Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Sunday, May 15, 2016


A couple of weeks ago, my students asked me to give them a class where I would lay out my entire worldview.  It was flattering.  I said it might surprise them to learn how optimistic I am about things in general.

My optimism is born of the basic liberal idea of progress.  Things in any given moment might seem bad, but overall, things are getting better and will continue to get better as long as we try to improve them.

It is also part of being a historian (as opposed to a cheerleader).  Having some understanding of the past is a powerful endorsement of the present and the future.

Gregg Easterbrook is an unusual writer who has seemingly come in and out of my line of sight over the past fifteen years.  He's written a defense of optimism that is sorely needed.  However, he tends to glide by the structural and institutional reasons people are pessimistic and focus on the fact that pessimism is cool and optimism is not.  As he writes sarcastically: "If you don't think everything is awful, you don't understand the situation."  He then goes on to use empirical data to note how much better things have gotten.

Job growth is robust, America is remarkably safe - both externally and internally, clean energy is expanding rapidly, America's industrial output is near record highs, disease and pollution are declining.

And he is right, both in his data and his assertion that if you point this out, "you just don't get it."  Job growth is good and unemployment low, and we are producing more industrial goods than just about any time in our history.  BUT... that increased productivity comes with fewer jobs.  Just as the mechanization of agriculture led to fewer farm workers, so has the automation of industry reduced industrial jobs.

Real wages have stagnated, but it's not quite as bleak as the Sandernistas suggest. Easterbrook writes: "Gary Burtless of the Brooking Institute has shown that when lower taxes and higher benefits are factored in, middle class buying power as risen 36 percent in the current generation.

We are surrounded by marvels, and all we see are the things we lack.

Last night, the missus and I took in a fantastic movie, Sing Street, about a dorky kid who starts a band in 1985 Dublin to "get the girl."  What was striking was how awful things were in Ireland back in the '80s.  Today, Ireland's standard of living has risen incredibly.  And the same is true today in the US.  Think back to the Reagan '80s: AIDS, cigarettes everywhere, lead poisoned youths on a crime wave, terrorist attacks and hostage crises in Lebanon, the Cold War, the routine sexual harassment of women in the workplace and on and on.

Every day, we are making the world a slightly better place.  And Easterbrook is right to point this out.

However, I do think there are structural and psychological issues at play that he ignores.  Most profoundly, one of the great wonders of the age - the Internet - has created a cycle of reinforcing pessimism.  I once tried to argue that things were getting better on Facebook, and it was like I was defending the KKK.  I "just didn't get it."

Some of that is cultural, as Easterbrook rightly points out.  The structure of that culture is built on epstimological closure. People only talk to people who agree with them and that creates reinforcing beliefs. But there also seems to be some psychological component at play.

As we get more and more removed from survival conditions, as we enjoy more and more comfort, we get more and more uncomfortable with it.  It's like the line in The Matrix, where Agent Smith notes that they tried to make the matrix more pleasant, but the human mind rebelled against it.  So they made it gritty and uncomfortable.  That fit the human mind better.

We are hard-wired for threat and survival.  Now that those things are largely gone, we create them where they don't exist or we squander or waste what we do have.  In our unhappiness, we medicate ourselves with alcohol and drugs, and this turns our abundance into loss.

One other point Easterbrook makes that it really important: progress is impossible without optimism.  To be a progressive or a liberal is to believe that your applied reason and effort can improve the world.  That is the essence of liberalism.  But if you believe the "system is rigged" or that "we are all doomed" then it is too easy to give up.

This is the crux of Barack Obama's speech at Howard.  Read this:

Given the current state of our political rhetoric and debate, let me say something that may be controversial, and that is this: America is a better place today than it was when I graduated from college. (Applause.) Let me repeat: America is by almost every measure better than it was when I graduated from college. It also happens to be better off than when I took office -- (laughter) -- but that's a longer story. (Applause.) That's a different discussion for another speech.

But think about it. I graduated in 1983. New York City, America’s largest city, where I lived at the time, had endured a decade marked by crime and deterioration and near bankruptcy. And many cities were in similar shape. Our nation had gone through years of economic stagnation, the stranglehold of foreign oil, a recession where unemployment nearly scraped 11 percent. The auto industry was getting its clock cleaned by foreign competition. And don’t even get me started on the clothes and the hairstyles. I've tried to eliminate all photos of me from this period. I thought I looked good. (Laughter.) I was wrong.

Since that year -- since the year I graduated -- the poverty rate is down. Americans with college degrees, that rate is up. Crime rates are down. America’s cities have undergone a renaissance. There are more women in the workforce. They’re earning more money. We’ve cut teen pregnancy in half. We've slashed the African American dropout rate by almost 60 percent, and all of you have a computer in your pocket that gives you the world at the touch of a button. In 1983, I was part of fewer than 10 percent of African Americans who graduated with a bachelor’s degree. Today, you’re part of the more than 20 percent who will. And more than half of blacks say we’re better off than our parents were at our age -- and that our kids will be better off, too.

So America is better. And the world is better, too. A wall came down in Berlin. An Iron Curtain was torn asunder. The obscenity of apartheid came to an end. A young generation in Belfast and London have grown up without ever having to think about IRA bombings. In just the past 16 years, we’ve come from a world without marriage equality to one where it’s a reality in nearly two dozen countries. Around the world, more people live in democracies. We’ve lifted more than 1 billion people from extreme poverty. We’ve cut the child mortality rate worldwide by more than half.

All of this is empirically true. And believing in this is how you make progress.  Not through a revolution that is based on false premises.  And certainly not by building walls.

Hillary Clinton must find a way to make America optimistic again.  Her husband was phenomenal at this, but it is not her forte.  She needs to find the music for these words.

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