It's Better than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear, with Gregg Easterbrook

Feb 26, 2018

Today, many feel paralyzed by the constant stream of bad news. Yet as Gregg Easterbrook shows, statistics on crime, poverty, and longevity prove that things are actually getting better, both in the United States and most of the world. So why do we see the world in such a negative light? Is it a coincidence that this trend started in 2004, the same year that Facebook was created?

JOANNE MYERS: Good evening, everyone. I am Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to thank our subscribers, guests, and C-SPAN Book TV for joining us today.

It is my pleasure to welcome Gregg Easterbrook to this podium. Mr. Easterbrook will be discussing his most recent book entitled It's Better than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear. Since all of you here have received his bio, for those not in our live audience let me briefly highlight a few things about our guest which you may find interesting.

To begin with, Mr. Easterbrook is the author of many wonderful books, including The New York Times best-seller The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. In addition to his books, his writings have appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Science, Wired, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. For the football fans among us, you may be familiar with his celebrated weekly NFL column, Tuesday Morning Quarterback, now appearing in The Weekly Standard. In it he provides detailed analysis of America's most popular sport and its professional league.

If you spend a lot of time reading or listening to the news, you are bound to find yourself believing that the world is falling apart. And it is not just in America where we have fallen prey to this false narrative, it is happening around the globe. Yet this account misses something very important, because if you could step back from the headlines and follow the data, you would be surprised to learn that the world today is not all doom and gloom.

While no one would deny that we are facing a series of deeply troubling and even existential problems, it is just that we may sometimes forget and romanticize the world of times past instead of focusing on the positive developments in time present. Still, you may argue, it is a matter of perspective. But whether you are a pessimist or a skeptic, whether you agree or disagree about the reasons for optimism in an age of fear, "It's better than it looks" is an argument worth considering.

Please join me in giving a warm welcome to a person who is eternally optimistic about the present and hopeful about the future, our guest this evening, Gregg Easterbrook. Thank you for joining us.

GREGG EASTERBROOK: Thanks, Joanne. You always start with a joke, so let me start with a joke. I live in Washington, DC, and this is a joke that is making the rounds.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton die on the same day. Because they die on the same day, they both go before their Maker to be judged on the same day. So God is sitting resplendent on a throne of shimmering gold.

This joke requires me to do a God voice. I will not make any judgments about the gender of God, but the Maker is sitting resplendent on a throne of shimmering gold, and he turns first to the former senator from New York and says: "Hillary Clinton, what do you believe?"

And Hillary launches into this really long spiel about infrastructure banks and positive engagement and campaign finance reform, and she is going on and on, and it is hard to tell what her subject is, and she starts denying all these things about emails and land deals and Monica Lewinsky, and she is going on and on. In the life to come, time does not have the same meaning that it has among us mortals here on earth, so it is hard to really say how long Hillary talks, but let's just say the cherubim, those little baby angels, they all fall asleep on their floating clouds.

At one point, she finally says, "And in conclusion," and everybody snaps back to attention. Hillary finishes, and then she checks her Blackberry and then sits down.

So God says: "Well, Hillary, that was inspirational. You've lived a good life. I offer you admission to paradise." And Hillary Clinton is surrounded by a shaft of ethereal light, and she vanishes into heaven.

God then turns to the 45th president of the United States, and says, "Donald Trump, what do you believe?"

And Trump gives him that beady-eyed sneer and says, "I believe you're sitting in my chair."

That is an actual Washington joke that cuts a little too close to home.

This is the book I want to talk about. The headline makes the main point of the book pretty obvious. Sometimes when you are doing an intellectual argument it is easiest to start by saying what it isn't, so let me start by saying what this isn't. To say "It's better than it looks" and to make a case for optimism is not the same as saying that everything is fine.

Everything is not fine. The world is full of problems. There are a lot of things you should be worried about, there are a lot of things you should be upset or cynical about, there are a lot of things going on in the world that you should be angry about. I do not say that you shouldn't be angry or that you shouldn't be cynical. I expect you to be.

To jump ahead a bit, the difference between optimism and pessimism is that pessimists think that the things that you should be angry and cynical about are going to overwhelm us, and optimists think that they can be fixed. That is the main argument of this book, that first you have to see how much the world has improved to the present day, and then you have to use the lessons that you can draw from that to see how we can fix the problems that face us today.

This book is also not a claim that we should be cheerful. Although if you want to be cheerful, that is great, I hope you are, and go around the world with a smile on your face. An optimist can be a cynical person. An optimist can be very upset reading the newspaper in the morning. You don't have to be cheerful. You don't have to—it's nice if you smile, but you don't have to.

I guess a better way to say it is whether you feel pessimistic or optimistic about the world has two levels: one is just a choice that you make. You read the news, you hear what is going on. You decide am I going to be optimistic, am I going to be angry and depressed? That is a choice that you make. The news does not dictate those things to you.

