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The Progress Paradox

Ben Wattenberg: Hello. Iím Ben Wattenberg. Economically weíre better off than we ever have been. Technological progress is helping us live longer healthier lives. We have good data on that. And yet there is some survey research that shows Americans are feeling sadder about their circumstance. If everything is so good, why do we feel so bad? Joining us today is Gregg Easterbrook, renaissance man, visiting fellow at The Brookings Institution, senior editor of The New Republic, a contributing editor for the Atlantic Monthly, author of The Here and Now; a weekly column about football; and the forthcoming book The Progress Paradox. The topic before the house: Gregg Easterbrook and the Progress Paradox. This week on ďThink Tank.Ē Welcome.
Gregg Easterbrook: Hi, Ben.
Ben Wattenberg: Have you finished the manuscript of The Progress Paradox?
Gregg Easterbrook: Yes. Oh, Iím very happy to say that Iím finished.
Ben Wattenberg: And that will be published in Ď04?
Gregg Easterbrook: Late fall or the beginning of next year. Yes.
Ben Wattenberg: Or the beginning of Ď04?
Gregg Easterbrook: Yes.
Ben Wattenberg: So about a year from now?
Gregg Easterbrook: Roughly a year.
Ben Wattenberg: Tell me a little bit about your background. Where youíre from, whatíd your parents do?
Gregg Easterbrook: Background. I was born in Buffalo, New York. My parents were both Canadians. My dad became a citizen in the beginning of WWII by joining the U.S. Army. I have two brothers, one sister. We all grew up in Buffalo. And only my father still lives there.
Ben Wattenberg: I went to school at Hobart in Geneva, New York. Which is right in that Snow Belt.
Gregg Easterbrook: Right around the corner, yeah. It all Snow Belt, yes.
Ben Wattenberg: And where did you go to college?
Gregg Easterbrook: I went to Colorado College, a little school in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Ben Wattenberg: And then you went somewhere beyond?
Gregg Easterbrook: I have a masterís in journalism from Northwestern and I am rare in the writing profession in that having a masterís in journalism hasnít harmed me.
Ben Wattenberg: It can do that. The first part of your book is about whatís gone right in America. Why donít you go through some of that. Letís start with crime, for example.
Gregg Easterbrook: Sure. I contend, and I think that you can show that, essentially all major trends in the United States are positive and in most cases have been positive for a long time. Because of September 11 and other factors weíre all so concerned with, oh that things are getting worse or that our lives are going downhill somehow certainly people feel that way. But if you look at the major trends that really mater: crime, environment, healthcare, most aspects of global affairs, people especially living standards, longevity, all those things are positive. Crime is the most dramatic example. Twenty years ago the increase in crime and the inability of people to feel safe on their own streets was the probably the scariest thing about the country. Certainly had a terrible effect on everybodyís quality of life.
Ben Wattenberg: But the crime rate, while better than it was twenty years ago, is not as good as it was forty years ago.
Gregg Easterbrook: Yes. The last ten years have seen a huge decline in crime but itís a huge decline from a high level. We could stillóthe United States still has one of the highest murder rates in the world even though murder in most cities has declined by more than fifty percent in the last ten years.
Ben Wattenberg: But basically in the last decade or so the violent crime rate, which is the one we care about, has been coming down?
Gregg Easterbrook: Yes. Itís come way down. Last year, year 2002, New York City had the same number of murders it had in the year 1963. But we look at New York as an indicator because itís so big and so influential in American thinking. All forms of violent crime have declined by at least a half and in some cases about three-quarters in New York in the last ten years. And like we said, theyíve declined from a level that was shockingly high. So they still should continue to, in an ideal world crime should decline far more than it already has. But the main point is that on this essential barometer trends are positive and trends are positive in burglary, violence against women, domestic violence, car theft, practically every category of crime that exists.
Ben Wattenberg: What about the health situation in America? When we pick up a paper every day we hear thereís more cancer, thereís more this, thereís more that.
Gregg Easterbrook: People discuss health in America as if huge calamities were in progress that global plagues may sweep the country, that theyóyou hear the phrase ďthe poisoning of America.Ē If our bodies are being poisoned, they have a strange way of showing it because longevity has steadily increased throughout the Twentieth Century, continues to increase now at the beginning of the Twentieth Centuryólifespan at birth for an American was forty-six years. Itís now seventy-seven years. It continues to increase. Itís been increasing at aÖpretty much a linear rate, uh, for the last hundred years at least. Heart disease is down dramatically. Fatalities from heart disease have declined fifty percent in the last twenty-five years. Fatalities from stroke are down seventy percent. Hypertension is down. Some forms of cancer are down. Thereís statistical debate right now what exactly what to say on cancer but itís certainly true that cancer has stopped, cancer incidents have stopped increasing.
