The New Republic: AMERICA THE O.K.

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The New Republic

January 4 & 11, 1998

America the O.K.

By Gregg Easterbrook

Why life in the U.S. has never been better.

I don't wish to alarm you, but American life is getting better. Crime has fallen sharply. The economy is booming. Teen pregnancy is declining. The federal budget is in surplus. The air and water are getting cleaner. Health is improving by almost every measure, including the first-ever decline in cancer incidence. Deaths in accidents are decreasing. Standards of living continue to improve. The use of drugs and cigarettes is waning. Levels of education keep rising. Women and minorities are acquiring an ever-larger slice of the national pie. Personal liberty has never been greater, while American culture becomes more and more diverse. Even home runs are at an all-time high!

Yet the steady betterment of American life is practically a taboo subject for intellectual debate. Left-wing thinkers shy from it because it smacks of triumphalism or simply spoils the doomsday script. Right-wing thinkers are terrified of having to admit that recent decades of progress have occurred under a regime of strong central government. Pundits and politicians see only calamity--in 1995, Newt Gingrich called the United States "a civilization in danger of simply falling apart"--while the country around them indecorously gets better. Right now, Washington is busily sinking to an all-time low in the disconnect between governors and governed, obsessively generating an institutional crisis, in part, just to make sure there's some really bad news.

To the extent favorable trends are remarked upon, they are often treated as ephemera of a strong economy--though impressive social transitions, such as pollution reduction, exist outside the business cycle. Notes Orlando Patterson, a Harvard sociologist: "It's astonishing how the Washington and New York elites, the people who benefit most from the improvement of the United States, are so out of sync with it, endlessly talking about how things are getting worse when the country is clearly improving."

As David Whitman points out in his cogent new book, The Optimism Gap, polls show that personal optimism is at or near record levels--most people rating their own prospects around eight on a scale of ten--but national optimism has never been lower, most people thinking that the country is in decline. Whitman calls this the "I'm O.K., they're not" syndrome. Failure to heed the improvement of the United States feeds cynicism and robs us of valid congratulation: after race riots, Vietnam, and stagflation, isn't it good for everyone if America can like what it sees in the mirror again? And inattention to the optimistic deprives public thought of the chance to benefit from the lessons of successful reform.

Of course, there are gloomy trends, worst among them the persistence of poverty. Today, about 13 percent of U.S. households live below the poverty level, which seems ever less tolerable as the nation grows richer. As Michael Novak has noted, when the Bible declared, "You always have the poor with you," the context was a feudal agrarian economy in which some poverty was unavoidable. Today's high-tech, knows-no-obstacle economy could transfer enough goods to everyone, and, until it does, a sword will hang over American abundance.

And, of course, the international scene presents anxieties. Beyond the specters of war and ethnic hostility, the developing world's ecosystems continue to deteriorate. Global population will rise to around nine billion before stabilizing in the twenty-first century. This means the world must eventually feed, educate, employ, and care for the health of a human race half again its present size. There's no way the United States will be able to sit out that great challenge and no sign we are preparing for it.

But, overall, the American scene is progressively more encouraging. Let's review the facts:

Accidents. Despite the sirens-and-carnage images projected by local TV news, accidents have been declining pretty much across the board for more than a decade. In 1985, 40 Americans out of every 100,000 died accidental deaths; by 1996, the rate was down to 35 of 100,000, a twelve percent decline. Workplace fatalities dropped spectacularly during this period, from about 11,600 in 1985 to 6,218 in 1997. Traffic fatalities have been declining, too, and in 1997 reached a record low of just 1.6 deaths per 100 million miles driven, the smallest such figure since federal agencies began keeping traffic-death statistics in the 1960s. Highway fatalities are going down in absolute numbers--in 1984, there were 46,200 traffic deaths, for example, versus 41,967 in 1997--even as there are more people driving more cars at faster speeds for more total miles.

On a related front, building fires are steadily declining. The National Fire Protection Association reports that the total number of "structure" fires in the United States went from three million in 1980 to slightly less than two million in 1996. Jill Leovy recently reported in the Los Angeles Times that, in her city, building fires fell from 8,557 in 1979 to 3,406 in 1997. Firefighters now have so much free time that they are teaching boating and bicycle safety. More than 6,000 Americans died in home fires in 1960; in 1996, just 2,900 did, though the population had risen almost 50 percent through the period. Trends like this have nothing to do with the economy.

