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.

The 50% Myth

For a long time we’ve heard this saw repeated again and again: “Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce.” Like so much other bad news, this is no longer true. Since peaking in the 1980s, the divorce rate has been falling. Even so, news outlets like Fox and ABC still say things like “the divorce rate is going up” or it’s “50 percent and climbing.”

What has really happened? According to a recent New York Times article by Claire Cain Miller, “The Divorce Surge Is Over but the Myth Lives On,” the divorce rate will probably fall to about one in three. But isn’t that worse than divorce rates from the “good ole days?” Maybe so. However, over time the institution of marriage has changed, and this may be why divorces became much more common in the 60s, 70s and 80s. For most of its history in the Industrial Age, marriage has been, in many respects, an economic institution. The husband left home to work and make money; the wife worked at home and ran the household. (Of course this wasn’t true for all women, especially poor woman, who have often had to work to make ends meet.)

By the end of the 60s, attitudes changed a great deal. Many people felt less compelled to conform to a role and more motivated to carve out a life that transcended societal strictures. Today most people marry for love. And millions of committed couples who start families choose not to marry.

I doubt we will ever return to a time where divorces are extremely rare. Life is too good nowadays for most people to bear a bad marriage. In this era of equality, a match, to a greater degree, must be made in heaven for it to be made. As marriage becomes more of a life option and not an expectation, I think we’ll have more happy marriages and fewer divorces.

The institution of marriage continues to change as gay marriage has become legal. Innovation happens at all levels of society, and I look forward to emerging forms and types of marriage, partnership and family structure.

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 Rise of DAD

When I was a kid–do I sound like my last post?–my father was an affable, sweet-hearted yet somewhat distant, usually benevolent parent. However, Mom did most everything. When Dad came home from work we kids ran to the door and regaled him with our love. I remember him hoisting me on his shoulders as he walked through the house to greet Mom. I also remember the five o’clock stubble against my cheek; it was a good feeling, despite the rough scratchiness, ’cause it was Dad.

But except for fishing trips on vacations and occasional help with Pinewood Derby cars and other projects, Dad was kind of in the background. I don’t think he changed any diapers. And he didn’t have much of a clue about what I was doing in school, with friends, etc. It’s sad, isn’t it? But he did provide for the family, as he was expected to do. I believe he was following the training of his parents and the norms of the era. His mother immigrated to America in her early 20s, and his father lived with relatives because his father, my great-grandfather, was a hardcore alcoholic. It’s a cliche but I believe it: They were doing the best they could. Dad did the best he could.

Nowadays fatherhood is worse in some ways and better in others. There are plenty of dads in the background…or not around at all. In fact, many more kids grow up without a dad in the house than kids did in the 60s. According to a Pew study that gleaned its findings from US Census data, “only 11 percent of children younger than 18 in the United States were living apart from their fathers in 1960, compared with 27 percent in 2010.” 

But the kind of dads I see all over the country hearten me a great deal. I see more fathers snuggling, playing with, schlepping, talking to and walking with their children in a way that most fathers did not do very often when I was growing up. Pew research backs up this perception:

“Pew also reported that fathers who do live with their children are spending more time with them and taking part in a greater variety of activities with them. The amount of time that married fathers spent with children living in their household rose from an average of 2.6 hours per week in 1965 to 6.5 hours per week in 2000, the Pew researchers noted, referencing statistics from “Changing Rhythms of American Family Life,” (Russell Sage Foundation, 2007).

That’s nearly a threefold increase in time fathers spent with their children.

Fatherhood today is a mixed bag. It would be better if more fathers lived with their children. But the dramatic increase in the time dads spend with their kids is a very good thing. It is no longer rare to see stay-at-home dads taking care of their children full time. And for the kids today, engaged fatherhood is a new normal.

 

Good News Slow, Bad News Fast

Why do we focus on the bad news despite the tsunami of good news? Mike Cassidy at Techno-Optimism FB group shared this article by John Stossel; it covers some important territory around the reportage of good v. bad news:

“Wars, plane crashes, mass murder—it’s easy to report news that happens suddenly. Reporters do a good job covering that. But we do a bad job telling you about what’s really changing in the world, because we miss the stories that happen slowly. These are usually the more important stories.” (emphasis mine)

What are those important stories?–“The world is less violent than it has ever been. It is healthier than it has ever been. It is more tolerant than it has ever been. It is better fed than it’s ever been. It is more educated than it’s ever been.” (Barack Obama, quoted in the story)

I’m very happy that the President is talking about the positive arc of history. This is the Golden Age. I don’t think that we live in the greatest age because we are great; we live in the greatest age because we are lucky, and in order to keep our luck, we need to keep “The Long Peace” (Steven Pinker) going, support democracy and civil society, continue health and education improvements, and do all we can to foster the rights revolution that continues to progress in these days.