One of the more tiresome lines we hear over and over from our politicians is this: The world is worse today than it was yesterday. The rich are getting richer while the poor get poorer. A dollar doesn’t go as far as it used to. Our futures are less bright every day. As of June 2017, a full 58 percent of Americans believed their children would be worse off financially than their parents, while just 37 percent thought the opposite.
That dark perspective came to my mind as I traveled to the University of Connecticut last week. While I was waiting to speak, I browsed my iPhone (invented 2007). I then walked up to the microphone (invented in 1964) and spoke to some 500 students, as well as thousands of others watching via digital livestreaming (invented in 1993) and thousands more who would watch later on YouTube (launched in 2005). The entire event was filmed on a series of digital cameras (invented 1975). When I finished, I tweeted about how things had gone (Twitter launched in 2006).
By the time I got back to my hotel, I had a pretty bad headache. Luckily, I took a couple of Advil (first made publicly available in the United States in 1974), and that alleviated the pain. Then I watched a show on Netflix (launched in 1997) after searching the reviews on Google (launched in 1998). Finally, I used my electric toothbrush (first invented in 1954), climbed into bed, and read a book I’d ordered from Amazon (launched in 1994).
The next morning, my security escorted me to the airport, where I used my digital ticket to scan in (a service that only became available to consumers in the 2000s). Then I walked past the televisions showing CNN (launched in 1980) and Fox News (launched in 1996), plunked myself down in a seat, and began checking my email (made publicly available in 1983) via wireless internet (the Wi-Fi 802.11 standard was established in 1997) on my MacBook Pro (this version from 2015). Finally, we boarded the passenger 747 (first flown in 1970) and took off while I watched videos of my children on WhatsApp (launched in 2009) and listened to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto (finalized in 1721, but only made available for digital streaming via the iTunes store in 2003). When I finally reached my destination, I ordered a Lyft (launched in 2012).
All of which is to say that in a free, capitalist system, things are always getting better. My grandmother spent the first three decades of her life with precisely none of the amenities I mentioned above, which only constitute a short list. There are so many life-changing advancements we take for granted today that it’s hard to single them all out. Our quality of life is significantly better than it has ever been. Our houses are bigger, even though our families are smaller: The average size of a newly built home is 2,687 square feet, compared with about 1,700 square feet in 1980. We’re living longer: In 1980, our life expectancy was 73.6 years, but as of 2010, it was 78.7. And we’re healthier: Elderly members of our population are living and maintaining high cognitive function for longer.
The power of our system hasn’t just meant better lives for our own citizens: It’s also meant better lives for billions of folks all over the world. As of 1990, 37.1 percent of people on Earth lived on less than $1.90 per day; by 2015, that number had declined to 9.6 percent. Life expectancy worldwide was 71.5 years as of 2015, an increase of five years since 2000. Infant mortality has dropped precipitously, from 64.8 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 30.5 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2016.
So yes, things are getting a lot better, and if you don’t notice, that’s only because they’re getting better incrementally. Politicians who tell you that you’re doing worse than you were in 1970 are lying. Look at the phone or computer on which you’re reading this. Nearly every aspect of the world around you is subtly different than it was 70, 50, or even ten years ago. That’s thanks to free-market economics, competition, and the creativity of the human mind. Stand with the forces that made such progress possible and the future will be bright. Stand against those forces and we may have real reason for pessimism in the not-too-distant future.