What a Time to Be Alive. Really. Why Don’t We Believe It?

 

twenty20_f3243af1-5703-4d84-b4cb-16583a79e80e_tunnel_light_optimism_pessimism-e1471985273737An excellent piece in the UK Spectator by Johan Norberg tackles one of my favorite issues: Why are we so pessimistic these days? After making the case that advanced economy citizens live in a veritable “golden age,” Norberg tries to explain why so many disagree:

In almost every way human beings today lead more prosperous, safer and longer lives – and we have all the data we need to prove it. So why does everybody remain convinced that the world is going to the dogs? Because that is what we pay attention to, as the thoroughbred fretters we are. The psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have shown that people do not base their assumptions on how frequently something happens, but on how easy it is to recall examples. This ‘availability heuristic’ means that the more memorable an incident is, the more probable we think it is. And what is more memorable than horror? What do you remember best – your neighbour’s story about a decent restaurant which serves excellent lamb stew, or his warning about the place where he was poisoned and threw up all over his boss’s wife?

Bad news now travels a lot faster. Just a few decades ago, you would read that an Asian city with 100,000 people was wiped out in a cyclone on a small notice on page 17. We would never have heard about Burmese serial killers. Now we live in an era with global media and iPhone cameras every-where. Since there is always a natural disaster or a serial murderer somewhere in the world, it will always top the news cycle – giving us the mistaken impression that it is more common than before.

Nostalgia, too, is biological: as we get older, we take on more responsibility and can be prone to looking back on an imagined carefree youth. It is easy to mistake changes in ourselves for changes in the world. Quite often when I ask people about their ideal era, the moment in world history when they think it was the most harmonious and happy, they say it was the era they grew up in. They describe a time before everything became confusing and dangerous, the young became rude, or listened to awful music, or stopped reading books in order to just play Pokémon Go.

The cultural historian Arthur Freeman observed that ‘virtually every culture, past or present, has believed that men and women are not up to the standards of their parents and forebears’. Is it a coincidence that the western world is experiencing this great wave of pessimism at the moment that the baby-boom generation is retiring?

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  1. Mark Wilson Member
    Mark Wilson
    @MarkWilson

    My unscientific opinion is that liberals are unhappy because things are so objectively good that they are having trouble convincing people just how awful everything is and therefore things will get worse, while conservatives fear that traditional intangible things necessary for civilization are no longer valued and therefore everything will get worse.

    • #1
  2. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    How about the rise of terror, the breakdown of the family,  the anemic growth and unpayable debt.

    Do you think that these are not worth worrying about. I just read Herb Myer’s book on why the World is so Dangerous. Is it not?

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  3. Fake John/Jane Galt Coolidge
    Fake John/Jane Galt
    @FakeJohnJaneGalt

    Or maybe it is much simpler than that James.  Maybe it is because your lot is doing much better and my lot is not doing as well as we did 10 years ago.  You guys remember 10 years ago?  I do, you see my wife, well she had a 6 figure job, now she can find nothing and is back in school retooling, since her job is now done in India.  As for my friends, well they had 70-90K a year jobs but now work serving coffee at Starbucks or at the McDonald’s take out window for almost minimum wage.  Oddly they do not feel like they are doing so well either.  Or we can talk about our / their kids.  Back in the day, well if you were in your 20s and had kids you were out on your own.  No more, they can’t find a job that will allow that so they get to live in their parents spare rooms.  Of course you will just tell us to move from this city to another one.  Because being underemployed in a city you are not from and have no support system in is so much fun.  Of yeah, good times, golden age.

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  4. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Fake John/Jane Galt:Or maybe it is much simpler than that James. Maybe it is because your lot is doing much better and my lot is not doing as well as we did 10 years ago. You guys remember 10 years ago? I do, you see my wife, well she had a 6 figure job, now she can find nothing and is back in school retooling, since her job is now done in India. As for my friends, well they had 70-90K a year jobs but now work serving coffee at Starbucks or at the McDonald’s take out window for almost minimum wage. Oddly they do not feel like they are doing so well either. Or we can talk about our / their kids. Back in the day, well if you were in your 20s and had kids you were out on your own. No more, they can’t find a job that will allow that so they get to live in their parents spare rooms. Of course you will just tell us to move from this city to another one. Because being underemployed in a city you are not from and have no support system in is so much fun. Of yeah, good times, golden age.

