Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Be Happy?

My dad sent me this article, and I sent back a response that turned out longer than I expected. I think it is a good example of how reading something critically can be very important.

> Don't Worry, Be Happy There's no reason to be pessimistic about life
> in America.
> BY PETE DU PONT Wednesday, January 21, 2004 12:01 a.m. EST=
> 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.

This is almost certainly false. I have not read Mr. Galbraith's book,
but have done research and read a few summaries of this book. The main
premise of the book, is "how many early economic ideas were created in
periods of scarcity, and that the notion of scarcity may not appropriate
for today's age of mass affluence. Those with vested interests in
production (i.e. large businesses) still cling to the "conventional
wisdom" that increased production equals progress, even though goods are
now abundant and our basic material needs have been satisfied." He goes
on to discuss how to better balance public and private spending. In an
a time period just prior to exposes like "Silent Spring," it seems his
book would have been remarkably on target. The fact that he is
proposing ways to improve the life of Americans directly contradicts the
statement that he believed "living standards ... couldn't rise any

> In 1960 Prof. Paul Erlich concluded
> that 65 million Americans would perish from famine in the 1980s and
> food riots would kill millions more.

I'll assume that this article is talking about Prof. Paul *Ehrlich* who
published "Population Bomb" in *1968*. Apparently, at the time the book
was published it was regarded as fringe material containing a variety
of flawed assumptions. Even overpopulation.com is highly critical of his
work, which of course points to the conclusion that this example is
contrived, even excusing the date and spelling inaccuracies.

> Scientific American predicted in
> 1970 that in 20 years the world would be out of lead, zinc, tin, gold
> and silver.

I'll have to go to the library to find this article, which may prove
difficult given the lack of any citation except for a year, a concept
which has already proved difficult for this author to grasp.

> 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.

Hmm, this one is pretty hard to get a hold of, too. Amazon sells it,
but offers no reviews or summaries. I can only find its first
paragraph: "If present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be more
crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to
disruption than the world we live in now." My knowledge of what
constituted "present trends" in that area is hazy, but I think I would be
safe in assuming some of Carter's actions such as support for Habitat
for Humanity and the Sasakawa Africa Association's projects in Ghana go
against those trends. However, I would not be surprised if the
majority of Gobal 2000's predictions were wrong.

> They all more or less agreed with English
> philosopher Thomas Hobbes that our lives would be "solitary, nasty,
> brutish, and short."

Ok, this is just _completely_ out of context. Any introductory course
on philosophy will reveal that Hobbes used that famous phrase to
describe conditions in a hypothetical "state of nature" that preceded
the formation of civil society. Hobbes' words are a description of the
past, not a forecast for the future. Mr. DuPont is using this quote in
the exact opposite way it was intended, and I am not convinced it was
wholly unintentional.

> 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,

While both are interesting statistics, it is important to note that they
are not independent. Fewer infant deaths means higher average lifespan.
Obviously improvements have been made, but they may not be as wide
ranging as the author would like to think.

> 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.

Good point, I'll assume its been adjusted for inflation.

> * 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.

This statistic is very misleading. I believe you will find that while
the average income has gone up, this is mainly because the upper 2% or
so has vastly increased their wealth. I'd be interested to see the data
from which he derived his answers. Unfortunately, I only have time for
quick forays into cyberspace, and came up with this: "the wages of
low-skilled workers, the "working poor," have been stagnant or falling
through much of the past three decades. And at the very top, the share
of income going to the richest 1 percent of Americans has nearly doubled
from about 8 percent in the late '70s to about 15 percent today-not
counting capital gains!"
Which is backed by statistics here:
http://www.inequality.org/factsfr.html Obviously we'd have to do some
closer analysis of these conclusions, but it should be clear that the
fact the "average" American is doing significantly better is
questionable at best.

> * 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.

First we need to accept that the poverty level is set by a government
whose interest is in keeping the number of people officially in poverty
very low. I'm not suggesting a massive conspiracy, merely saying we
need to keep it in mind for this statistic. Second, Mr. Easterbrook
makes the cardinal statistics mistake: confusing correlation with
causation. Perhaps Mr. DuPont is misquoting Mr. Easterbrook (he already
misquoted earlier in the article), but it seems pretty clear that
conclusions are being drawn from statistics without any sort of
causative proof. Mr. DuPont is apparently trying to sneak this last
line past the reader in the hopes that, blinded by these "great"
statistics, we will believe that a) all "pessimists" are saying the same
thing (which it is clear they are not by reading the first couple
paragraphs), b) we are living in a perfectly democratic, capitalistic
state which is arguable, and c) "no one" is affected by our growth
without discussing any statistics on people outside the US, such as
the massive environmental damage caused by companies like Shell and Exxon
(Latin America and Nigeria come to mind, among others).

> We are not running out of any resource--oil, natural gas, copper,
> aluminum or anything else.

This is an incredible statement. We are running out of oil: it is not
being produced at nearly the rate it is being consumed. We cannot reuse
it after it has been consumed. Am I missing something here?

> Pollution is down; today's new cars emit
> "less than 2% as much pollution per mile as a car of 1970."

Why is pollution down? Is it because of people like Mr. DuPont who
believe that our current situation is perfectly acceptable or because of
"pessimists" how have pushed for cutting pollution in both the
automotive and industrial industries? The amount of pollution per car
is an interesting statistic but says nothing toward the overall amount
of pollution. How many additional cars are in use? How much pollution
is actually caused by cars? Many of the most polluted cities in the
world have relatively low car ownership rates. In addition, studies
have shown that the amount of carbon dioxide, not typically classified
as a pollutant, is having an increasing effect on the planet.