But whatever choice you make ought to be based on a full factual appreciation of what is going on in life, and a full factual appreciation is pretty encouraging. As I hope I can be able to show you in a few minutes, practically everything that we can measure about the United States is positive and has been positive for years, if not decades. Not the entire world, but most of the larger world, most of what we can measure about the larger world is positive and in many cases has been positive for decades.

If you acknowledge those things, there is still a lot to worry about, there is still a lot to be angry about, and there are always going to be people who have terrible circumstances, either individuals or—depending on where you go in the world—entire groups. There is never going to be a time when there is not someone who is lonely or stressed for money or sick or unhappy unless there is a second Garden of Eden. There will never be a time without that. But there can be a time when the material problems of life are solved, and I think we have gone a lot closer to that than people realize.

In order to present the thesis of this book to you in a timely manner, let me do a couple of things. First, make a political point; this book is not mainly about politics, it is mainly about other things. And then hit you with a lot of statistics, and then ask why so many of us are so negative about life, and then because this is the Carnegie Council we will always, of course, conclude by asking, "But what does it all mean?"

The first point that I will make is the political one: On the day that the United States elected Donald Trump president, 63 million people voted for a guy who told you that the world was falling apart. Just to quote a few things that he said in the week before the election: "Everything in America is always bad. It's always down, down, down." He told an audience in Colorado two days before the election that the country "is in the worst shape that it has ever been in its entire history."

On the day that 63 million people believed that, the country was actually in the best shape that it has ever been in in its history by a pretty significant margin. I think now it is in a better shape than it was on the day of election. Trump aside, everything else has gone pretty well. Yet he was able to convince 63 million people that the country was falling apart.

You can say: "Well, we make this choice, you want to be optimistic, you want to be pessimistic. That is just a personal choice." On some level it is. But in November of 2016 it backfired on the country. People's willingness to believe everything was terrible as a factual truth caused us to get Donald Trump as president.

It was not just here. The same sequence of events happened in the United Kingdom, which voted for Brexit. In the years since the founding of the European Union, there has been no Europe-on-Europe war—after how many centuries of constant war? There has been prosperity in almost all European Union Members, and yet people were convinced that the European Union is a horrible thing that we have to get rid of.

I will argue that the belief that the world is worse than it is and almost a desire to believe that the world is worse than it is definitely predates Donald Trump. But in 2016 it backfired on us by giving us Trump and to a lesser extent also giving us Brexit. Maybe Brexit can be reversed, Trump is another matter.

Here is the lots-of-statistics moment of this talk, and I will go through them as quickly as I can. I assure you that, of course, as you have already guessed, there is incredible detail in the book plus source citations for everything.

Okay. So the things that we can measure—I will talk mainly about the United States and Western Europe, but most of these trends apply to most, although of course not all, of the world. All forms of disease, including cancer and heart disease, are in long-term decline. Compared to population size, last year the United States had 75 percent fewer heart attack fatalities than it had just two generations ago.

Longevity has been steadily rising for more than a century everywhere in the world—everywhere in the world. Not only is our longevity at record levels, China's longevity is at record levels, Afghanistan's longevity is at record levels. Everybody is living longer with less disease. The graph of rising longevity looks like an escalator, just endlessly going up, and there is no reason to think that is going to stop even when terrible things happen, and lots of terrible things happen in the United States. You have read about opioid overdose deaths. This is a terrible trend in public health, but even when you take that into account longevity continues to increase. The whole world is riding this longevity increase escalator.

All forms of pollution other than greenhouse gases are in long-term decline for years and in some cases for decades. Now greenhouse gases are a very important asterisk that we are going to spend a little time on later. But to quickly summarize, in the United States in the last 25 years, acid rain is down 21 percent, winter smog is down 77 percent, summer smog is down 22 percent. This is happening during a period when the United States population rose by 28 percent, so we would expect pollution to increase, instead, pollution declined. Water pollution figures are roughly the same.

Violent crime is in a generation-long cycle of decline. Donald Trump, when he was campaigning for office, constantly said there is a crime wave, our cities are a living hell. For some reason, that is what voters wanted to believe. Polls showed that for the last 20 years Americans have consistently said crime is worse than the previous year. Actually, it has gone down compared to the previous year. Even if you take into account just horrifying events like the one last week in Parkland, Florida, gun homicides are in a generation-long cycle of decline.

Here in New York City, 1993 was the peak year for gun homicides; there were 3,528 gun homicides that year. [Editor's note: According to The New York Times, there were 1,960 total reported homicides in New York City in 1993, down from a high of 2,245 in 1990. The number of homicides due to gun violence is not immediately available.] Last year in New York City there were 286 gun homicides, less than 10 percent of the number of just 25 years ago. [Editor's note: According to the New York Daily News, there were 290 reported total homicides in New York City in 2017, the lowest number in 70 years. Again, the number of homicides due to gun violence is not immediately available.] The only number you can tolerate is zero, and we are not there yet, but in the United States and in most, but not all, of the countries of the world violence is declining. Criminal violence is declining.

