Saturday, March 3, 2007

"The Progress Paradox"

Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic, and The Washington Monthly; a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution; a columnist for; and the author of various books.

His most recent book is The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, which Google CEO Eric Schmidt said is "a book you must read. It tells the truth about how the United States really is today."

Gregg put his book to the "page 69 test" and reported the following:

On page 69 of The Progress Paradox there is steamy sex, tense drama, fast-paced action, heartbreaking pathos and a revelation of the meaning of life! Actually, there are a lot of statistics. The first section of The Progress Paradox is an argument that most things are getting better for most people; the second section speculates on why this seems to make us no happier.

Page 69 falls in the area where I try to demonstrate that most of what is measurable is positive in the United States and European Union -- living standards rising, longevity increasing, crime declining, discrimination declining, pollution (except greenhouse gases) declining, communication improving, knowledge proliferating, there are loads of examples. Of course countless problems remain: the persistence of poverty, especially. But the main current of Western life is more positive than you'd guess from the media or from listening to politicians of either party.

After trying to prove this, The Progress Paradox goes on to discuss psychological research suggesting Americans and Europeans are no happier than the generation of 50 years ago, and by some measures, particularly stress and anxiety, are worse off. I speculate about practical steps we can take to increase our sense of well-being and appreciation for life -- I guess you'll just have to read The Progress Paradox if you want to be happy! The book ends by arguing that it's never too late to change the world. Success reversing "unstoppable" problems like the murder rate or acid rain should make us hopeful that the "unstoppable" problems of today, such as global inequity and global warming, can be overcome too.

As for Page 69 itself, its flow of details leads to a passage of page 73 that I will quote:

"Now consider a wonderful statistic. Stated in current dollars, annual global military spending peaked in the year 1985, at $1.3 trillion, and has been declining since, to $840 billion in 2002. That's a decline of nearly half a trillion dollars in the amount the world spends each year on arms. Similarly, the world trade in arms peaked in 1994, at $39 billion in current dollars, and has been in decline since, falling to $26.4 billion in 2001."

Even with the Iraq war, the pattern remains -- annual global military spending continues to decline, especially when compared to population growth.

Read an excerpt from The Progress Paradox.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Series.