The Good News is, the News is Actually Good

Are things really that bad? Read the paper, watch the news — it seems like we’re all going over a cliff.  And not just a fiscal one. Steven Johnson, who wrote an excellent book, “The Ghost Map“, about the cholera epidemic in London in the 19th century, asks this question, from CNN.com:

Over the past two decades, what have the U.S. trends been for the following important measures of social health: high school dropout rates, college enrollment, juvenile crime, drunken driving, traffic deaths, infant mortality, life expectancy, per capita gasoline consumption, workplace injuries, air pollution, divorce, male-female wage equality, charitable giving, voter turnout, per capita GDP and teen pregnancy?

I know how I answered:  things are worse! Not so fast, says Johnson:

The answer for all of them is the same: The trend is positive. Almost all those varied metrics of social wellness have improved by more than 20% over the past two decades. And that’s not counting the myriad small wonders of modern medicine that have improved our quality of life as well as our longevity: the anti-depressants and insulin pumps and quadruple bypasses.

Society seems to be getting better, too, in a lot of ways that, frankly, I just didn’t know about:

Many Americans, for instance, are convinced that “half of all marriages end in divorce,” though that hasn’t been the case since the early 1980s, when divorce rates peaked at just over 50%. Since then, they have declined by almost a third.

This is not merely a story of success in advanced industrial countries. The quality-of-life and civic health trends in the developing world are even more dramatic.

Even though the world’s population has doubled over the past 50 years, the percentage living in poverty has declined by 50% over that period. Infant mortality and life expectancy have improved by more than 40% in Latin America since the early 1990s. No country in history has improved its average standard of living faster than China has over the past two decades.

Some caveats:

Of course, not all the arrows point in a positive direction, particularly after the past few years. The number of Americans living in poverty has increased over the past decade, after a long period of decline. Wealth inequality has returned to levels last seen in the roaring ’20s.

Today, the U.S. unemployment rate is still just under 8%, higher than its average over the past two decades. Household debt soared over the past 20 years, though it has dipped slightly thanks to the credit crunch of the last few years. And while the story of water and air pollution over that period is a triumphant one, the long-term trends for global warming remain bleak.

Those metrics we hear about. And hear about, and hear about. But the others — the general trend towards health and wealth throughout the world — not so much.

Here are Johnson’s reasons for that:

First, we tend to assume that innovation and progress come from big technology breakthroughs, from new gadgets and communications technologies, most of them created by the private sector. But the positive trends in our social health are coming from a more complex network of forces: from government intervention, public service announcements, demographic changes, the shared wisdom of life experiences passed along through generations and the positive effects of rising affluence. The emphasis on private sector progress is no accident; it is the specific outcome of the way public opinion is shaped within the current media landscape.

The public sector doesn’t have billions of dollars to spend on marketing campaigns to trumpet its successes. A multinational corporation invents a slightly better detergent, and it will spend a legitimate fortune to alert the world that the product is now “new and improved.” But no one takes out a prime-time ad campaign to tout the remarkable decrease in air pollution that we have seen over the past few decades, even thought that success story is far more important than a trivial improvement in laundry soap.

That blind spot is compounded by the deeper lack of interest in stories of incremental progress. Curmudgeons, doomsayers, utopians and declinists all have an easier time getting our attention than opinion leaders who want to celebrate slow and steady improvement.

Excuse me, what? Any recent positive trends in the American social fabric are because the public sector shrank, not grew. There’s zero evidence (which is why Johnson doesn’t mention any) to suggest that the public sector is the engine that propels health care innovation. Or any innovation. And as far as the country’s social health is concerned, this progress has more to do with the welfare reform movement — shrinking government largesse — than any other factor.  And ecological and environmental improvements are more about the market and less about government. And if Johnson doesn’t believe that, perhaps he can explain why Solyndra failed.

Because its technology was faulty. And how do we know that? Because they couldn’t raise money — not a dollar — during what can only be called a private equity/venture investment boom. The only sucker ready to pony up was Johnson’s public sector. Remember them?  They’re the ones that Johnson thinks don’t “have billions of dollars to spend on marketing campaigns to trumpet” their successes.