So is military violence. War is in a generation-long cycle of decline. This may seem hard to believe based on the tenor of cable news, but the frequency and intensity of combat have both declined almost on a linear basis for 25 years, and that is even if you take into account civilian deaths caused directly by combat or indirectly by blockades and similar effects of combat.

In the last 25 years, deaths from war have declined to about 5 percent of the rate of deaths from war per year of the rate that prevailed for the previous century. In each one of the last 25 years, any person's chance—not my chance and your chance, but anybody anywhere in the world—of dying has been at the lowest level in human history, and this is even though the population keeps rising. We normally think of population stresses causing combat. It is not causing combat right now. And even though the world is full of guns, the chances that someone will shoot one of them at you goes steadily down.

I am only talking about a period of 25 years. Maybe this is too little time to be sure, —it is a little more than 25 years, it is 30 years—today there are 86 percent fewer nuclear weapons in the world than there were 30 years ago.

The 4,000 nuclear weapons that still exist are still plenty to cause the greatest tragedy of all history, but 30 years ago it would have caused the end of life, and that is not probably physically possible now. [Editor's note: According to The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, there are, in total, 9,220 nuclear warheads in the world as of 2017, 4,000 in the United States. This is down from a high of 64,099 warheads in 1986, roughly an 86 percent drop.] The doomsday threat has declined by 86 percent in just 30 years. We hope it will decline more, but if you think about U.S.-Russia relations now, they are so zany I don't even know what the proper adjective is to describe them, but whatever the Kremlin and the White House are saying to each other today, [they are] communicating by smartphone instead of by red phone.

Meanwhile, the two Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START) that require the disassembly and melting of nuclear weapons parts are still being scrupulously observed by both sides. Both sides are abiding by the terms of the biggest arms control treaty in the history of the world.

Day-to-day life goes on anyway. There is no reason anybody should consider, well, I still have to go to work in the morning, I still have to make lunch, etc. This to me is a wonderful trend. The doomsday threat declines every day instead of rising every day.

The other military statistic that I think is a great statistic is that for all but two of the last 30 years, global per capita military spending has declined. [Editor's note: According to the World Bank, military expenditure as percent of GDP has declined for all but six of the last 30 years.] As the world gets more crowded, we spend steadily less on bombs and warplanes and warships than we spent in the past.

Again, there is no guarantee. It is only a 25-30 year trend. But traditionally military buildups and arms races have led to war. Now we are in an unprecedented period in the Industrial Era where there are not any arms races. Arms spending is declining in almost every nation. Hopefully the result will be no war.

A couple more big statistics: Food supply has not become a crisis as everyone thought it would 25-30 years ago. Instead, as of last year, the United Nations said that malnutrition was at the lowest level in all of human history. Malnutrition last year was 15-to-20 percent of the planet. That is still a huge number of people, considering how large the human family is. But just a generation ago malnutrition was 50 percent of a much smaller human family. Now it is down to a smaller number. It is expected to decline again this year. There is no reason to believe that we are going to run out of food in any conceivable scenario generations to come in the future.

The same for primary resources. You all know that in the 1970s it was widely believed that petroleum and natural gas would be literally exhausted by now. There is so much petroleum that the oversupply of petroleum is a problem for financial markets. Same thing with natural gas, same thing with coal. It is almost like god's joke on the world because there is so much fossil fuel that we are using it to create to global warming with. But we are definitely not running out of it.

The economy drives everybody crazy, but it continues to grow almost everywhere in the world. An important point to remember about income and wages, they were so contentious in the 2016 campaign. Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders constantly said that the middle class is being pummeled, wages are falling, there are no jobs. On the day that Trump was elected, unemployment was 4.6 percent, a number that would have caused policymakers of the 1970s to fall to their knees and kiss the ground. The unemployment picture is really good and has been for a number of years.

But so is the middle class buying power picture if you figure it this way: If you only look at pre-tax income, that has been a tough number for the middle class now for about 30 years. If that is the only number you look at—and that is the only number that Bernie Sanders ever talked about—then it looks pretty bleak.

But you do not run your household based on only income. Your buying power is based on income minus taxes plus benefits multiplied by consumer prices divided by household size. If you do that equation, what you find is that ever since the end of World War II the middle class's buying power has risen by just about exactly 3 percent per year, again almost like an escalator basis, same amount every year, straight line. If times are good, if times are bad, middle class buying power goes up 3 percent per year, and of course, you know from mathematics that if something goes up 3 percent year it takes you 26 years to double. That is still ongoing.

Pundits and politicians talk only about income. Income is the negative number when you look at wages. All the other numbers are positive.

