up the familiar words: And God said, Let the waters under the Heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear; and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters He called seas; and God saw that it was good.

Science and spirit came together in that cramped command module.


The Russian and American astronauts in the 1960s were the first to experience a new phenomenon, the overview effect. It is the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, “hanging in the void”, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. From space, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide people become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative.

In his 2008 book, Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth, Robert Poole contends that the picture was the spiritual nascence of the environmental movement, writing that “it is possible to see that Earthrise marked the tipping point, the moment when the sense of the space age flipped from what it meant for space to what it means for Earth.”

Like 1968, 2016 was a tumultuous year. Populist causes in Britain and America dealt body blows to liberal values: free trade, free migration, science, reason, facts. Brexit and Donald Trump demonstrated that many people in the UK and US want to reaffirm flag, nation, and Anglo identity.

That famous snapshot taken on this day 48 years ago reminds us that nations may come and go, but the earth is everyone’s home. Many on the right celebrate 2016 as a return to national identity and border walls. Earthrise and the overview effect prove that country, color, and cause don’t mean much when you see the big picture.

“The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.” ~ Jim Lovell


Is “Natural” Always Better?

Most people think that “natural” is better. “Natural” doesn’t have chemicals. “Artificial” has all kinds of extra poisonous stuff bad for people, undoubtedly titrated by evil Aryan corporate chemists high in the Swiss Alps.

Bunk! (At least much of the time)

The blog Pie Cubed clarifies this fallacy:

“You know what else is natural? Cancer. Bacteria. The polio virus. Tsunamis. Mass extinctions. Malaria. Poisons. Natural disasters.

“How come we give so much faith to nature, when in fact nature does not like us at all? Nature is not nice. Out there in the wilderness only the fittest survive. Are we watching the same documentaries? The ones where the weak gazelle gets eaten by the lion, the ones where animals die of thirst, illness, starvation. The ones where the scavengers are just waiting for you to die so they can eat your rotting carcass.”

“(Natural), that which is untouched by humans. Are the things that are “natural” under this definition really better?

“You might have heard of botulinum toxin, which is a substance produced by some bacteria. Botulinum toxin is, per our definition, 100% natural. Yet it is one of the most poisonous substances known to man. It’s ridiculously poisonous. Nanograms of the stuff are deadly.

“There are plenty of things found in nature that are good for you. There are plenty of synthetic substances that are good for you. There are also plenty of natural things that are terrible for you and plenty of artificial stuff which is also pretty bad.

“This means that whether something is natural or not is completely useless information for evaluating its harms or benefits. We should judge all things on a case by case basis, independently of where they come from.”

The author goes on to point out that salicylic acid, the stuff that aspirin comes from, is natural, but human fiddling makes salicylic acid useful (and less harmful) to humans.

The author talks about “Chemophobia,” the fear that if it’s a chemical it’s bad for you: “Everything is a chemical. Water is a chemical. The air that we breathe is a mix of Nitrogen, Oxygen, Argon and other gases which are all chemicals. Every single substance in the whole universe is a chemical, by definition.”

And just about everything we eat is unnatural. If you looked at corn, tasted flour or picked veggies from a 17th century garden they would seem very different. Through traditional genetic modification–breeding of plants and development of cultivars–plants have been fussed with as long as humanity has hoed the earth.

So we should follow Pie Cubed’s advice: “We should judge all things on a case by case basis, independently of where they come from.” And don’t assume natural good, artificial bad.


The Burning Cuyahoga and the Environmental Kuznets Curve

Ah, the aroma of burning river, a whiff of our idyllic past.

Between 1868 and 1969, the Cuyahoga River burned at least 13 times (Wikipedia), the worst of which occurred in 1952, although the 1969 fire (much smaller than 1952) inspired a Time article that catalyzed the environmental movement. The cause of these fires were heavy oil slicks and other flammable materials, including trash, floating on the river’s surface. For those who think that terrible pollution is a 20th and 21st Century problem, it is interesting to note that the first recorded fire on the river was witnessed three years after the end of the American Civil War.

Today the Cuyahoga River is doing much, much better. “River reaches that were once devoid of fish now support 44 species. The…survey in 2008 revealed the two most common species in the river were hogsuckers and spotfin shiners, both moderately sensitive to water quality. Habitat issues within the 5.6 miles (9.0 km) navigation channel still preclude a robust fishery in that reach. Recreation water quality standards (using bacteria as indicators) are generally met during dry weather conditions, but are often exceeded during significant rains due to nonpoint sources and combined sewer overflows.” (Wikipedia)

While not perfect, this improvement reflects general improvements in most environmental indicators of pollution in developed countries like the United States, Japan, Australia and Western Europe. In the early days of industrialization, these countries poured the excrement of their factories in the most convenient river, lake or ocean. But as citizens got richer and wealth spread–basic needs met by a growing economy–rampant pollution became unacceptable. Citizens wouldn’t stand for it.

