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.

50 Years Ago. Better or Worse?

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

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“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

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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.

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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

 

Optimism Bias: Good for Us, Bad for Humanity

The Optimism Bias is “a mistaken belief that our chances of experiencing negative events are lower and our chances of experiencing positive events are higher than those of our peers.” This bias makes us do wonderful things, like get married, have kids, and pursue goals. The flip side is we overestimate how good our life will turn out. A betting man would hedge his marriage with a prenuptial agreement. After all, if some 40% of marriages end in divorce, doesn’t a prenup make sense? But we don’t see ourselves as subject to the statistical laws that apply to everyone and everything else. I won’t get divorced.

While the personal pitfalls of the optimism bias worry me, I’m most concerned with how the optimism bias works against global civilization. The flip side of the optimism bias is that we are less optimistic about others, society and the world. After a terrible event the world tends to regress toward the mean just like everything else. If there’s a mass shooting–utterly unnecessary and always tragic–we forget that these are outliers as murder rates are at historic lows. We’re subject to the availability heuristic–what we see is all there is, and what we see is the news, not the stats.

But the big story is the opposite of the optimism bias: I should be more cautious–buy life insurance, drive safely, make a prenup, exercise, keep my will up to date–but the world is probably better than I think it is. And if I’m not sure I shouldn’t look at the news; I should check out Max Roser’s Our World in Data, Hans Rosling’s Gapminder, or Cato Institute’s Human Progress. These troves of data demonstrate the positive trends in agriculture, crime, education, human rights, democracy, health and safety that define our age much more than terrorism and other front page stories.

Optimism is great. It probably kept us alive in lean times on the savanna. But today’s world is complex, and if we misread reality–that things actually are progressing for most of humanity–and see a need to rejigger our economy and civilization, we may unwittingly dismantle the institutions that have brought the advances in agriculture, crime, education, human rights, democracy, health and safety that we have won since the end of World War II and the Fall of the Wall.

Extra! Mainstream Media Downplays Hysteria!

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

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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

 

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.

How Not to Be Ignorant

Hans Rosling is probably my favorite optimist, both because he bases his views on huge data sets AND he’s a hoot. Here’s his latest TED Talk. Take his quiz. I bet you’re dumber than a chimp.

http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_and_ola_rosling_how_not_to_be_ignorant_about_the_world