Of course there is no guarantee that they will stay that way. The economy is so turbulent and so unpredictable. Even if you have a good year, it drives you crazy.

I think one reason people feel so worried about the economy is that things change so fast now. They have changed fast in the past. You can look at the 19th century, and I give some examples here from the 19th century where people and organizations, industries, areas of the country were worried that change was coming too quickly. Change comes even faster now, and that makes you feel uncertain and anxious about the future. But so far the economy is still grinding out higher living standards for almost everyone. Generations alive today in almost any nation of the world are better off in material terms than any generation in the past and are likely, although of course not certain, but they are likely to be better off in the future as well.

The most important fact that we are not sufficiently aware of is that global poverty is declining really fast. If you look at global poverty numbers, here are a few quick ones: 150 years ago, 90 percent of the world lived in extreme poverty by the World Bank definition of an income of $1.90 per day—and of course the statistics I will give you are all converted to current dollars to make the comparisons meaningful.

Sometime in the 1970s the world got to only half the human population living in extreme poverty, and that was considered an incredible achievement. Last year it was 9 percent. We are down to 9 percent of the human population living in extreme poverty. This incredible reduction of extreme poverty has occurred as the human family has gotten larger and larger when you would have expected extreme poverty to get worse. Instead, it has lessened.

We cannot see that from the United States. When you are voting on Brexit, you cannot see it from the United Kingdom, although the line I used about this is that "Great things are happening in the world, just not here." We are aware of the conditions in our country, progress does not seem to be accelerating to us. Go to China, you go to India, progress is accelerating all around you. And because the human family has become so large, more members of the human family live in those places than live here and in Western Europe combined.

Polls show, by the way, that when you ask Americans and Western Europeans "Is developing-world poverty getting better or worse?" they say by an overwhelming margin that the developing world poverty is getting worse, which is the reverse of what is going on. We seem to think the reverse of what is going on on a number of topics. Americans think crime is getting worse, they think the economy is falling apart, etc. Why do people believe the reverse of what is happening?

One reason is just the relentlessly negative impression given by cable news and social channels, which exist to overstate anger and discord and negative news. That is how they call attention to themselves. It is certainly true that the press has always called attention to itself by emphasizing the negative. You look at newspapers from the 1880s, and you will see the front page of the paper is all fires and crimes, and if you want to flip through and find out what is going on in other nations or other states, you have to go to the middle of the paper. It is not new that the media emphasizes the negative, but now we have these new forms of media all around us that are very felicitous in terms of quickly getting messages to large numbers of people, and they are also emphasizing the negative.

I think people want to believe the worst because they think that optimism means complacency. One of the big messages that I try to get across in this book is that optimism is not complacency. Optimists do not think, La-di-da, everything is going to be fine. Optimism is the belief that problems can be solved. That is the fundamental difference between optimism and pessimism.

But people think if you say, "Oh, I'm an optimist," that means you have this sunny disposition and you think everything is okay. You think it is okay that Trump is president, you think it is okay that there are school shootings. No. Optimists do not think that is okay. They just think that there are possible reforms that can do something about this.

I will quickly go through this because you have probably heard some of this material from other commentators in recent months. If you look at polling data, Pew and Gallup both poll on the questions of: "Do you think the country is headed in the right direction or the wrong direction? Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with how things are changing in the United States?"

From the end of World War II to the year 2004, Americans were always positive on that poll. "I like the direction of the country. I think things are getting better." People said this even in the aftermath of 9/11.

Since 2004, the majority has been consistently negative. This is the 168th consecutive month where Americans have told both Pew and Gallup that they are unhappy and dissatisfied with the condition of the country despite all those wonderful facts that I just threw at you. Well, what else happened in 2004? That is the year that Facebook went into business.

Of course you know that the fact that two events happen at the same time does not establish that one caused the other. But I think in this case there is a lot of relationship. Lately it has been trendy to pile on Facebook. I would like to pile on Facebook, but also onto all other similar social media platforms. They all came into existence in that period.

The iPhone came into existence in 2007. Not only did it enable millions of people to express their opinions very quickly—which is wonderful, you have to respect the democratization of opinion—but it also enabled millions of people to say things that were not in any way fact-checked or that were not in any way true, making no distinction whatsoever between things that are true, things that might be true, things that contain a grain of truth, and things that are totally made up. Most of you probably read The New York Times. There are mornings when I want to throw The New York Times against the wall, and yet I am always confident that there has been an internal argument at the Times about whether this is story is fair and reflects the truth.

The stuff you see on your phone, there is never any internal discussion about whether it is fair or reflects the truth. In fact, it is more likely to draw clicks if it is made up and completely phony. So we have this new media environment just since 2004 with the arrival of Facebook that not only emphasizes reasons to feel bad about your life and yourself and your society, but that is not fact-checked in any way whatsoever.

