We are here to add what we can to life, not to get what we can from life. —William Osler
“You know what your problem is? You can’t see the good because you’re too busy complaining about the bad.”
I wish I could remember the name of the woman who said that to me several years ago. She was a mid-level executive at an ad firm. We were sitting in a creative meeting and I thought I was just being realistic about everything. People have less buying power. The middle class is only buying what it needs. Discrimination is rampant. She was finally fed up with the negativity I spewing and called me on it. She also knew I didn’t have the numbers to back up my claims. Why? Because those numbers haven’t existed for decades.
As a nation, we have a habit of believing the worst, even when there is no real evidence to support it. Gregg Easterbrook first published his book, The Progress Paradox, in 2004. His thesis is that while life has gotten better for almost everyone in the Western world, we actually feel worse about our lives. He draws on three decades of research to make his point, and then dares to suggest that we need more optimism, affirmation, and forgiveness in our lives. No one listened.
Mr. Easterbrook was back this past week with an OpEd piece in the New York Times, “When Did Optimism Become Uncool?” He takes on the notion that mainstream politicians in both parties have convinced us that life is horrible, that it has been horrible a long time, and that the only way to fix it is to elect them to office. He then calls them all liars.
Why? Because they’re not telling us the truth. When one looks at the numbers, we’re much better off than we think. Consider some of the little details he tosses out (based on real research, mind you):
- Job growth has been strong for five years
- Unemployment is the lowest it’s been since the Clinton administration
- The American economy is the largest in the world, more than China and Japan combined
- American workers are seven times more productive, per capita, than Chinese citizens
- Pollution, crime, and most diseases are in extended periods of decline
- Living standards, education, and longevity are all up
- The US military is the strongest ever
- Middle-class buying power is up thirty-six percent in the current generation
- American industrial output is nearly double what it was during the Reagan administration
- Only 10 % of humanity lives in extreme poverty; in 1990, that number was 37%
We are, in anything, afraid of being optimistic? Why? Because we don’t think optimism moves agendas and we all have our fucking agendas. We have this incorrect notion that to get increased funding to study the economic benefits of alternative power that we must first create a doomsday scenario to justify the study. The fact that it would save money and increase efficiency and make everyone’s lives better isn’t enough of a selling point. If we want to encourage domestic investment in manufacturing, we make up some story about losing jobs to China. Sorry, there is ZERO evidence to support that claim. Instead, we’re ignoring the fact that modern manufacturing doesn’t require as many on-floor employees as it did even twenty years ago. US Manufacturing is on the rise, it just doesn’t take all that many people to do it.
We are, collectively, full of negative bullshit. Even worse, we enjoy spreading negative bullshit across social media. One reasonably popular pop singer had her Twitter account suspended this past week after she went on a number of distasteful rants. We see something negative and use it to bludgeon what we see as the ideological enemy; things are bad and it’s their fault.
Did you know that, despite all the negative talk by politicians on both sides of the aisle, the United States still leads the world in science, engineering, business innovation, and every area of creativity, including the arts? What about the fact that, even including 9/11, Americans are still five times more likely to be struck by lightning than being killed by a terrorist? Yet, only 26 percent of Americans say they are satisfied with the direction the country is going. What, you want things to get worse?
That is not to say we don’t have our problems. Life could be better I mean, how fucking long as we going to keep talking about bathrooms, already? Drop it. There never was a problem there. Transgender people have been using the restroom with which they identify longer than any of you have been alive and there are no incidents of any kind of inappropriate activity. Let it go, or I’m sending in Elsa with her lesbian lover. And yes, we could be doing a lot better with matters of racism, but those would be severely diminished if we would simply learn to show some respect to each other rather than looking at everyone as the enemy. We are at a point where we are so committed to being miserable that we’re making up things to be pissed about.
Life really isn’t all that bad. In fact, this is a pretty fantastic time to be alive. Mr. Easterbrook uses a quote from Warren Buffet’s annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders that has been fairly popular. I think context is important, so let’s look at the whole of that part of Buffet’s statement:
It’s an election year, and candidates can’t stop speaking about our country’s problems (which, of course, only they can solve). As a result of this negative drumbeat, many Americans now believe that their children will not live as well as they themselves do.
That view is dead wrong: The babies being born in America today are the luckiest crop in history.
American GDP per capita is now about $56,000. As I mentioned last year that – in real terms – is a staggering six times the amount in 1930, the year I was born, a leap far beyond the wildest dreams of my parents or their contemporaries. U.S. citizens are not intrinsically more intelligent today, nor do they work harder than did Americans in 1930. Rather, they work far more efficiently and thereby produce far more. This all-powerful trend is certain to continue: America’s economic magic remains alive and well.
Some commentators bemoan our current 2% per year growth in real GDP – and, yes, we would all like to see a higher rate. But let’s do some simple math using the much-lamented 2% figure. That rate, we will see, delivers astounding gains.
America’s population is growing about .8% per year (.5% from births minus deaths and .3% from net migration). Thus 2% of overall growth produces about 1.2% of per capita growth. That may not sound impressive. But in a single generation of, say, 25 years, that rate of growth leads to a gain of 34.4% in real GDP per capita. (Compounding’s effects produce the excess over the percentage that would result by simply multiplying 25 x 1.2%.) In turn, that 34.4% gain will produce a staggering $19,000 increase in real GDP per capita for the next generation. Were that to be distributed equally, the gain would be $76,000 annually for a family of four. Today’s politicians need not shed tears for tomorrow’s children. Indeed, most of today’s children are doing well. All families in my upper middle-class neighborhood regularly enjoy a living standard better than that achieved by John D. Rockefeller Sr. at the time of my birth. His unparalleled fortune couldn’t buy what we now take for granted, whether the field is – to name just a few – transportation, entertainment, communication or medical services. Rockefeller certainly had power and fame; he could not, however, live as well as my neighbors now do.
Indeed, most of today’s children are doing well. All families in my upper middle-class neighborhood regularly enjoy a living standard better than that achieved by John D. Rockefeller Sr. at the time of my birth. His unparalleled fortune couldn’t buy what we now take for granted, whether the field is – to name just a few – transportation, entertainment, communication or medical services. Rockefeller certainly had power and fame; he could not, however, live as well as my neighbors now do.
For 240 years it’s been a terrible mistake to bet against America, and now is no time to start. America’s golden goose of commerce and innovation will continue to lay more and larger eggs. America’s social security promises will be honored and perhaps made more generous. And, yes, America’s kids will live far better than their parents did.
See? Life really isn’t all that bad. In fact, it’s pretty wonderful. Perhaps we should start being more appreciative of what we have, taking a more optimistic look at the future, and build together for the common good, not because we fear the world is about to fall apart.