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Look on the Bright Side

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Illustration by Jason Lee  

The reasons to be sanguine about what lies ahead extend beyond politics and the economy. The financial cost of the two recent wars is in the trillions of dollars; the human cost is incalculable. But we are substantially out of Iraq, and, the Obama surge notwithstanding, the same may soon be true of Afghanistan. While the Israeli-Palestinian problem remains arguably intractable, the two-state solution, a radical notion a decade ago, is now at least an accepted jumping-off point for all reasonable interested parties. Climate change remains extraordinarily complex, but there’s evidence that progress is being made: Since 2005 in the United States, net energy generated by solar power has increased 83 percent, net energy generated by wind power has increased 399 percent, and carbon-dioxide emissions have decreased 6 percent. Despite a number of near misses and the fact that such a thing remains unnervingly possible at any time, there has not been a successful terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11 (and the number of terrorist attacks worldwide has fallen 24 percent since 2006). The 2008 economic crisis did not, as many people feared, cause a spike in the crime rate. In fact, violent crime decreased by 5.3 percent last year, according to the FBI. “The connection between recessions and rising crime is just one of those things that everybody knows but just isn’t true,” says professor David Kennedy of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “What drives crime is not the economy; it’s things like drug epidemics. Ordinary people who have been working and lose their jobs don’t start committing crimes. The connection between the economy and crime is long-term structural unemployment, and that’s not the case now.” From 2007 to 2010, the number of Americans who say Islam encourages violence dropped by 10 percent. Nearly twice as many blacks—39 percent—now say that the “situation of black people in this country” is better than it had been five years earlier, as compared with 2007, when that figure was 20 percent. Infant mortality is down from 2.92 percent in 1950 to .67 in 2007. Death rates for heart disease, aids, and certain cancers have dropped sharply. In 2007, U.S. life expectancy hit an all-time high of 77.9 years.

Why, then, are we so pessimistic? Daniel Kahneman, a Princeton professor and Nobel winner, attributes unhappiness to what he calls the “focusing illusion.” When people weigh the effects of any one component of their lives—their party’s electoral victory, say, or their net worth—they tend to exaggerate its impact. We also feel losses more acutely than gains, because the mind—as research by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert demonstrates—almost immediately adjusts to any bit of improvement as the new status quo. The point is usefully illustrated with a routine by the comedian Louis C.K. that gained fame under the title “Everything Is Amazing Right Now and Nobody Is Happy.” The bit builds, in part, off the hoary stand-up tradition of complaining about airline food and service: “You’re flying! It’s amazing! Everybody on every plane should just constantly be going, Oh my God, wow … You’re sitting in a chair in the sky!”

The act jumped to my mind repeatedly as I talked to expert after expert. Robert Reich implored me to consider a more holistic view of American history: “The long-term picture is always progress, greater opportunity, and tolerance. Who in their right mind thought we’d have a black president and women on the Supreme Court and as secretaries of State? Who’d ever think the typical American would enjoy the level of prosperity we have? Most countries and cultures have very long histories that feature deep divisions—religious, ideological, class. We don’t have that in this country. Our longer and deepest tradition is pragmatism.”

Earlier this year, in an essay called “Buck Up, America,” Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow and foreign-policy expert Walter Russell Mead wrote that “we are not like Pakistan, Egypt, Russia, or dozens of other countries who are struggling with the consequences of decades and even centuries of failures to keep up with a changing world. America’s failures are the failures of a country on the cutting edge. Countries like China and India are doing some amazing things, but they are playing catch-up. They are trying to get where we are, while the United States is moving forward into unexplored terrain. They are building industrial societies; we are seeing what comes next. They have a clear idea of the target in mind: a country where people are as rich as Americans. Our quest is different—harder, but perhaps also more rewarding.”

“We have a relatively honest government,” the historian Kenneth T. Jackson told me, “although I know that’s not what the people believe right now. Our politicians may make backroom deals and so on, but we don’t have a system in place like they have in India and some other countries, where becoming a politician is the way to wealth. We have a relative meritocracy—it’s not perfect, but people still believe that if you work hard and use your intelligence, you can certainly buy a house and a car and attain middle-class life. We have a reasonably free society. It’s not perfect—no society is—but we found a balance between freedom and order. If one model is Singapore and the other model is Johannesburg or Tijuana, we have generally found the balance. There are a lot of reasons to be pleased and proud.”


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