So rivers burn and people become outraged…and a Republican president creates the Environmental Protection Agency. Today there is much less pollution in the developed world then there was 50 years ago (C02 and other greenhouse gasses being important exceptions). Today pollution problems are much worse in rising countries like China and India. And it should be no surprise that China, especially, is making environmental cleanup a major priority. Forty years ago China was still gripped in its self-destructive Cultural Revolution. Who cares about air pollution when hundreds of thousands of people are dying? Now the notorious Beijing air is a top priority as most Chinese no longer just eke out a living.

This pattern–develop, pollute, enrich, reform–is described by the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC). While controversial, it has been studied quite a bit and makes intuitive sense. At the start of development, countries focus on production at any costs. Tire factory in a poor country? Just blast the noxious smoke into the air to float away. But as the tire workers became richer and their children went to school, survival was not longer the number-one priority. The persistent hacking of family members led to complaints to a local bureaucrat, and thus, usually in fits and failures and eventual successes, an environmental movement emerges.

Yes, this is too neat, and Bhopals and Chernobyls loom large in the story of pollution in developing countries. Nonetheless, the clean-up of the Cuyahoga and thousands of rivers like it in developed countries speak to some important truths. People complaining to officials works. And one source of the complaints is relative affluence.

How the EKC works–When per capita Gross Domestic Product reaches somewhere in the neighborhood of $4000, pollution decreases as the pressures from the “rising” locals force better environmental protections, especially for improved air quality (dioxides and particulate matter). However, the EKC is a moderately crude model. Rising wages is not the only, or even primary, driver of environmental change; access to property rights, rule of law, fair elections–civil society–are crucial. Chernobyl happened in a totalitarian state. Nuclear energy has caused very few deaths in rich countries yet strong environmental groups and constituencies keep nuclear energy relatively small. That’s power.

As Yandle et al. point out in an paper about the EKC: When ordinary people have political power, civil rights as well as economic rights, air and water quality improves in richer and poorer countries.

So the affluence brought by development is a powerful driver of eventual environmental improvement, but political power and civil rights are virtually necessary for these improvements, too.

Ozone Layer Recovering

Much of the news about the environment is depressing. This is no surprise as humans have seriously altered the planet. There’s no going back to a pre-human Eden. Only when we disappear as a species will things return to some semblance of how things were before hominids.

But even then the world will have been forever altered by human activity. Thousands of species have gone extinct, while thousands of other species have been moved to areas of the world that would have never seen them had humans not moved them there. Regardless of the fate of humanity, the evolutionary future of many–most?–species has been changed.

Therefore, I think we must accept the current situation but not an ecodystopic future. We can’t go back, but we can go forward by restoring ecology while still supporting human prosperity. Thankfully, much progress has been made in some areas. One is the recovery of the ozone layer.


Chicago: A Smarter Head on its Big Shoulders

Big Data is a revolution that businesses and some governments are embracing because of its problem-solving potential. One of Big Data’s most common uses is data collection. The low price of installing remote sensors across a wide area allows an institution to get much more fine-grained information about real conditions.

Chicago is starting a new program where it will install “hundreds of environmental sensors that will measure temperature, humidity, light, sound and cellphone signals”  around the city. If the program works as designed, major economic, safety and environmental advantages should be realized. Take snow removal. Temperature and precipitation information provided by sensors will help snow removal teams to clear only the areas that need treatment. Prioritizing roads that need treatment first will save lives. Money and resources are saved as areas that don’t need treatment won’t get it. And if less chemicals are spread on roads, there’ll be less to run off into critical waterways, like Lake Michigan.

Other smart city programs–crime prevention and traffic management to name two–have been adopted by cities around the world. If Chicago’s experiments are successful, their methods will undoubtedly be adopted by other municipalities.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said that “states may…serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” Cities–as Bloomberg’s New York did and now Emanuel’s Chicago does demonstrate–are also laboratories for Big Data solutions.

From: http://smartdatacollective.com/bigdatastartups/229281/sensors-big-data-chicago-becoming-smartcity?utm_source=hootsuite&utm_medium=twitter&utm_campaign=hootsuite_tweets

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.