What's behind such developments? Liability pressure, consumer activism, and improving technology have made cars notably safer. Automakers spent years resisting air bags and crash-impact engineering, claiming cars would become exorbitantly expensive while losing functionality. Instead, auto offerings are getting zippier and roomier--today's Ford Taurus, loaded with new safety features plus air-conditioning and a CD player, costs 70 percent less in real-dollar terms than a Model T did. Never underestimate the ability of industry to make products less dangerous--or excuse corporations from doing so.

While auto manufacturers have improved the safety engineering of products, crusades against drunken driving, plus lower legal tolerance for the same, have had the desired effect. Once, to get behind the wheel after knocking back a few was viewed as boys-will-be-boys behavior; now, it's viewed as idiocy and dishonor. The lesson: Public awareness campaigns really can work.

The drop in fires stems from a similar mix of awareness, regulation, and better management. In the past 20 years, smoke detectors have become ubiquities, a reform driven both by government rules and awareness campaigns. Federal regulators have required increasingly strict standards for fire-resistance in products and building materials. Local fire codes have become ever-tighter: Scottsdale, Arizona, now requires built-in sprinklers in every newly constructed room, even confessional booths. Fire departments and building-code writers have switched from a philosophy of fire fighting to one of prevention, with an emphasis on careful inspections of buildings or blueprints. Many big-city fire departments are becoming ambulance departments that fight fires as a sidelight. It's a wonderful transition.

Crime. Homicide is down about 20 percent from the level of the early '90s; in 1997, it reached the lowest rate in 30 years. During the '80s, Brooklyn averaged two murders per day; last March, Brooklyn went a full week without a homicide for the first time in a generation. Crime is down in nearly every category, including burglary and robbery. Since 1993, not only has the felony rate dropped, but the total number of violent felonies has fallen 14 percent, even while the population continues to grow. As Gordon Witkin has written, "It's hard to think of a social trend with greater significance."

Many factors are at play here, among them the sheer reduction in perpetrators. Tougher laws and sentences have led to a furious rate of incarceration, with 1.8 million Americans now jailed, more than double the figure of a decade ago. The shift toward "community policing" has helped, though felonies are also falling in cities that have not adopted this system. It's important to note that, while most policing has improved in the past decade, there has been no national initiative on this score, just lots of local experiments.

The adoption of James Q. Wilson's "broken windows" theory of civic propriety has helped, too. Annoying as New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's anti-jaywalking campaign might be, there is no doubt that an environment in which people take petty laws seriously creates sociological pressure to respect the sort of laws we really care about. Putting more officers on the street has helped, as has the upgunning of law enforcement. During the '80s, when most police carried revolvers, drug-runners had superior weapons. Now that half of all cops bear the high-rate-of-fire Glock semiautomatic, only a fool would try to shoot his way out of an arrest.

Conspicuous in recent crime trends is the decline of crack. The nature of this drug product--packaged for volume sales of inexpensive rocks that produce only a brief high, requiring the user to make multiple purchases--made it a street-corner enterprise. Lots of salesmen were needed, so the young and intemperate were recruited. As Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University, describes it, crack crews carrying wads of cash themselves became the targets of crime, and, since drug dealers who were robbed couldn't exactly dial 911, they armed themselves. The result was thousands of teenagers toting guns in tense situations.

Thus, not the intoxicating effects of crack but its distribution by armed, fidgety teenagers caused the '80s homicide wave. Nearly all the murder surge occurred among under-30 males; the homicide rate in other groups actually declined during the very period of the murder epidemic. Leading the current homicide decline is a rapid drop in killings among those under 30--though the rate among those under 18 remains historically high.

Then there's the "younger brother effect." The '90s generation of inner-city kids, having seen the medically destructive effects of crack and the self-genocide it produced in minority communities, wants little to do with the opiate of the '80s. Crack use continues, but mostly among older addicts who do their buying from a new breed of dealers, who work from client lists and beepers, avoiding street confrontations.

For police, an essential policy shift was a campaign against weapons possession. Traditionally, police departments have looked the other way regarding guns alone: If someone had an illegal weapon but hadn't used it, he'd get off lightly. Beginning around 1990, patrol officers and prosecutors began going after the guns themselves. It proved easier to make cases involving traceable firearms than cases based on plastic bags of crack the suspect could claim he never saw before. Arrests of minors for weapons possession peaked in 1993; by 1994, the incidence of minors carrying firearms began to decline. Perhaps not coincidentally, it was also in 1994 that the homicide rate began its fall.

