Sunday, April 5, 2015

Are we getting Better?


MEXICO CITY 1980, 2011 - ©Corbis, Owen Franken, ©Corbis, Keith Dannemiller

How are we doing? As a populace on this planet, are we better off today than we were at other points? What about in our lifetime, have things improved? 

In many ways, we're living in the best times we've ever had. Food, and good food is very common. We can access information more efficiently than ever before. More importantly, we can look at global indicators like infant mortality rates, literacy, GDP, and a host of others that have been going in a positive direction all over the world. 

The Gates Foundation's 2014 Annual Report does a great job illuminating this point. The report works to disprove three myths:
  • (Myth 1) That poor countries stay poor.
  • (Myth 2) Foreign aid doesn't matter.
  • (Myth 3) Saving lives leads to overpopulation.
Comparing the 1960's to today, they note that really most countries are doing a lot better today than they were 50 years ago. Wealth used to be concentrated between the west and the Soviet Union, however, more and more countries and ultimately more of the worlds population is in a class  of middle income countries that barely existed 50 years ago. Due to globalization, foreign aid, advancements and health technology and the spread of modernity, here are some items that have been mentioned.
Per-person incomes in Turkey and Chile are where the United States level was in 1960. Malaysia is nearly there, as is Gabon. And that no-man’s-land between rich and poor countries has been filled in by China, India, Brazil, and others. Since 1960, China’s real income per person has gone up eightfold. India’s has quadrupled, Brazil’s has almost quintupled, and the small country of Botswana, with shrewd management of its mineral resources, has seen a thirty-fold increase. There is a class of nations in the middle that barely existed 50 years ago, and it includes more than half of the world’s population (Gates 2014). 
Another question is whether our country is doing better today than it was 50 years ago. This is where I think it's a bit hazier. The amount of technology and access to materials is probably drastically better. However, wages have stagnated for the majority of the U.S. population. The disparity in wealth is higher (in spite of higher rates of educational accomplishment). Fareed Zakaria in his book, The Post-American World discusses the rise of other global powers in light  of the U.S.'s relative stagnation. A synopsis from wikipedia can be found as follows:

[Zakaria] ..draws parallels between the British Empire in the 1890s and starting theBoer War, with the US in the 2000s and starting the Iraq War. The difference between them is that the British had unsurpassed political power but lost its economic dominance, whereas the US, in the 2000s, had huge economic power but faltering political influence. Zakaria defends the US from indicators that suggest American decline but warns that internal partisan politics, domestic ideological attack groups, special interest power, and a sensationalistic media are weakening the federal government's ability to adapt to new global realities.
The other argument I do still hold true to is that the social fabric of the U.S. is still falling apart. Robert Putnam, in his book Bowling Alone (which I rant and reference to like a lunatic) and his new book Our Kids points to this. In Our Kids which I am fervently excited  to read, Putnam makes the argument that the growing inequality in wealth coupled with other social trends in our connectedness, is having a devastating impact on the well being of our young people who don't come from families of means. They have less access to services, enrichment, quality time with parents and other caring adults and a host of other stabilizing factors that would contribute to upward social mobility. The ultimate point Putnam is making is that it has gotten a hell of a lot harder for a growing number of young people in our country to have the chance to thrive  and those with means don't see all these kids in their community as all of our kids. The policy choices we have made as a country has put us on a track for worsening outcomes comparative to the prosperity that has occurred for many other countries around the globe. If we continue on this track, the growing economic divide will only get worse and majority of the U.S. population will continue to see their wages and economic mobility decline. We're disconnected, our political system is hijacked by vested political interests and we're not set up right now to be able to as much about this unfortunately. 

So I believe there is a good argument to be made that globally things are  better than at most points in our history. Our country is more nuanced however, and I think there are serious questions about our prosperity as a result of our loss of social mobility. The last question would be whether this global  prosperity is sustainable? This is a huge question obviously but ultimately, much of the economic growth that leads to improvements in quality of life, happens on the back of fossil fuel use. 

For prosperity to occur, it requires electricity, heat, manufacturing and transportation. Much of this still comes from the use of coal fired power plants. With all of this contributing to climate change that is clearly happening, we have a limiting force put on our growth. With most of our major cities on coasts, we're very vulnerable. With the loss of potable drinking water rising temperatures, decreasing snow melt, our planets capacity to have access to drinking water is highly vulnerable. These two factors alone raise big questions as to what our planet might look like in the next fifty years. We need to act on the question of climate change, however, at this point, ice caps will still melt, temperatures will still rise and we're  going to probably have some massive amount of global instability. 

Ultimately, I believe we're in the best place we've been in by most indicators of global prosperity. I have question as to whether this will continue. We need to change our fuel sources that have helped us get to this place  and modify our practices to ensure that we are feeding, heating, transporting, and hydrating our societies in a fashion that is ultimately sustainable. With heightened efficiency in alternative energies, the use of nuclear power, the ability to make our machinery require less carbon , and other innovations, we could stem some of the effects of climate change, but we're not currently on the best track to do this. 

Our ability as a population to respond proactively to problems is the other factor in question. I worry about our ability to connect and organize. I worry when we rarely see our neighbors and spend less time socializing. I worry about the ability for crowds to come together, to protest what is happening and put pressure on the current power structure. The inability for a longer and louder response to these massive problems by today's world is what causes me the most consternation. Can we come together today like our predecessors did to address many of societies major problems? That ultimately will inform this question about our future prosperity more than anything.