Wednesday, July 5, 2017

I Hate to Interrupt Your Current State of Rage and Despair, But the Fact of the Matter Is We Have Been Making Great Progress!


I am always completely mystified by the extent to which those on today's left seem unwilling to acknowledge the absolutely amazing progress that the world has been making in improving human welfare. This is great stuff! If we've been making real progress then further progress should be possible--our efforts need not be in vain. Conversely, if progress is really so damn difficult that nothing good has happened for 50 years, we might as well pack it in. 

So let's stop being so grim shall we? Progress in today's world is not "neoliberal" propaganda; it is a matter of simple fact. Two good new articles summarize some of the more important positive trends. Nicholas Kristof"s New York Times piece, "Good News, Despite What You've Heard" and Zachary Karabell's Guardian piece, "Americans Are In No Celebratory Mood This Fourth of July. But They Should Be". 

Kristof notes:

Nine out of 10 Americans say in polls that global poverty has been staying the same or worsening. So let’s correct the record.
There has been a stunning decline in extreme poverty, defined as less than about $2 per person per day, adjusted for inflation. For most of history, probably more than 90 percent of the world population lived in extreme poverty, plunging to fewer than 10 percent today.
Every day, another 250,000 people graduate from extreme poverty, according to World Bank figures. About 300,000 get electricity for the first time. Some 285,000 get their first access to clean drinking water. When I was a boy, a majority of adults had always been illiterate, but now more than 85 percent can read.
Family planning leads parents to have fewer babies and invest more in each. The number of global war deaths is far below what it was in the 1950s through the 1990s, let alone the murderous 1930s and ’40s.

Karabell remarks that, despite widespread pessimism, anger and despair:
...those sentiments are [at odds] with certain unequivocal material realities. Never before have so many people been so well-fed, long-lived, decently housed; never before have so many people had so much say in their local and national affairs, had so little to fear from random or state-sanctioned acts of violence, and had so little risk of untimely death due to war or famine. 
And yet, it is fair to say that never before has such a large swath of humanity been so royally pissed off, so aware of all that remains broken in a world where many things have been fixed, and so convinced that we are, nationally and collectively, on the wrong path.
There has been no shortage of voices reminding us of how much the material circumstances of our lives have improved over the past century. Yet, somehow, those notes have been almost utterly drowned out in the cacophony of despair. 
Still, for most of us, life today is more abundant, more materially secure, and free from the fatal and lethal threats that humans confronted for the vast preponderance of our time on the planet. And not free as if by magic. Free because of the assiduous, dogged, passionate efforts of generations of us to address those challenges, scientifically, politically, philosophically, and eradicate the worst of them.
Take a series of statistics about the United States and the planet: every part of the world has seen an increase in calorie consumption since 1960, with all the concomitant benefits in terms of health and longevity. 
Increasingly, more people face health challenges from obesity (a derivative of caloric affluence) than from malnutrition, which was one of the primary causes of human suffering, disease and premature death for most of recorded history.
Every part of the world has seen vastly reduced risk of early death not just from starvation, but from disease and from war. For all the attention to the parts of the world where violence and state disintegration are endemic, there are fewer deaths from war and violent conflict than there were throughout most of the 20th century, even after the second world war. 
He concludes, wisely I think:
As human life has expanded, as homes have gotten larger, calories cheaper, war less frequent, senseless death rarer, political injustice more the exception than the norm; people have become less tolerant of that which used to be tolerated. In short, it would seem that the more we have, the more aware we become of what we still lack......
Yes, as life expectancy has expanded in general, across certain swaths of the United States, it is decreasing for white males and others, coincident with dying industries and opioid addiction. Yes, millions still face bankruptcy or substantial economic harm from sudden illness, accidents, loss of work, jobs made irrelevant by technology. Yes, in the United States, not nearly enough is done to address and ameliorate those challenges.
The fact that we are collectively doing so much better should never obscure the degree to which some of us are doing so much worse, or at the very least, struggling. The fact that much of the world is at peace should not obscure to the degree to which some of the world is ripping itself apart.
But losing perspective is dangerous. It creates a climate of fear and anxiety, fed by stories of harm and danger, that threatens to become detached from the manifest good we have done in addressing human needs and wants.  
Just so. And that climate of fear and anxiety is ultimately unproductive for the project of progressive social change, as I discuss in detail in chapter four of The Optimistic Leftist.

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