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Crises give politicians more power, but actually Americans are doing pretty well.
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Politicians and journalists have a common interest in crises. When there’s a crisis, people buy newspapers and turn on the news to learn how our political leaders will fix the problem. Indeed, crises give politicians more power, which is why so many politicians are fond of the phrase “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”
President Obama has been particularly fond of fomenting a sense of crisis — environmental, economic and social — because he thinks doing so will advance his agenda. But every now and then, the truth comes out.
This spring, President Obama visited Malaysia. While talking to a group of young people, he repeated to them what he also tells the White House interns.
“I always tell them that despite how hard sometimes the world seems to be — and all you see on television is war and conflict and poverty and violence — the truth is that if you had to choose when to be born … now would be the time.” Optimism is warranted he continued, “because the world is less violent, it is healthier, it is wealthier, it is more tolerant and it offers more opportunity than any time in human history for more people than any time in human history.”
Reason for optimism
Obama was right. Just look at the numbers. Since 1990, child mortality globally has fallen nearly in half (48%). Maternal deaths have dropped almost a quarter, and the pace of improvement is accelerating.
“In the early 1980s, more than half of all people in developing countries lived in extreme poverty,” according to a Brookings Institution study. “By 2005, this was down to a quarter. According to our estimates, as of 2010 less than 16% remained in poverty, and fewer than 10% will likely be poor by 2015.”
Violence in the Middle East, Nigeria and Ukraine may dominate the evening news — and rightly so — but that shouldn’t give the impression that this is a particularly violent time in human history. Taking the broad view, as Steven Pinker does in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, we are currently living in the most non-violent period in human history.
Things haven’t just gotten better globally. The U.S. is doing much better than many seem to think. The only reason poverty never seems to go away in the U.S. is that we keep moving the goalposts on how poverty is defined.
The “actual living conditions of people counted as living ‘in poverty’ in America today,” Nicholas Eberstadt recently explained in TheWeekly Standard, “bear very little resemblance to those of Americans enumerated as poor in the first official government count attempted in 1965.” He reports that by 2011 the “average per capita housing space for people in poverty was higher than the U.S. average for 1980.” More than 75% of the 2011 poor “had access to one or more motor vehicles, whereas nearly three-fifths were without an auto in 1972–73.”
Healthier, better educated
“Refrigerators, dishwashers, washers and dryers, and many other appliances were more common in officially impoverished homes in 2011 than in the typical American home of 1980 or earlier.” And “Americans counted as poor today are manifestly healthier, better nourished (or overnourished), and more schooled than their predecessors half a century ago.”
Indeed, at times it seems as if there’s an inverse relationship between the scope of a problem and the hysteria around it. For instance, today, college campuses are in a panic about a “rape epidemic.” Meanwhile, forcible rapes are down 80% in the U.S. since 1973.
Another source of anxiety these days is “white supremacy.” No doubt there is still racism in America — both structural and intentional — but can anyone outside the hothouse of racial paranoia at MSNBC really dispute that there is less today than there was at any other period in American history? And let’s not even dwell on a “war on women” that is largely defined as opposition to unnecessarily subsidized birth control.
America and the world certainly aren’t problem-free. As always, there are challenges that pretty much everyone can agree on, and even more that we can’t all agree on. But one problem that isn’t getting the attention it deserves is our addiction to crises.
Jonah Goldberg, fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and National Review contributing editor, is also a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.
The Tyranny of Clichés
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