"There are many more ways to be attractive than to be beautiful. "
-- William Landay, Mission Flats

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Are Things Really That Bad?

     I was at a dinner party last week with three normal, middle-class retired couples, and while there was no overt talk of politics, everyone in the group seemed to take a dark and pessimistic view not only of our own country but the rest of the world as well.

     Of course, Trump was the elephant in the room. But it's more than Trump. It's the rise of nationalistic and authoritarian governments around the globe, from Russia to Turkey to Venezuela. It's the rise of racism and religious hatred. The rise of economic inequality. The nuclear threat. The endless wars. Global warming. We're even told we're running out of water.

     One woman talked about her 30-something son and his wife, who (according to her) were thinking that they would not have children, because it wouldn't be right to bring kids into a dying, dysfunctional world.

     I found myself being the lone voice of optimism in this group. Of course all our problems have not gone away. But I believe the world today is better than the one we grew up with, and far and away better than the world of our grandparents' day. And it can certainly continue to get better for our children and grandchildren, as long as we keep our heads about us.

     So with that in mind I decided to reprise a post I did last summer, courtesy of Jeremy Kisner, an investment adviser with Surevest Wealth Management in Phoenix, AZ.

     Kisner reminds us that the world has improved dramatically over almost any time frame you can consider. But, he acknowledges, it doesn't always feel this way because negative headlines attract eyeballs and sell advertising for the media. Granted, there are tons of very real problems. Nevertheless, Bill Gates nailed it when he said, "Headlines are what mislead you, because bad news is a headline and gradual improvement is not."

My favorite optimist
     Human progress occurs because every day a few billion people go to work and figure out ways to improve living standards. Individuals do not always recognize the gradual improvements. But one place you can see the progress is in the stock market which has been going up for most of our lives (with, granted, a few bumps in the road) and is now right at all-time highs.

     People get scared reading the news -- North Korea, Iran, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, refugees, economic disparities, global warming -- and then they get even more scared thinking about the things that might go wrong. But meanwhile, people buy more things, companies grow, wealth is created, and billions of people live longer and better lives.

     Here are a few of Kisner's examples of human progress,:

     Life expectancy: Consider this: If you were born in 1900, you would have had a 23% chance of dying before age 20 and a 38% chance of dying before age 45. Kids born today have about a 1% chance of dying before age 20 and a 4% chance of dying before age 45.

     Modern Conveniences: When our grandparents were born, virtually no one had electricity ... or telephone or indoor plumbing. They didn't have a car and couldn't fly in an airplane. Today, 85% of the people in the world enjoy the benefits of electricity. And two-thirds have a cellphone.

     Poverty: Twenty years ago 29% of the world population lived in extreme poverty. Today it's only 9% . . . and the rate is still falling.

     Crime: Violent crime has been on a downward trend in the U. S. since 1990. Almost 14.5 million crimes were reported in the United States in 1990. By 2016 that figure was under 9.5 million.

     Retirement: Some 90% of 65-year-old American men who were still alive in 1870 were working. Today only about 20% of 65-year-old American men are still working ... and many of them are working by choice not necessity.

     Housework: The average family spent 11.5 hours a week doing laundry in 1920. That has fallen to 1.5 hours a week as of 2014.

     Safety: Americans became 95% less likely to be killed on the job over the last hundred years. Seat belts, air bags and other safety features have brought down auto fatalities from 50,000 a year in the 1970s to about 37,000 today, despite more cars on the road. The auto fatality rate per 100,000 people has dropped from 25 to 11 -- less than half what it was in the 1970s.

     Disease: In the past century, vaccines and antibiotics have brought miracles for modern medicine. Just since 1990, the control of infectious disease has saved the lives of an estimated 100 million children.

     Food. Between 1961 and  2009, the amount of land used to grow food increased by 12%, but the amount of food grown has increased by 300%.

     Kisner maintains that people who think the best days for America, and for our economy, are behind us are essentially saying that human innovation is going to slow down or stagnate. He says that doesn't seem likely, at least over the next 20 to 30 years. Don't you agree?



Snowbrush said...

Tom, you're back? I thought you had taken your blog private.