Both a growth economy and social circumstances now work against violent crime. As Jeffrey Fagan, a professor of public health at Columbia University, notes, the kids who became crack-runners in the '80s had been born into a period of upheaval: inner cities were in decline, parents were losing jobs as industry fled urban areas, welfare was pushing fathers out of homes, and, to many whose parents traversed the '60s, rioting--violent contempt for law--had briefly been seen as somehow useful to minority aspirations. Now, Fagan says, "the phase of social reorganization is basically over for the inner city." Downtown areas have stopped declining, and some are improving. People have made their peace with the new service industries, rendering legitimate employment possible again. Stability is returning, and, with it, community contempt for crime.

Within the positive trends an obvious worry is that some new street drug or an economic downturn could cause a new spate of crime. But what's most striking about falling homicide rates is that they represent rapid progress in an area where bad news was widely believed inevitable. "It's possible you won't be able to solve this problem," New York Governor Mario Cuomo said of the murder rate in 1989. Nine years later, the arrows point up.

Drink, drugs, and fooling around. Crack is hardly the only bane in decline. On the key barometer of ingestion by high school seniors, cocaine has declined from something tried by 17 percent of students in 1985 to seven percent in 1996. Twenty-two percent of high school seniors in 1975 had tried stimulant drugs; by 1996, the figure was down to 15 percent. Use of some, though not all, other illegal drugs is also down.

Even legal, socially acceptable forms of indulgence are in remission. In 1965, 42 percent of American adults smoked; today, 25 percent do. Per capita U.S. consumption of spirits has been going down for years. In 1980, 72 percent of high school seniors reported having consumed alcohol recently. This figure has gone down steadily since, falling to 51 percent in 1996. Can it be that half of America's young aren't even sneaking beers anymore?

Another entirely legal (except in Washington) form of earthly pleasure, sex, also seems in decline, at least among the supposedly incorrigible young. The portion of teenage girls reporting to have had intercourse had been climbing steadily since the '60s, a statistic commonly cited--often by middle-age commentators who themselves once devoted countless hours to the pursuit of teenage sex--as a sign of American moral erosion. Now, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, the percentage of sexually active girls ages 15 to 19 has dropped from a peak of 53 percent in 1988 to 50 percent in 1995. Teen pregnancy rates have begun to decline; in 1995, teen pregnancy fell to the same rate as that of 1975, and the downward statistical slope continues. Births to teens have dropped twelve percent since 1991. The number of teen abortions has fallen for seven consecutive years.

Smoking's decline clearly reflects improved awareness of lung cancer. Drug declines probably result from a combination of law-enforcement intensification and rising understanding of the fact that, with the possible exception of marijuana, drugs simply aren't innocuous private choices. Less drinking seems to stem from anti-drunken-driving campaigns and a changing anthropology of the social event, today less viewed as a sanctioned time during which to get schnockered (think Virginia Woolf) than as a time at which to sip wine and listen to music.

Less sexual activity among young people may be influenced by concern about sexually transmitted diseases and by religious feeling. A reaction against cultural pressure in favor of sex, especially the repulsively phony Hollywood and rock-video conceptions of sex, might be just as important. Teenage pregnancy decline results directly from higher birth control use--contraceptive use at first intercourse is up from 48 percent among females in the early '80s to 78 percent in 1995. Contraceptives are getting safer (the low-dose Pill) and more convenient (the inject-and-forget Depo-Provera). As important, probably, is a shifting sociology of birth control--which is increasingly seen as smart and responsible.

Less drug use, less drinking, less smoking, and less fooling around hardly synchronize with conventional hand-wringing about the United States as a selfindulgent, libertine realm where anything goes. Rather, these trends suggest that public habits can be moderated through awareness campaigns, rational arguments, and common sense.

The economy. Financial situations can change rapidly, so the milk might curdle; that admonition aside, the American economic outlook is the best it's ever been. Unemployment and inflation are at their lowest points in a quarter-century. Growth is strong, though below record levels. Economic troubles elsewhere in the world seem barely to have dented the system here. Gasoline prices are at a postwar low in real-dollar terms, while mortgage rates are at 30-year lows. Industry isn't disappearing, as is commonly assumed--current U.S. industrial production is 90 percent greater than in 1970, though that figure is achieved with fewer workers. It's common to hear analysts bemoaning the fact that median household income has risen only slightly in the past quarter-century. But the standard concept doesn't take into account that fewer and fewer people live in the median household: factor that in, and household income is up about 15 percent since 1970. The only major negative indicators are the savings rate and the balance-of-trade deficit. As problems go, that's not bad.