But of course they do. And they do. That’s what a political campaign is all about. If you add up the campaign budgets of every politician grasping for re-election, you get to a pretty large figure being spent on “trumpeting.”

It’s not “curmudgeonly” to remind folks that things are getting better — and they are, incrementally — all over the world only because free markets are on the march. Or were.

And that’s where the story might take a turn for the worse.

  1. Bryan G. Stephens

    I agree, I am really concerned that we are killing the goose that laid the golden egg. As government grows, all the positive trends will slow.

  2. KC Mulville

    Yeah, I’m still waiting for the smoking gun evidence that shows how government programs improved divorce and charitable giving.

    The underlying argument is ridiculous. It says that if government was successful in anything, we must conclude that it’ll be successful in everything. Public sector regulations probably helped limit air pollution … but does that prove that we should regulate everything to extreme? That’s what this piece tries to assert.

    This is logic-free association, i.e., making associations between items and then asserting a conclusion. In logic, you have to establish logical connections between statements, and they have to be formed in a certain way. You can’t just throw out statements and then posture that you’ve made a conclusion.

    Consider “per capita gasoline consumption.” To an environmentalist, this is a raging sign of social improvement. For the rest of us, it just shows that gasoline is more expensive. 

    I’ve seen more and more of this style of “argument” lately. It’s all posture, no logic. If you just pretend that you’ve answered a question, you can fool enough people into concluding that you actually did answer it. 

  3. Roberto
    Rob Long: Society seems to be getting better, too, in a lot of ways that, frankly, I just didn’t know about:

    Many Americans, for instance, are convinced that “half of all marriages end in divorce,” though that hasn’t been the case since the early 1980s, when divorce rates peaked at just over 50%. Since then, they have declined by almost a third. · 15 minutes ago

    Why that is amazing, what could possibly explain this incredible turn of good fortune?

    In 1960, 72 percent of U.S. adults age 18 and older were married compared with 51 percent today. The median age when adults decide to finally take that big step is also the highest its ever been for both men and women — 26.5 and 28.7 respectively.

    …according to the Pew Research Center, barely half of U.S. adults are married, the lowest percentage ever.

    Oh. So people are just not bothering to get married in the first place. I see.

    It is rather difficult to take any of Mr. Johnson’s assertions very seriously.

  4. Valiuth

    Great advances in medicine are well subsidized by the US government through its continuing funding of basic research through the NIH. The US has led the world in medical technology and cures because we have had the largest out lays for biological research. The foundation of all technological innovation is basic research and  the Government plays a major role in promoting it. 

  5. Matt Travis

    Hey honey, Rob says $16 trillion in the hole is good news, break out the AmEx!!

  6. Rawls

    Teen pregnancy and divorce are down? That is a surprise. Anybody know how those metrics look among different demographics and income levels?

  7. Mollie Hemingway
    C
    Rawls: Teen pregnancy and divorce are down? That is a surprise. Anybody know how those metrics look among different demographics and income levels? · 3 minutes ago

    I can’t wait for the divorce rate to get to zero! All we have to wait for is the complete implosion of marriage culture. It’ll come soon enough. Then things will be super-duper, couldn’t-be-better good, right?

  8. Randy Weivoda

    OK, I think I’m getting into the proper Ricochet mood, now.  We must look for the dark side in everything.  Let me give it a whirl.  What’s so great about drunk driving going down?  Do you know how many tow truck drivers and auto body repairmen this hurts? 

  9. Chris Campion

    Johnson is happily picking things he assumes point toward a positive direction, the divorce rate being the one that generated the most laughs here on my end of the laserweb.  He also manages to toss in global warming as kind of a soupcon there, too.

    Tell you what, Johnson.  Take a look at the growth of the federal debt as a percentage of GDP, look at annual deficit spending and projections for the next 10 years, and take a look at the real (U6) unemployment rate – and then re-write your article.

    Laughable.  The worst trend is that we’re past the point now where more people take than contribute, and so they now have the power to vote themselves more of the same.  There’s an accelerator labeled “Stoopid”, and we just collectively stomped on it on Nov. 6, to get us to financial ruin faster than previously assumed.  There is nothing good in any of this.