Where do we perceive this? This close to our faces. Facebook was originally something for your desk, those old cathode ray tube computers that sat on your desk. Even the guys who designed Facebook did not realize it was going to go like this, literally right next to their face. That was not what they meant with the name, but that is what has happened since.

So we are not only getting a constant stream of bad news that is completely unedited, we are physically holding it close to our faces. And your New York Times, like it or hate it, sits on the table. If you get up and go somewhere else, The New York Times does not follow you through the house.

If you have the news on on your television set, the television set sits on a counter or on the wall, the television set does not walk behind you as you go through your house. Your phone follows you through the house. The bad news purveyor is physically on your person constantly.

So from the same moment that social media came on the scene we started feeling bad about ourselves, and whatever else Donald Trump is, he is the greatest self-promoter in world history. He realized that he could use that dynamic to go all the way to the White House, and he was successful.

Now let me skip ahead in the interests of time, and let's turn to the implications of my argument, because of course we want to do Q&A too.

Suppose I am right, that most objective trends are positive for most people and that today's generation lives better than any previous generation of the past, and tomorrow's generation is likely to live better than today's generation does. What are the implications of that, supposing I am right? The fact that things are improving certainly is not just good luck. Positive trends do not come down from out of the sky. There are tangible reasons that things are improving.

The most primary one—I go through a lot in this book—is that reform is much more effective than generally understood: political reforms, social reforms that have to do with how we treat each other at home, social settings, in the workplace, technological reforms that have to do with how we build things. Reforms are much more effective than we think. Reforms in the past have almost always led to improved outcomes, so I spend some time both trying to derive what the lessons learned would be from the reforms that have been successful—air pollution, health, discrimination, etc.—and then say how do you apply those to the problems of today?

I have a chapter on climate change, totally real, scientifically confirmed. The question of whether it is happening is now a dead issue, the question is what do we do about it. I have a chapter showing how you could take the lessons of air pollution control from the past and apply them to greenhouse gases, fundamentally an air pollution problem. How would you use the successful lessons from acid rain and smog applied to global warming?

I have a chapter on inequality. I think inequality is going to turn out to be the Super Bowl of sociological issues, and I think—I am sorry to mix metaphors—I think all roads lead to some version of universal basic income. Exactly what it will be I do not know. It is going to be very expensive, very complicated. It is going to change society in a lot of ways.

I think at least all the roads that you want to go down lead to some version of that concept, and I spend a chapter looking at other types of sociological reforms having to do both with money and the way that we treat each other, ones that have been successful, ones that have failed, taking the lessons from the ones that succeeded, finding the red flags of the ones that have failed, and thinking about how we would apply them to inequality.

My core finding is that optimism is the best argument for reform because if you are an optimist and you look at the past and say, "Jeez, things were a lot worse and then they got better." So let's reform things again because there is reasonable reason to believe that reforms will be successful. That is the optimistic lesson that you draw especially from the postwar era in the Western world, but really from the postwar era almost everywhere in the world.

I think once we address climate change and inequality—I think we can actually fix those things and wonder why we did not do it sooner—now some other problem will come along that will seem daunting, and we will figure out a way to fix that, too.

I will tell you one last thing, and then I will take questions. Originally the title of this book was The Arrow of History. This morning The Boston Globe referred to this book as The Arrow of History, so they are using the original title, not the as-published title. PublicAffairs books thought—this is Jaime Leifer of PublicAffairs sitting right here—thought the original title sounded too much like an academic tome.

You know what? They were right about that. I think they came up with a better title than that. But why did I call it The Arrow of History? The original title was a play on something said by Franklin Roosevelt shortly before he died. This is a 1945 FDR quote. FDR was the most accomplished reformer of the last century, and he said—and just in the original title I changed the word "trend" to "arrow" because I thought it sounded classier—"The great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization is forever upward."

Well, FDR was right then, and he is right today. We have forgotten this great fact. We need to remember it, both to have a fuller appreciation of our own lives and to argue for the next round of reforms to come. Thanks.

Question & Answer

QUESTION: I'm Don Simmons.

Inequality is an issue on everybody's mind, I think. Much of it seems to be driven by the onrush of artificial intelligence (AI), not only from the viewpoint of eliminating driving jobs in our country and so on.

You might have read an article recently where Indian economists are very concerned that those call center jobs that have been so important in their country will begin disappearing with artificial intelligence. Can you say some comforting words about why artificial intelligence is not going to master us?

GREGG EASTERBROOK: I can be indirectly comforting on that subject. The Indian call center question is a great one. I have a lifelong association with The Atlantic Monthly, which is a wonderful publication, my favorite publication in the whole world. I wish The Atlantic Monthly could follow you from room to room because it is a great publication.