    Hey, your friends are “employed” right? That is all that matters. I just go lectured the other day on how rosy everything was. Oh, there is a person here or there who suffers, but I am told most of us are doing great.

    I guess you and I just don’t know many of those people. Just happens we are living in outlier areas

    • #4
  5. Johnny Dubya Inactive
    Johnny Dubya
    @JohnnyDubya

    The psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky have shown that people do not base their assumptions on how frequently something happens, but on how easy it is to recall examples. This ‘availability heuristic’ means that the more memorable an incident is, the more probable we think it is.

    The news and social media play a big part in this.  Indeed, it is easy to recall examples of police shooting unarmed blacks and of jumbo jets crashing.  These relatively rare events are widely and repetitively reported.

    It is difficult to recall examples of police shooting members of other races or of motor vehicle deaths.  These are more common events that are less widely and/or more-locally reported and are usually only memorable if they affect someone close to you.

    • #5
  6. James Madison Member
    James Madison
    @JamesMadison

    I read Norberg before.  To what is he attributing this progress, the state?  No, he boldly attributes it to classical liberalism.  Here! Here!

    • #6
  7. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    Let me see . ” It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. I guess the more things change the more they stay the same.  Oops forgot thr quotation marks on that one. You live long enough you see the cycle.

    • #7
  8. Geoff Member
    Geoff
    @

    Mass-communication and the ratings bad news gets. The more we watch tragedy and disaster, the more we believe it to be the nature of our surroundings.

    • #8
  9. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance
    @Sabrdance

    There will eventually be a post on this…

    There was a time when a large portion -possibly a majority -of Americans owned their own property.  New technologies brought tremendous wealth and leisure to all.  Social progress saw the rise of living standards and social standards for families.  Expanded education and expanded civil rights improved most people’s lots.  The economy grew rapidly, and the country was deeply tied into a network of global trade.  The country became more civilized and more refined.  There were a few social issues that would eventually be redressed.

    Then there was politics -deep sectional divides, crass and calculating candidates for President decided that torching the Republic three times in rapid succession was worth it because they’d be able to win high office.  What had once been minor issues of concern to the whole country became major issues that defined a regional split so severe it shattered two political parties.

    That time was 1836-1848 -and twelve years later we were in civil war.

    Excessive focus on the material well-being of the world is short-sighted.

    Also, I do not believe that every generation believes that the current generation is not up to the standards of its forebears.  As two counter examples, the generation that immediately succeeded the Founding Generation generally thought they’d done well until things started coming apart in the 1840s, and the WWI generation is not noted for having hectored the WWII generation.

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  10. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    Geoff: Mass-communication and the ratings bad news gets. The more we watch tragedy and disaster, the more we believe it to be the nature of our surroundings.

    There’s a lot of truth to that.

    • #10
  11. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    James Pethokoukis: “In almost every way human beings today lead more prosperous, safer and longer lives…”

    Since when are those the criteria that determine which times are best?

    • #11
  12. Schwaibold Inactive
    Schwaibold
    @Schwaibold

    James Pethokoukis:twenty20_f3243af1-5703-4d84-b4cb-16583a79e80e_tunnel_light_optimism_pessimism-e1471985273737An excellent piece in the UK Spectator by Johan Norberg tackles one of my favorite issues: Why are we so pessimistic these days?

    In almost every way human beings today lead more prosperous, safer and longer lives… So why does everybody remain convinced that the world is going to the dogs?

    .. as we get older, we take on more responsibility and can be prone to looking back on an imagined carefree youth. It is easy to mistake changes in ourselves for changes in the world. Quite often when I ask people about their ideal era, the moment in world history when they think it was the most harmonious and happy, they say it was the era they grew up in.

