Contrarian view: “Why 2012 was the best year ever”

The Spectator argues that 2012 wasn’t so bad when you look at the big picture:

It may not feel like it, but 2012 has been the greatest year in the history of the world. That sounds like an extravagant claim, but it is borne out by evidence. Never has there been less hunger, less disease or more prosperity. The West remains in the economic doldrums, but most developing countries are charging ahead, and people are being lifted out of poverty at the fastest rate ever recorded. The death toll inflicted by war and natural disasters is also mercifully low. We are living in a golden age.

To listen to politicians is to be given the opposite impression — of a dangerous, cruel world where things are bad and getting worse. This, in a way, is the politicians’ job: to highlight problems and to try their best to offer solutions. But the great advances of mankind come about not from statesmen, but from ordinary people. Governments across the world appear stuck in what Michael Lind, on page 30, describes as an era of ‘turboparalysis’ — all motion, no progress. But outside government, progress has been nothing short of spectacular.

Take global poverty. In 1990, the UN announced Millennium Development Goals, the first of which was to halve the number of people in extreme poverty by 2015. It emerged this year that the target was met in 2008. Yet the achievement did not merit an official announcement, presumably because it was not achieved by any government scheme but by the pace of global capitalism. Buying cheap plastic toys made in China really is helping to make poverty history. And global inequality? This, too, is lower now than any point in modern times. Globalisation means the world’s not just getting richer, but fairer too.

The doom-mongers will tell you that we cannot sustain worldwide economic growth without ruining our environment. But while the rich world’s economies grew by 6 per cent over the last seven years, fossil fuel consumption in those countries fell by 4 per cent. This remarkable (and, again, unreported) achievement has nothing to do with green taxes or wind farms. It is down to consumer demand for more efficient cars and factories.

And so on. It is hard to keep this big picture in mind. Tragedies seem common or at least too frequent. Good news doesn’t seem to trickle up to the top of the news heap as much. Or perhaps it is because our relative status in the United States and elsewhere in the West seems precarious. Or perhaps it is because due to globalization we are also more aware of the risks in the world around us.

This argument reminds of Stephen Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature (my quick review here). Pinker argued in the book that humans have had a much more violent past and today is marked by relative peace and conflict today tends to be more limited in terms of deaths and how big of an area is affected. Yet, the average citizen would not probably pick up on this.

Before watching The Hobbit on Friday night, my wife and I were struck by the number of movie trailers for post-apocalyptic films. Granted, we didn’t see any trailers for romantic comedies or many Oscar worthy dramas – the theaters clearly think there is a certain audience for The Hobbit – but these sort of narratives seem to be on the rise. People want to watch fictionalized movies and TV shows about the end of times, when the narrative of human progress is clearly smashed and small groups of people try to put the pieces together again. Of course, such movies can also be an excuse for monsters and violence but this is a fascinating trend tied to pessimism about the present and future.

Chicago population loss among challenges for new Chicago mayor

As Chicago votes today, the Chicago Tribune pointed out the issues the new mayor faces, including a declining population and financial issues:

The U.S. Census Bureau gave Chicago a reality check last week. New data showed the city lost 200,000 residents in the last decade, a 6.9 percent decline. Chicago’s lost more than the entire population of Illinois’ second largest city, Aurora.

A Mexican immigration wave that fueled growth in the 1990s has subsided. Researchers expected those immigrants to bring more growth as they had children. Instead, immigrants are moving from Chicago to the suburbs or bypassing the city entirely. That 1990s influx looks like the exception to a long and steady rule. Chicago has lost population in five of the last six decades. It has fewer people now than it did in 1920.

The city government faces a yawning debt and unfunded pension obligations. It is spending beyond its means. A city that has fewer citizens has fewer potential wage-earners available to support it.

This is a big set of issues to face. But the Tribune seems to be fairly optimistic:

The good news: Chicago is far better positioned for the future than it was during its wrenching Rust Belt days of 1980. The city’s economy is more diverse, and its urban environment richer in the amenities that attract a talented work force, from parks to culture. As corporate headquarters scaled down across the country, Chicago became a global center for back-office operations and business services such as corporate law firms. Its central location and status as a transportation hub give it a crucial advantage going forward. That’s why we need to get the expansion of O’Hare International Airport back on track, pronto.

The city will need some new ideas as well as dealing with existing projects. This airport expansion idea has been in the works for years now and is a move that could bring in new business and opportunities.

And I wonder with an election like this, where there is no incumbent and we seem to have a cleaner break with the past, whether the new mayor really has to introduce massive projects or ideas at the start. Perhaps the first goal could be to improve how Chicagoans and those in the region feel about and view their city. For example, take a look at the crime rate: it has dropped and yet there is perception problem. A dose of optimism, trumpeting what is good about the city rather than what is going wrong, could be a good starting point. And then, something has to be done with the larger issues that the Tribune enumerates.

Many Americans not optimistic that their childrens’ lives will be better

A recent Bloomberg poll asked Americans whether they felt the future would be better for their children. The results:

What optimism there is about the immediate future doesn’t carry over to the longer term. Pluralities of those polled say they’re not hopeful they will have enough money in retirement and expect they will have to keep working to make up the difference. More than 50 percent aren’t confident or are just somewhat confident their children will have better lives than they have.

This belief has been an important part of the American Dream for decades. American parents seem willing to sacrifice much for their children to help insure this. Americans are usually quite optimistic about the future and tend to believe American ingenuity and progress will lead the way.

A question I would like to ask on these surveys: would it be okay for your children to have the same quality of life as you have experienced? If not, why not?

(A note about the reporting: many numerical statistics from the survey are thrown out. However, there is little context. The author tries to throw in some commentary about how these statistics link up with what is going on in the country or with a few quotes but this doesn’t add much. Additionally, let’s break down the numbers a bit more: do they differ by gender, race, region, political party, etc.?)