> Man and
> technology are not the enemies of the natural environment.

This statement is a non-sequiter. None of the "pessimists" the author
has referred to are of the opinion that technology is an evil. Quite the
contrary, I'll bet, as many have argued that we need to do *more*
research into technologies that can help the world. I'm sure Scientific
American, for one, was advocating better use of technology to help
recycle or reuse the elements they were worried about. So quite the

> 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.

Forestation statistics are frequently misleading, due to the tendency to
count tree farms which lack most ecological benifits (and in fact
sometimes interfere with them) as forested land. I'd have to see the
statistics the author used. In any case, I doubt Connecticut can be
used as a microcosm for the world, where we see old growth and tropical
forests disappearing at an alarming rate.

> * Illegal drug use, alcohol consumption, teen pregnancy and the
> divorce rate are all down.

These are good signs, I think. The only comment I have here is that
"divorce rate," if it refers to the number of people getting divorced,
is not quite accurate since the number of marriages has also been

> Crime is substantially down. Food
> production, educational attainment (12.3 years on average, the highest
> in the world),

I think its interesting to note that increasing the availability of
education was one of Galbraith's main suggestions for how to reverse the
growing gap between the poor and wealthy.

> 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.

I'd question the benifits of fast food culture, but concede that as
technology has improved, more goods are available to all. I think one
of the main reasons the Internet is such a wonderful place is because
people can now act as producers themselves. The popularity of things
like blogs, Open Source software, and peer-to-peer networks have turned
many industries on their ear. The separation of consumers and producers
is decreasing, which is very encouraging. We saw this during the
beginning stages of both television and radio, which are now dominated by
fewer and fewer participants. Hopefully, the Internet can stay
free and fend off "hostile tackovers."

> 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.

This is an odd pair of sentences. The author tries to make a point
about poor nations, then follows up with a statistic about not just
America and the relatively rich continent of Europe, but by the
middle-class of such countries. As I mentioned earlier, this also fails
to address the fact that these middle-class citizens are growing fewer
by the year, as the gap in wealth continues to increase.

> 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%.

I think this literacy statistic is perhaps the most encouraging of all.

> 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.

I think the author is referring as much to the political idea of
communism as he is the leaders of those communist countries that fell.
Certainly we can say that the US won the Cold War, but the fact that we
still have communist countries that are managing to survive leads me to
question if we have really "triumphed over communism." And I don't see
how communism was that century's idea at all, much less its worst idea.
Marx and others obviously solidified most Communist thought by the late
1800's. The use of the atom bomb, the resulting arms race (which we
have yet to see the conclusion of) might be a better candidate for "worst

> Mr. Easterbrook identifies problems that remain, from poverty that
> shouldn't exist 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.

This conclusion is really uncalled for, and can be easily be questioned
by looking at the dramatic increase in prosperity in Japan and their
steady 3% obesity rate
> 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.

Doesn't it seem more likely that wealth != happiness? The author has
been very explicit in stating that we are "better off" in terms of the
amount of money we are making, the length of life we are living, the
number of products we can buy, and the quantity of cheesburgers we can
eat but is confused why we aren't happier. Do you have a better time
eating and the family run Italian place down the street or the more
economically thriving McDonalds in the mall? Do you enjoy chatting with
the owner of a small antique shop or the cashier at CostCo?

> 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.

I'll concede and say that 1970's predictions of famine's and
superpleagues (though I would be tempted to classify AIDS in the
category) were highly unlikely. But I think the likelihood of a group
or nation using atomic weapons is still higher, however low it might be

> 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."

Given the penchant of this author for misquoting others, as well as the
fact that this statement is seen nowhere on the internet (despite
numerous sites documenting Gore's verbal slips) makes me question its
authenticity. I also if the author would agree that Bush's statements
about the danger posed by Iraq should be put in the same category.

> There are calamities--terror attacks, earthquakes, volcanic
> eruptions--but they are not caused by global progress or democratic
> capitalism.

Why do terrorists attack the US? I haven't heard any arguments, from
either the right ("they hate our lifestyle") to the left ("we use force
to enforce our global will") that *doesn't* at its root involve global progress
or democratic capitalism. Placing terror attacks in that category makes
it seem like a natural phenomenon, something that can't be understood.
This seems suspiciously convenient for someone who does not wish to
think about the consequences of an increasingly consumerist culture and
blames our worries on "genetic pessimism."

> 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.

Change occurs when people are not satisfied with their current
situation. Some have the foresight to see that certain trends, if not
retarded or reversed, will lead to dissatisfaction in the future. When
a President lies to his country about reasons for attacking another
country, I consider that calamitous. When a media conglomerate sues at
12-year-old for over $12,500 I consider that dysfunctional. When I see
a trend in which the top %1 of people will end up having almost all of a
nation's wealth, I consider that nation doomed. Disregarding the
inaccurate Hobbes reference, the 21st century has a long way to go
before a majority of the population can say that.

Thanks for sending the article, I think the issues it brings up, while
not supporting the author's thesis, were interesting in and of
themselves. I hope my response is clear and cogent, because instead of
rereading it I am going to go to bed :) Good night.