Sunday, October 02, 2005

Book review: The Progress Paradox

My advice to those who want to read this Gregg Easterbrook book: Skim. He beats you over the head with so much statistical detail that it's easy to read 15 pages and say, "Whoa, he's still on that point?"

If you skim, you can save yourself some repetitive reading and get to the point. And it's worth it.

We're a melodramatic society. Some folks even think we're living in the end times, citing the hurricanes, the terrorists and the occasional bout of disease. They're forgetting that our grandparents and great-grandparents saw two world wars, storms we couldn't foresee on radar, and smallpox as a fact of life rather than a vague threat.

And that's Easterbrook's point. Life is better today than it's ever been, any way you look at it. And believe me, he looks at it every way imaginable. The "paradox" is that we think life is getting worse, and we're letting ourselves be unhappy.

Easterbrook, a thoughtful religious man in addition to a sociopolitical writer and NFL humorist, takes things a step further, suggesting a way out of our self-induced psychosis. In a neat synthesis of stats, spirituality and Greek philosophy, he suggests that we would be happier if we would act more selflessly. Quit fretting about getting ahead in the rat race, he suggests, and do more to help those in need. After all, we're making progress helping the less fortunate and should be encouraged to do more.

The argument isn't flawless. Easterbrook's thoughts on psychiatry overlap uncomfortably with Tom Cruise's, and he's a bit overbearing in lambasting our consumerism. Not saying he has to be a true believer in supply-side economics, but he should at least address "trickle-down" theories before dismissing consumption as evil.

On a personal level, he doesn't quite address the things that keep me from being fully happy. I know life is better now that it ever was. My fretting comes from two areas. First, that I'm not taking full advantage of the fact that I'm living in the best time in history. Should I be making more of a contribution given the advantages of health and comfort? I didn't even have to fight a war as all my immediate ancestors fought.

Second, addressed in passing in the book -- the more you have, the more difficult it is to maintain, and the more you fear losing it. Today, I live in a nice house in a beautiful neighborhood. It is, in many respects, a wonderful reward for toiling through the last couple of decades. On the other hand, it's a bear. I have a lot of responsibilities around the house and in the yard. The latter already isn't as nice as it was the day we moved in. The former is slightly better, but we had to shell out some money to make that happen.

But Easterbrook's message of life's improvement, which should be obvious but isn't, is too important to ignore. Besides, where else will you learn we've made progress not only in life expectancy, infant mortality, food supply and every other thing you'd expect, but also in cutting down on lawsuits? Apparently, they were more prevalent in years past because we didn't have neat and tidy town codes. Who knew?

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