In around 1980—I am doing that from memory, 1980, 1981, somewhere in there—they ran an article about how horrifyingly awful it was to work in an AT&T operator switching center, switching telephone calls. It was demeaning, dehumanizing, it was boring, you were timed on how quickly you could switch the calls, etc. It sounded really awful. That article ended with a call for higher wages and better working conditions for AT&T switching center workers. What happened was that all their jobs were eliminated. AT&T does not have any switching center workers anymore. It is all done by computer. That is coming for a lot of professions—call centers in India. It has not come for white collar professionals yet, but it may.

The semi-comforting thought that I can give you is if you look at the past, people have had the same worry about technological change in the past a lot. I say in the book that a hundred years ago when 88 percent—I think that is the right figure—of Americans worked in agriculture. [Editor's note: According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, 73.7 percent of the workforce was employed by the farm industry in 1800, but by 1920 it was only 25.9 percent.] If the Carnegie Council was meeting a hundred years ago and I said: "Well, 88 percent of Americans work in agriculture. By the year 2018, only 1.5 percent of Americans would work in agriculture," you would say, "We're all going to be out of jobs, there is going to be no food, everything is going to collapse."

Well, not only are we not all out of jobs, we have record employment in every possible level, and everybody is better off. There is plenty of food, and farmers are happier than they have ever been before. So I think the same thing is going to happen with almost every application of technology.

But because the economy is so unpredictable and so turbulent, I cannot be sure of that, and you cannot be sure of it. Nobody can be sure of it. We take this huge gamble with society that economic change will mostly lead to better things for most people. So far that has almost always been the pattern. There is no guarantee that that pattern will continue. It is possible that AI could turn out to be a horrible mistake, or it could just be another innovation that makes life better, like past innovations.

QUESTION: Anthony Liversidge, Science Guardian.

I remember coming here from England about 40 or even longer years ago, having studied economics in England and hoping or expecting that the work week would rapidly go down from 40 hours a week to 36 hours to 30, and it did not happen. It went in the opposite direction, it seemed. You had wives coming into the labor market, and more work being done than ever for longer hours.

How can you say that is a positive trend that will reverse in some way? Maybe technology will have its limitations in replacing people. I don't know, I just wonder what your optimism is based on.

GREGG EASTERBROOK: Here are 380 pages of answer to you. I think the main trend in that case, if you look at any point in the past, I think the way to frame this issue is to ask yourself—so you came to the United States 40 years ago, did you say?

QUESTIONER [Mr. Liversidge]: Forty or 50 years.

GREGG EASTERBROOK: Go back 40 years in the past and become an average Briton then. Would you prefer to live that life with the health care of that period, with the communications of that period and with the number of nuclear warheads that were in the world 40 years ago? Is that the life you would prefer? Or would you prefer the life of today, even knowing that the life of today has all kinds of problems, including that your work follows you home? That is how to frame the issue.

QUESTIONER [Mr. Liversidge]: Could I just ask one factual check? You say that there are fewer nuclear missiles around, but in fact there seem to be 475 missiles ringing three states pointed at Russia, each with 18-kiloton warheads, I understand. The total I thought was something like 6,000. I think you said 4,000. Are we sure that the number has gone down and that the power has gone down?

GREGG EASTERBROOK: Yes. That is the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' number. They are the ones who publish the Doomsday Clock. Their number of total warheads in the world 30 years ago was 66,000, now they say there are 4,000. [Editor's note: As noted earlier in the transcript, according to The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, there are, in total, 9,220 nuclear warheads in the world as of 2017, 4,000 in the United States. This is down from a high of 64,099 warheads in 1986, roughly an 86 percent drop.] And if the START treaties continue to be observed, that number will go down somewhat more, not to the level of total disarmament. Total disarmament is a controversial concept in and of itself, but the United States and Russia have really observed that treaty very nicely.

International treaties are better than the ones of the past. You remember how the treaties that ended World War I were ignored by all parties? Treaties on nuclear disarmament have been followed by all parties. The Chinese—so far as we know—have not been cheating on their end. They are not a party to the START treaty, but there is a lot of cheating potential, and so far as we know they have not been cheating.

QUESTION: Hi. My name is Ed Albrecht from Mercy College.

First of all, thanks for your talk and for the optimism. I am not still convinced, and the reason is because you have given us a list of material reasons for which we should all be happier. Yet spiritually or psychologically it seems like the trend is going in a different direction.

You started with a joke about God, so I would like to—

GREGG EASTERBROOK: Okay, open the door.

QUESTIONER [Mr. Albrecht]: I will finish with a quote supposedly by God: "Not only bread feeds the human soul." So I am wondering whether we should not start a discussion about a more sort of religious or value-oriented approach instead of solely a material-oriented approach.

GREGG EASTERBROOK: Well, materialism may be bad for our souls, but in this book I have concentrated exclusively on things that can objectively be measured. I have not ventured into the question of what we think subjectively about the quality of our lives. That is a different subject.

