Let’s start the new year on an upbeat note:
When we focus on the day’s headlines, or get caught up in the petty frustrations of everyday life, it’s easy to overlook how dramatically the world has changed for the better in the last decade or two.
We get frustrated when a call gets dropped on the cell phone, forgetting that mobile phones were a luxury until the mid-1990s. I got my first phone–no texting! no photos! no maps! no web access!–in 2001.
We don’t like to wait in line for cappuccino, forgetting that few Americans had the chance to enjoy such brews until recently. Hard as it may to believe, there were a mere 165 Starbucks’ stores in this great land of ours when the company went public in 1992. Today, there are more than 11,000. We forget, too, the magic that goes into the making of a cappuccino.
More importantly, we worry–as well we should–about the state of the U.S. economy, but we overlook the happier news that about half a billion people have emerged from poverty in China since 1990. Well, that’s China, you says, but even here in the U.S. — despite legitimate concerns about income inequality and declining social mobility — Americans are demonstrably wealthier, healthier and more free than we were at any time in our history.
Declinism–the idea that things are getting worse–has a long history, and it remains fashionable on the left and on the right.
But if history is any guide, and it is, there’s overwhelming evidence that life on this planet, and in this country, is, in the words of Lennon & McCartney, “getting better all the time.”
I’m feeling unfashionably upbeat at the moment because I’ve been reading The Rational Optimist (Harper Collins, $26.99) by Matt Ridley, a sweeping history that attempts to explain how prosperity evolves. The book is controversial, especially around the issue of climate–here’s an attack by George Monbiot, and Ridley’s response–but its core argument is persuasive: That prosperity is driven by man’s unique ability to trade, specialize and innovate. (“The propensity to truck, barter and exchange one thing for another” is the way Adam Smith put it.) Ridley’s claim that the world is richer, healthier and kinder seems to me to be unassailable, based as it is on both statistical and anecdotal evidence:
In 2005, compared with 1955, the average human being on Planet Earth earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one-third as many of her children and could expect to live one-third longer….She was more likely to be literate and to have finished school. She was more likely to own a telephone, a flush toilet, a refrigerator and a bicycle. All this during a half-century when the world population has more than doubled, so that far from being rationed by population pressure, the goods and services available to the people of the world have expanded. It is, by any standard, an astonishing human achievement.
He goes on to say:
The availability of almost everything a person could want or need has been going rapidly upwards for 200 years and erratically upwards for 10,000 years before that: years of lifespan, mouthfuls of clean water, lungfuls of clean air, hours of privacy, means of travelling faster than you can run, ways of communicating farther than you can shout. This generation of human beings has access to more calories, watts, lumen-hours, square feet, gigabytes, megahertz, light years, nanometres, bushels per acre, miles per gallon, food miles, air miles and, of course, cash than any that went before. They have more Velcro, vaccines, vitamins, shoes, singers, soap operas, mango slicers, sexual partners, tennis rackets, guided missiles and anything else they could even imagine needing.
Ridley’s book is an intellectually ambitious, touring 10,000 years of human history and building upon the insights of Smith and Charles Darwin. (The prologue is called “when ideas have sex.”) How prosperity evolves is through trade–simply put, the idea that people are always working for one another, whether they know it or not. Trade is among the most boring of journalistic topics, but if you set aside the back-and-forth about negotiations with Columbia or Korea, it is a marvelous thing. [click to continue…]