Yes, much as improved. If I had been born ten years earlier, I would be dead by now of severe sleep apnea that not only couldn't be treated prior to the 1980s, it wasn't even widely known to exist (doctors might very well have pronounced me lazy). And If I had been born 100 years earlier, there would have been no operation to repair my hernia. So, yes, I often compare now and then in various positive ways. Still, if I were to point out the one most important reason that, like your friends, I am a pessimist, it would be the increasingly devastating consequences of our mistreatment of the environment. No matter how bad the wildfires get, no matter how great the increase in floods, droughts, heatwaves, and tornadoes, and no matter how many species per year we drive into extinction, we carry on as if nothing is remiss, or, if it is, we bear no responsibility for it.

Barb said...

I tend to agree with the above. Environmental issues cannot be turned around as such and I am terrified of the environmental and planetary issues. I dont necessarily think out best days are behind us. But as a middle class white woman who is a minority among a diverse group of friends I see more negatives than positives these days on almost every front.

Tom said...

Well, you saw my caveat ... "as long as we keep our heads about us." A lot of people deny global warming, which is just wrong. And then there's most of us. We acknowledge it, worry about it, but don't really do much about it. I saw that Berkeley, CA, is going to require all new buildings to install solar electric. That should happen in almost every city in America ... for even if you don't get a lot of direct sunlight, you still can get a lot of solar energy.

DUTA said...

The world is going to get a Reset, probaby within 10-12 years as a result of climate change. I'm all for fighting pollution (giving up plastics/ vehicles, closing industries etc..) but this will have little or no effect on the climate. Climate is the domain of a power beyond us (Yes, I believe in a higher power which I call God, others call it Superpower/the Universe/ Nature..)

Your Kisner may be pleased with the present world, but God is definitely not. From the very beginning Man has violated the Creation and its rules through wars, migration, environmental pollution.
Take for example the notion of 'racism'. God has given every race a territory, so there shouldn't be any or any major racial conflicts. But if you go for colonialism and imperialism, you end up on a given territory with slaves, immigrants,refugees - then, there are no solutions in His Book regarding racial and ethnical problems, and so this might lead to disintegration and destruction. Man cannot solve these problems; it only looks like he does; it's an illusion.

DJan said...

I too wish I could be more optimistic about the state of the world. But I'm not. Climate change, as has been pointed out by other commenters, is real and is definitely putting many of us in a world of hurt. People in the Midwest and East are dying right now of tremendous humidity and temperature extremes. It will only get worse. But today is fifty years since we stepped on the moon. That is worth a shout-out to all of us! :-)

Diane Dahli said...

Totally enjoyed your post! Like you, I remain an optimist, although it seems to take a lot of work to do so! I note that you mention human innovation as being a positive force. In my view, it's only positive if it involves ways to solve our climate problems. It's certainly not good news if it only adds to the massive pile of goods people can buy, and then discard. One of the most worrisome issues we have is the accumulation of plastic and 'junk' that people keep think they need, but really don't.

Celia said...

Sadly I'm not encouraged by what is happening to us environmentally. I'm really worried for my kids and grandkids and yours too. We need to change our life habits now. Honestly I think we have waited too long.

Olga said...

Human innovation better turn toward saving the environment, saving the planet, pretty darn quickly or the need for a robotic vacuum and an HE washing machine is going to seem pretty minor. I'm sure the ability to do this is out there -- not so sure about the will.

Arkansas Patti said...

I know we have seen much worse times as dim as these are. WWII and the recession just to name a few. Like the others though, don't think climate change was factored in on those two time periods. Like you say, if we can just stop the path we are on, these are not pleasant times but not the worst either.

gigi-hawaii said...

I am optimistic, too. My own life has improved over the years.

Laurie Stone said...

Really needed this. With the "top guy" always spouting hateful rhetoric and alarmist predictions, its easy to get down. I love any bit of optimism. Its much healthier and on some level, probably truer.

Rebecca Olkowski said...

You're right about the improvements and it's good to think positively. Our family just got in a little spat on Facebook about guess who? Everyone on both sides has PTSD to some extent and it isn't always pretty. Sometimes you have to realize that's what it is.

Linda Myers said...

I am an optimist because I think we make predictions based on what we know, "All other things remaining the same." But that doesn't happen. Remember the Jetsons, a cartoon family in the future? They had all kinds of innovative things as those things were predicted. Nowhere in that show was the internet and all the mind-boggling related outcomes we have today. All other things did not remain the same.

Just saying.

Bob Lowry said...

I guess I am an optimist, with serious reservations. If we have survived Trump and what the GOP has become for this long, we will likely make it to 2021. If he is reelected, God help us.

The climate damage scares me more since it involves our only home: earth. By the time things really go south I will be dead. But, my daughters, son-in-law, and especially my grandkids will live (or not) with the consequences of our inaction.