  10. 10 cents

    Roberto,

    You beat me to it. It seemed to me in the data there was some flaw. It would be like saying that horse related deaths have gone down.  Nowadays people live together for a few years then part ways. Before the same couple would have gotten married and then divorced. If someone could measure these and consider them in all practical senses marriages I think divorces have gone up.

    Roberto

    Rob Long:

    Why that is amazing, what could possibly explain this incredible turn of good fortune?

    In 1960, 72 percent of U.S. adults age 18 and older were married compared with 51 percent today. The median age when adults decide to finally take that big step is also the highest its ever been for both men and women — 26.5 and 28.7 respectively.

    …according to the Pew Research Center, barely half of U.S. adults are married, the lowest percentage ever.

    Oh. So people are just not bothering to get married in the first place. I see.

    It is rather difficult to take any of Mr. Johnson’s assertions very seriously. · 1 hour ago

  11. Paul DeRocco

     

    Zafar: But Paul, that’s arguably true of the War On Terror, and the War On Drugs, and the War On Marriage as well.  It’s kind of SOP for Governments and social movements of any stripe.

    Well, sure it’s true that anyone could try to hide progress in order to keep fear alive. But it doesn’t therefore follow that any fearmongering is therefore phony–one still has to demonstrate that there is progress being hidden. With air pollution, there has definitely been dramatic progress, which lots of people seem unaware of.

    As to your three examples: I don’t see any evidence that we’ve reduced the threat of terrorism enough to go easy on it. I pay no attention to the drug war, so have no opinion there. But it sure seems obvious that traditional ideas about the desirability and meaning of marriage are not making progress, but are under ruthless assault.

  12. Roberto
    Randy Weivoda: OK, I think I’m getting into the proper Ricochet mood, now.  We must look for the dark side in everything.  Let me give it a whirl.  What’s so great about drunk driving going down?  Do you know how many tow truck drivers and auto body repairmen this hurts?  · 10 minutes ago

    Mr. Weivoda the value of a metric is not intrinsic. The metric is valued only insofar as it conveys significant or useful information.

    In this particular instance: if the number of broken families has not decreased to any significant degree then of what value are Mr. Johnson’s divorce statistics? If the situation of a man and a women getting married, having a child and then getting divorced after a year has now been replaced by one where the father simply abandons the woman (or vice versa) and never bothers going through the formality of marriage… where exactly is the improvement to be celebrated?

  13. 10 cents

    Randy,

    People are not looking for the dark in everything. People on Ricochet are trying to find the truth. I for one would love this to be true. What I see anecdotically  is people jumping into and out of marriagelike relationships with little forethought. A little different but related, Woody Allen and Tim Robbins never married the women who they lived with and had children with so technically they lowered this statistic. I think everyone considered them married.

    As to your tow truck drivers and auto body repairmen comment is it a joke? Seriously do you think anyone on Ricochet would think like that?

    Randy Weivoda: OK, I think I’m getting into the proper Ricochet mood, now.  We must look for the dark side in everything.  Let me give it a whirl.  What’s so great about drunk driving going down?  Do you know how many tow truck drivers and auto body repairmen this hurts?  · 7 minutes ago

  14. Merina Smith

    Especially in light of huge public debt, the lower number of people in the work force, unemployment and student debt amont the young and demographic decline, I don’t think Johnson’s sunny trajectory is warranted.  We had some good years in the 80s and 90s, but the impression that things are very bad now and not likely to improve is perfectly rational, whatever the numbers may say.  As we all know, you can prove anything with stats.  Interestingly, our friends who voted for the preezy are hiding their heads in the sand–they diminish the importance of the most serious problems and make a lot out of the kind of straw men that were so shamefully trotted out in the campaign–wars on whatever, etc.  I keep making this point, but I’ll say it again–we need to get our story out there.  We have the answers to the nations ills–small government, small business, marriage and family, conservative principles in general, but we need to get the stories about how these principles work in the lives of ordinary people out there.  Also, let’s make a big deal about the success of our principles in the states.

