USA Today recently proclaimed that "Europe still poses threat." Unlike in my father's day, though, no German submarines or Russian missiles menace America. Instead, European debt levels "threaten" to slow the economic recovery.
As bad news goes, I'll take it. The European nations that not so long ago threatened America and the world are now working with us, and the Chinese, to fight global recession. The Germans and Chinese don't want a weak America to invade, but a rich America to sell to. That's progress.
Activists from tea partyers to occupiers have been accentuating the negative. That's what interest groups do. But if you ignore the rhetoric and look at the facts, this is a good-news era. In at least four ways, we are far better off than in the past.
We're healthier. When my grandfather was my age, 53, he had been dead for four years. And he was lucky. Ten of his 13 siblings died in childhood, leaving his mother unbearably bitter. Who could blame her? For my wife and me, losing one of our two kids is unthinkable. For our grandparents, it was expected.
As Nicholas Eberstadt writes, "population did not boom because people suddenly started breeding like rabbits, but rather because they finally stopped dying like flies: the 'population explosion' was in reality a 'health explosion.'" While my lucky grandfather died of cancer at 49, my dad beat cancer and heart disease, living to 74 in mostly good health. I should last longer still. Worldwide, life expectancy at birth more than doubled from 31 to 67 over the past century. In the United States it approaches 79.
Of course longer lives threaten (there's that word again) the finances of Social Security and Medicare, but it's worth the higher taxes and program cuts. After all, you can't take it with you.
We're better off. People complain that the rich get richer, forgetting that everyone gets richer. The New York Times recently reported that while the top 1 percent of Americans increased their real incomes by 275 percent from 1979 to 2007, average Americans increased their real incomes by 40 percent, and even the poor got 20 percent more. In short, while the rich got way richer, the poor got richer too, just more slowly. This says nothing of food stamps, Medicaid, housing aid, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and progressive taxation - all of which help the poor.
Globally, malnutrition was cut in half between the 1950s and 1990s, with further declines since. As capitalism spreads, the Chinese and Indian half of humanity grows richer. Under Mao, starvation was common, but now obesity is a Chinese health issue. I don't mean to minimize the suffering of the fat, but it's easier to fix the problem of too many calories than that of not enough. And this says nothing of lifestyle changes that don't fit into the GDP, like air conditioning, computers, jet travel, clean tap water, and Starbucks.
We're less bigoted. In my little corner of Arkansas, as in America generally, gays are out of the closet and interracial marriages are common. Willingness to cross racial lines in work, voting, and even marriage is one of the most important social phenomena of the era. Social science shows that whites have no trouble voting for African Americans, as Barack Obama and Herman Cain can attest.
The environment is improving. Government regulations and business efficiency have slashed pollution. From 1957 to 1996, particulates fell 62 percent in America, with further declines since, improving health for millions. We have enjoyed similar declines in ozone, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide. Thanks to the banning of leaded gasoline and paint, there is 80 percent less lead in our blood.
Not all the news is good. Global warming is heating up, and American families are breaking down, with 40 percent of babies born out of wedlock. Yet we can beat these problems if we try. In this holiday season, we have much to celebrate because things are much better than they were. Just ask your grandfather.