Jewish World Review Jan. 12, 2004 / 18 Teves, 5764
Afflicted By Comfort
Social hypochondria is the national disease of the most successful nation. By most indexes, life has improved beyond the dreams of even very recent generations. Yet many Americans, impervious to abundant data and personal experiences, insist that progress is a chimera.
Gregg Easterbrook's impressive new book, "The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse," explains this perversity. (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) Easterbrook, a Washington journalist and fellow of the Brookings Institution, assaults readers with good news.
American life expectancy has dramatically increased in a century, from 47 to 77 years. Our great-great-grandparents all knew someone who died of some disease we never fear; as recently as 1952, polio killed 3,300 Americans. Our largest public health problems arise from unlimited supplies of affordable food.
The typical American has twice the purchasing power his mother or father had in 1960. A third of America's families own at least three cars. In 2001 Americans spent $25 billion more than North Korea's GDP on recreational watercraft.
Factor out immigration a huge benefit to the immigrants and statistical evidence of widening income inequality disappears. The statistic that household incomes are only moderately higher than 25 years ago is misleading: Households today average fewer people, so real dollar incomes in middle-class households are about 50 percent higher today. Since 1970 the number of cars has increased 68 percent and the number of miles driven has increased even more, yet smog has declined by a third and traffic fatalities have declined from 52,627 to 42,815 last year. In 2003 we spent much wealth on things unavailable in 1953 a cleaner environment, reduced mortality through new medical marvels ($5.2 billion a year just for artificial knees, which did not exist a generation ago), the ability to fly anywhere or talk to anyone anywhere. The incidence of heart disease, stroke and cancer, when adjusted for population growth, is declining.
The rate of child poverty is down in a decade. America soon will be the first society in which a majority of adults are college graduates.
And so it goes. But Easterbrook says that such is today's "discontinuity between prosperity and happiness," the "surge of national good news" scares people, vexes the news media and does not even nudge up measurements of happiness. Easterbrook's explanations include:
Easterbrook, while arguing that happiness should be let off its leash, is far from complacent. He is scandalized by corporate corruption and poverty in the midst of so much abundance. And he has many commonsensical thoughts on how to redress the imbalance many people feel between their abundance of material things and the scarcity of meaning that they feel in their lives. The gist of his advice is that we should pull up our socks, spiritually, and make meaning by doing good while living well.
His book arrives as the nation enters an election year, when the opposition, like all parties out of power, will try to sow despondency by pointing to lead linings on all silver clouds. His timely warning is that Americans are becoming colorblind, if only to the color silver.
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