QUESTION: My name is Larry Bridwell.

I recently visited my brother, who lives in Scripps Ranch, San Diego. His wife told me, "Do not go to downtown San Diego" because I could get hepatitis from the homeless. And a case can be made economically that the most successful place in the world since 1945 has been California, but this homeless situation is all the way from Sacramento to San Diego every step, in almost every city.

What does it say—and in the case of my two nephews, they are living at home because they cannot afford to leave the house. You say everything has gotten positive, but the California I grew up in was a foot-free fancy. I mean, everybody could get housing, and now it is a real serious problem throughout the entire state. So I am not sure about this optimism, especially when it comes to housing.

GREGG EASTERBROOK: You are talking about the most expensive housing market in the United States and in a part of the world when you talk about the coast of California. I think I began by saying I am not claiming that everything is fine for everyone, and if you have nephews who are having trouble getting out of the house, I certainly do not claim that that is exactly how they were hoping to live. Within any family you can always find someone for whom things are not going how they hoped.

JOANNE MYERS: Let me ask you a question. Why do you think people wanted to believe Donald Trump, that everything was so bad?

GREGG EASTERBROOK: The want to believe is a very puzzling question. I propose in this book that there are four basic ways of knowing: One is certainty. The sun is 93 million miles from the Earth. We are certain of that. There is nothing to talk about.

Another is faith versus doubt. Where was the faith question from? We can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. Based on current knowledge, the question of "Does God exist?" is impossible to answer or to refute. Maybe at some point in the future it will be, but this is a category of knowing where all there is is wonderment.

Then there is the third category that is opinion: What beer tastes best? Who should have won the Super Bowl? Who is the best basketball player? It is impossible. There is no right or wrong answer to questions like that, there is only your opinion.

Then there is what you want to believe, and what you want to believe is stronger than all other categories of knowing combined. The strongest possible kind of belief is what you want to believe, and 63 million people in the fall of 2016 wanted to believe that everything about America is bad, bad, bad, down, down, down, terrible, terrible, terrible.

It was not just that they were not crazy about—Hillary Clinton was not the world's best candidate, we all know that. She could have done a much better job. But it was not just that they did not think she was the world's best candidate, people wanted to believe that the United States was falling apart. The people who voted for Brexit in the United Kingdom, by and large they wanted to believe that the European Union was a terrible thing for citizens of Britain.

Why people want to believe this, why people want to believe bad things, I wish I had the answer. The only thing I can tell you that I think is—since I just said I want to dwell on what is objective, not subjective—this thought line has been in American culture not for decades but for centuries.

I have a chapter on why people want to believe bad things. It is speculative because I do not think you can prove what people's inner motivations are, but I start that chapter by citing great works of literature—nonfiction books, novels, and plays—that said that America was about to fall apart, that said that everything was coming unglued and the world was ending and citing the reasons that they said. The big reason that was constantly cited was illegal immigration, illegal immigrants pouring into the country, ruining our culture, how terrible everything was, and how great it was in the past back in those good old days. We can never figure out exactly when or where they were, but there were good old days back in the past, and the good old days are now ending.

I describe these books without giving their names—and then of course you have already guessed what the trick is—and then I tell you their names, and all the books and plays and novels and other works of art that I refer to are all at least half a century old, and many of them are more than one century old, things from the 19th century, great authors predicting that America was right on the verge of falling apart. It has not happened, but this thought has been in our collective consciousness pretty much the entire time the country has existed.

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

May we internationalize this conversation? America is one thing, but every day we read about Syria, for example, where half the population has had to flee; the Rohingya in Myanmar. There are terrible things going on, and many people unfortunately are insecure, have lost their homes, have lost family members, are feeling terrible, and often do not have enough to eat, don't have proper health care or anything. We read about this every day, and it must be true. How do you balance all of this?

GREGG EASTERBROOK: How do you balance it? That is a good question. Obviously, as I said, there are horrible things happening in the world. We were talking about your family a moment ago. If you look at the human family, most of its members are actually doing pretty well, but there are members of the human family that terrible things are happening to. Syria is one, Burma is one, parts of Africa, horrible things are happening. How do you balance them?

I will say this. Within our own families, if most of the family is doing pretty well and one member or a few members are not doing well, the members who are doing pretty well generally get together and try to help the other member. The same is exactly true with the human family. We should do more to—in Syria we have tried to help them by dropping bombs on them, and amazingly it has not worked.

But there are many places you can find around the world where we should be doing more than we do, and we should be doing constructive things, not dropping bombs. I am certainly not a pacifist, but I think if you are going to be objective, you look at Syria, you look at Libya, dropping bombs does not work. It is not a solution to political problems, so we should help the other members of the human family.

QUESTIONER [Ms. Gitelson]: That is what we should do. What are we doing? You are dealing with what is actually going on.