The transition from federal deficit to surplus should remind us how often "impossible" problems are solved. Think back to the hollow legislative rituals of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law, written to be vacuous on the assumption that real deficit reduction simply could not happen. Now the federal balance sheet has improved so much that lower government borrowing helps drive down interest rates, benefiting everyone. And this has been accomplished without punitive taxation. As Derek Bok pointed out in his 1996 The State of the Nation, the American tax burden is 27 percent of GDP, versus 44 percent in France or 50 percent in Sweden.

Having lived the past few years in Europe, I often heard Euros express astonishment at the American economic engine. How could it be, they would ask, that your system has so much litigation, adversarial confrontation, hype, spin, glibness, and overwrought scandal, and yet functions so marvelously? I liked to reply that lawsuits, hype, spin, and scandal must in some way aid American success, forcing our society to accept perpetual change. The sincere answer might be that positive trends in U.S. national wealth have been sparked by ever-greater acceptance of true market economics, with its tumult and endless unanticipated results.

"It's only in the last generation that most people have been converted to the belief that market economics is good for everybody, not just a tool of the wealthy," says John Mueller, a political scientist at the University of Rochester and a rising star in the study of what makes societies run well. Stagflation stopped after Jimmy Carter began deregulation, freeing air travel, energy, and telecommunications. National economic performance shot upward not long thereafter, and, though not all results of deregulation have been favorable, each year brings more evidence that the country is better off with market forces driving most decisions.

Environment. Twenty-five years ago, only one-third of America's lakes and rivers were safe for fishing and swimming; today two-thirds are, and the proportion continues to rise. Annual wetlands loss has fallen by 80 percent in the same period, while soil losses to agricultural runoff have been almost cut in half. Total American water consumption has declined nine percent in the past 15 years, even as the population expands, especially in the arid Southwest. Since 1970, smog has declined by about a third, even as the number of cars has increased by half; acid rain has fallen by 40 percent; airborne soot particles are down 69 percent, which is why big cities have blue skies again; carbon monoxide or "winter smog" is down 31 percent; airborne lead, a poison, is down 98 percent. Emissions of CFCs, which deplete stratospheric ozone, have all but ended.

Other environmental measures are almost uniformly positive. Toxic emissions by industry declined 46 percent from 1988 to 1996, even as petrochemical manufacturers enjoyed record U.S. production and copious profits. About one-third of Superfund toxic waste sites are now cleaned up, with the pace of cleanup accelerating. The forested acreage of the United States is expanding, with wildlife numbers up in most areas, led by the comeback of eastern deer, now thought to be at precolonial numbers. Since the Endangered Species Act was passed, only a few U.S. species have fallen extinct, not the thousands predicted, while species such as the bald eagle, gray whale, and peregrine falcon have recovered enough to no longer require full legal protection. Only two major U.S. environmental gauges are now negative: continuing inaction against greenhouse gases and continuing loss of wildlife habitats to urban expansion.

An important conceptual lesson is being learned: When pollution stops, natural recovery does not require ponderous geological time. Consider Boston Harbor, whose filth was an issue in George Bush's 1988 campaign against Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. Even as Bush filmed his memorable commercial standing on the sludge-caked Boston shore, a $4 billion water treatment plant was rising in the background. At the time, most experts predicted that it would take 50 years or more to rinse the harbor. Instead, cleanup has been so rapid that Boston Harbor is already safe again for swimming and fishing. Activists, who once had to rail against sludge by the ton, are down to complaining about detection in the harbor of trace parts-per-billion or even parts-per-trillion of compounds. As Paul Levy, who ran the first phase of the cleanup project, has said, the fact that activists now remonstrate about smaller and smaller issues shows that the big issues are under control.

The left side of the environmental debate can't seem to deal with the fact that technology has (for the moment, at least) entered a relatively benign phase in which products and industrial processes consume steadily fewer resources and produce steadily less waste. Says Jesse Ausubel, director of the environment program at Rockefeller University and a leading thinker in the new field of industrial ecology: "The larger lesson here is about the sparing of resources," driven by new technological ideas. The right can't seem to deal with the fact that, if it weren't for ecological regulations, most positive trends in the environment would not have happened. Tailpipe controls on automobiles, for example, not only cleared the air but also saved the car industry. If cars still spewed smog as they once did, Los Angeles's air would be poison gas; mandatory driving bans would be unavoidable.