Ben Wattenberg: And longevity is up?
Gregg Easterbrook: And longevity is up. And thereís no reason to think that it wonít keep going up.And vigor in aging keeps going up. In our grandparentsí generation the seventy year old would, there you go, you may pump iron Ben, for all we know. In our grandparentsí generation a seventy year oldÖ
Ben Wattenberg: I do it when Iím not too lazy.
Gregg Easterbrook: Öwas expected to rest in a rocking chair. And now a seventy year old, eighty year olds have television shows, they travel around the world, certainly there are some, this doesnít apply to everybody but thereís a large majority of people in the senior citizen category who are very active and living vigorous lives and no reason why that canít continue to increase either.
Ben Wattenberg: How much of our increased health is due to more exercise and sports? You have a whole second life as a sportsman, right?
Gregg Easterbrook: Yes.
Ben Wattenberg: I mean thatís supposed to be good for most everything that ails you, isnít it?
Gregg Easterbrook: Yes, now the downside of American healthcare is that overweight Americans are popping up all around us. The typical American is now overweight. Obesity is rising. One-fifth of the population is obese. Most of thatósome of thatís from junk food and some of itís from eating too much. A lot of itís from lack of exercise. The spectacular exception of marathon runners, and aerobics classes aside, the typical American is increasingly sedentary. We donít even walk around our own neighborhoods. And the health studies clearly show that mild, brisk exercise, spending half an hour a day walking, adds five to ten years to your life. You donít have to become a marathon runner or a tennis player.
Ben Wattenberg: Iím leaving. Letís go. Letís take a walk around the block.
Gregg Easterbrook: Yeah. Itís very good for you, right.
Ben Wattenberg: And you write a sports column what once a week during the football season?
Gregg Easterbrook: During the football season, yes.
Ben Wattenberg: Called?
Gregg Easterbrook: Itís called ďTuesday Morning Quarterback.Ē Itís on ESPN dot com. But I started writing it so my wife would let me watch football on Sundays. Seeóshe always wanted to take the kids to picturesque state parks or important cultural events and once I could say but honey, Iím making money by watching football. Then she was completely flummoxed.
Ben Wattenberg: Does that appear in hardcopy anyway? Or thatís just onÖ
Gregg Easterbrook: Itís on the ESPN website, ESPN-dot-com.
Ben Wattenberg: So, itís not published in the old sense, only in the new sense?
Gregg Easterbrook: Itís only in the new sense. Right. But they tell me itís their most printed out feature. They know that somehow.
Ben Wattenberg: Oh is that right? And you have sort of a humorous twist on a lot of it?
Gregg Easterbrook: Um-hum.
Ben Wattenberg: Letís just continue on about how wonderful everything is gone. I guess when you get into the realm of civil rights, equality, that kind of thing weíve made enormous strides. Is that, thatís one of the points you make.
Gregg Easterbrook: Sure. Formal discrimination is over. And equally important I think informal discrimination is declining. Although nobody would argue that bias is gone. Itís still very much a factor in American life. Itís declining on the legal and the informal basis. And if you look at the barometers that really matter and African American income statistics are one, African American poverty rate today is the lowest itís been in American history. Black male college graduates, African Americans as a group still earn a quarter less than Whites as a group. So thereís still a clear income disparity. But for educated Blacks thereís very little. Black male college students earn only slightly less than White male college graduates. And female Black college graduates earn slightly more than White female college graduates. Got to get all those words in.
Ben Wattenberg: Right. And Black teenage pregnancies have gone way downÖ
Gregg Easterbrook: Way down. Yes. Yes.
Ben Wattenberg: Öin the last decade. I mean way, way down. And Black total fertility rate for the entire African American population compared to the entire so-called Anglo population is almost even now. And it used to be about a full child difference. In other words theyíre both at just about two children per woman and it used to be four versus three or something like that.
Gregg Easterbrook: Well I thinkÖ
Ben Wattenberg: So thereís been a lot of change.
