Woe amid material progress: the great paradox of modernity

On Books

December 07, 2003|By Michael Pakenham

If most things are getting better for most people," Gregg Easterbrook writes, "why don't Americans behave as though they believe this? Why do so many walk around scowling, rather than smiling at their good fortune in being born into the present generation?"

Good questions. Very good -- reinforced by a 1997 study, cited by Easterbrook, in which almost two-thirds of Americans said they believe that things were "getting worse" for the average person.

That pervasive malaise, here and abroad, fascinates Easterbrook and perplexes him. That's the core of his The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (Random House, 384 pages, $23.95).

Easterbrook has written five previous books. He serves as a senior editor at The New Republic, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, and is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is about as deeply in the middle of the American ideological mainstream as you can get without disappearing. There's nothing radical about his values -- but there's shock value, and important substance, here.

Are things really better?

Easterbrook's offerings of data are far-flung and immense. He draws on academic studies and government statistics -- on the irrefutable far, far more often than the judgmental. It is impossible to fetch out the most convincing. But here are a few that particularly stopped my eye:

"In 1900, life expectancy in the United States was forty-one years, while today it is sixty-six years for the entire world." The U.S. figure today is 77; 100 years ago, most of the earth's societies simply had no statistical records or discipline.

"Most studies by the National Cancer Institute show cancer mortality declining at about 1 percent per year since 1993 ... despite overall aging."

In the United States and most other developed nations, death by fire, traffic accidents, gunfire are declining regularly even in gross terms, and much more rapidly as proportions of the population. In this country, use of narcotics, tobacco and alcohol continues to decline -- as do divorce rates, single-mother births and teen-age pregnancies.

Though there is still much inequality in the U.S. economy, the average women's wage, compared with men's, is improving -- from 62.5 percent in 1982 to 77.5 percent in 2002. Poverty among African Americans, as reported by the National Urban League, by 2002 had dropped to "the lowest rate ever recorded."

In the U.S., toxic emissions by industry declined by 51 percent between 1988 and 2002 and almost every other environmental blight except greenhouse gas has improved and continues to. Twenty-five years ago, only a third of U.S. rivers and lakes were clean enough to swim or fish in; today two-thirds are.

At the end of the Cold War at the beginning of the 1990s, the U.S. and U.S.S.R. each had approximately 25,000 nuclear weapons capable of delivery -- and of obliterating all life. Today, the U.S. and the Russian Federation have reduced that number to 6,000 each, with a commitment to a target of 2,200.

Easterbrook has woven all these data into a story of modern society in the context of its histories. I found that fabric utterly engaging, and mystifying. There are surprises all through it, and some startling refutations of conventional wisdoms: "In 1924, only 60 percent of fathers spent at least one hour per day with their children, whereas today 83 percent do."

Americans and citizens of all developed countries today work far few hours than in the past, and spend proportionally even less of their time at domestic chores -- such is the nature of labor-saving technology. Yet reliable studies indicate Americans sleep two to three hours a night less than a century ago, and one less than a generation ago. Easterbrook cites widespread clinical depression, polling data that often seem to record a public perception of misery and decline that is almost diametrically opposite to fact.

Is there some sort of social pathology at work here? Easterbrook earnestly seeks the answer. He cites a widespread tendency toward material envy, and wonders whether prosperity and leisure ultimately give many people the freedom simply to focus too much attention on yearning -- the Mercedes or the condominium in Hilton Head -- instead of what they have, say a Volvo in the garage and four weeks vacation at Rehoboth Beach or Lake Winnipesaukee.

He finds manifestations of discontent: the unsettled or ambiguous character of progress: the tendency for the solution of a problem to bring on another problem. Magnificent medical accomplishments have vastly increased the proportion of fragile, vulnerable and treatment-needful elders. He cites "aversion to believing that most things are getting better" and "a preference for bad news on the part of elites" as well as the news media's preference for agony over ecstasy. "Complaint yearning," he argues, is the direct product of feeling sorry for yourself.

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