But people aren’t convinced. Why aren’t we happier, he wonders? Why, even before September 11, did so many Americans tell pollsters that the country was going downhill? Why is depression an increasingly common affliction? What are we so stressed out about? In his sixth book, Easterbrook sets out to answer a question posed by sociologist Alan Wolfe: “Why do capitalism and liberal democracy, both of which justify themselves on the grounds that they produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number, leave so much dissatisfaction in their wake?”
It is a very good question. Easterbrook–who writes for The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly, and this magazine, among others–wanders through Western philosophy and psychology (having written an earlier book on faith) seeking an answer. Ultimately, he doesn’t find a satisfying one.
The case that we are living a lot better than our recent ancestors in terms of health, longevity, and the goods and services we consume is a strong one. Easterbrook makes the case with anecdotes and what journalists call “factoids,” those irresistible nuggets that lodge in the reader’s mind and pop out at dinner table discussions. Here’s one: “The typical American place of dwelling,” he writes, “has 5.3 rooms for its average of 2.6 people. This means that a long-standing metric of comfortable living, ‘a room of their own,’ has been done one better. Americans of today have nearly two rooms of their own…. Today, the typical circumstance for an American, even a typical child or teenager, is to have his or her own bedroom–surely the first time in history this has been achieved for an entire large society.” (My recent tour of college campuses with my 17-year-old daughter, however, suggests that Easterbrook gets carried away when he suggests that the typical college student has a single and that the “austere small dorm room of the past, two twin beds and two desks wedged in together” is disappearing.) He doesn’t, though he might, dwell very much on the ways in which the Internet has changed our lives for the better. But here’s a factoid I uncovered while preparing this review: His book lists for $24.95, but at the end of September you could have ordered it for $17.47 on Amazon.com.
Although Easterbrook asserts that he is trying to show that “average people” are “better off,” he inexplicably opens his first chapter by describing restaurants that cater to people who fly their own planes, unconvincingly arguing that these aren’t the private jets of the super-rich, but one- and two-engine planes of farmers, oil field workers, and others in the middle class. “Thousands of private aircraft are owned for personal use by people who are not rich,” he asserts. I’m sure that’s true, but it’s not a very good way to convince skeptical readers that “average people” are better off. The middle 60 percent of American households, the Census Bureau says, had an annual income between $18,000 and $84,000 in 2002. I doubt a significant fraction of those folks own private aircraft.
My favorite factoid in this paradox, though one that might better serve a book attacking the decadence of U.S. society, is this: “For $75,000 Jackson & Perkins of Somis, Calif…. will give a new rose variety the name of your choosing, fly you and a companion to Los Angeles for a week that includes a fine dinner with the company’s plant-breeders and, once the new hybrid blooms, ship 300 of them FedEx around the country to anyone you select, so that friends and family will smell the rose that bears your name.” He says more than 100 rose lovers have spent a total of over $7.5 million on this.
The cover of this book shows a glass of water that is, depending on your perspective, half-full or half-empty. Easterbrook’s goal, in part, is to convince readers that it’s half-full, and he provides a lot of evidence. But my sense is that convincing people takes more than facts and one-liners gleaned from the Statistical Abstract of the United States. Skeptical readers are more convinced when these facts and figures are accompanied by portraits of real people, perhaps a comparison of a modern middle-class family’s life to that of its parents. This is hard to do well. Talking to ordinary people might shed light on the central question of this book: Why aren’t we happier? Easterbrook has chosen instead to look for answers in the library.He offers several intriguing hypotheses. Among them:
The “unsettled character of progress.” This wonderful phrase describes something obvious once you think about it: The solution to one problem seems to bequeath another. We invent a polio vaccine, then fear the vaccine may cause other ailments. We make wireless communications possible and cheap, then find ourselves unable to escape the office or fearful that the SUV driver behind us is devoting more attention to his cell phone than the road. We find new miraculous cures for disease, then wonder if we can afford them. So much for the end of history.
Bad news sells. Bad news helps political groups on the left and right raise money. It helps political challengers attack incumbents. It preoccupies the intellectual elites who have ready access to the printing press. It sells newspapers and draws viewers to local TV news stories. Here’s another of Easterbrook’s nuggets that sticks with you long after you’ve put the book down: The local NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C., changed the name of its weather segment from WeatherCenter to StormCenter during a snow storm 10 years ago, and never changed it back-even for sunny days.
