Global Ethics Forum: It’s Better than It Looks, with Gregg Easterbrook

Global Ethics Forum: It’s Better than It Looks, with Gregg Easterbrook


(gentle music) – It is my pleasure to
welcome Gregg Easterbrook to this podium. Mr. Easterbrook will be
discussing his most recent book entitled “It’s
Better than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism
in an Age of Fear.” In addition to his books,
his writings have appeared in “The Atlantic,” “The New
Yorker,” “Science,” “Wired,” “The Wall Street Journal,”
and the “Los Angeles Times.” And for the football
fans among us, you may be familiar with
his celebrated weekly NFL column, “Tuesday
Morning Quarterback,” now appearing in
The Weekly Standard. – This is the book I
want to talk about. The headline makes
the main point of the book pretty obvious. Sometimes when you’re doing
an intellectual argument it is easiest to start by
saying what it isn’t, so let me start by
saying what this isn’t. To say “It’s better than it
looks” and to make a case for optimism is not
the same as saying that everything is fine. Everything is not fine. The world is full of problems. There’s a lot of things you
should be worried about, there’s a lot of things you
should be upset or cynical about, there’s a lot of
things going on in the world that you should be angry about. I don’t say that you
shouldn’t be angry or that you shouldn’t be cynical. I expect you to be. This book is also not a claim
that we should be cheerful. Although if you want to be
cheerful, that is great, I hope you are, and go
around the world with a smile on your face. An optimist can be
a cynical person. An optimist can be very
upset reading the newspaper in the morning. You don’t have to be cheerful. You don’t have to,
it’s nice if you smile, but you don’t have to. Whether you feel pessimistic
or optimistic about the world has two levels: one is
just a choice that you make. You read the news, you
hear what is going on. You decide am I going
to be optimistic, am I going to be
angry and depressed? That’s a choice that you make. The news does not dictate
those things to you. But whatever choice you make
ought to be based on a full factual appreciation of
what’s going on in life, and a full factual appreciation
is pretty encouraging. As I hope I can be able to
show you in a few minutes, practically everything that
we can measure about the United States is positive
and has been positive for years, if not decades. Not the entire world, but
most of the larger world, most of what we can measure
about the larger world is positive and in many cases
has been positive for decades. If you acknowledge those things, there’s still a
lot to worry about, there’s still a lot
to be angry about, and there are always going
to be people who have terrible circumstances,
either individuals or-depending on where you go
in the world-entire groups. There is never going to
be a time when there isn’t someone who is lonely or
stressed for money or sick or unhappy unless there’s
a second Garden of Eden. There will never be
a time without that. But there can be a time when
the material problems of life are solved, and I think
we have gone a lot closer to that than people realize. In order to present the
thesis of this book to you in a timely manner, let
me do a couple of things. First, make a political point; this book is not
mainly about politics, it’s mainly about other things. And then hit you with
a lot of statistics, and then ask why so many
of us are so negative about life, and then because this
is the Carnegie Council we will always, of course,
conclude by asking, “But what does it all mean?” The first point that I will
make is the political one: On the day that the
United States elected Donald Trump president, 63
million people voted for a guy who told you that the
world was falling apart. Just to quote a few things
that he said in the week before the election: Everything
in America is always bad. It’s always down, down, down. He told an audience
in Colorado two days before the election
that the country “is in the worst shape
that it’s ever been “in its entire history.” On the day that
63 million people believed that, the country
was actually in the best shape that it’s ever
been in in its history by a pretty significant margin. I think now it’s in a
better shape than it was on the day of election. Trump aside, everything
else has gone pretty well. Yet he was able to convince
63 million people that the country was falling apart. You can say: “Well,
we make this choice, you want to be optimistic,
you want to be pessimistic. That’s just a personal choice.” On some level it is. But in November of 2016 it
backfired on the country. People’s willingness to
believe everything was terrible as a factual
truth caused us to get Donald Trump as president. It wasn’t just here. The same sequence of events
happened in the United Kingdom, which voted for Brexit In the years since the
founding of the European Union, there’s been no
Europe-on-Europe war after how many centuries
of constant war? There’s been prosperity in
almost all European Union members, and yet
people were convinced that the European Union
is a horrible thing that we have to get rid of. I’ll argue that the belief
that the world is worse than it is and almost a desire
to believe that the world is worse than it is definitely
predates Donald Trump. But in 2016 it backfired on
us by giving us Trump and to a lesser extent also
giving us Brexit. Maybe Brexit can be reversed, Trump is another matter. Here is the
lots-of-statistics moment of this talk, and I will go through
them as quickly as I can. I assure you that, of course, as you’ve already guessed,
incredible detail in the book plus source