Gregg Easterbrook: Öwhat youíll find is that increasingly Blacks become middle class we live here in Washington where there are large, one of the cityóWashington, Atlanta, several other big cities in the United States now have Black middle class areas, itís very significant to see the development of a large Black middle class. I think historians will consider this a prominent feature of era. And most African American middle class neighborhoods, family structures are conventional, values are solidly middle American. I mean the analogy that I make to the African American population is that if you consider African Americans to be an immigrant group that arrived in the United States in 1964Ö
Ben Wattenberg: And I think post civil rights laws thatís a pretty goodÖ
Gregg Easterbrook: 1964 is when it started. Thatís when Blacks acquired legal equality in the United States. And immigrant groups traditionally have taken two to three generations to take a full share of the establishment, and thatís what youíre seeing now with African Americans. The first generation is finished; thereís a few prominent ones, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, etc. Second generation is now all going to college. I donít certainly wouldnít pretend that all problems are solved for Blacks; obviously not. But the trends that you see, the trends that you saw with White immigrant groups and by the end of the third generation, theyíll have the same share of the establishment that anybody else does.
Ben Wattenberg: Okay. As we say, but on the other hand, and your whole book is, I guess half and half or something. It has as we mentioned in the setup piece a but on the other hand section to it and soÖwhat do we know about on the other hand?
Gregg Easterbrook: Well what strikes me and we could go through a lot of examples in environmental living standards, bigger houses, nicer cars, nicer clothes, more people working in white collar jobs than blue collar jobs. By dozens of measures life has gotten better for most people in the United States including most average people in the United States. But it doesnít seem to make us any happier. Polling data shows that happiness has not increased since the 1950s. Per capita real income, the real amount of money the average American makes has more than doubled in that period but happiness hasnít gone up. Whereas the number of people who consider themselves depressed, in the clinical sense, unipolar depression, has increased ten times in that period.
Ben Wattenberg: Now what does that mean, clinical sense, unipolar justÖ
Gregg Easterbrook: Thereís some disagreement on how to use these words but bipolar or manic depression is still rare and itís believed to be a chemically related disease, biological in origin. Itís not your fault if you get this and itís treated with chemicals. Unipolar depression is the form of depression where you just basically always feel bad for no clear reason. And this is thought to be mainly psychological in origin. Doesnít seem to have anything to do with our gene structures or body chemistry. Itís not a disease. Itís a condition thatís created by society or created by our own minds in some way. And compared to population growth, there are ten times more depressed people in society now than there were fifty years ago. This is an almost eerie synchronization of rising to prosperity and rising unhappiness.
Ben Wattenberg: Isnít that partly a measurement phenomenon? In other words did we have the same sophisticated sort of measurements fifty years ago about how many people felt bad? That badlyÖ
Gregg Easterbrook: Iím sureÖ
Ben Wattenberg: Öabout their own situation?
Gregg Easterbrook: With depression especially Iím sure some of itís an artifact of better diagnosis, that the taboo of discussing this is over. In our grandparentsí generation there were depressed people but they kind of sat in darkened rooms and nobody talked about them and now itís normal to discuss this and seek help.
Ben Wattenberg: Normal to be abnormal.
Gregg Easterbrook: Noówell I mean you wouldnít call a depressed person abnormal. A depressed personís unhappy with life and itís now normal to seek help. And depressed people should, if anybody listening to your show is thinking of this Iíll tell you that the statistics show that two-thirds of people respond to treatment for depression. Whether itís therapy or drugs or both. If you feel depressed and you havenít done anything about it, you should definitely see a counselor Ďcause thereís a two in three chance youíll get better. However the rising incidence of depression while prosperity is rising is a great puzzle. Itís the central paradox to me.
Ben Wattenberg: Do you link that to the rise in affluence and the rise in getting the things we want?
Gregg Easterbrook: I think consumerism must be one factor in it. If you think about the 50s as the easy example to useóthe small houses and one family, one car families and of the 1950s or families in which maybe one person or nobody went to college, people dreamed then that if we acquired what we have today everybodyÖmost people go to college, large houses, big comfortable cars that material things would make us happy.
Ben Wattenberg: Second cars, third cars.
Gregg Easterbrook: Second, third, yeah, thereís a lot of the three car, five television families now. And these arenít rich people. You know people in the middle class. Weíve now acquired the things that were dreamed of in the 50s and they havenít made us happy. A psychological research shows that clearly if youíre poor, youíre unhappy about it. Nobody would expect a poor person not to be unhappy about his or her state. But somewhere around about ten thousand dollars per year, per capita incomeÖ
Ben Wattenberg: So ten thousand per year, per capita income would mean a husband and wife, two children is a income of forty thousand dollars a year.
