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.

Development Execs Bullish on Future

Devex, an organization for development executives, recently completed a survey where they collected “responses from nearly 1,000 leaders across six continents and varied organizations and industry sectors.” What did they find?

Executives based in Asia and Africa were the most optimistic about the future. Of Asia-based execs, 84% were optimistic about the coming years; 78% of Africa-based executives believe that the future is bright in development. At the lowest end of the spectrum? Europe-base executives at 70%, which is nonetheless quite heartening. Still, if executives working in Asia and Africa are the most optimistic, what does that say about the current conditions there, which so many in the West assume are discouraging?

Sixty-seven percent of executives believe that development will fundamentally change in the coming years.

And what driver of change do these execs think will have the most impact? The rise of developing countries. That’s right, not USAID or the UN or Bill and Melinda Gates. The DEVELOPING countries. The rise of the rest.

For those of us hooked on news of Ebola and beheadings and airstrikes, we wonder what the world’s coming to. In Asia and Africa, the people on the ground see things getting better and better.

Check out the report on the Devex website: https://pages.devex.com/future-global-development.html?utm_source=devex_website&utm_medium=ad&utm_campaign=Future_Global_Development

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.


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.


The Future of Medicine

I just read a good article in The Washington Post by Vivek Wadhwa about the future of medicine. I’m glad that the author used the word “future” instead of present and “medicine” instead of health care. “Health care” is a phrase that has strong connotations, both positive and negative. It brings to mind Obamacare and the current crisis of cost on the one hand and access on the other.

Being a future optimist like myself is a dangerous thing. The future can seem rosy, especially without the day-to-day complications of implementing new technology and systems. But I base my optimism on clear markers, like the many positive health trends in the developing world (the obesity epidemic being the most noteworthy exception).

Wadhwa points to several things that may make the future of medicine much brighter:

Information: If we want “information about an ailment we search on the Internet. We have access to more medical knowledge than our doctors used to have via their medical books and journals, and our information is more up-to-date than those medical books were.”

Technology: “Wearable devices such as Fitbit, Nike, and Jawbone are commonly being used to monitor the intensity of our activity; a heart monitor such as one from Alivecor can display our electrocardiogram; several products on the market can monitor our blood pressure, blood glucose, blood oxygen, respiration, and even our sleep.”

Real Time Medical Research: “Artificial intelligence technologies will also be able to analyze continual data from millions of patients and on the medications that they have taken to determine which of these truly had a positive effect; which simply created adverse reactions and new ailments; and which did both. This will transform the way in which drugs are tested and prescribed.”

Personal Genomics: “Today a full human genome sequence costs as little as $1,000. At the rate at which prices are dropping, it will cost less within five years than a blood test does today. So it is now becoming affordable to compare one person’s DNA with another’s, learn what diseases those with similar genetics have had in common, and discover how effective different medications or other interventions were in treating them.”

Biotech Breakthroughs: “Entrepreneurs have developed software tools to “design” DNA. These technologies provide the ability to generate designer drugs, therapeutic vaccines, and microorganisms. Like all technologies that modify fundamental biology without a complete understanding of how environment, DNA, protein production, and cell biology interact, this introduces new risks because we could engineer dangerous new organisms. But, used appropriately, this field may dramatically affect the development of novel, and more effective, therapeutics.”

We have a zillion things to fix in our medical system, which seems to get worse, not better. Nonetheless, these and other breakthroughs can only help. And let’s not forget that we’re living longer, healthier lives because medicine is getter better, after all. I hope the medical improvements Wadhwa wrote about do for us what vaccines, public health infrastructure improvements, and treated bed nets have done for the developing world.

Stumbling into a Better Future

Feeling down? Ennui? Do you lack verve and a feeling of purpose?

Then read Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert (2006). This little book spells out how poor we are at predicting the future, including what makes us happy. Many people think that money, beauty, certain kinds of love, and “success” will bring meaning and satisfaction. Gilbert demonstrates that more mundane “achievements” are better ways to achieving our ends.

What gives us meaningful satisfaction? One thing is work. Most Americans I know think retirement will bring happiness, but the opposite is usually true. For every person who lives with joy, purpose and connection after the end of her career, there’s more than one person who slowly dies on the La-Z-Boy in front of his TV, more alone and depressed than when he punched the clock Monday through Friday.

The solution? Keep up with the Joneses (at least the ones who lived and died happy).

“The advice Gilbert offers is to use other people’s experiences to predict the future, instead of imagining it.” Wikipedia

What? I thought I was the master of my fate, the captain of my soul! Well, I think the power of the individual to know what’s best for himself is highly overrated. In my own journey to a happy and fulfilling life, I have found that the goals I contrive have much less efficacy and success then tried-and-true ones like exercise, spirituality and cultivating community.

So do what the happy do and see what happens. It’s amazing how much we resist emulating other people’s success, but that’s where many answers to our problems can be found.