citations for everything. Okay. So the things that we can
measure, I’ll talk mainly about the United States
and Western Europe, but most of these
trends apply to most, although of course
not all, of the world. All forms of disease,
including cancer and heart disease, are in
long-term decline. Compared to population size,
last year the United States had 75% fewer heart
attack fatalities than it had just two generations ago. Longevity has been steadily
rising for more than a century everywhere in the
world, everywhere in the world. Not only is our longevity
at record levels, China’s longevity
is at record levels, Afghanistan’s longevity
is at record levels. Everybody is living
longer with less disease. The graph of rising
longevity looks like an escalator, just
endlessly going up, and there is no reason to
think that’s going to stop even when terrible
things happen, and lots of terrible things
happen in the United States. You’ve read about
opioid overdose deaths. This is a terrible
trend in public health, but even when you take
that into account longevity continues to increase. The whole world is riding this
longevity increase escalator. All forms of pollution other
than greenhouse gases are in long-term decline for years
and in some cases for decades. Now greenhouse gases, a very
important asterisk that we are going to spend a
little time on later. But to quickly summarize,
in the United States in the last 25 years, acid
rain is down 21%, winter smog is down 77%, summer smog is down 22%. This is happening during a
period when the United States population rose by 28%, so we would expect
pollution to increase, instead, pollution declined. Water pollution figures
are roughly the same. Violent crime is in
a generation-long
cycle of decline. Donald Trump, when he was
campaigning for office, constantly said there
is a crime wave, our cities are a living hell. For some reason, that is what
voters wanted to believe. Polls showed that for the
last 20 years Americans have consistently said crime is
worse than the previous year. Actually, it’s gone down
compared to the previous year. In the United States and
in most, but not all, of the countries of the
world violence is declining. Criminal violence is declining. So is military violence. War is in a generation-long
cycle of decline. This may seem hard to
believe based on the tenor of cable news, but the
frequency and intensity of combat both have declined
almost on a linear basis for 25 years, and that’s even
if you take into account civilian deaths caused
directly by combat or indirectly by blockades and
similar effects of combat. In the last 25 years, deaths
from war have declined to about 5% of the rate of
deaths from war per year of the rate that prevailed
for the previous century. In each one of
the last 25 years, a person’s chance,
any person’s chance, not my chance and your chance, but anybody anywhere in the
world, chance of dying has been at the lowest
level in human history, and this is even though the
population keeps rising. We normally think of population
stresses causing combat. It’s not causing
combat right now. And even though the
world is full of guns, the chances that someone
will shoot one of them at you goes steadily down. I’m only talking about
a period of 25 years. Maybe this is too little
time to be sure today there are 86% fewer nuclear
weapons in the world than there were 30 years ago. The doomsday threat
has declined by 86% in just 30 years. We hope it will decline more, but if you think about
U.S.-Russia relations now, they’re so zany I don’t
even know what the proper adjective is to describe them, but whatever the Kremlin and
the White House are saying to each other today,
communicating by smartphone instead of by red phone. Meanwhile, the two START
treaties that require the disassembly and melting of
nuclear weapons parts are still being scrupulously
observed by both sides. Both sides are abiding by
the terms of the biggest arms control treaty in
the history of the world. Day-to-day life goes on anyway. There is no reason anybody
should consider, well, I still have to go to
work in the morning, I still have to make lunch, etc. This to me is a wonderful trend. The doomsday threat
declines every day instead of rising every day. A couple more big
statistics: Food supply has not become a crisis as
everyone thought it would 25-30 years ago. Instead, as of last year,
the United Nations said that malnutrition was
at the lowest level in all of human history. Malnutrition last year was
15 to 20% of the planet. That’s still a huge
number of people, considering how large
the human family is. But just a generation
ago malnutrition was 50% of a much smaller human family. Now it’s down to
a smaller number. It’s expected to
decline again this year. The economy drives
everybody crazy, but it continues to grow
almost everywhere in the world. An important point to
remember about income and wages, they were so contentious
in the 2016 campaign. Both Donald Trump
and Bernie Sanders constantly said the middle
class is being pummeled, wages are falling,
there are no jobs. On the day that
Trump was elected, unemployment was 4.6%, a number that would have
caused policymakers of the 1970s to fall to their
knees and kiss the ground. The unemployment picture is
really good and has been for a number of years. But so is the middle class
buying power picture if you figure it this way: If you
only look at pre-tax income, that’s been a tough number
for the middle class now for about 30 years. If that’s the only number
you look at, and that’s the only number that Bernie
Sanders ever talked about, then it looks pretty bleak. But you don’t run your
household based on only income. Your buying power is based