Because the character of environmental progress is nonideological--reflecting well both on federal initiatives and on business--neither political camp knows how to extol what's happened. That no interest group sees itself as benefiting from public awareness of environmental success might be just a political foible, but it has the effect of preventing commentators and voters from focusing on the locus of the real environmental emergencies--the developing world.

Health. Both incidence and death rates for cancer began to ebb in the early '90s, reversing a 20-year trend of increase. Cancer incidence, or the occurrence of new cases, had risen about 1.2 percent per year from 1973 to 1990; since then, incidence has fallen by almost one percent per year, with the decline manifesting in the big-four cancer forms (lung, prostate, breast, and colon-rectum) for both genders and across all major age and ethnic groups other than black males. Mortality for most cancers is now either level (as it is for breast cancer) or in slight decline. Only melanoma and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma are now rising.

By nearly all other measures, U.S. public health is getting steadily better. Heart disease and stroke are both in decline relative to population growth, with heart disease deaths, the number-one medical killer, falling 3.4 percent from 1996 to 1997. Infant mortality is now down to 0.7 percent of live births, the lowest such figure ever for the United States. (Some European countries do slightly better.) Aids deaths are declining markedly in the United States. The rate of suicides is declining, falling 4.6 percent in 1997. There are a few worrisome public-health trends, such as the reappearance of TB and the emergence of microbes that resist currently available antibiotics. But, in the main, public health is getting better by leaps and bounds.

Most remarkable is the continued rise in life expectancy, now 76 years at birth for the typical American, up from 54 years when the World War II generation was being born. The rise in life expectancy is global, expressing itself in nearly every country in the world, outside Central Africa. Indeed, the reason there is global population growth is not that the world's women are having more babies--per capita they are having steadily fewer, even in developing nations--but that people the world over are living so much longer.

Most of what's going on in public health appears to be a mix of advancing medical knowledge and public awareness. The biggest factor in the cancer decline, for example, is the drop in smoking. Heart disease decline has been aided by better drugs, better therapy (the coronary-artery bypass operation, touch-and-go 20 years ago, has gotten so much more efficacious that it's now working even for the elderly), and advancing understanding of lifestyle issues such as fat intake. The improving sophistication of medical education and other factors are also at play.

Better public health hasn't come cheaply: medical spending was seven percent of GDP in 1970 and is almost 14 percent now. Yet, much as you may detest your HMO, keep in mind that most trends in health care costs are favorable, too. During the late '80s, costs were rising so rapidly that it was common to predict that 15 to 20 percent of GDP would be spent on health care by the end of the century. If that had happened, American prosperity would have been damaged. Instead, in the past five years, there has been little medical inflation. Managed care creates annoying preapproval hassles and longer waits for some appointments. But on the key points--protecting health at an affordable cost--the system is doing well.

Public debate. Despite so many auspicious indicators, the America depicted in political and intellectual debate is invariably a place we should be building starships to flee. To the left, the United States remains a land of racial and sexual repression, corporate oligarchy, and environmental decay; to the right, a country where all things pure are collapsing. Such views hold considerable sway. Whitman's The Optimism Gap reports that 1996 polls showed that only 15 percent of Americans believe the country is getting better. In similar polls, about half said the nation is worse off compared to how it was when their parents were growing up, and 60 percent believed the United States in which their children dwell will be worse still. Though most Americans are today healthier, better housed, better fed, better paid, better educated, better defended, more free, and diverted by a cornucopia of new entertainment products and services, somehow they've managed to convince themselves their parents had it better during the Dust Bowl.

As Robert J. Samuelson noted in his skillful The Good Life and Its Discontents, the revolution of rising expectations has taken on a life of its own: "[T]here can never be enough prosperity." (Polls now suggest that, regardless of how much money an American has, he or she believes that twice as much is required.) Samuelson further contends that one reason for all the unfocused anxiety is that the media have gotten so much better at emphasizing things to worry about. Tropical storms that might hit the United States get more network coverage than any favorable turn of events.

