Saturday, February 10, 2018

It Seems The World Is Doing Okay

     “If everything’s a crisis, where’s the crisis?” – Arthur Herzog

     That’s the gist of this Steven Pinker article. The data Pinker presents cross-cuts the pervasive doom-and-gloom messaging of professional crisis-shouters. Here’s a sample:

     Consider the U.S. just three decades ago. Our annual homicide rate was 8.5 per 100,000. Eleven percent of us fell below the poverty line (as measured by consumption). And we spewed 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide and 34.5 million tons of particulate matter into the atmosphere.

     Fast forward to the most recent numbers available today. The homicide rate is 5.3 (a blip up from 4.4 in 2014). Three percent of us fall below the consumption poverty line. And we emit four million tons of sulfur dioxide and 20.6 million tons of particulates, despite generating more wealth and driving more miles.

     Globally, the 30-year scorecard also favors the present. In 1988, 23 wars raged, killing people at a rate of 3.4 per 100,000; today it’s 12 wars killing 1.2 per 100,000. The number of nuclear weapons has fallen from 60,780 to 10,325. In 1988, the world had just 45 democracies, embracing two billion people; today it has 103, embracing 4.1 billion. That year saw 46 oil spills; 2016, just five. And 37% of the population lived in extreme poverty, barely able to feed themselves, compared with 9.6% today. True, 2016 was a bad year for terrorism in Western Europe, with 238 deaths. But 1988 was even worse, with 440.

     Pinker, a cognitive scientist, credits the Enlightenment:

     To what do we owe this progress? Does the universe contain a historical dialectic or arc bending toward justice? The answer is less mysterious: The Enlightenment is working. Our ancestors replaced dogma, tradition and authority with reason, debate and institutions of truth-seeking. They replaced superstition and magic with science. And they shifted their values from the glory of the tribe, nation, race, class or faith toward universal human flourishing.

     Well, you’ll never hear me run down the principles of the Enlightenment, though there were a few clinkers scattered among the gems bequeathed us by Voltaire, Adam Smith, John Locke et alii. (E.g.: “Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest!” – attributed to Denis Diderot, though possibly apocryphal) But Pinker’s ascription is difficult to substantiate, especially given the amount of tribal, ideological, and pseudo-religious madness the world continues to suffer.

     Still, it’s nice to see a few positive numbers for a change. It frees me to worry about real problems, such as the inversion of Earth’s magnetic field and the impending solar minimum.

     But if things have been getting better for decades and are still getting better as we speak, what are the crows of the Left cawing about?


     I wrote some years ago that there is no one in these United States, unless he’s at the summit of Mount McKinley, who involuntarily lacks food, clothing, shelter, or medical care. These things are on offer, cost free, from so many sources that for an American to be in a state of genuinely life-threatening need requires the deliberate self-isolation of the needy American. For the U.S., poverty in the Twenty-First Century differs qualitatively from poverty in the Nineteenth. Today it’s not about being fed, clothed, and sheltered, but about whether the “poor person” can afford the latest iPhone or designer jeans.

     Though Europeans aren’t quite as well off as we, by both absolute and comparative measures they’re doing okay, too. Asians? It varies somewhat, though they’ve enjoyed a rise in living standards over the century past. Africans and South Americans? I don’t have enough data to be circumstantial, but I get the sense that they’re doing better than their grandparents, places like Sudan and Venezuela excepted. So as a statistical aggregate, the human race is better off than ever before.

     That’s not the case in every land. There are still places on Earth where hunger is often involuntary and survival is a day-to-day proposition. And of course, there are still places on Earth whose denizens are trying with all their might to kill one another – sometimes over political ideology, religious dogma, or similar abstractions.

     The charitable impulses of Americans have long been directed toward such persons and places. We do more international charity than the rest of the world combined. Yet we’re often castigated for not doing even more, including by some of our own citizens. This story, while it involves Europeans sneering at the American charitable effort after the Christmas Tsunami, is fairly typical:

