This article was excerpted from “The Rise of the Politically Incorrect One-Handed Economist,” a presentation at a festschrift in honor of Richard Rosecrance, January 1997.
I have yet to run into an American over the age of 47 who regularly observes, “You know, if I had been born in the 19th century, I’d very probably be dead by now.” Nobody really thinks in such terms, yet the statement is completely true–and, of course, I don’t mean in the sense that just about everybody who happened to be born in the last century is no longer with us, but that life expectancy in the United States as late as 1900 was 47.
It is commonly observed that people don’t appreciate their health until they get sick, their freedom until they lose it, their wealth until it is threatened, their teeth until they ache. In other words, when beneficial things come to us we quickly come to take them for granted.
If they make us happier, we may very well not notice after a brief period of often-wary assimilation: They become ingested and seem part of our due, our place in life. Occasionally, people in affluent societies might pause to wonder how they ever got along without faxes, e-mail, ATMs, word processing, EKGs, jet transportation, frozen pizza, VCRs, garbage disposals, flush toilets, electric can openers, cellular phones, or espresso machines, but on those rare occasions, the observation is generally something of a joke, and rarely do they seriously concede that these eagerly accepted additions to their lives might somehow have made them happier.
Indeed, if anything, there is a tendency to look back at the past myopically, forgetting its complexities, and horrors, and often giving it a golden glow. We like to view the past as a simpler time, though the plays of Shakespeare and Aeschylus certainly do tend to suggest that people in olden times really did have some pretty complicated problems. And nostalgic images of 1900 American life rarely remember rotten teeth or note that each day at least three billion flies were created in cities by horse manure.
A systematic, if quiet, process of standard-raising also contributes. For example, a caption poised above an old carpet sweeper on display in an exhibit in the Strong Museum in Rochester observes, “Labor-saving devices like carpet sweepers helped middle-class people satisfy their desire for cleanliness within the home.” Lest one conclude that this was an improvement, however, the caption writer quickly adds, “Unfortunately, each new development raised standards and expectations for cleanliness, making the ideal as hard as ever to achieve.”
The media may play something of a role in all this, one that leads to a notable paradox. In a place where things are going unrelievedly badly (Sudan, for example), there may be editorial paydirt in optimism. But in places where things are going remarkably well (the United States, for example), good news, precisely because it is so common, simply doesn’t sell. Consequently, pessimists and doomsayers (nattering nabobs of negativism) tend to dominate. The Atlantic, for example, seems addicted to articles like “The Crisis of Public Order,” “The Drift Toward Disaster,” “The Coming Anarchy,” and “The Coming Plague,” and the editors will only be truly happy, some suggest, when they will proudly be able to feature an article entitled, “World Ends, Experts Say.”
The political process is also essentially devoted to bringing out the bad news. Incumbents may like to stress the positive, but challengers can’t –they must work very hard to ferret out things that are wrong and that, at the same time, concern a fair number of voters. If they are successful in this, it would be impolitic for the incumbents simply to dismiss the voters’ concern. They must agree, or appear to agree, that the problem is genuine and then propose a solution to the problem that seems superior to the one proposed by the challenger. The process leads to nice anomalies: The cleanliness of the air in the United States has improved markedly over the last two decades, but most people think (and many people seem to want to think) that the opposite is true.
Therefore, the catastrophe quota always remains comfortably full. When a major problem is resolved or eliminated or when a major improvement is made, there is little reflective comment, and problems previously considered small are quickly elevated in perceived importance. Nowhere is this clearer than in international affairs, where the Cold War and the threat of nuclear holocaust have evaporated in recent years to the distinct inconvenience of doomsayers everywhere. But with scarcely a pause for breath they have adroitly come up with a list of new problems to plague us in our “new world disorder.”
One enumerator lists “the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the ballistic missiles to carry them; ethnic and national hatreds that can metastasize across large portions of the globe; the international narcotics trade; terrorism; the dangers inherent in the West’s dependence on Mideast oil; new economic and environmental challenges.” That none of these problems is new and that some of them are actually of less urgent concern than they were during the Cold War is of little concern. Wars deriving from ethnic and national hatreds are neither new nor increasing in frequency in the world, and nuclear proliferation is no more a new problem–in fact, may well be less of a problem–than it was in 1960, when John Kennedy repeatedly pointed out with alarm that there might be 10, 15, or 20 nations with a nuclear capacity by 1964. And the international drug trade has obviously been around for quite some time, while the West’s supposedly dangerous dependence on Mideast oil has been a matter of pointed concern at least since 1973. The impact of terrorism has often been more in the exaggerated hysteria it generates than in its actual physical effects–fewer Americans are killed by international terrorists than are killed by lightning or by deer. Economic and environmental challenges are hardly new either, but new alarms can be raised. In a pessimistic best-seller in 1993, historian Paul Kennedy was able to work up quite a bit of concern over pollution, immigration, and robotics. Interestingly enough, war, a central preoccupation of his pessimistic best-seller of 1987, had apparently vanished from his worries: the word “war” does not even appear in the index of the later book.
Or, like Zbigniew Brzezinski, one can focus on such endearing, if vaporous, problems as “turmoil.” And if that isn’t alarming enough, we can always moan about the deficit, a problem chiefly caused by the fact that people live too long. Happily, in the course of the century improved medical care has not only generated a wonderful new problem to complain about, but it has supplied the average American with nearly 30 additional years of lifetime in which to do so (and with his or her original teeth, to boot).
All this suggests, then, two modest predictions about the next century:
The world is likely to experience a massive increase in economic growth and well-being.
And nobody will be particularly impressed.