Wednesday, July 4, 2012 – I Gotta Believe It’s Getting Better – Happy 4th

A couple of weeks back I foolishly said I thought things were getting better. Later that day, I was told I was wrong; things are not getting better.

I think I can see the argument. It’s an old argument; It was the Best of Times, It was the worst of times. The economy is on the edge of collapse; the so-called fiscal cliff. Europe  is ready for collapse. Sure, there is plenty that is wrong. So, I tried to put together some sort of list of how things are better or worse. 

I’ve been saying that the economy is in a small “d” depression for the past 4 years. Unemployment is 8.2%, slightly less than the 8.5% rate of February 2009. The numbers are surely under-reported. This is the “new normal”. Drive through any town in America and you can see the businesses that have been shuttered, and the homes that have been foreclosed. 

We have a debt problem. Today, with a population of 305 million and debt of $16 trillion, it works out to about $52,000 per person… but that leaves out all the unfunded liabilities (which didn’t exist in years past) which add up to more than $75 trillion now, meaning a total debt and liabilities of $250,000 per person in the US.

And personal privacy has been effectively shredded. No-knock warrant-less raids are the new norm; and the government is now using drones to spy on citizens; The United States has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prison population; today, the US has the largest amount of people in cages per population by a factor of four. Either we are incredibly violent, immoral, and dishonest or we are so frightened that we are willing to surrender freedom for the illusion of security. 

The US dollar used to be backed by gold; now its backed by paper, meaning the government is completely unrestrained in its spending. And yet the Federal Reserve only seems to crank up the printing press to benefit their banker buddies. It’s pretty clear that corporate interests have bought and paid for government. Corporations are now considered people, legally. So, in today’s world property is granted person-hood even though 150 years ago we had a war that supposedly determined that people could not be considered property.

And then there is war, or maybe I should say wars. We seem to be in a never-ending state of war. Afghanistan, Iraq; remember the foray into Libya? And there are wars we don’t get involved in, even if there is great suffering; Syria, the Sudan. 

It’s easy to get bummed out pretty quick. Things change fast.

The Census Bureau reports cities are growing faster than the suburbs for the first time since the 1920s. New Orleans was the fastest growing city, but only because it was nearly washed away. In less than 40 years India will be the most populous nation, surpassing China sometime around 2025. There economies are already challenging our economy for global supremacy. The US will remain exactly where it is now: in third place, with a population of 423 million (up from 308 million in 2010).  More than half of children under age 2 in the US are ethnic minorities.  

The US is not yet experiencing the kind of population decline that Europe experienced in the 1990s and 2000s, although immigration and differing birth rates among races means that the country’s ethnic composition is changing. Something similar will be going on in the rest of the world as well: the booms of Africa and India, the decline of Russia and Japan will all change the makeup of the estimated 9.4 billion people who will call Earth home in 2050. The future, it seems, is not as distant as we think. So what does all this mean? It means the only constant is change. 

But is it better or worse? Part of the answer is based on the time frame. Well, 4 years ago the economy was ready to meltdown. That was averted. Wall Street is no safer than it was 4 years ago but the Dow Industrials are up more than 50% from January of 2009. Bear market math might mean your results are not quite as good. Four years ago there were about 31 million Americans on food stamps and now there’s about 45 million; of course, in the Great Depression there were no food stamps, there were soup kitchens with long lines. The poverty rate was around 13.2 percent in late 2008; now it’s at 15%. 

There is more poverty and there is more inequality, and yet there is some improvement. Between 1980 and 2000, the poor doubled their consumption. The Chinese are ten times richer and live about 25 years longer than they did 50 years ago. Nigerians are twice as rich and live nine more years. The percentage of the world’s people living in absolute poverty has dropped by over half. The United Nations estimates that poverty was reduced more in the past 50 years than in the previous 500.

Extreme poverty is defined as average daily consumption of $1.25 or less and means living on the edge of subsistence. The number of people living in extreme poverty has been falling since 1990, slowly at first and more rapidly since the turn of the century. 3 billion people live on less than $2/day. 1.4 billion people live on less than $1.25/day. The number of people living in extreme poverty is expected to fall to around 900 million by 2015. 8 million people die from lack of food and nutrition every year – about 24,000 deaths each day. Every year, 5.8 million children die from hunger related-causes. Every day, that’s 16,000 young lives lost. The good news is that the number has dropped from 18,000 children dying per day. The bad news is that about 320 children have died since the start of this hour; that works out to 16 children a minute…. and there is another one….. and another. 

Compared with 50 years ago,  the average human now earns nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), eats one third more calories, buries two thirds fewer children, and can expect to live one third longer. In fact, it’s hard to find any region of the world that’s worse off now than it was then, even though the global population has more than doubled over that period.

Cars pollute less and they’re safer. Air conditioning is a fairly recent invention; it wasn’t around 70 years ago. The internet is quite recent and already indispensable. My grandmother lived to be 102 years old. She was born before the Wright Brothers took flight at Kitty Hawk; she watched a man walk on the moon. 

 In every age humanity is in its worst state ever, and ours is no exception. Are things really worse? The truth of the perception isn’t nearly as important as the perception itself. If you think things are worse, they are, and there is never a lack of evidence. High minded measures of progress can fade quickly in the daily grind of the daily grind and relentless decay that is a part of nature. Forget decline; it’s as easy to find good news as bad. Cancer is treated. Nuclear war is avoided. The planet is still here and humans aren’t extinct yet. With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dream, it is still a beautiful world. Sometimes, it is hard to spot the blessings, but if you look, you’ll find that they are everywhere. And one of the greatest blessings, constantly challenged, beaten down a bit, but not yet defeated, is our freedom.

Happy Fourth of July. 

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