Humans tend to only pay attention when something directly affects their day-to-day life. I am not so sure trying to save the environment can wait that long.

The strength of most of our citizens remains our best hope and the source of my (muted) positive feelings.

David @iretiredyoung said...

I don't dispute that many things have improved over the years, but I don't believe that is a reason to be complacent. The state of politics at the moment is an area that I feel is going downhill, for example, lies are now commonplace and seemingly an accepted norm - this should not be accepted. As you say, it is not only a US issue, there is a worrying amount of similarly worrying incidents around the World. One thing I find interesting is that, when I worked, if I had acted and spoke in the same manner as too many of our politicians do, I think I would have rightfully lost my job. Politicians should be held to the same standards.

Barbara said...

Yes, the headlines rule our thinking. I read the news online and because I normally go for the Trump is an idiot article, my smartphone knows to only pull up those articles .... and a couple of articles on the ridiculous cost of diabetes because I read them also. So am I looking through colored glasses -yes - and do I forget that sometimes and think all is lost... yes. I quit watching the evening news because it was so negative. I quit reading the newspaper because it was full of terrible things happening locally. So now I read my biased smartphone feed. Humans, do we ever learn.

Kay said...

I try to be optimistic, but it's hard these days. And now England has Boris Johnson? Good gosh!

Climate change is very, very scary and I worry for our children and grandchildren.

Still, it's true that some things have improved (not politically) and for that I can be grateful.

Janette said...

You know me---a bit long comment....
I am lucky to have been born in the US. We have the opportunity of great exploration and ideas.. We are an amazing group of thinkers who are allowed to think.Let's get to the task and quit wringing hands. Make sure our children have access to education and encourage all to rise. No one group of lawmakers will keep us down if we raise ourselves up!
I am a historical optimist. I guess hand wringers are good for pushing the thinkers to think through the issues....and invent the next step. I am excited for my grandchildren and great grand children.
In the 1950's I taught about throwing trash on to the ground and butts out of the car. Our children inhaled the smoke adults exhaled.It took time, but most got it.
In the 1980's I taught about deforestation. We were destroying our earth by using paper products. Clear cutting forests was the issue. "We" were shaming Asian countries for cutting their forests for farming (which we had done a 100 years before). Slowly we replanted our own trees. We use plastic bags!
I taught the first scientific equation for break down of the ozone. 1990's was the plastics sludge into the ocean for American toys--I taught that overseas. Plastics in the air killed the ozone. When I returned to the US, it was a non issue. Plastics was a way of life. The rise is autism happened (anyone think of the amount of plastics our babies had when warming those bottles?) We are slowly getting that message. It is OUR generation who still use the single use bottles and plastics in the microwave. We started reusing glass and steel (which pollutes in different ways- but our "kids" are mitigating that).
The 2000's was all about organic foods....don't get me started on "free range" chickens.Our noses are still above the farmer- but we insist on seeds we can save for our own back yard. (I can grown about a week of food in my backyard). I learned to make my own vinegar and no longer use bleach.....
2010s into solar full tilt. With the scare of nuclear (the safest cleanest technology for energy) we are beginning to fry the sky. Has anyone thought through the amount of heat we are reflecting back into the atmosphere. How about the number of migratory birds killed by windmills on jet streams? Those birds who eat all the bugs we no longer kill with pesticides? Have we stopped taking road trips up and down the coast or flying to remote places to see what hasn't been seen in 1,000 years...nope. (Raising my hand that I have done it all as well). Yes, electric cars are neat- as long as you can produce electricity.
I cannot wait to see what my niece will be able to teach in her classroom. They will be the ones to spur on new innovation.... I know my two of my grands intend on living in space and video call Nana. I am excited!

Jennifer said...

I used to work for a church that was established in the 1890s and kept the original parish books in the safe. Every birth, death, marriage, etc., was recorded in those books. I was astonished to see how many children died every year before the 1940s. In a very small parish, there would be monthly deaths recorded and in some months, numerous children died. Not something that you see nowadays. I pointed it out to the priest and he said one word. "Penicillin."

Karen D. Austin said...

Thank you for doing the leg work to share these stats. It's good to get an array of viewpoints from an array of methods. I'm too often reading opinion pieces. True, even investigative journalism functions with a bias (in who collects the data, why, and how they deploy it). Nevertheless, it's good to look at some numbers now and then.

Mel said...

I am new to your website. This article was so uplifting and informative. Thank you!!

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