Lack of sleep. Americans sleep an hour less a night than they did a generation ago, he says, and two or three hours a night less than a century ago.Human nature. Perhaps we have an evolutionary predisposition to the negative which helped our ancestors survive. “We are built to be effective animals, not happy ones,” evolutionary psychologist Robert Wright has written. Or perhaps the problem is that most Americans and Europeans are descended from people who weren’t prosperous, people who were right to believe that the rich get everything and the rest of us get nothing. He calls this “abundance denial.” Once it was true; it is no longer.
Envy. We constantly compare ourselves to others, particularly to others who have more. I think there’s a lot to this explanation: One big change in the past quarter century, it seems to me, is how much ordinary Americans know or think they know about how well the more fortunate live, thanks to TV, People magazine, and other media. And these media aren’t concentrating on royalty or business aristocracy, but on the large number of folks with houses and cars that the bulk of us will never be able to afford.
Easterbrook dwells briefly, perhaps too briefly, on the nature and effects of economic inequality in the United States today. He has been convinced by Brookings Institution economist Gary Burtless that the slowdown in the growth of incomes of the middle of the middle class which began in the mid-1970s and lasted through the mid-1990s, is explained away by immigration. Native born Americans did great. The national numbers were distorted by the influx of immigrants who didn’t earn much by American standards, but did much better than they would have in their home countries, he argues, so there’s nothing to worry about or discuss. The economic impact of immigrants is worth some thought, and Mr. Burtless’s provocative point is worth examination, but it’s too facile an explanation for what happened in the 1970s and 1980s. The still unexplained slowing of productivity growth around 1973 meant that living standards of the American middle class didn’t improve as much in a generation as they had, for instance, in the quarter century after World War II. That wasn’t all about immigration. The widening gap between the wages of those with an education and those without made for greater inequality. So did a change in social norms in all sorts of American institutions. They now tolerate and even encourage much greater rewards for the best producers (“pay for performance”) than had previously been the case not only in law firms, investment banks, and baseball teams, but also in big companies who rely on temps or outside contractors whom they pay less and offer fewer benefits.
As if to shield himself from critics who accuse him of overlooking the poorest among us, Easterbrook includes a chapter with four prescriptions: provide universal health care, raise the minimum wage even if it means higher prices, pay CEOs less, and spend more on foreign aid to poor countries. These are all respectable propositions, and someday Easterbrook may write more on how to accomplish each of these goals without unwelcome side effects. How, for instance, do we raise the minimum wage without pushing even more low-skilled jobs off-shore? The chapter reads like an afterthought.
But what most fascinates Easterbrook is why the haves aren’t happier. He offers a remarkably trenchant survey of psychologists’ thinking and research on the question of happiness along with Henny Youngman’s penetrating insight: “What good is happiness? It can’t buy money.” He speculates on whether the satisfaction of so many material wants gives people the time and leisure to be depressed. He dissects the origins of modern stress. He wonders if concern about the future prevents us from enjoying the present. He suggests that our new-found ability to be alone (in our houses, on our jobs, in our cars, on our computers) denies us the pleasure of the company of others. And he suggests, though not in so many words, that we’re like the dog in the cartoon who one day catches up with the car he’s chasing, and asks: “Now what?”
Then he turns to sermonizing, with some strong arguments and a few interesting examples, that we would be better off if we had a more positive attitude and were more grateful, more forgiving, more spiritual. I’m sure he’s right, but I doubt he will convince anyone who isn’t already convinced. I think he knows that. “Gradually moving beyond materialistic obsession, while discarding fashionable theories of pointlessness in order to reclaim a mostly hopeful view of the human prospect,” he writes, is the sort of change that “men and women must make for themselves.”
It’s hard to argue with that. I’d add another ingredient: We’re short on idealistic, inspiring, and charismatic national leaders at the moment. I’ve met and read about enough good souls working on college campuses and in small towns, and of selfless quests to alleviate disease and poverty in the Third World (see Tracy Kidder’s new biography of Paul Farmer, the crusading physician working in Haiti) to avoid despair. I wish a couple of them had more prominence nationally or internationally.
The optimistic journalist is rarely held in high regard by his or her peers, (I know: I wrote a book with a colleague in 1998 that argued that the American middle class would do better over the next 20 years than it did over the past 20 years.) Those who predict calamity get more attention and often more respect. I suspect that’s always been true. Easterbrook’s goals here are, first, to persuade the reader that his optimism is justified and, second, to explain why people don’t seem to accept such a view. On the first, he provides plenty of ammunition to those who already agree with him but, I fear, not enough convincing argument or criticism of competing views to persuade any reader who doesn’t already see the world the way he does. On the second, the reader joins him on an often interesting intellectual quest, but the goal, in the end, proves elusive.