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

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.