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!

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….

pp_16-08-17_politicslede-2

“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.

 

Extra! Mainstream Media Downplays Hysteria!

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

what-are-you-afraid-of-in-2015

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

 

Murders Down Again in NYC (but will many people notice?)

“The number of murders in New York City has dropped to what years ago would have seemed like an impossible low: 328 killings recorded in 2014, the lowest figure since at least 1963, when the Police Department began collecting reliable statistics.  The New York Times

The cold-blooded murder of two police officers in Brooklyn, and Eric Garner’s choke hold death in Staten Island, will be what people remember about 2014. Many fewer will remember the record low homicide rate.

The deaths of Eric Garner, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were awful tragedies. I hope (and feel confident that) the problems of police tactics and police safety that led to the deaths of these men will be studied and debated. But these deaths account for less than 1% of NYC homicides. I fear that few will study what keeps going right in New York City public safety.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/01/nyregion/new-york-city-murders-fall-but-the-police-arent-celebrating.html?_r=0

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.

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.