Dear Democrats, Don’t Despair

Even in the age of Donald Trump, at least in some ways, things have never been better.

It’s no big secret that Americans are worried about the state of the nation and the world. Only about a third of people in the U.S. think that the country is heading in the right direction. And they aren’t alone: of the 26 countries polled by Ipsos, only the majority of residents in China, India, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Serbia responded positively about the direction of their homeland. Westerners in particular are plagued by pessimism about the current state of the planet—asked “all things considered, do you think the world is getting better or worse,” only six percent of Americans and an even smaller proportion of Western Europeans chose “better.”

If you are one of that sizable majority of Western pessimists, Gregg Easterbrook—a Washington Monthly contributing editor—wants you to know that you are wrong. And he’s not alone: Easterbrook’s It’s Better Than It Looks hit the shelves in the same fortnight as Steven Pinker’s (fantastic) Enlightenment Now. But despite sharing similar themes and a broadly similar worldview, there’s space on the nightstand for both books. While Pinker enumerates the many ways America and the world has made material and social progress over the past two centuries, Easterbrook focuses on why these positive trends will seemingly continue in the years to come. As he writes, “this book will show a range of reasons why the Western way of life is more robust than meets the eye—and why a better world is closer than it looks.”

It’s Better Than It Looks by Gregg Easterbrook
PublicAffairs, 352 pp.

Easterbrook fastidiously examines all the things that we don’t have to worry about, or at the very least, that we don’t have to despair over in 2018. First off, there’s no shortage of food, and malnutrition is at its lowest level ever. There are now twice as many overweight people worldwide than the total number of inhabitants of the earth when Thomas Malthus wrote his doom-laden essay on famine as the ultimate stay on population in 1798. And there are new crops, new farming techniques, and new technologies to produce artificial meat which will hopefully allow more people to eat better and more sustainably in the future.

We’re living longer and longer—at current rates of improvement, a baby born at the end of the week will live a day longer than one born at the beginning of that same week. Alarmist predictions about a global pandemic sparking widespread mortality—whether it’s H5N1 flu, swine flu, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or Ebola—have all thankfully been far off-target.

Seatbelts have made cars dramatically less deadly, and autonomous vehicles look to make driving even safer, part of a general phenomenon in which, as Easterbrook writes, “pretty much everything related to technology, science and engineering becomes safer.” Fewer people are dying from violence, too: the global death rate from war has fallen by three quarters since 1960. The only air-to-air combat of the 21st century occurred in a brief dogfight over Syria in 2017, and there hasn’t been a major naval confrontation since 1944. Trump blusters about “American carnage,” but the murder rate has plummeted, and terror deaths remain extremely rare.

The economy is chugging along in the West and is booming globally. As Brookings economist Gary Burtless suggests, the bottom fifth of Americans increased their purchasing power by 49 percent between 1980 and 2010. Sure, manufacturing jobs are on the decline, and brick-and-mortar jobs are being lost at a troublesome rate as Amazon gobbles up retail market share, but demand is continuing to rise for teachers, engineers, nurses, and the skilled trades. Easterbrook celebrates massive global progress against abject poverty, while acknowledging that we may need a higher minimum wage or even a universal basic income to ensure that prosperity in America is more widely shared.

Of course, many challenges still remain, including climate, inequality, racism, war in the Middle East, and undoubtedly there are unknown challenges ahead. Still, we should be optimistic about our ability to conquer them. Pessimists concentrate on rearguard actions; walls against encroachment. Optimists believe we can all be made safer, freer, and richer together, with implications for how to view the rest of the planet. As Easterbrook writes, “the conventional wisdom is that the whole world cannot live like Americans and western Europeans. To the contrary: for the whole world to live at the Western standard is the only moral course.”

Easterbrook mocks the accuracy of experts and the efficiency of government. Yet, he periodically acknowledges that much of the progress he touts has its roots in government policies: medical research, for example, and the regulation of pollutants. Some of those policies have surely been crafted or implemented by experts. A key contrast in the book is between North and South Korea—“the one using central control became an indigent nightmare, while the one letting the market decide eliminated poverty.” This lacks nuance, as Easterbrook overlooks the South Korean government’s dominant role in directing credit through a nationalized banking system to big private conglomerates, its ownership of many heavy industries, and its import controls to encourage domestic production. The country was far from a utopian gulch for shrugging Atlantes.

There are also a few canards: European bureaucrats never said UK retailers shouldn’t sell eggs by the dozen, as Easterbrook claims, and the idea that China could double its GDP in ten years is “all but physically impossible” seems difficult to reconcile with the fact that the country’s economy was 2.7 times larger in 2012 than in 2002. But such complaints aside, the book is an uplifting and enjoyable tour through progress and policy proposals to sustain it, presenting a number of compelling reasons why optimism is still justified.

This topic isn’t totally new for Easterbrook. His previous book Progress Paradox provided the evidence that quality of life in the U.S. had dramatically improved in the period since World War Two, even while Americans’ reported life satisfaction has stagnated. In It’s Better Than It Looks, Easterbrook focuses blame for that on (social) media and politicians that exploit our biases. “Objectively, America was in the best condition it had ever been in,” he writes of the 2016 election. Yet Trump convinced voters that “our country is going to hell.” In defense of Trump, voters didn’t take much convincing—they already thought the country was going to hell. And that is in part because politicians have regularly run on the crisis platform for decades. Doom is peddled by research centers and government agencies because it justifies increased funding. And crisis sells news, which might explain why, in June 2016 alone, The New York Times used the word “crisis” an average of 30 times a day.

Thankfully, there is a growing disconnect between answers to survey questions about collective wellbeing—where responses are truly grim—and questions about personal wellbeing, where they remain notably more positive. A Gallup survey in last year showed that 87 percent of Americans reported feeling satisfied with their personal lives—among the highest rate since 1979. It’s not just Americans—people the world over are optimistic about the future of their own lives. There’s at least some comfort in the fact that while our politics is more depressing and divided than ever, that pessimism hasn’t yet dashed positive feelings about our own lives. That Americans are psychologically resolute even as Donald Trump occupies the White House might be the reason to be most optimistic of all.

Charles Kenny

Charles Kenny is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and author of Getting Better: Why Global Development Is Succeeding and The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest Is Great for the West.