July 24, 2018

NO ONE HAS IT HARDER THAN THEIR FATHER DID:

Are Things Getting Better or Worse?: Why assessing the state of the world is harder than it sounds. (Joshua Rothman, 7/24/18, The New Yorker)

Branko Milanović grew up in Yugoslavia, during the nineteen-sixties and seventies. He became an economist at the World Bank and then a professor at cuny; on his blog, Globalinequality, he discusses economics and reminisces about the past. Recently, he published a post about his youth. He had been reading histories of the postwar decades, by Svetlana Alexievich, Tony Judt, and others. Faced with these grim accounts, Milanović felt protective of his past. "However hard I tried," he wrote, "I just could not see anything in my memories that had to deal with collectivization, killings, political trials, endless bread lines, imprisoned free thinkers," and so on. Instead, he had mainly good memories--of "long dinners discussing politics," the "excitement of new books," "languid sunsets, whole-night concerts, epic soccer games, girls in miniskirts." He worried that, with the passage of time, it was becoming harder to imagine life under Communism as anything other than a desperate struggle with deprivation and repression. He titled his post "How I Lost My Past."

Was the past good or bad? Are we on the right track or the wrong one? Is life getting better or worse? These questions are easy to ask--pollsters and politicians love asking them--but surprisingly hard to answer. Most historical and statistical evidence shows that life used to be shorter, sicker, poorer, more dangerous, and less free. Yet many people, like Milanović, have fond memories of bygone years, and wonder if reports of their awfulness have been exaggerated. Others concede that life used to be worse in some ways, but wonder if it wasn't also better in others--simpler, more predictable, more spiritual. It's common to appreciate modernity while fearing its destructive potential. (Life expectancy may be higher today, but it will be shorter after the nuclear-climate-bioterror apocalypse.) If being alive now doesn't feel particularly great, perhaps living in the past might not have felt particularly bad. Maybe human existence in most times and places is a mixed bag.

Last year, the Pew Research Center asked people around the world whether life had been better or worse in their countries fifty years ago. A slim plurality of Americans said they thought life had been better. In 1967, the United States was embroiled in the Vietnam War. Protest marches were taking place around the country, crime was surging, and race riots were breaking out in Detroit, Newark, Milwaukee, and other cities. That spring, a wave of tornadoes injured thousands across the Midwest; members of the Black Panther Party, carrying shotguns and rifles, marched into the California statehouse to protest a racially motivated gun-control law. In June, the Six-Day War broke out. Americans lived in smaller houses, ate worse food, worked more hours, and died, on average, seven years earlier. On the other hand, nasa launched several moon probes and Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced" helped launch the Summer of Love. By an obscure retrospective calculus, the good appears to balance out the bad. Frightening events seem less so in retrospect. Memory is selective, history is partial, and youth is a golden age. For all these reasons, our intuitive comparisons between the past and the present are unreliable. Many Americans living in 1967 might well have thought that life had been better in 1917.

The actual data is illustrative of how disordered the Left and Right--which hate America as it exists--are.

Posted by at July 24, 2018 4:27 AM

  

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