In Monday’s column, I noted that time prices – the length of time Americans work to afford things – have decreased over the past few decades. Today, it takes far less labor for us to afford most of what we want and need.
That, in turn, gives us the ultimate wealth: more time to do what we really want.
This is a well-documented fact.
Yet many Americans become angry when they discover that people are generally living longer, healthier, richer, freer lives than ever before.
Why is this?
Let’s turn to an authority on the subject, Dr. Steven Pinker.
Five years ago, he published an excellent book – Enlightenment Now – that documented the long march of human progress over the last two centuries thanks to the rise of reason, science and democratic institutions.
It’s one of the most uplifting books I’ve ever read.
Billionaire Bill Gates called it “my new favorite book of all time.”
Most people simply don’t realize that…
- Human life spans have never been longer.
- Infant mortality has never been lower.
- Standards of living have never been higher.
- Educational attainment has never been greater.
- War, terrorism and violence – despite what you see in the media – are in a long-term cycle of decline.
- Air and water pollution have been improving for decades.
- U.S. household income and net worth are near record levels.
- Novel drugs and medical devices are extending and improving our lives.
- New technologies are making our communications faster, our transportation safer, and our working and recreational lives easier.
- The number of democracies around the world is increasing.
- And so is global prosperity.
Pinker’s conclusion? While we face no shortage of problems and setbacks – as we always have and always will – there has never been a better time to be alive.
The response to the book from academia and mainstream media – as well as many who never bothered to read it – was outrage.
How dare Pinker show us evidence that most things are getting better for most people in most places in most ways?
The response was so vicious, in fact, that Pinker penned a response to his critics in Quillette a year after the book was published.
He pointed to the data (again) and showed that most people deny progress not out of pessimism but out of ignorance.
There are no long-term charts showing that life spans are getting shorter, standards of living are falling and global prosperity is declining.
So what is going on here? A few things…
One is that an increasing number of people have become addicted to outrage.
Turn on cable news or scroll through your social media feed, and you can easily see that the world is going to hell in a handbasket.
Yet “the news” is a nonrandom sample of the worst things happening to the 8 billion people on the planet on any given day.
That’s why Americans regularly tell pollsters that – while civilization is in decline and the country is on the wrong track – things are going pretty well in their own lives.
There is also a political component here for progressives.
If the world is really not facing multiple existential crises – climate change, the population bomb, economic inequality, racism-sexism-homophobia, etc. – it undermines the far left’s demand for radical government action.
At our 25th Annual Investment U Conference this year, for instance, I asked Marian Tupy if The New York Times had reviewed his superb book Superabundance: The Story of Population Growth, Innovation, and Human Flourishing on an Infinitely Bountiful Planet.
“No,” he said. “They can’t counter our conclusions with facts. So they have to act like we don’t exist.”
That isn’t possible with Pinker, however.
He’s a Harvard professor who regularly appears on short lists of the world’s leading public intellectuals.
Pinker and his positive views didn’t need to just be opposed. They had to be discredited.
Critics argued that he had misrepresented the state of the world, even though his book provided dozens of charts that showed his conclusions were empirical realities.
Five hundred and fifty academics signed a petition to have him removed from the list of “distinguished fellows” at the Linguistic Society of America.
(Pinker is a cognitive scientist who specializes in language.)
And journalists – eager to scare readers and undermine Pinker’s optimism – compiled lists of everything wrong with the world, as if progress couldn’t have occurred if the real world didn’t match the utopia they imagined in their minds.
A belief in progress, as Pinker puts it, “requires only the convictions that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering, and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.”
Investors need to understand the many ways in which the world is improving.
After all, would it make sense to invest your hard-earned money in the stock market if the world is in perilous decline and our extinction is just around the corner?
It would not. But, fortunately, it isn’t.
You owe it to yourself to read optimists like Steven Pinker, David Deutsch, Matt Ridley, Peter Diamandis, Johan Norberg, Hans Rosling, Michael Shermer, Gregg Easterbrook, Ronald Bailey, Marian Tupy and Gale Pooley.
Why? Because smart investors follow the trend lines not the headlines.