December 31, 2019

MICHAEL BARONE: We’re living in (almost) the best of times.

Temperamentally, in the United States, or at least in that loud if not large part of it dominated by political tweets, the overwhelming weight of opinion, crossing party lines that are unusually rigid in this period of American history, is that we live in the worst of times. . . .

To which I say: nonsense. And so does, in more elegant terms, the science writer and British House of Lords voting member Matt Ridley in the British Spectator. “We are living through the greatest improvement in human living standards in history,” he writes of the decade just ending.

Olden times may look better in warm memories — think of multiepisode dramas about Edwardian noblemen or carefully curated statistics showing narrower pay gaps between 1950s CEOs and assembly-line workers. But the cold, hard numbers tell another story.

“Extreme poverty has fallen below 10 percent of the world’s population for the first time. It was 60 percent when I was born,” Ridley writes, referring to the year 1958, a time that some of us can actually remember.

Of course, you may say, the economic progress made since China and India discovered the magic of free markets has helped people over there; but over here, in advanced countries, we’re not growing. We are just gobbling up and wolfing down more of the world’s limited resources, aren’t we?

Not so, replies Ridley. Consumers in advanced countries are actually consuming less stuff (biomass, metals, minerals, or fossil fuels) per capita, even while getting more nutrition and production out of it. Thank technological advancement and, yes, in some cases, government regulations.

We’re also experiencing, as a world and in advanced countries, less violence and more in the way of peace, international and domestic. That’s the argument of Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Wars are more infrequent and less deadly than in the past.

So too has violent crime abated in the U.S. and other advanced nations. It used to be taken as given that disadvantaged young males, especially those minorities discriminated against, were hugely likely to commit violent crimes. Now, thanks to improved policing and changed attitudes, far fewer do so.

The natural tendency of most people is to ignore positive trends. They are not the lead stories on your local newscast, nor are they mentioned in the shouting matches on cable news. People usually focus on complaints and grievances.

Even more now that complaining and being aggrieved are potent sources of power.

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