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The Seligman Times  
Volume 1, Number 2    November 27, 2016
Post-Election Optimism


There were only glum faces around our Thanksgiving table this year. Hillary Clinton supporters all, my kids and their mates saw nothing to be thankful for. The specter of Donald Trump ascending to the most powerful position in the world cast a pall over the day and my kids—ranging in age from thirteen to twenty-seven—said with one voice that they had nothing to be optimistic about.

But I disagreed and I said so.

You likely feel the same way as my children, so let me start with a quiz:

  1. Is the world getting better or worse?
    Better        Worse      Not Changing      Don’t Know
  1. In the last thirty years has world poverty
    Halved      Doubled     Not Changed    Don’t Know

Britons were asked the first question in 2015, and 5% said “better,” 71% said “worse,” 18% said “not changing.” 66% of Americans asked the second question said that world poverty had doubled while only 5% said it had been halved---which is the accurate answer. 

Most people think this is a pretty bad world and few think it is getting better. The American election has amplified this pessimism. Small wonder: contemporary political fires are fueled by claims of misery and suffering: the latest terrorist attack, murders of policemen, despair in the inner city, and rape by immigrant criminals.

Donald Trump, the candidate who painted the darker picture, won. By my count his nomination acceptance speech referred to far more bad events than any candidate in modern history. William Jennings Bryan came in a distant second in 1900. Horrific events, trumpeted by politicians and repeated tirelessly by media, become the available stuff for our perceptions and our theory of the world. But it is the long view, the statistics, not the stories, that really tell the story. The long view is the more accurate compass for thinking about the future.

Bertrand Russell told us that the mark of a civilized human being was the ability to read a column of numbers and then weep. There are statistics aplenty to weep over. To name just a few:

  • More than one billion people live in extreme poverty, making less than $2 per day.
  • 30,000 Americans kill themselves every year.
  • 50,000 children have died in Syria as a result of the last three years of war.
  • 37% of modern nations are dictatorships or worse.

But before we are overwhelmed by awfulness, we should temper our sorrow for a moment and ask about the good stuff? Perhaps another mark of civilization is the reading of a column of numbers and then dancing for joy.

Johan Norberg’s (2016) Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future (London: OneWorld) is an invitation for civilized people to dance for joy this very Thanksgiving. Norberg reviews the state of all the major externalities that we care most about and how they have changed over time. I highlight a representative statistic from each here:

  • Food. Getting enough nourishment for the body and brain to work well is the most basic human need.
    In 1945 (and before) 50% of the world’s people were undernourished. In 2016, 11%.
  • Water. Even with enough food, we need clean water to drink and proper sanitation to dispose of our waste and curb waste-born disease.
    Before 1980, fewer than 24% of the world’s people had proper sanitation. By 2015, it was 68%.
  • Length of Life. With improvements in food and water (and public health) life expectancy should go up.
    In 1870, life expectancy at birth worldwide was 30 years. Born in 2010, it is 70 years.
  • Poverty. “Poverty has no causes. Only prosperity has causes.” Humanity is rising out of its natural state of being poor at an astonishing rate. A huge global middle- class now exists.
    In 1820, 95% of the world’s population earned less than $2 per day (in today’s dollars). In 2015, it was 10%.
  • Violence. Violent death and war have been humankind’s chronic condition, but peace seems to be a modern invention.
    What are your chances of being murdered? Now it is 1 in 100,000, down from 30 out of 100,000 in the 16th century.
    The two world wars of the 20th century, not withstanding, there has not been a direct war between the Great Powers in sixty years, down from almost continual open warfare among the Great Powers in all prior modern history.
  • The environment. The planet has been massively polluted by humans. Is this changing?
    Of the 178 countries in the environmental performance index, 172 showed improvement in the last decade; only six countries got worse.
  • Education. Worldwide literacy is growing fast.
    In 1900 21% of the people in the world could read and write. In 2015, 86%. Women have finally almost caught up with men: in 1970, the literacy ratio of women: men worldwide was 59%, now it is 94%.
  • Freedom. Slavery has vanished and the age of the dictator is coming to an end.
    In 1800, 60% of countries allowed slavery, now none do.
    In 1990, 46% were democracies, now 63% of the nations of the world are.
  • Equality.  Tolerance is on the rise. Discrimination against minorities and women has declined.
    In 1950, 44% of nations officially discriminated against ethnic groups, by 2003, only 25%.
    In 1900, women could vote only in New Zealand, now only two countries prohibit women from voting: Saudi Arabia and the Vatican.

These numbers are the right ones to mull this Thanksgiving and they make me dance with joy.

Donald Trump now inherits the leadership of a much better world than the one he was born into and a much, much better world than his ancestors were born into. The upward envelope of human progress is the most basic political fact of the last five hundred years. Will President Trump rise to the occasion? I make no prediction. Strangely there is no psychological research on who rises to the occasion from otherwise inauspicious backgrounds, who does not change, and who is corrupted by the power of high office. Harry Truman and Theodore Roosevelt rose, surprisingly, to greatness.

But the march of human progress—balky and imperfect and woefully incomplete as it is--fills me with optimism.