Culture

Getting Better All the Time, Here and around the World

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Most Americans today are richer than John D. Rockefeller was a century ago.

Some truths are so obvious that no one believes them. Here’s one: Things are getting better. Much better. In the United States and around the world.

Not everything is cause for optimism, but most things are. And yet those who make this easily made case tend to look like contrarians, or even eccentrics. Congratulations, then, to Time, which has devoted its new issue, “The Optimists,” to a celebration of progress, with Bill Gates stepping in as its guest editor. Considering the phenomenal statistics Gates cites, 2017 must have been the greatest year in human history, as Nicholas Kristof predicted a year ago in the New York Times, and 2018 will likely be even better.

We in the news media are frequently and properly castigated for our obsession with the trivial; a corollary is that is that we take little notice of the monumental. Childhood deaths, Gates points out, are down from 12 million a year circa 1990 to 5 million today. That’s 122 million children’s lives saved in less than 30 years? Yawn. Let’s talk about Ivanka Trump’s I.Q. instead. Workplace accidents reduced by a factor of 50 over 50 years? Boring. Let’s focus our attention on Steve Bannon’s delusion that he’s going to be president someday. Gates notes that homosexuality has been legalized in more than 100 countries, more than 90 percent of the world’s children now attend primary school, and the proportion of people living in extreme poverty (less than $1.90 a day) on this planet has declined from a third to a tenth since 1990. As Kristof writes, 250,000 people a day are graduating out of the worst class of penury. This matters.

To rephrase Joseph Stalin, a single saved life is a nice story, but 122 million is merely a statistic. How are things looking closer to home? Pretty good, if you’re among the half of workers who hold a 401(k) or similar retirement plan. The Dow is at 25,000. If you had placed $10,000 in a Vanguard mutual fund that tracks the S&P 500 on the day of its inception, which was September 7, 2010, you’d have tripled your money in a little over seven years.

Warren Buffett points out in Time that assuming GDP growth of 2 percent as against projected population growth of 0.8 percent means 1.2 percent annual growth in per capita GDP. That sounds like a lot less than it is: Over a 25 year period, it means a rise in GDP per capita from $59,000 to $79,000. Two percent annual GDP growth isn’t a particularly optimistic scenario; economists foresee nearly 3 percent GDP growth in the U.S. this year.

As for the stresses associated with the changing nature of employment, that’s nothing new. At one point, 80 percent of all American jobs were on the farm. Think of all the job losses that have accompanied the economic restructuring that has reduced that figure to under 2 percent. “In our 241 years, the progress that I’ve described has disrupted and displaced almost all of our country’s labor force,” Buffett writes. “If that level of upheaval had been foreseen — which it clearly wasn’t — strong worker opposition would surely have formed and possibly doomed innovation.”

An excellent resource for those who have doubts about the durability of what the wags in the arts pages at the Times keep calling “late capitalism” is the economist Don Boudreaux’s superb, lucid site Cafe Hayek, where he enjoys colorfully measuring today’s standard of living against that of our predecessors. How’s this for an eye-opening claim: Most Americans today are richer than John D. Rockefeller was a century ago. Rather turns on its head the idea that the one-percenters are vacuuming up all of the wealth, doesn’t it?

Desperately we wander the media landscape, but instead of fresh tasty brains, we hunger for reasons to be afraid, ill portents, bad news.

Had there been a billionaire who lived in the early 20th century, Boudreaux points out, he would have enjoyed only a few desirable things that a middle-class person can’t have today, notably lots of real estate in posh locations. But you, average American, have air-conditioning, access to fine medicine such as antibiotics (a sitting president’s son died in 1924 because a blister he developed while playing tennis at the White House became infected), a limitless bounty of entertainment and dining options, a much longer expected lifespan, safe and fast travel, etc. New U.S. homes are more than 1,000 square feet larger than their counterparts in 1973, and living space per person has almost doubled. As of 2016, the median size of a new house reached 2,422 square feet. U.S. life expectancies have increased by about five years just since 1980. Teen pregnancy rates reached an all-time low in 2016. Crime rates ticked up in 2015 and 2016 but are roughly back to 2008 levels, far off the peak, with early indications that 2017 will resume the downward trend.

“Optimism and pessimism,” writes Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, “have always competed in the American character. Think of it as Horatio Alger versus the Zombie Apocalypse.” It seems pretty clear which mentality is ruling our collective psyche at the moment: Desperately we wander the media landscape, but instead of fresh tasty brains, we hunger for reasons to be afraid, ill portents, bad news. Then we retreat to our 2,422-square-foot homes and wait for the AmazonFresh guy to deliver our veggie quinoa bowl.

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