on income minus taxes plus benefits multiplied
by consumer prices divided by household size. If you do that equation,
what you find is that ever since the end of World War II the middle class’s buying power has risen by just about exactly 3% per year on, again
almost like an escalator basis, same amount every
year, straight line. If times are good,
if times are bad, middle class buying power
goes up 3% per year, and of course, you know
from mathematics that if something goes up 3% year it
takes you 26 years to double. That is still ongoing. Pundits and politicians
talk only about income. Income is the negative number
when you look at wages. All the other
numbers are positive. Of course there’s no
guarantee that they will stay that way. The economy is so turbulent
and so unpredictable. Even if you have a good
year, it drives you crazy. I think one reason people
feel so worried about the economy is that things
change so fast now. They have changed
fast in the past. You can look at
the 19th century, and I give some examples
here from the 19th century where people and
organizations, industries, areas of the country were
worried that change was coming too quickly. Change comes even faster now, and that makes
you feel uncertain and anxious about the future. But so far the economy is
still grinding out higher living standards
for almost everyone. Generations alive today in
almost any nation of the world are better off in
material terms than any generation in the
past and are likely, although of course not certain, but they are likely to be better
off in the future as well. The most important fact that
we’re not sufficiently aware of is that global poverty
is declining really fast. If you look at global
poverty numbers, here’s a few quick
ones: 150 years ago, 90% of the world lived
in extreme poverty by the World Bank definition
of an income of $1.90 per day and of course the
statistics I will give you are all converted to
current dollars to make the comparisons meaningful. Sometime in the 1970s the
world got to only half the human population living
in extreme poverty, and that was considered
an incredible achievement. Last year it was 9%. We are down to 9% of the
human population living in extreme poverty. This incredible reduction of
extreme poverty has occurred as the human family has
gotten larger and larger when you would have expected
extreme poverty to get worse. Instead, it’s lessened. We can’t see that from
the United States. When you’re voting on Brexit, you can’t see it from
the United Kingdom, although the line I
used about this is that “Great things are happening
in the world, just not here.” We’re aware of the
conditions in our country, progress does not
seem to be accelerating to us. Go to China, you go to India, progress is accelerating
all around you. And because the human
family has become so large, more members of the human
family live in those places than live here and in
Western Europe combined. Polls show, by the way, that
when you ask Americans and Western Europeans: “Is
developing-world poverty getting better or worse?” “they say by an overwhelming
margin that the developing world poverty is getting worse, which is the reverse
of what is going on. We seem to think the reverse
of what is going on on a number of topics. Americans think crime
is getting worse, they think the economy
is falling apart,
etcetera, etcetera. Why do people believe the
reverse of what’s happening? One reason is just the
relentlessly negative impression given by cable
news and social channels, which exist to overstate
anger and discord and negative news. That’s how they call
attention to themselves. It’s certainly true that
the press has always called attention to itself by
emphasizing the negative. You look at newspapers
from the 1880s, and you will see the front
page of the paper is all fires and crimes, and if
you want to flip through and find out what’s going on
in other nations or other states, you have to go to
the middle of the paper. It’s not new that the media
emphasizes the negative, but now we have these new
forms of media all around us that are very felicitous
in terms of quickly getting messages to large
numbers of people, and they are also
emphasizing the negative. I think people want to
believe the worst because they think that optimism
means complacency. One of the big messages that
I try to get across in this book is that optimism
is not complacency. Optimists don’t think, La-di-da, everything is going to be fine. Optimism is the belief that
problems can be solved. That’s the
fundamental difference between optimism and pessimism. But people think if you
say, “Oh, I’m an optimist,” that means you have this
sunny disposition and you think everything is okay. You think it’s okay
that Trump is president, you think it’s okay that
there are school shootings. No. Optimists don’t
think that’s okay. They just think that there
are possible reforms that can do something about this. I’ll quickly go through this
because you have probably heard some of this material from other commentators
in recent months. If you look at polling data,
Pew and Gallup both poll on the questions of: “Do you
think the country is headed “in the right direction
or the wrong direction? “Are you satisfied or
dissatisfied with how things “are changing in
the United States?” From the end of World
War II to the year 2004, Americans were always
positive on that poll. “I like the direction
of the country. “I think things are
getting better.” People said this even in
the aftermath of 9/11. Since 2004, the majority has
been consistently negative. This is the 168th
consecutive month where Americans have told both
Pew and Gallup that they are unhappy and dissatisfied