Gregg Easterbrook: Yeah. Thatís the point at which additional income in research decouples from happiness and getting more money has nothing to do with how happy you feel in life. In a sense this is the proof that money cannot buy happiness. But researchers who have studied people, higher income people are no happier than lower income people. Members of the Forbes Four Hundred, the list of the richest men and women in the world, are not any happier as a group than people who earn the median income. Money doesnít buy happiness. The proof is now in. If anybody doubted it, thatís true. I think the modern era creates a materialism jealousy effect that didnít exist before that you might call catalog induced anxiety. In previous centuries thereíve always been people of spectacular wealth and most people knew that they existed but they didnít know the details of the lives of the Rockefellers or the Astors. All they knew was that they had lives that people could only dream of. Now we see every possible detail of the life of rich people, uh, on television, in Vanity Fair, in People magazine. The way the rich live is covered in extraordinary detail. And I think it makes people feel, even people who are themselves relatively well off, not wealthy but live in a nice house, donít worry about where their next meal will come from, because they see the details of the lives of wealthy and the celebrities, it makes them feel that they themselves havenít gotten what they wanted. A telling statistic on this is that if youóno matter how much an American earns, he or she tells pollsters that twice as much is required to live well. So a person who earns twenty-five thousand dollars says you gotta have fifty thousand. A person who earns fifty says you gotta have a hundred. A person who earns a hundred says you gotta have two hundred. Weíre programmed to think that we canít live well unless we get much more. You can find individuals who have realized that money doesnít buy happiness and that endlessly chasing the last dollar of maximized income is a formula for unhappiness. But as a society as a whole I donít think weíve realized this yet. I think you might call this the revenge of the credit card. Your American Express card absolutely cannot buy you happiness. It can buy you unhappiness. If you use it too much, get into debt, you have debt problems, you have to work around the clock to pay your bills, the credit card will buy you unhappiness very reliably. But it canít buy you happiness.
Ben Wattenberg: Whatís missing is meaning. Is that what youÖ If I said, Gregg, whatís the cause of this?
Gregg Easterbrook: One theory that I throw out is that weíre in a period of transition from materialistic want to meaning want. I would never claim that Americans are about to stop becoming being materialistic. I donítóno sign points to that. And previous, many previous predictions have been made that consumerism was about to end and people would lose interest in buying things. Itís never turned out to be true and I doubt that it will. But I think people have gained a second interest in really wanting to feel that their lives have meaning or value. Itís common sense now that you know I live in a nice house, Iíve got a comfortable car, my kids are going to college, but what does my life mean? Whatís the purpose of my life? I think itís much more common to think this today and itís a healthy sign that people think this obviously. But the sense of meaning in life is much more difficult to acquire than material possessions.
Ben Wattenberg: Is that something that troubles you personally? Meaning in your life?
Gregg Easterbrook: Not me personally, no. ĎCause I have a strong sense of meaning in my life from a combination of religious faith, ethical philosophy, and my three children, the standard way in which many people find meaning is through their children. I have three wonderful kids and so of those three things: faith, ethical philosophy, and children I have a good sense of meaning in life. I hope. But I see this as a challenge for society and to a certain extent a cause of discontent because the sense of meaning is harder to acquire than a material item. I can explain to you very briefly how to get a car if you want a car or if you need a new suit. You know anybody knows how to do that. If you need a sense of meaning in life, I canít give you a fast thirty second explanation of how to find it. And each person has to find that sense on their on and in many cases alone.
Ben Wattenberg: And youíre seeing in the United States, what some people call the third religious awakening that there is a, I was talking to some people who teach, talking about the tremendous renaissance of religious interest on the part of the students. And that would be of a piece with what youíre talking about.
Gregg Easterbrook: And it makes sense to me. People have supposed in the past that affluence would inevitably make the country superficial. That people would stop caring about spiritual topics and only care about their clothes and their cars and their sub-zero refrigerators. And you can find examples of people that thatís happened to. But I think in the long run affluence will be good for spirituality. It will give people the time and leisure in which to say thereís got to be more to life than this. Human relations have got to matter more than the stuff that I own. And I think weíre at the just at the very beginning of this transition of people starting to think that everyone should have a spiritual component in their lives. Now people do steadily go to church less. But belief in God is as high as it ever was. And you donít have to believe in God to be spiritual. The concern with spiritual matters I expect to rise over decades to come.
Ben Wattenberg: You mentioned when you talked about meaning and I think itís true amongst ninety-nine percent of the people that children is sort of the keystone of what offers meaning to peopleís lives. We did a show called the ďGrandparent Gap.Ē And talked to some Italian women andÖ
Gregg Easterbrook: Italy especially, yeah.
Ben Wattenberg: Öthey bought up a very interesting thing is that one of the ministers we talked to is, perhaps the most advertised regular product on Italian television is pet food. That theyíre replacing children with pets.