  15. Randy Weivoda
    10 cents: Randy,

    People are not looking for the dark in everything. People on Ricochet are trying to find the truth. I for one would love this to be true.

    As to your tow truck drivers and auto body repairmen comment is it a joke? Seriously do you think anyone on Ricochet would think like that? · 57 minutes ago

    Randy Weivoda: OK, I think I’m getting into the proper Ricochet mood, now.  We must look for the dark side in everything.  Let me give it a whirl.  What’s so great about drunk driving going down?  Do you know how many tow truck drivers and auto body repairmen this hurts?  · 7 minutes ago

    Edited 56 minutes ago

    The problem of out-of-wedlock births has been discussed in various other threads and I’m not going to add any more to it.  I surrender.  The point of Rob Long’s post was to point out that not everything in the world is headed in the wrong direction.  My point is that Ricochet sometimes feels like it’s a club for pessimists, who insist that everything is worse than it was in the good old days.

  16. 10 cents

    Randy,

    I take your point about there are pessimists and some people think it was better in the old days. My view is life is a lot easier now with remote controls, ACs, PCs, and the internet. I also believe there is less self-control, intact families, and far too much political  correctness now which have made things worse. Since I believe values outweigh material things I worry about the future. I sure hope I am wrong. In my own family I have seen the next generation not doing so well.

    I appreciate your different take.

  17. Franco

    high school dropout rates, ( a few more stay in high school to get a diploma, so what?) college enrollment (everyone goes to college now – it’s dumbed down), juvenile crime (but adult crime?) drunken driving (well, if you are going to devote most of the resources of every police department in the country  - including checkpoints and extremely harsh penalties – I would hope so)

    traffic deaths, infant mortality, life expectancy (these three do not impact an ordinary persons quality of life) per capita gasoline consumption (higher prices), workplace injuries (less construction and manufacturing – the most dangerous workplaces), air pollution (massive regulation which comes with a huge price), divorce (fewer marriages), male-female wage equality (this just means men are making less now)  voter turnout (more stupid and low-information voters electing more con-men), per capita GDP (it’s all paper, we are in are now in unprecedented debt – GDDebt) and teen pregnancy (more abortion and birth control)

    It’s like saying a terminal cancer patient has good blood pressure, a steady heart rate, is eating and is going to the bathroom regularly and has plenty of visitors. By all measures, the picture of health!

  18. Rachel Lu
    C

    Well I think some of these indicators are genuinely good. I believe crime is down in general, which is good. Less traffic deaths and lower infant mortality are definitely good, and how do those things not affect the general population? Does anyone *not* know somebody who has lost a baby, or someone who was killed in a traffic accident? Of course it’s good to have less of those tragedies. Less air pollution is good (who here likes smog? Oh, nobody?), and I think it’s good for people to finish high school.

    College enrollment, gasoline consumption, and voter turnout are, I agree, dubious indicators of societal advance. Divorce has already been discussed, and “teen pregnancy” was always kind of a stupid thing to measure. I’m fine with married 19-year-olds having babies, but unmarried 20-somethings should not. And the rates of out-of-wedlock births (which is what really matters) are dismally high. So I agree that it’s kind of a silly list, but let’s not make ourselves look silly and callous by dismissing things that obviously do matter, like murders, and people dying in car crashes.

  19. Paul DeRocco
    The public sector doesn’t have billions of dollars to spend on marketing campaigns to trumpet its successes. A multinational corporation invents a slightly better detergent, and it will spend a legitimate fortune to alert the world that the product is now “new and improved.” But no one takes out a prime-time ad campaign to tout the remarkable decrease in air pollution that we have seen over the past few decades, even thought that success story is far more important than a trivial improvement in laundry soap.

    The reason we don’t hear about public sector successes is that those who promote the public sector (who are lavishly covered by the news media, while everyone ignores the commercials) know that as long as people think a problem is being solved, their interest in it will wane. Better that people think the air is poisonous, so they’ll support bigger EPA budgets and more rules. Better to think that minorities face universal discrimination, so civil rights regulations can be multiplied. Better to think that a war is being waged on women, so free contraception can be mandated. And so on…

  20. Give Me Liberty

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

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