     Today, during an afternoon conference that wrapped up my project of the last 18 months, one of my Euro colleagues tossed this little smart-comment out to no one in particular:
     "See, this is why George Bush is so dumb, there's a disaster in the world and he sends an Aircraft Carrier...
     After which he and many of my Euro colleagues laughed out loud, and then they looked at me. I wasn't laughing, and neither was my Hindi friend sitting next to me, who has lost family in the disaster.
     I'm afraid I was "unprofessional", I let it loose -"Hmmm, let's see, what would be the ideal ship to send to a disaster? Now what kind of ship would we want? Something with its own inexhaustible power supply? Something that can produce 900,000 gallons of fresh water a day from sea water?"
     "Something with its own airfield? So that after producing the fresh water, it could help distribute it? Something with 4 hospitals and lots of open space for emergency supplies? Something with a global communications facility to make the coordination of disaster relief in the region easier? Well 'Franz', we peasants in America call that kind of ship an 'Aircraft Carrier'."
     "We have 12 of them. How many do you have? Oh that's right, NONE. Lucky for you and the rest of the world, we are the kind of people who share. Even with people we don't like."
     "In fact, if memory serves, once upon a time we peasants spent a ton of money and lives rescuing people who we had once tried to kill and who tried to kill us. Do you know who those people were? That's right Franz, Europeans."
     "There is a French Aircraft carrier? Where is it? Oh.. Right where it belongs! In France of course! Oh, why should the French Navy dirty their uniforms helping people on the other side of the globe. How Simplesse... The day an American has to move a European out of the way to help in some part of the world it will be a great day in the world, you sniggering little snob..."
     The room fell silent. My Hindi friend then said quietly to the Euros:
     "Can you let your hatred of George Bush end for just one minute? There are people dying! And what are your countries doing? Amazon.com has helped more than France has. You all have a role to play in the world, why can't you see that? Thank God for the US Navy, they don't have to come and help, but they are. They helped you once and you should all thank God they did. They didn't have to, and no one but them would have done so. I'm ashamed of you all..."
     He left the room, shaking and in tears. The frustration of being on the other side of the globe, unable to do anything to assist and faced with people who could not set aside their asininity long enough to reach out and help was too much for him to bear. I just shook my head and left. The Euros stood speechless. Later in the break room, one of the laughing Euros caught me and extended his hand in an apology. I asked him where he was from, he said "a town outside of Berlin". He is a young man, in his early 20's. I asked him if he knew of a man named Gail Halverson. He said no. I said "that's a shame" and walked away to find my Hindi friend.

     That’s the kind of people we are. That’s the kind of nation we are. But we routinely get run down, both by the other nations of the world and by millions of our own citizens, for daring to be rich and safe when others are “poor.” As if their (relative) poverty and insecurity were caused by our prosperity and security.


     There is a human need to believe in the future: not that it’s coming, of course; that’s beyond dispute. We need to believe that the future will be better than the present and the past. Peoples that lack that conviction will tend to self-extinguish...which is what the continent of Europe is doing at the moment.

     But the disease has subvarieties that are manifest in America as well. Consider Thales’s recent cri de coeur, which was as tirade-like as anything my Gentle Readers might find here at Liberty’s Torch. It was ignited by a tweet from an idiot:

     That’s something like an apogee for self-righteous stupidity. The Flint water problem was caused by malfeasance in high places. The very administrators charged with securing the water supply were the ones who allowed it to become foul. Yet according to “Lindsay Beth,” solving that politically created problem should be Elon Musk’s responsibility. Why?

     Musk believes in the human future. He’s put that conviction on display in several ways, which have contributed to our technological advancement. But “Lindsay Beth” will have none of that. Typically for a Cause Person, she holds that all resources, no matter who owns them, should be directed toward her preferred problem. Never mind what that would mean for the rights of private property, or for the prospects of an improved future for Mankind.

     I’d say she’s a good candidate for Thales’s woodchipper.


     The hellish thing about human charity is how much harm it’s done. Andrew Carnegie, arguably the most prominent philanthropist of his day, knew it:

     Those who would administer wisely must, indeed, be wise, for one of the serious obstacles to the improvement of our race is indiscriminate charity. It were better for mankind that the millions of the rich were thrown into the sea than so spent as to encourage the slothful, the drunken, the unworthy.

     In bestowing charity, the main consideration should be to help those who help themselves. It provides part of the means by which those who desire to improve may do so; to give to those who desire to rise the aids by which they may rise; to assist but rarely or never to do all.

     He is the only true reformer who is careful and as anxious not to lead the unworthy as he is to lead the worthy, and perhaps even more so, for in alms giving, more injury may be done by promoting vice than by relieving virtue. Thus, is the problem of the rich and poor to be solved.

     This is a thematic echo of Thomas Mackay’s famous declamation:

     The cause of pauperism is not poverty, the cause of pauperism is State relief, more especially as it is administered in the form of out-door relief [i.e., cash payments to the “poor”]. We shall not get rid of pauperism by extending the sphere of State relief, as proposed in this pension scheme of Mr. Booth. On the contrary, its adoption would increase our pauperism, for as is often said, we can have exactly as many paupers as the country chooses to pay for.