    I’m not pessimistic – I live in Texas! As for my carefree youth, I was born in 1966. My earliest memories are of Vietnam, war protests, Watergate, stagflation, and gas lines. And disco.

    Then, in 1984, I had a history teacher who was a huge Reagan fan. He said if Reagan won, everything would be different…better. I was not totally convinced, but he had piqued my interest. So, I paid attention. It was amazing – things really did seem to get better immediately. It must have been mostly psychological, but I’m not sure why. I’ve been pretty optimistic ever since then – I saw how quickly things can change, or at least my perception of things.

    • #12
  13. Geoff Member
    Geoff
    @

    Sabrdance:

    Beautifully written, but I have to take issue with your interpretation of events. From Ben Franklin’s disquieting review of our Constitution “A Republic Madam, If You Can Keep It.” inherent distrust of the government has been an American virtue. Shay’s and Whiskey Rebellion, conflicts between Expansionists and the Federal Government spoke to a fractious Union, with the largest divide bonded with the weak epoxy of the 3/5ths compromise.

    The Panic of 1819 the 1st financial crisis of the nation, had Global origins in embargoes from the Napoleonic Wars. Inflation adjustments from the 2nd National Bank created disdain and resentment.

    I agree in your analysis of Presidents: Jackson’s dismantling of the Hamiltonian system was a course correction too far and along with the spoils system, nullification crisis, and appointing Taney as Chief Justice. Then the succession of our worst presidents Zach Taylor, Polk (not so bad), and the horrendous James Buchanan represent the most mismanaged administrations in History. But as for Social Progress, this ignores the thorn which drove those economic expansion and global ties, one in the same, that of Cotton and Slavery. In addition to boot-on-neck taxation of self-reliant Yeoman farmers in the South and 16 hour work days with atrocious labor exploitation in the factories of the North. This era of satisfaction is one written by those who could afford to do so. The abundance we enjoy now at even impoverished levels is impossible to scale against the antebellum era.

    • #13
  14. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance
    @Sabrdance

    Geoff:

    Sabrdance:

    Then the succession of our worst presidents Zach Taylor, Polk (not so bad), and the horrendous James Buchanan represent the most mismanaged administrations in History.

    They’ll be a post when I finish the book.  Polk was terrible.  He precipitated 3 international crises so that he could divide the country sufficiently to expand slavery into Texas and turned what had previously been national issue of slavery on which Northerners and Southerners could disagree amongst themselves, and therefore reach some accommodations across the borders into a solid north-south divide making the Civil War inevitable.

    • #14
  15. Geoff Member
    Geoff
    @

    MarciN:

    Geoff:Mass-communication and the ratings bad news gets. The more we watch tragedy and disaster, the more we believe it to be the nature of our surroundings.

    There’s a lot of truth to that.

    When I helping our local public schools on some communications projects, the superintendent distributed a study he had found (this was twenty years ago, so it’s certainly not new) in which people polled said they thought U.S. education was very poor. The same people polled thought their local schools were excellent. We had an interesting two-hour meeting with people from all walks of life in our community to discuss the study. It was clear to everyone that the media was driving people’s opinions of education in general. Schools they knew firsthand, they respected.

    Excellent point, and ain’t it the truth for just about everything.

    • #15
  16. DocJay Inactive
    DocJay
    @DocJay

    Unsustainable debt ,  a country full lazy idiots despondent displaced workers, increasing sloth, a soon to be criminal pathological liar for president, and a school system run by socialists.  Good times baby , good times.

    • #16
  17. Geoff Member
    Geoff
    @

    DocJay:Unsustainable debt , a country full lazy idiots despondent displaced workers, increasing sloth, a soon to be criminal pathological liar for president, and a school system run by socialists. Good times baby , good times.

    Counterpoint.

    • #17
  18. DocJay Inactive
    DocJay
    @DocJay

    @geoff. Aw heck dude, I’m getting old and my profession is in trouble.  Stay positive and use that energy.  I need that social security man.

    • #18
  19. Geoff Member
    Geoff
    @

    DocJay:@geoff. Aw heck dude, I’m getting old and my profession is in trouble. Stay positive and use that energy. I need that social security man.

