Don't Worry, Be Happy

The Wall Street Journal

In 1958 liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith's best-selling "The Affluent Society" assured us that living standards had risen so far they couldn't rise any further. In 1960 Prof. Paul Erlich concluded that 65 million Americans would perish from famine in the 1980s and food riots would kill millions more. Scientific American predicted in 1970 that in 20 years the world would be out of lead, zinc, tin, gold and silver. And Jimmy Carter's 1980 "Global 2000" report forecast that mass starvation and superplagues would ravage the globe in the final year of the millennium. They all more or less agreed with English philosopher Thomas Hobbes that our lives would be "solitary, nasty, brutish, and short."

And they were all dead wrong. Gregg Easterbrook's new book, "The Progress Paradox, How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse," documents the opposite:

Almost everything about American and European life is getting better for almost everyone. Public health is improving by almost every measure. . . . Environmental trends are nearly all positive. . . . Drinking, smoking and most forms of drug use are declining. Teen pregnancy is declining. Welfare rolls are shrinking without increase in poverty. . . . Crime has declined. . . . Education levels keep rising. . . . Armed conflict and combat deaths worldwide are in a cycle of decline. Global democracy is rising, military dictatorship and communism are on the run.

Mr. Easterbrook's data on the escalating quality of American and global life are broad and deep, and if you are a CNN/ New York Times buff, astonishing and irritating. Optimists have turned out to be fully correct; pessimists alarmingly misguided:

• Life expectancy in America has increased from 41 years at the beginning of the 20th century to 77 in 2000; we live almost twice as long as we did a century ago. And both longevity and health are bound to get better. Infant mortality is down 45% since 1980, and we spent 50% more on health care per person in 2002 than in 1982. For example, there were 200,000 knee replacements in 2001 at an average cost of $26,000. That's $5.2 billion for a health-care procedure that didn't exist a decade ago.

• Incomes are up. Inflation-adjusted per capita income has doubled since 1960. And we're working less for more money. The average American worked 66 hours a week in 1850, 53 hours in 1900 and 42 today. The total number of working hours in the average lifetime has declined linearly for 15 consecutive decades. In 1880 the typical American spent two hours a week relaxing; today it is 40.

• Poverty is down. Twenty-two percent of Americans lived in poverty in 1960; by 2001 that rate had declined to 11.7%. Mr. Easterbrook concludes that to avoid becoming poor in the U.S. "you must do three things: graduate from high school, marry after the age of 20, and marry before having your first child." Only 8% of those who do all three become poor; 79% of the poor failed to do them. Contrary to pessimist mantra, democratic capitalism forces poverty on no one.

We are not running out of any resource–oil, natural gas, copper, aluminum or anything else. Pollution is down; today's new cars emit "less than 2% as much pollution per mile as a car of 1970." Man and technology are not the enemies of the natural environment. In Connecticut the population tripled and agricultural production quadrupled in the 20th century, yet the state is 59% forested today compared with 37% in the 19th century.

• Illegal drug use, alcohol consumption, teen pregnancy and the divorce rate are all down. Crime is substantially down. Food production, educational attainment (12.3 years on average, the highest in the world), white-collar jobs (which now outnumber blue-collar ones) and house size and ownership (70% own their own homes today, compared with 20% a century ago) are all up.

• The goods available to us are overwhelming, and getting cheaper all the time. Mr. Easterbrook notes there were 11 million cell phones in the world in 1990; there are now more than a billion. Regular gasoline costs the same in real terms as it did in 1950. Cheeseburgers that cost 30 minutes of work at typical wages when the first McDonald's opened now can be bought for three minutes of work. The 1880s prairie farmer knew little of what was happening in the outside world; today television and the Internet give him hourly access to global information on the economy, war and peace and the NFL playoffs, and of course he can see every fire, crime, disaster and political accusation produced.

All this progress is not just in America or wealthy nations. Middle-class men and women in Europe and America live better than 99.4% of humans who have ever lived. In 1975 the average income in developing nations was $2,125 per capita; today (inflation adjusted) it is $4,000. Global adult literacy was 47% in 1970; 30 years later it was 73%.

And democratic capitalism triumphed over communism without a shot being fired. The best governmental and economic system the world has ever known simply crushed the century's worst idea.

Mr. Easterbrook identifies problems that remain, from poverty that shouldn't exists at all in such a prosperous America to the fact that one-third of us are obese today, vs. 12% in 1960–the latter a byproduct of prosperity. Yet with all the progress we have enjoyed, why aren't we happier about it? He concludes that our genetic pessimism–an internal bad-news bias–plus the championing of victimhood by elites, intellectuals and the media, along with the material abundance that pressures us to seek more abundance, are the reasons that people don't feel better off.

But feeling worse and being worse are two different things, and calamities are no more around the corner in 2004 that they were four decades ago in Messrs. Galbraith's and Erlich's minds. But elitist global pessimism lives on–recall that in the 1992 presidential campaign Al Gore stated that America "faced the greatest calamity in the history of man."

There are calamities–terror attacks, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions–but they are not caused by global progress or democratic capitalism. Today's America can be improved–and is constantly improving–but that is no reason to insist falsely that it is calamitous, dysfunctional, or doomed. Rather than nasty, brutish and short, 21st century life is good, comfortable and long, and getting better all the time.


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