I've been cogitating about Penn State, which seems to be developing into an even worse scandal than we thought, involving a long-time coverup of sexual abuse. I've been worrying about the U. S. economy and how it has impacted our lives and the futures of our children -- and how the stock market and our IRAs were down yet another 2 percent yesterday. And today . . . today is the 48th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
But I'm tired of stewing over all the negative things in the world. It's Thanksgiving week. I'll be seeing my kids. We'll have some friends over for Thanksgiving dinner. There will be plenty of food. We'll cook on an electric stove; we'll be warm with central heating and comfortable with indoor plumbing. We'll have plenty of lighting, and we'll watch sports on TV and the kids will play video games on their computers, and they'll probably tweet and text with their friends while we old Baby Boomers use the phone to talk to far-flung relatives.
Turkey is probably the first thing to be thankful for. With all the things going on in the world -- and even with recent increases in food prices -- it is still pretty cheap to eat in America, and most of us will have plenty to put on our tables. We don't have to grow our own food, or kill it, unless we want to. We can just buy it at the grocery store. For the most part it is safe and disease free. In fact, we have a bigger problem with obesity than we do with hunger (even though part of the problem is that cheap food is often fattening ... but that's a topic for another post).
What else do we have to be thankful for, even as the Occupy Wall Street crowd protests (quite understandably, in my opinion) the inequality of income, the increase in poverty and the dwindling of opportunity in this country?
For one thing, America is enjoying relatively peaceful times. Yes, our troops are fighting in Afghanistan. Almost 2,000 American military personnel have lost their lives in that far-off country since the conflict began in 2001. We are still in Iraq as well, although we're leaving, and tragically, about 4,500 American troops have been killed in that oil-rich nation since we arrived in 2003.
We still do live in a dangerous world. Iran is allegedly working to produce a nuclear bomb; so is North Korea. The Pakistanis already have one, while the Arab-Israeli conflict simmers along as it has for the last 60-some years.
But think back 70 years ago to 1941. We were about to enter World War II, which took the lives of almost half a million American soldiers -- and in its total destruction killed an estimated 60 million people. Or think back 50 years ago, when the Cold War reached its height and threatened to annihilate the entire world. Or 40 years ago, to 1971, when we were still in Vietnam, a conflict that took more than 58,000 American military lives -- nine times as many as have been lost in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
Yes, 2,000 American lives are 2,000 tragedies. But Afghanistan is a skirmish compared to Vietnam or World War II. Can we be thankful that, this year, we've only lost 500 soldiers in hostile actions?
We can certainly be thankful that our life expectancy is longer than ever. This causes problems for Medicare and Social Security. But aren't those actually good problems? We could bemoan the fact that the U. S. is not among the countries where life expectancy is the greatest. (Japan has the highest, at 82.6). But shouldn't we be thankful that an American born today can expect to live to 78.3? And that death rates for the most dangerous diseases like heart disease, cancer and stroke are down significantly, even in just the last decade? If you're 70 today, you can expect to live, on average, until you're 88.
Compare this to our parents, born in 1920, who at birth could only expect to make it to age 56. Or our grandparents, born in 1890, who could only look forward to living for an average of 45 years (although a large part of the improvement is due to a decrease in infant mortality).
We can be thankful because our country is relatively safe. Crime rates have gone down significantly. The murder rate peaked in 1980, at 10.2 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. Now the rate is back to what it was in the early 1960s, at less than half the peak rate. Despite the public outcry over Penn State, and the problems in the Catholic church, the incidence of rape actually peaked in 1992. It's not as low as it was in the early 1960s -- but only because, some argue, rape was a crime less likely to be reported back then.
We are also a more educated population. High school graduation rates have gone up from less than 70 percent in 1960 to almost 90 percent today. And the proportion of our populace with college degrees has climbed from barely 10 percent to approximately 25 percent. To be sure, the improvement has leveled off in recent years, and the rates should be higher in this post-industrial world where education matters more than ever before. Nevertheless, we have made progress.
Our cars are safer and more efficient than they've ever been. Our ability to communicate is better than ever. Our choices for news and entertainment are more varied. And despite the protests of OWS, we are a more equal society. Blacks have made great strides. More minorities have joined the middle class. Women have narrowed the income gap, and they've completely closed the education gap -- since 2000, and even before that, more women than men have been graduating from college.
Now, if only the Green Bay Packers win on Thanksgiving, we'll really have something to be thankful for.