[from THE FUTURIST, May-June 2001]
It's Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years
by Stephen Moore and Julian L. Simon. Cato Institute. 2000. 294 pages.
Paperback. Available from the Futurist Bookstore for $14.95 ($13.50 for
Society members), cat. no. B-2374. Click here to Order.
Reviewed by Lane Jennings
America's Century of Progress
Life is better than ever for Americans. So why are they so gloomy?
It's Getting Better All the Time is designed to raise a reader's
spirits--and it does. But reading carefully between the lines may raise some
unsettling questions, too.
In his final book, the late economist Julian Simon sets out to show how
dramatically the U.S. standard of living improved during the twentieth
century--particularly in the last 50 years. Simon was long an articulate and
impassioned optimist regarding prospects for the future; the book was
completed by Stephen Moore, his young protegé at the Cato Institute, a
well-known libertarian think tank.
Assembling statistics from 21 areas, Moore and Simon have little difficulty
demonstrating that people who lived in the United States in 1900--or even in
1950--were significantly less healthy, less wealthy, and had fewer
opportunities to realize their private dreams than Americans today. A few
examples and quotations are enough to make this point:
Better health. In 1900 the average American citizen could expect to live
just under 50 years; today that figure stands at 77 years and is still
Better food. Food today is more plentiful, more nutritious, more appetizing,
more varied, and relatively cheaper than in 1900. "The cost of purchasing
food in terms of time worked has fallen about fivefold over the twentieth
Amazing affluence. "More financial wealth has been generated in the United
States over the past 50 years than was created in all the rest of the world
in all the centuries before 1950." And while a few phenomenally wealthy
individuals may grab the headlines, the very definition of "rich" in America
has been revolutionized. There are now some 8 million millionaires in the
United States (up from 5,000 in 1900); the median family income in America
has nearly doubled since 1950; and those Americans who own stock now
outnumber trade union members three to one.
More comfort, less hardship. While agreeing that too many Americans (some 30
million) still come within the government's official definition of "poor,"
Moore and Simon point out that in America today the poor make up a far
smaller percentage of the total population than ever before. In 1950, 30% of
U.S. citizens were classified as poor (75% of blacks). Today those figures
have dropped to 15% overall, and only 25%-30% of blacks.
Moore and Simon also point out that being poor in America today doesn't
involve as much hardship as it once did. If a family's standard of living
(i.e., what they can afford to buy) is considered rather than cash income
alone, the number of Americans living in poverty is really less than the
government's count. Citing research by University of Texas economist Daniel
Slesnick, the authors note that most poor Americans today "have a living
standard . . . higher than that of the middle class 50 years ago, and higher
than that of all but the richest Americans at the start of the [twentieth]
Almost 40% of "poor" families in America today own their own homes; 70% own
a car or truck, 95% own at least one television, and 99% have a
refrigerator, indoor plumbing, and electricity.
The authors also note that, in 1998, the U.S. government drew the "poverty"
line at an income of $8,480 per year or less. Yet in that year this amount
was higher than the average per capita income in 155 countries--and nearly
double the global average income of $4,890.
Other "good news" from Moore and Simon include statistics that show
improvements for American children and teens (drug-use and smoking down,
childhood diseases dramatically reduced, fewer teenage pregnancies); for
minorities (more legal protection and social justice, gains in education,
income, and health); for women (less household drudgery, more women in
college, and, recently, many more women in top business and professional
jobs); and for workers (the number of holidays and vacation days has more
than doubled, while Americans today retire on average five years earlier (at
age 60) and enter the workforce two years later than they did at
If life in America is so good, why do many Americans still feel dissatisfied
and yearn for "the good old days?" Moore and Simon believe the fault lies
with the media.
They explain the persistence of pessimism among Americans as a case of
constantly obsessing over problems while ignoring progress. This happens
because good news is underreported and bad news exaggerated because fear
sells. Quoting Michael Prowse, a writer for the Financial Times of London,
the authors agree that "The United States has a much worse reputation than
it deserves. Commercial television and cinema represent a grotesquely
distorted image of modern American life. The tendency of foreigners to bash
the U.S. is encouraged by the very openness of the society. . . . Other
countries try to hide their sins in the interest of progress. Americans take
delight in exposing theirs."
Certainly the statistics that Moore and Simon present in this
book--reinforced with impressive full-color, full-page graphs--make a
convincing case for how much more Americans of today possess and enjoy than
their ancestors did a century--or even half a century--ago.
But nowhere do the authors take account of the psychological forces in
American life. Without denying the accuracy of their data, a thoughtful
reader may well question whether Moore and Simon draw the only possible
conclusions from the facts they present.
For example, they state that the pay for most occupations today is better
than ever; and specifically assert that "teachers, service workers, steel
workers, secretaries, and factory workers, just to name a few, fare
substantially better financially than their counterparts did 40 years ago."
Financially better, perhaps. But consider what these particular occupations
have lost in those same 40 years.
American factory and steelworkers today, though highly paid and still the
envy of the world for their unmatched skill and productivity, can no longer
feel secure in their jobs. The globalization of markets and manufacturing
facilities has made every industry subject to fluctuations in demand and
cost pressures that bear no relation to performance on the job. How can you
feel secure when you know you may be downsized out of your job with little
warning due to fast-changing economic conditions?
American life is better today, if what we mean by better is "more physically
comfortable," "less monotonous," "more entertaining." But someone needs to
ask how we can restore--or at least compensate for having to live
without--the sense of community, respect, stability, and pride of place that
make the American Dream something more than just a grab for dollars.
That said, It's Getting Better All the Time should be taken seriously. To
ignore America's genuine progress over the past 100 years does a disservice
to the men and women whose effort made that progress possible. Taking our
present affluence for granted also blinds us to the intensely held
aspirations of less-developed nations. If Americans find problems with the
material paradise they inhabit, they still must acknowledge that the
paradise exists and recognize that attempts to simply dismantle it (instead
of working to sustain and extend its genuine benefits to people who still
lack them) will neither satisfy this nation's critics nor make their own
Even relatively well-to-do citizens in Europe, Asia, and Latin America
routinely endure periodic shortages of food and consumer goods, unreliable
public services, and currency fluctuations unknown in the United States.
Facing the facts of prosperity, as Moore and Simon present them, makes it
easier to understand why so many people in so many nations would rather be
"poor" in America than remain where they are with little hope of much
About the Reviewer
Lane Jennings is research director of THE FUTURIST, production editor of
Future Survey, and author of Virtual Futures.
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