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.

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.

Women CEOs and Stay-at-Home Dads

The increase of working professional women and stay-at-home dads is one of many positive demographic trends of the past couple generations. Poor women have always been in the workforce, doing their best to keep their families clothed and fed. For nearly all of historical times, middle- and upper-class women have been kept at home to raise children, manage households and play hostess. Exceptional women sometimes loosed these shackles, but the vast majority were kept from their full potential. In recent centuries, more professions opened, notably education, but professions have only opened slowly and with some prying.

Today nearly every profession is open to woman, though Old Patriarchy still holds sway in parts of the world. There’s even a decent chance that our next President will be a woman. Meantime, more and more fathers are staying home and raising children. I have no qualms with working dads and stay-at-home moms. But I do think that it’s a good thing that gender is not destiny.

Diversity is a good thing, and not just for “We Are the World” warm and fuzzy reasons. Gender diversity is important, too. I teach elementary school, and it’s becoming more and more common for men to choose to teach young children. It’s great that the world of children includes more men who take teach and take care of children full time.

Diverse people usually produce diverse perspectives, which contribute to better decisions. Groupthink decisions are made by homogenous leader bodies. Data sets that don’t represent diverse reality won’t reap real results. Many see the “decline” of the traditional family as a bad thing. I see an opportunity to experiment with new kinds of family structures. Diversity in action.

This New York Times article describes a recent convention of stay-at-home fathers. In this age of persistent tinkering, innovation and creativity in technology, medicine, education and business, it’s reassuring to see that the same is happening in millions of families, and new paradigms of fatherhood are emerging.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/16/fashion/the-brotherhood-of-the-stay-at-home-dad.html?smid=nytcore-iphone-share&smprod=nytcore-iphone

The Skeptics Were Wrong: Millennium Development Goals

MDG-infographic-2

When I first learned about the Millennium Development Goals, I was pretty skeptical. Even Jesus said “You will always have the poor among you.” How would these high-minded and undoubtedly myopic set of goals do what many other development goals had not done: succeed?

Here are the goals:

  1. To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. To achieve universal primary education
  3. To promote gender equality and empower women
  4. To reduce child mortality
  5. To improv maternal health
  6. To combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  7. To ensure environmental sustainability
  8. To develop a global partnership for development

But it turns out that the MDGs are the most successful anti-poverty program in human history. In the coming posts I’ll talk more about each one, and remarkable progress that has been made because of the MDGs.

Watching Progress Before Your Eyes!

While browsing TED Talks on my iPhone app I discovered the Swedish scientist Hans Rosling.

http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_at_state#t-7965

He and two colleagues have created Gapminder, a beautiful, informative, and elegant web platform for showing global development statistics. You must check this out as it shows how major indicators of development–health, GDP, infant mortality, etc.–change over time.

Now of course not all of the data sets point toward progress, but most do. The increase in CO2 over the decades is ominous and disturbing. But trends in most other areas leave much reason for hope.

Check it out! http://www.gapminder.org/

The New LGBT Orthodoxy

I’m generally not in favor of orthodoxy unless it’s an orthodoxy that we can all get behind, like equal rights, democracy and civil liberties.

In the electronic edition of Sunday’s New York Times, Frank Bruni wrote an article describing the new “Gay Orthodoxy.” As he put it, “in a great many circles, endorsement of same-sex marriage has rather suddenly become nonnegotiable. Expected. Assumed. Proof of a baseline level of enlightenment and humanity. Akin to the understanding that all people, regardless of race or color, warrant the same rights and respect.”

This incredibly fast (and positive) change in the zeitgeist around the issue of same-sex marriage is remarkable. I believe that there are so many mutually reinforcing positive trends that this kind of blink-and-you-missed-it progress will be more and more common.