    Its all good my man! I enjoy being called on my bleep. Never stop! You are a great writer, fun-loving and funny, and I suspect an all-around good guy. I enjoy your commentary.

    • #19
  20. DocJay Inactive
    DocJay
    @DocJay

    Geoff:

    DocJay:@geoff. Aw heck dude, I’m getting old and my profession is in trouble. Stay positive and use that energy. I need that social security man.

    Its all good my man! I enjoy being called on my bleep. Never stop! You are a great writer, fun-loving and funny, and I suspect an all-around good guy. I enjoy your commentary.

    Glad you’re having fun here.  It’s a nice place for a smart person.   You’ll find a lot of people to enjoy.

    James P never comments.  His articles are good though and almost always upbeat ( as opposed to my cynicism  but he probably thinks he’s better than me because he has both his testicles).

    That’s my favorite Anger Management line.

    • #20
  21. CM Member
    CM
    @CM

    There’s more to life than money and eternal [material] life.

    Whether they are minorities or not, the near constant barrage of extreme progressive activism in the culture wars is demoralizing to the sane, moderate, live and let live majority who don’t much feel that way.

    Perhaps this is a difference between urban-area dwellers and rural dwellers, but my dissatisfaction is not derived from my monetary stability as much as from being able to rely on the institutions I care most for.

    • #21
  22. Owen Findy Member
    Owen Findy
    @OwenFindy

    I can tell why I’m often in a blue funk: I’m not looking at a point on the graph; I’m looking at the vectors.  In other words, I’m not looking at where we are; I’m looking at where we seem to be heading: ever more state control; ever more financial insanity.

    • #22
  23. Barkha Herman Inactive
    Barkha Herman
    @BarkhaHerman

    I guess I keep happier company than most on Ricochet.

    • #23
  24. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    What a fatuous PollyAnna essay.

    Neither I nor my community is doing as well as a decade ago.  There’s not only the money, which in adjusted terms is down 40%, largely due to Federal actions.  There’s  also the loss of freedom and optimism,the steady degradation of Western Civilization from within.  Perhaps the elites are flourishing, bully for them; we middle classers who love America are not.

    • #24
  25. civil westman Inactive
    civil westman
    @user_646399

    I frequently disagree with Pethokoukis. I disagree this time, too, for reasons stated by CM and Owen Findy. Virtually every metric is headed in the wrong direction and the curves are not linear, but exponential in the wrong direction. Progressives love the word “sustainability,” but never ask whether their programs are sustainable. They also never look at the empirical results of their statist delusions as to actual progress toward the coming utopia. See “They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-1945” by Milton Mayer. The parallels to our politics today are truly frightening.

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  26. Probable Cause Inactive
    Probable Cause
    @ProbableCause

    Owen Findy: I’m looking at the vectors.

    We don’t seem to be transmitting to the next generation the values that are the foundation of our republic.

    1. Look at our education system.

    2. Look at the self-destructive aspects within black culture.

    3. Look at the supremacist/ belligerent aspects within Muslim immigrant culture.

    And for those of us in the Christian church… look at ourselves.

    • #26
  27. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Barkha Herman:I guess I keep happier company than most on Ricochet.

    @barkhaherman I love the new picture!

    • #27
  28. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    DocJay:James P never comments. His articles are good though and almost always upbeat ( as opposed to my cynicism but he probably thinks he’s better than me because he has both his testicles).

    This is getting to be a sore point to me. It is almost as if we accept these contributors as our version of the ‘elite’, who know things better than us. We come here for conversation and we get lectures from on high. How is it that our editors engage us on posts they write but this is a rare occurrence with the contributors? Tell us why it is worth it to work this way.

    • #28
  29. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    The Reticulator:

    James Pethokoukis: “In almost every way human beings today lead more prosperous, safer and longer lives…”

    Since when are those the criteria that determine which times are best?

    Speaking of “safer” lives, does anybody besides me remember when Republicans were the party of entrepreneurs and risk takers? When they were the party of freedom, while Democrats were the party of safety and security?

    • #29

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