Television crime coverage, especially, now seems pitched to cause civic fright, while movies and network entertainment programming depict violence as far more pervasive than it actually is. As Christopher Jencks, a professor of government at Harvard University, notes: "When I was growing up there was violence on TV, but it was cowboys having shootouts. I never worried that rustlers would come over the hill into my neighborhood. Now the violence on television is presented as if it's about to get you personally. Every screen you look at, at home or in theaters, has something disastrous on it. No wonder people think the country is out of control."

Conservative thinkers and politicians seem distressed by the contemporary milieu in part because Americans are more or less willingly adopting gender equality and cultural openness, including a culture in which minority writing and art are being admitted to the canon. (Recent polls have found that three of the most admired people in the United States are Colin Powell, Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Jordan.) The political and academic left can't stand the contemporary milieu in part because class war, economic breakdown, and environmental calamity seem less and less likely. "The left elites talk with obsessive negativism about the religious right because it's one of the few things they can find to still get upset about," notes Orlando Patterson of Harvard. "The right elite is similarly obsessive about the supposed culture war, when all the evidence is that the United States is becoming ever more tolerant and ever more at peace with diversity."

Of course, generations at least as far back as Plato have felt that nations were sweetly ordered in their youths but now decline. "When we think about the past, we focus on our childhoods, to a time when our parents protected us from the world," Jencks notes. "Now as adults, even if society's gotten better, the sense of being sheltered is gone. Nobody's taking care of you anymore, so it feels like everything is getting more worrisome, even if objectively it's getting better." Mueller of the University of Rochester has memorably phrased it this way: "Golden ages do happen, but we are never actually in them."

Race. As William Julius Wilson has extensively documented, attention to the problems of inner-city dysfunction causes us to overlook what history will judge as the big racial story of late-twentieth-century America: the emergence of a black middle class.

Through the last generation, the portion of African Americans living in middle-class circumstances has more than doubled. Some kind of watershed was crossed in 1994, when the average income of black families in Queens, long a community treated as symbolic of working-class to middle-class transition, surpassed the average income of white families there. Georgia, Maryland, and other states now contain large, economically independent black middle-class areas where life is suburban, family structures conventional, and values entirely middle-American.

African American income still lags significantly behind that of whites, but, as Steven Holmes has written, in the past few years poverty rates "have dipped below 30 percent of black households for the first time in the country's history." Black male college graduates now make, on average, twelve percent less than their white counterparts, a much smaller gap than a generation ago, while black female college grads now earn slightly more than white female grads. Jencks's 1972 book, Inequality, argued that, even if minority education rose, minority income levels would not, owing to barriers of prejudice. Jencks now feels the situation has changed, with minority education "look[ing] far more important than it did in the 1960s," because African American accomplishment in school can now translate into economic success.

Minority educational accomplishment continues to improve. In 1996, black high school graduation rates became about the same as white rates--needless to say, a historical first. The black-white math SAT score gap, which was 140 points in 1976, is 110 points now, owing to black improvement, not white erosion. Bok and William Bowen write in The Shape of the River that, although African Americans entering most colleges have lower overall grades and SAT scores than white schoolmates, on the real-world test of what they do when they leave the university, top black students now have about the same career achievement as top whites.

At the turn of this century, many African Americans weren't even literate; today, the college-completion rates of black Americans exceed the comparable figures for much of Europe. If one views African Americans as an immigrant cohort that "arrived" in the United States with the passage of the civil rights laws, black rates of social progress are similar to those previously displayed by white ethnic immigrant groups, which typically required two to three generations to join the establishment.

Standards of living. Living standards are improving so fast and so consistently that to mention them today seems almost banal. Most fundamental is housing. The typical contemporary home is 40 percent larger than a 1970 house, while only three percent of Americans, the lowest percentage ever, live in overcrowded conditions, defined as more than one person per room. That every person should have at least one room to call his or her own is a social innovation of the American present. The majority of today's dwellings have air-conditioning and other improvements. More than half of Americans now live in suburbs, which may be superficial and intellectually insufferable but are physically pleasant: the reason they are popular.

The metric of living standards is rising so rapidly that merely how to track its ascent has become a controversy, centering on whether the Consumer Price Index adequately recognizes such once-rare, now-quotidian indicators as computer ownership or eating out. Another way to meter the evolution of living standards, championed by Richard Alm and W. Michael Cox in the forthcoming book Myths of Rich and Poor, is how long the typical person must work to acquire consumer items. Between rising wages and larger dwellings, for example, in 1956 the typical worker had to invest 16 weeks at labor to buy 100 square feet of home; now the figure has fallen to less than 14 weeks. The McDonald's brothers' first burgers cost half an hour of work at the time; now 180 seconds buys one. Only health care and university-level education are growing more expensive when measured by work hours required for purchase.