GREGG EASTERBROOK: Right. I have a chapter in here on why democracy usually defeats dictatorship, and I go into some of those issues in that chapter.

QUESTION: George Paik.

Under reasons to believe things are bad, I just wondered if you had had a chance to look at something—I cannot remember where I saw it—that said: "Misery doesn't cause revolutions, but rising expectations do." I don't know if you have had a chance to look at that or if you have debunked it or if it is useful at all.

GREGG EASTERBROOK: There are a number of social scientists who work in that field. The one I like is a woman named Carol Graham, who is at Brookings and the University of Maryland, and she has provided a great deal of documentation on exactly that point, that people base their feelings of happiness or unhappiness about their society based on whether they think their lives will improve in the future, not based on how their lives are today.

We have had so much improvement in the United States and also the European Union in the postwar era that it is just not—our houses are twice as big as they used to be if you look in the aggregate of square footage of houses—realistic to think that in the next generation the houses will be twice as big again. The thought that our material existence is going to continue to improve at the previous pace is not a realistic thought, so maybe this causes people to feel badly about their lives, even when the house that they are living in is perfectly good. That impression may be stretching to other parts of the world.

In a sense, you want the entire world to have the diseases of affluence. They may be diseases, but they are diseases that we want everybody to have.

QUESTION: Carol Perlman.

I am very intrigued by this discussion, and I am also thinking about this is a time, this is now, these are the things that are impacting us. There is a trend toward pessimism.

But then I think about the world and the evolution, and I say: "Well, there was World War II. Where was the optimism there?" Like you said, it was your family, and you find the family members, this was banding together to make sure that there was a tomorrow. So I think that every generation has its worries and its pluses.


QUESTIONER [Ms. Perlman]: But thank you.

JOANNE MYERS: I have one more question. Do you think the two-party system in some way exacerbates the feeling that you have to—


JOANNE MYERS: Could you speak to that for a little bit?

GREGG EASTERBROOK: In that chapter that I just mentioned on democracy, my favorite democracy theorist is a guy named Larry Diamond at Stanford, and I cite some of his work on two points: one is that the United States has to be the beacon to the world in democracy, and we are not doing a very good job in the last 10 years in inspiring the world democratically; and second, how would we clean up our own house so that we are more democratic here?

One obvious one is direct election of the president. The Electoral College was a great idea in the 18th century. It is not the 18th century anymore. And it is not just that Donald Trump would not be president if we did not have the Electoral College. A lot of other faults of our presidential elections that are totally unrelated to Trump would not have happened.

Diamond has a theory about breaking up the party duopoly so it is easier for there to be third parties and independent candidates: switching to ranked-choice voting, which works in Maine and San Francisco and the small number of places that it has been tried, and it would be great if it worked everywhere, how to revise primaries. He has a bunch of theories about how to improve the quality of democracy in the United States, and I roll the drums for them pretty big in this book.

QUESTION: John Richardson.

I am just curious about how your approach would say something good about the Dark Ages or the Black Death because most of us who—

GREGG EASTERBROOK: They were bad. That is what I would say.

QUESTIONER [Mr. Richardson]: —read history or anything go back further than that. We do not discuss the Black Death or the Dark Ages. We discuss Greek and Roman civilization. But if it has been an upward curve all the way, I guess I should stop looking for Greek aphorisms and Roman quotes.

GREGG EASTERBROOK: I would kind of hope that we have gone uphill since the Black Death.

QUESTIONER [Mr. Richardson]: But is there any statistical evidence that civilization was progressing during the Dark Ages? I know there are figures about how many people died in the Black Death, but the Dark Ages it seems we do not know anything about. Maybe you do.

GREGG EASTERBROOK: I would not claim to be knowledgeable on whether you could say that civilization was progressing during the Dark Ages. I can tell you that if you look at charts—several modern economists have done charts—you can do it one or two ways: the reduction of poverty per capita or the increase of prosperity per capita, and both of them changed very little from the Greeks and the Romans until about the year 1800 and then started to accelerate in an amazing way.

Obviously we are much better at building things than we used to be, and we are much better at finding and using resources than we used to be. That is only one of many things that has to happen for a good society, but boy, are we better at that than we used to be.

JOANNE MYERS: If there are no more questions, I would like to invite you all to continue the conversation. You have given us a lot of good things to think about, so I thank you very much for It's Better than It Looks. Thank you.

GREGG EASTERBROOK: Thank you, Joanne.

You may also like

Points of light (Fireworks) CREDIT: <a href="">jdmoar</a> (<a href="">CC</a>)

SEP 26, 2017 Article

Carnegie Council Fellows Respond: Making Ethics Matter, 2017

Carnegie Council has pledged to be a counter-force to the corrosive tone that frequently dominates the news; to focus on the ethical principles at stake; ...

Not translated

This content has not yet been translated into your language. You can request a translation by clicking the button below.

Request Translation