BY VERN TURNER
The best-selling author, Steven Johnson, recently wrote a piece that offered an alternative to the “gloom and doom” of current punditry. He begins by asking us to take the quiz about our how we feel we’re doing compared to four years ago and then toward a longer look back.
He uses criteria covering the last 20 years for social health, high school dropouts, college enrollment, juvenile crime, drunken driving, traffic deaths, infant mortality, life expectancy, per capita gasoline consumption, workplace injuries, air pollution, divorce, wage equality between genders, charitable giving, voter turnout, per capita GDP and teen pregnancy.
Johnson tells us that our overall “social wellness” has improved by more than 20% citing modern medicine, anti-depressants, insulin pumps and coronary bypass surgery improvements. I think he really meant to say “physical wellness” here. The social issues like crime trends and stable families/communities are improved over the last 20 years, but only crime trends get the publicity.
Johnson reminds us that most Americans think half of our marriages end in divorce, but points out that this number has declined by almost one-third since the early 1980s. He does not mention how and why the divorce rate declines, but it is known that the marriage rate is declining for people in the same age group from 20 years ago.
Maybe marriage in a “modern” society requires more maturity than the high school sweetheart condition offers.
More: “ … 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.”
That’s nice to know, but what about the United States where our poverty rate continues to rise [50 million people in poverty from the latest reports] while we rank near the bottom of the top 10 in infant mortality?
Coincident with our increase in poverty and drop in infant mortality is the growing gap between the rich, the middle class and poor, now at levels equivalent to the 1920s.
Life expectancy improvements in Latin America must be attributable to improved medical services, drugs and more caregivers. That worked for us, so it should work for them. Also, they had a long way to go from where they were. Safe drinking water is still a challenge in much of Latin America.
Good for China. They had a long, long way to go. During World War II, hundreds of thousands of Chinese laborers built airfields for Allied bombers and fighters by HAND. Obtaining the gasoline-powered devices to improve labor conditions since then may have helped along with Western capitalist democracies sending all sorts of unskilled, then skilled jobs to China.
The Chinese are very industrious people, so it should be no surprise that they would grow into the Western economies.
Unemployment in the United States remains stubbornly around 8% while our conflicting political parties dither over how to fix our economy. Household debt has soared over the last two decades – similar to the 1920s when people were buying stocks on margin.
The recent recession and financial crisis has slowed this problem, but the rules haven’t changed for investment banking to prevent a recurrence of the latest orgy of greed.
Global warming and climate change keep increasing in the media and the warnings keep coming true from real science. Yet, our species is so wed to fossil fuel energy that we refuse to see the error of our ways and develop real, sustainable fuels that won’t threaten the planet’s ability to provide living opportunities for us and everything else.
We hear much more about the negative trends than the positive ones for two main reasons, according to Johnson.
We are led to believe by the media, who are influenced by big business, that our private sector-developed technology will solve all problems and provide ever-growing improvements in our lives. One has to wonder how another version of the iPad will cause more food to grow on overused soil.
The positive trends in our social health, however, come from more complex sources that include government investment, public service, demographic changes, increases in shared knowledge and rising affluence. The private sector only participates actively when there is profit immediately available. In the United States there is little long-term planning for new technologies as long as old ones keep selling.
The public sector [government] doesn’t spend billions of dollars on marketing campaigns that trumpet its successes. If a multinational corporation, for example, invents a slightly better detergent, it will spend a fortune to alert the world that the product is now “new and improved.”
The government agencies don’t take out prime-time ads to tout the remarkable decrease in air pollution from technology and regulations over the last 20 years, even though that success story is far more important than a trivial improvement in laundry soap.
Our national blind spot on this fact is compounded by our short attention span for stories of incremental progress. The public is more attuned to tabloid journalism or huge leaps in progress that directly affect their immediate needs.
They are also more inclined, like motorists passing a highway wreck, to be fascinated with the negative opinions of certain pundits. The celebration of slow, steady progress doesn’t happen until certain success points are reached.
The second half of the 1990s was a period in which both economic and social trends were decisively upbeat. The stock market was surging, but inequality between classes was declining. Coincidentally crime, drug use, welfare dependence, poverty were all trending in an encouraging direction.
With Bill Clinton, a Democrat, in the White House, you might assume the op-ed pages of left-of-center The Washington Post would be bursting with pride over the state of the nation. That was not the case.
During 1997, in the middle of the greatest peacetime economic boom in U.S. history [and before the Monica Lewinsky scandal], 71% of all editorials published in the Post expressing opinions about the country’s current state focused on negative trends. Less than 5% of the total number of editorials concentrated on a positive development. The if-it-bleeds-it-leads philosophy still ran the show.
Johnson goes on to speculate that the media bias ignoring incremental progress will be more damaging than any bias toward any political party; the bias being toward extreme events and the more negative the event, the deeper the bias.
Johnson points out that neuroscience and psychology show that the human mind is more inclined toward negative information than the positive … as much as some of us clamor for it.
One positive social trend that did generate a significant amount of media coverage, but mostly ignored by the public was the extraordinary drop in the U.S. crime rate since the mid-’90s. The violent crime rate dropped from 51 to 15 per thousand people between 1995 and 2010.
Yet, according to a series of Gallup polls conducted over the past 10 years, more than two-thirds of Americans believe that crime has been getting worse, year after year.
Two major points conclude this subject:  We underestimate the incremental progress occurring everywhere around us.  We misunderstand where that progress arises.
The lesson for all of us here is that we, one of the most educated nations on Earth, must do more objective homework in appreciating our progress while examining the veracity of the negative aspects of our society. We should do what the human toolmaker is supposed to do: fix the problem.
If we aspire to low goals, we will not fix them. If we aspire to continued social development we are compelled to fix them.
The latter is the positive, progressive direction.
– Vern Turner is a regular contributor to The Oklahoma Observer. He lives in Marble Falls, TX, where he writes a regular column for the River Cities Daily Tribune. He is the author of three books – A Worm in the Apple: The Inside Story of Public Schools, The Voters Guide to National Salvation and Killing the Dream: America’s Flirtation With Third World Status – all available through Amazon.com.