"A seven-day Caribbean cruise," Alm and Cox write, "slipped from 51 hours in 1972 to 45 hours in 1997." Not only are they getting cheaper, excursions on 42-deck luxury liners with names like Insatiable Princess are another indication of the rising standard of living: such experiences may be stupefying, but what matters is that they are becoming standard middle-class events. Leisure and tourism barely existed as economic sectors a generation ago; today they are a hefty slice of the GDP.

As Robert J. Samuelson has written, overall the U.S. standard of living has continued to rise in the '80s and '90s roughly as rapidly as it did in the '50s and '60s; it's just that we now take out a considerable share of national wealth in forms that don't show up well in price indexes, such as better health, cleaner air, and the ability to fly anywhere, anytime, at an affordable price.

Wedlock. The family-breakup wave may have crested. The divorce rate, which was 2.5 per 1,000 people in 1966, peaked at 5.3 per 1,000 in 1981. The rate leveled off in the early '90s at about 4.7 and now appears to be in a shallow decline. A few years ago, half of all new marriages were expected to fail; now only 40 percent are, with the average length of a marriage starting to creep back up again. And Census Bureau figures suggest that the reduction in conventional two-parent families--which dominated American demographics from 1970 to 1990--is "flattening" and might be about to end.

Whether the decline of divorce is just a blip or suggests some larger social trend can't be determined by only a few years of data. But it's worth noting that sociologists and writers have spent the past decade elaborately documenting the fact that, whatever it means in terms of adult personal freedom, family breakup harms children. That message may be sinking in.

At first glance, there seems no single thread that runs through the subjects where life is improving. Some seem a case for more Washington: environmental protection is arguably the most impressive achievement of progressive government since the establishment of the Social Security system. But "outside of pollution control, it's hard to see where federal regulations have been the driving factor in recent social improvements," says Gary Becker, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago. Economic vigor has been aided by deregulation. Crime reduction, welfare reform, and other positive trends have arisen mainly through state and local initiatives. Public health has certainly benefited from federal investments, but advancing knowledge is the primary factor. Betterment of personal behavior, such as the reduction in drunken driving, has been inspired mainly through private efforts.

It's possible that what the surge of national good news tells us is that, as pragmatism supplants ideology, society will get better at fixing things. "We're living in an age with very few romantics and revolutionaries," says Mueller of the University of Rochester. "People with vast, sweeping visions caused most of this century's problems. Most of the time you don't want leaders with visions, you want society run by cautious pragmatists. At the moment, the pragmatists are in control of most nations, and it's making things better."

It's possible that the upswing in good news tells us that reform initiatives of the '60s and '70s have finally begun to work. Pollution-control regulations, affirmative action programs, crime crackdowns--all started off clunky and problem-plagued, but, as the snafus were ironed out, results began to flow. And it's possible that what the late-century tidings convey is simply what the United States would have looked like all along if so much of its brainpower and resources had not been diverted to the cold war.

But what the good news unequivocally tells us is that it's never too late to change the world. In that sense, there is a bright thread running through all these examples: intractable or "impossible" dilemmas can be solved. Our efforts matter; when we attempt reform, we can be crowned with success. It is no coincidence that the aspects of life that have gotten better are those that people have dedicated themselves to improving. America can still become whatever it wants to be. We do not have to accept what we see out the window; rather, we can make the view the one of our choosing.

Knowing that reform still works should grant us courage to strive for change in areas where progress now seems "impossible." For instance, the greenhouse effect may seem unstoppable today, but that's only because we have not yet tried to stop it. There is no reason we need accept poverty: it can be bested. Polls show that, far from thinking society spends too much to lift up the poor, 60 percent of Americans think the country should take more action against poverty. So let's--because it will work!

Consider an astonishing figure: The United Nations estimates that it would cost $40 billion per year to provide the basics of life--adequate food, clean water, health care, shelter, and literacy--to every person on the planet. That works out to $151 per American. Every one of us would gladly write that check, if only there were a way to be sure the money were properly used. All that's stopping us from attempting reform of this noble magnitude is the false belief that life is rolling irrevocably downhill.

It's not, and the proof gets stronger each day.

(Copyright 1998, The New Republic)

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