with the condition of the country despite all
those wonderful facts I just threw at you. Well, what else
happened in 2004? That’s the year that
Facebook went into business. Of course you know that the
fact that two events happen at the same time
does not establish that one caused the other. But I think in this case there
is a lot of relationship. Lately it’s been trendy
to pile on Facebook. I would like to
pile on Facebook, but also to all other similar
social media platforms. They all came into
existence in that period. This thing, the iPhone came
into existence in 2007. Not only did it enable
millions of people to express their opinions very
quickly, which is wonderful, you have to respect
the democratization of opinion, but it also enabled
millions of people to say things that were not in any
way fact-checked or that were not in any way true,
making no distinction whatsoever between
things that are true, things that might be true,
things that contain a grain of truth, and things
that are totally made up. Most of you probably
read The New York Times. There are mornings when I want
to throw The New York Times against the wall, and
yet I’m always confident that there has been an
internal argument at the Times about whether
this is story is fair and reflects the truth. The stuff you see on your phone, there is never any internal
discussion about whether it is fair or reflects the truth. In fact, it’s more likely to
draw clicks if it is made up and completely phony. So we have this new media
environment just since 2004 with the arrival of Facebook
that not only emphasizes reasons to feel bad about
your life and yourself and your society, but that
is not fact-checked in any way whatsoever. Where do we perceive this? This close to our faces. Facebook was originally
something for your desk, those old cathode ray tube
computers that sat on your desk. Even the guys who designed
Facebook didn’t realize it was going to go like this, literally right
next to their face. That wasn’t what they
meant with the name, but that’s what
has happened since. So we’re not only getting a
constant stream of bad news that is completely unedited,
we’re physically holding it close to our faces. And your “New York Times,”
like it or hate it, it sits on the table. If you get up and
go somewhere else, “The New York Times” does not
follow you through the house. If you have the news on
on your television set, the television set sits on
a counter or on the wall, the television set doesn’t
walk behind you as you go through your house. Your phone follows
you through the house. The bad news purveyor
is physically on your person constantly. So from the same moment that
social media came on the scene we started feeling
bad about ourselves, and whatever else
Donald Trump is, he’s the greatest
self-promoter in world history. He realized that he could
use that dynamic to go all the way to the White House,
and he was successful. Suppose I’m right, that
most objective trends are positive for most people
and that today’s generation lives better than any
previous generation of the past, and tomorrow’s
generation is likely to live better than today’s
generation does. What are the implications of
that, supposing I’m right? The fact that things are
improving certainly is not just good luck. Positive trends don’t come
down from out of the sky. There are tangible reasons
that things are improving. The most primary one I
go through a lot in this book, but the most primary
one is that reform is much more effective than
generally understood: political reforms, social
reforms that have to do with how we treat each other
at home, social settings, in the workplace,
technological reforms that have to do with how
we build things. Reforms are much more
effective than we think. Reforms in the past have
almost always led to improved outcomes, so I both
spend some time trying to derive what the lessons
learned would be from the reforms that have been
successful, air pollution, health, discrimination,
etc, and then say how do you apply those to the
problems of today? My core finding is that
optimism is the best argument for reform because
if you’re an optimist and you look at the
past and say, “Jeez, “things were a lot worse
and then they got better.” So let’s reform things again
because there is reasonable reason to believe that
reforms will be successful. That’s the optimistic lesson
that you draw especially from the postwar era
in the Western world, but really from the postwar era almost everywhere in the world. I think once we
address climate change, inequality, I think we can
actually fix those things, we’ll wonder why we did not
do it sooner, now some other problem will come along
that will seem daunting, and we’ll figure out a
way to fix that, too. I’ll tell you one last thing, and then I will take questions. Originally the title of this
book was The Arrow of History. Public Affairs books thought
the original title sounded too much like an academic tome. You know what? They were right about that. I think they came up with
a better title than that. But why did I call it
The Arrow of History? The original title was a
play on something said by Franklin Roosevelt
shortly before he died. This is a 1945 FDR quote. FDR was the most
accomplished reformer of the last century, and he
said, and just in the original title I changed
the word trend to arrow because I thought it
sounded classier, but anyway Roosevelt said, “The great fact to
remember is that the trend “of civilization
is forever upward.” Well, FDR was right then,
and he is right today. We’ve forgotten this great fact. We need to remember it,
both to have a fuller appreciation of our own
lives and to argue for the next round of reforms to come. Thanks.
