Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Apocalypse Later

Bad news sells. It's a cliche, yes; it's also evidenced by a cursory glance of the media. Pick up the New York Times and witness the new heyday of doomsday journalism: the chorus is singing an elegy for American prosperity, with glee. From cable news analysts to news magazine cover features, the consensus is that there are dark times ahead. Implicit in their doomsaying is that the American system of capitalism has brought us here.

As I've
posted before, the media are ignoring the fact that, fundamentally, our standard of living continues to improve. Things are getting better. That's why this article on comes as a bit of a surprise.

Partisan cynics will claim that the sentiment of the article is tainted by the very partisanship of the source. But the article is merely an aggregation of statistics from government agencies like the CDC, the DOJ, and the NIH; nonprofit organizations like the National Bureau of Economic Advisers; and mainstream media outlets like
US News and World Report and the Washington Post.

What does the article find? Crime rates continue to plummet. Life expectancy continues to rise. Americans have more free time, more free time to use the latest everyday gadgets that were inconceivable just 30 years ago.

A sampling, from the article:
  • Crime rates are still falling. Violent crime in America has been in a freefall since the early 1990s, despite a slight uptick in 2005 and 2006. Economists, criminologists, and sociologists can't conclusively say why. Explanations range from the 1990s economic boom to changes in crime-fighting strategy to the legalization of abortion to reductions in childhood exposure to lead. Whatever the reason, long-term trends show crime is down across the board.
  • Life expectancy is up. In June, the Centers for Disease Control announced that in 2006 (the latest year for which data is available), Americans once again set a record for life expectancy. Men, women, blacks, whites — all can expect to live longer today than at any point in American history. Discrepancies in the average age of death between ethnic groups are narrowing, too. All of those things we're told need heavy regulation because they're potentially killing us — obesity, alcohol, coffee, sodium, pollution, stress, cell phones — aren't doing a very good job.
  • We have more leisure time. Americans work on average eight fewer hours than we did in the 1960s. Believe it or not, lower-income Americans are actually more likely to spend time at leisure and less time on the job than their wealthier counterparts, suggesting that when we do work long hours, it's more likely to be because we want to than because we have to. We also seem to be enjoying ourselves more. We're spending more money per person on recreation. And the toys we do have (high-definition televisions, iPods, computers, sound systems) are immeasurably more fun than they were generations ago.
It's not in the media's interest to report the good news. I'm not arguing that the media should put on their rose-tinted Ray-Bans and ignore the bad news, and there is bad news. Our economy is ailing, but let's not misdiagnose the patient and reach for the hemlock, instead of the medicine.

HT: Marginal Revolution.