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We're living in the (almost) best of times

Michael Barone on

The best of times, the worst of times. Your instinct on which one we're living through is affected by your basic temperament, but it also depends on how well you're observing -- and quantifying -- things in the world around you.

Temperamentally, in the United States -- or at least in that loud, if not large, part of it dominated by political tweets -- the overwhelming weight of opinion, crossing party lines that are unusually rigid in this period of American history, is that we live in the worst of times.

President Donald Trump, enjoying all-but-unanimous support from Republicans in polls, tells us that we are living on the brink of disaster, at risk of being sucked under the sludge by vicious creatures of the swamp.

Trump opponents including almost the whole of the Democratic Party and a tattered but still loudly chirping fragment of the Republican Party assure us that we are entering the dark night of Nazism, racism and violent suppression of all dissenting opinion.

To which I say: Nonsense.

As does, in more elegant terms, science writer and British House of Lords voting member Matt Ridley in the British Spectator. "We are living through the greatest improvement in human living standards in history," he writes of the decade just ending.

 

Olden times -- multiepisode dramas of Edwardian noblemen or statistics showing a narrower pay gap between 1950s CEOs and assembly line workers -- may look better in warm memories. But cold hard statistics tell another story.

"Extreme poverty has fallen below 10 per cent of the world's population for the first time," Ridley writes. "It was 60 per cent when I was born," which was in 1958, a year that some of us can actually remember.

Of course, you may say economic progress made since China and India discovered the magic of free markets has helped people over there but that over here, in advanced countries, we're not growing, just gobbling up and wolfing down more of the world's limited resources.

Not so, replies Ridley. Consumers in advanced countries are actually consuming less stuff (biomass, metals, minerals or fossil fuels) per capita, even while getting more nutrition and production from it. Thank technological advances and, yes, in some cases, government regulations.

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