     Now, the above are statements about poverty and what the charitable person may and must not do. but they descend from a larger principle: that responsibility for oneself must not be abraded by others’ efforts, no matter how well-meaning. That principle applies with equal force to communities of every size, up to and including nations. The wisdom of it has too many historical demonstrations to list. Yet we continue to act as if it were otherwise.

     Do you think “Lindsay Beth” has inquired into what the city government of Flint, Michigan is doing about Flint’s water problem? Do you think the residents of that city will even bother to vote out their current crop of rascals for producing this problem and then failing to remedy it?


     I’ve been running on at the keyboard for quite a few words, so I’ll close with a final thrust of my leaden rapier at a chimera that must be slain: the “problem” of “inequality.”

     The Pinker article makes a passing reference to the increase in “inequality” in “developed countries.” Whether this indicates that he believes “inequality” to be a problem to be solved is unclear. However, many activists on the Left treat “inequality,” specifically inequality of wealth and income, as a crisis so great that it mandates the complete transformation of American capitalism.

     But inequality of wealth and income is nothing more than a demonstration of inequality in life itself. Granted, some extremely fortunate persons owe their good fortune to parental ability, or to chance. But these are very few indeed. The great mass of man differ from one another in so many ways that to imagine us “equal” in any sense other than equality before the law is sheerest fantasy. No power on Earth, however it might contrive to do so, can “equalize” the economic states of bright persons and dunces, of the industrious and the lazy, of the physically gifted and the crippled. The inequalities among them, even if eliminated by a dictator’s ukase, would re-emerge almost at once. Once again, this is a fact with ample historical demonstrations.

     Besides, if you’re “doing okay” according to your readiness, willingness, and ability to labor in your own interest, why should it matter that others have more? Are we to make the assuagement of envy the central principle of life?


     To sum up: the parts of the world that are “doing great” are the parts where:

  1. The work ethic is dominant;
  2. Government power is strictly limited;
  3. Private property is widely respected and is protected by law;
  4. Individual freedom is prized and individual responsibility is strongly encouraged;

     The parts of the world that are “doing good” are those with historical legacies of the things enumerated above, usually as a consequence of European colonialism. The rest of the world is “getting by” to the extent that the emissaries and entrepreneurs from the “doing great” and “doing good” parts have been made welcome there.

     So yes, indeed, the Enlightenment mattered...but what matters at least as much are the moral, ethical, and philosophical legacies of Christianity: a body of values and beliefs which only about half of the prominent thinkers of the Enlightenment acknowledged and respected.

     Discuss!

4 comments:

Col. B. Bunny said...

Fran, is it known how quickly a switch in the earth's magnetic field takes place? Hours v. mellenia?

MMinLamesa said...

I remember the Lindsays back in the 60s when we were going to the moon. There are so many better things to spend the money on RIGHT HERE!!!

Well as a young lad in my early teens who was fascinated by our Astronauts, Mercury & Apollo and Houston, we have lift off, I always wondered just WTF they were talking about.

What could possibly be cooler then hitting golf balls on the moon??? I wondered what ever happened to that driver? Talk about mementos if Shepherd kept it!

I lay the lack of fascination right at the feet of teacher's unions and politically correct comics.

Mark Clausen said...

Col. B: Geologic records are challenging to interpret with great precisions, but most reversals seem to take on the order of a thousand to several thousands of years. There is some evidence that indicates it could occur over a human lifetime.

If memory serves, there was a brief reversal in recent (geologic) time that occurred over a few hundred years, but then reversed, again, a few hundred years later. That seems like an anomaly. I suspect we'll be able to gradually observe changes over many decades before a true reversal comes about. Some think that we're already seeing the beginning of a reversal as we see minor decreases in the Earth's magnetic field strength.

It's worthwhile to note that the Earth's magnetic field doesn't completely disappear during a reversal. Instead, it becomes "distorted," with multiple north and south poles popping up in unexpected places before settling down to something more familiar (albeit reversed).

Col. B. Bunny said...

Thank you, Mark. That's fascinating. I remember a story about clay in an Australian fire pit from eons ago. Because of the heat the clay "captured" the magnetic polarity of the day which was off quite a bit from our own situation.

I hope the impending switch doesn't affect my magnetic personality!