Our attention is nearly always focused on what’s wrong with the world for good reason. Our problems, not our achievements, demand our most immediate attention.
It pays sometimes to step back and look at what’s working. Things do get better. Taking time to appreciate the progress we experience helps us maintain focus and hope. For human beings, the past twenty five years have marked some stunning victories.
Globally, the number of people living in extreme poverty has dropped by half in only a generation.
Out of the collapse of Communism has emerged a massive global middle class. By 2030, almost two thirds of the world’s population will have moved into the middle class.
For all the conflict and instability we see there is not a single active war between nation-states on the planet. The age of American global military dominance has marked a historic low in military violence. The world is more peaceful than it has ever been.
In the US, most aspects of life have been improving at rates no one could have anticipated in 1990. Teen pregnancy, abortion, cocaine use, murder, crime, homelessness, and divorce are all in steep, long-term declines that have gone largely unnoticed.
The cost of almost everything is in steep, long term decline with one very important and very positive exception. Human expertise is more valuable than it has ever been.
The number of Americans getting a college education is not only climbing, but that climb is accelerating. Why does college cost so much? One reason might be the good news listed immediately previous. Another might be the next bit of good news.
High school graduation rates are the highest they have ever been in the US, and heading toward 90%. For all the hand-wringing about US schools, we are educating more of our people than ever by a very wide margin.
When technology, health care improvements, crime, and the declining cost of nearly everything is taken into account, even America’s least fortunate are radically richer, freer, and safer than they were just a generation ago.
Population growth has stabilized everywhere in the developed world, including China. Population growth rates are in steep decline globally. We are on track to see global population begin to decline in absolute numbers starting in less than 40 years.
Thanks to a gradually stabilizing population and technological advances, America has probably already reached the historic peak of our demand for farmland.
The Chicago River, which no so long ago was a long sewer, now hosts kayak tours through downtown. Since the passage of the Nixon-era environmental protection acts, our nation’s air and water have become remarkably clean, even in the middle of big cities.
One of the hottest neighborhoods in New York City is Harlem. Brooklyn is trendy.
Twenty years ago Dr. Dre was producing a particularly angry brand of rap music. Now he is a billionaire tech entrepreneur. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, 50 Cent and a very long, mostly obscure list of other former “stars” have made more money in business than they did in their entertainment careers. African-Americans from all kinds of backgrounds are making the transition from “rich” to “wealthy.”
Green energy is no longer a dream. Dark, rainy Germany is on track to generate a third of power from solar energy alone by 2020. The price of solar energy has dropped by half in just five years. In sunny parts of Asia solar power is already cheaper than gas. It is expected to be cheaper than fossil fuels globally within five years.
The most exciting new sports car in America is powered by electricity. It isn’t built in Detroit or Mexico or Brazil, but in suburban San Francisco.
Thanks to a boom in energy production in the US, Mexico and Canada, America is now effectively energy independent. We may be capable of meeting all of our energy demand within our own borders within twenty years. Our natural gas imports alone have fallen by almost 70% in less than a decade.
The US is the only global military power on the planet. Russia still maintains one aircraft carrier. It has to be accompanied on missions by a fleet of tugboats. No other military force, apart from our European allies, is even close to being able to operate beyond their borders. We possess the only offensively-capable “defense” force on Earth.
The United States is the wealthiest nation on the planet and the margin isn’t close. Our economy produced just short of $16tr last year. The second-ranked country, China, came in at less than $10tr, but that number appears to be radically distorted. China’s population is more than four times as large as the US. Its GDP per capita ranks 83rd, roughly the same as Peru.
But aren’t we bankrupt? Hardly. Our debt is growing, but that was not always the case and need not be. Just over a decade ago we were debating what to do with a massive projected surplus. George W. Bush took office with a budget plan inherited from his predecessor which was projected to pay off the national debt entirely by 2009. Eight years later, Obama inherited a budget that created the largest single-year deficit in American history.
We could get back in black with a modest tax increase, a few changes in defense and safety-net spending, and a fraction of a point increase in economic growth. We’ve had a formal, bi-partisan plan on the table to do this since 2010. We haven’t done it because the people who claim to care the most about our debt don’t actually care about balancing a budget.
Our debt is having zero economic impact in the present and no impact on the economy in the foreseeable future. It is purely a political problem.
We live in an extraordinary time of peace, freedom, and wealth and we are almost entirely blind to it. Conditions for Americans and the rest of the world could be, and probably will be, even better in the future. How much better things will get and for how many people, will depend to a very large extent on decisions that Americans make in coming years.
Progress means graduating up to better and better problems. We will cope with those new problems more capably if we properly appreciate our accomplishments.