Gregg Easterbrook: Um-hum.
Ben Wattenberg: And the same thing, to a lesser extent, is happening in the United States.
Gregg Easterbrook: Yes. And I think that will be an increasing factor in future. All the projections show fertility decline throughout the world. And it is amazing to think that Italy, the most Catholic of countries, has the lowest birth rate in the Western world right now. Birth rates are very low in the Scandinavian nations as well. And I think both through the gradual decline in having children, although Americans are still pretty good at it, and the ways in which our lives have become somewhat less connected to each other, Iíve called this the nice hotel room factor. Itís like being in a really nice hotel room on a vacation except youíre there by yourself. And yeah youíre in a really nice hotel room but thereís nobody there with you. Fifteen percent of Americans now live alone which is by far the highest itís been historically. Some people especially you know young single people are happier living alone but most people are not. The extent that affluence and technology makes it possible for us to have fewer connections to friends, family, community, relatives, you would think that that would be a long term cause of unhappiness for most people at least.
Ben Wattenberg: So what are we, whatís the therefore? What are we supposed to do about all this?
Gregg Easterbrook: Well I think long term, and Iím not sure how this would be done, society has to be restructured to reduce emphasis on material possessions. I think some of this will happen naturally. The sense that each generation should possess substantially more than the previous generation will probably end of its own accord just because of the success of affluence. Consider that my generation, most people grew up in a two bedroom house was the average house size. Today the average house size in the United States is three-and-a-half bedrooms. So the average is probably twice as big even though there are fewer people in the typical household. But I donít think itís gonna double again. I donít think that my children will live in houses of an average seven bedroom houses.
Ben Wattenberg: No. But they might have electronics in it that you wouldnít dream of.
Gregg Easterbrook: Yes. Certainly they will posses gizmos I canít imagine. But I donít think the arc of constant increase in living standards will continue too much longer because itís already gone so far. Now, the counter argument would be that John Kenneth Galbraith in his 1958 book, The Affluent Society said that the arc of living standards was just about to stop because people already had all they could possibly possess. And that was 1958 look whatís happened since. But I think there will be a general movement toward more concern with issues of meaning and spirit and peopleís lives. People will become more conscious of human connections than we are now and trying to cultivate them. I mean this is my optimistic outlook. Lots of things could go wrong, obviously.
Ben Wattenberg: I mean happiness as we measure it is the absence of human misery. I mean you can say I mean a person living in a dictatorship today may not be happier in a measurable sense when he lives in a liberal democracy. But he certainly likes the idea of being able to speak his mindÖ
Gregg Easterbrook: Yes.
Ben Wattenberg: Öand read a newspaper that has the truth in it and so on.
Gregg Easterbrook: Yes. I think so, yes. Certainly it is realistic to think that society could really eliminate misery, physical misery, health misery, the misery of being poor. Those thingóitís realistic to have as goals the elimination of those things. Itís not realistic to think that our societyís going to make everybody happy. It would be nice if it happened and it might happen. ButÖ
Ben Wattenberg: Iím just wondering if, mentioned something I should have mentioned before when youíre talking about how well off the people who are well off are today. You take something like the cost of college plus and a lot of people giving the demographics now are putting their kids through incredibly expensive colleges, even the public schools let alone the ivy league schools at the same time that they have to take care of their parents who in an earlier era might have died earlier. So theyíre sort of you know they can have their forty thousand dollars a year but they got two kids in college and their mother is a widow and she needs help from them and whatever. There may be more room for material acquisition than we think.
Gregg Easterbrook: Oh possible. Ióthe best measure I think of this is, there are studies showing the amount of time the typical person has to work to acquire the buying power to buy things. And almost everything is declining by that measure. You work, the typical person works fewer weeks to afford his house, fewer weeks to afford his car, many fewer hours to afford food. The two things that have gone up are healthcare and college educations. Typical person has to work longer to afford those things. So those are two, Iíve got three kids and theyíre headed for college and I donít even want to think about what the invoice is gonna be. And their just roughly aÖ
Ben Wattenberg: So you start writing that sports column every week instead of just during football season.
Gregg Easterbrook: Thatís right. Itíll have to become weekly, right.
Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Well thank you very much, Gregg Easterbrook.
Gregg Easterbrook: Sure.
Ben Wattenberg: Good luck on finding meaning, on getting your kids through college. Thank you for joining us. And thank you. Please remember to send us your comments via e-mail. They help us make our program better. For ďThink Tank,Ē Iím Ben Wattenberg.

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