(applauding) – Why do you think
people wanted to believe Donald Trump, that
everything was so bad? – The want to believe is
a very puzzling question. I propose in this book that
there are four basic ways of knowing: One is certainty. The sun is 93 million
miles from the Earth. We’re certain of that. There’s nothing to talk about. Another is faith versus doubt. We can neither prove nor
disprove the existence of God. Based on current knowledge, the question of does God exist? is impossible to
answer or to refute. Maybe at some point in
the future it will be, but this is a
category of knowing where all there
is is wonderment. Then there’s the third
category that’s opinion: What beer tastes best? Who should have
won the Super Bowl? Who is the best
basketball player? It’s impossible. There is no right or wrong
answer to questions like that, there’s only your opinion. Then there is what
you want to believe, and what you want to believe
is stronger than all other categories of knowing combined. The strongest possible kind
of belief is what you want to believe, and 63 million
people in the fall of 2016 wanted to believe that
everything about America is bad, bad, bad, down, down, down, terrible, terrible, terrible. It wasn’t just that they
were not crazy about, Hillary Clinton was not
the world’s best candidate, we all know that. She could have done
a much better job. But it wasn’t just that they
did not think she was the world’s best candidate,
people wanted to believe that the United States
was falling apart. The people who voted
for Brexit in UK, by and large they wanted to
believe that the European Union was a terrible thing
for citizens of Britain. Why people want to believe this, why people want to
believe bad things, I wish I had the answer. The only thing I can tell
you that I think is this thought line has been in
American culture not for decades but for centuries. I have a chapter on why people
want to believe bad things. It’s speculative because I
don’t think you can prove what people’s inner
motivations are, but I start that chapter
by citing great works of literature, nonfiction
books, novels, and plays that said that
America was about to fall apart, that said that
everything was coming unglued and the world
was ending and citing the reasons that they said. The big reason that was
constantly cited was illegal immigration, illegal
immigrants pouring into the country, ruining our culture, how terrible everything was,
and how great it was in the past back in those
good old days. We can never figure out
exactly when or where they were, but there were good
old days back in the past, and the good old
days are now ending. I describe these books
without giving their names and then of course you
have already guessed what the trick is, and then
I tell you their names, and all the books and plays
and novels and other works of art that I refer to are
all at least half a century old, and many of them are
more than one century old, things from the 19th century, great authors predicting
that America was right on the verge of falling apart. It hasn’t happened, but
this thought has been in our collective consciousness
pretty much the entire time the country has existed. – You have given us a
lot of good things to think about, so I
thank you very much for It’s Better than It Looks. Thank you.
– Thank you, Joanne. (applauding) (gentle music) – [Announcer] For more
on this program and other Carnegie Ethics
Studio Productions, visit carnegiecouncil.org. There you can video
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multi-media resources on global ethics. This program is made possible
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One thought on “Global Ethics Forum: It’s Better than It Looks, with Gregg Easterbrook

  1. Sorry to say this.  What I've been reading is our life spans are shortening.  Our IQs are falling.  We are one of the sickest of the rich nations.  Nothing matters more than health.  I haven't read the book, mostly because our health problems overshadow everything else.   Right now, more than 60% of the adult population already  has at least one chronic disease  ( probably from environmental pollution ).  Now we have a  presidential cabinet that is science illiterate, hell bent on deregulating pollution..     I'm guessing that 10 years after the Trumpets leave office, that having cancer is the new normal.  We'll probably  all have slave labor jobs and the rich be drowning in money. The economy doesn't matter when we're sick and dying except the top wealthy have health care while they die.

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