It’s Better Than It Looks

This was a very good book, written in mid-2017, that helps combat the perception that our country / the world is on fire and going to hell. The author Easterbrook brings dozens of statistics about global improvements to the discussion, showing how the whole of humanity is significantly better off in almost every conceivable way.

Today, as compared to 1970, only 10% of the world’s population is very impoverished, whereas 50 years ago that number was like 75%. We have more material comforts, less disease and early death, fewer wars, and longer lives than ever before. So, he asks — why did so many people buy Trump’s argument that America and the world are going to hell, and that they needed him as savior? One of the explanations offered is that while global living conditions have improved, developed world populations have seen the world improving much faster than they have. In addition, global trade has produced both significant living improvements for all (jobs for those in poorer nations, cheaper products for those in developed nations) as well as lost jobs for many. This is how technological and economic improvements have always happened, and this time is the same, although there are two interesting aspects to consider: first, poorer people used to move to where the jobs are; today, however, those impoverished are unable or unwilling to move to the coastal cities where jobs are booming. Second, some modern economies focus governmental spending on retraining programs, to assist those who recently lost jobs to gain skills for their next career. This isn’t happening as much in America, leaving folks to pine for the old days. Easterbrook also brings an interesting perspective that, over decades, democracy has tended to win out and centralized governance has tended to fold. Recent years appear to have some blips (Turkey, Venezuela, Hungary, America), however those are more likely than not to be simply blips, rather than movements and trends.

During the last third or so of the book, Easterbrook unleashes his progressive self to diminish and insult the 45th President of the USA. It was surprising, and frankly a bit disappointing, to hear. While his perspective roughly aligns with mine, the first half of the book came across as relatively non-political, and honestly that’s how I was hoping it would continue. Another book I’ve read along these lines, The Rational Optimist, had an extremely conservative/libertarian bent at the end, and so perhaps that is an inevitable way for these scholarly folks to get their politics into the open as well. Another upcoming book of parallel theme, Enlightenment Now, is a contender in this space as well; we’ll see if Pinker also allows his personal views into the book, or if he keeps it focused on the data.

My overall take was that it was a very good book, and worthwhile to read/listen to. It could be significantly shorter, as he seemed to drone on for a while in the middle. Similarly, his eagerness to paint a positive picture both flew in the face of and rebutted concerns of reporting that, say, the Fourth Amendment has been watered down continuously for about 40 years. Which is okay, and helps keep me level-headed when reading flaming articles about today’s world, but perhaps seems a bit rosy in some areas.