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Why So Worried? Using an upcoming U.N. conference in Mexico City as its hook, Time engages in some Paul Ehrlich-style doom-mongering about overpopulation.
Cue Ominous Music: "The consequences of a failure to bring the world's population growth under control are frightening. They could include widespread hunger and joblessness, accompanied by environmental devastation and cancerous urban growth. Politically, the outcome could be heightened global instability, violence and authoritarianism."
Oh, Just Settle Down: Since Time's 1984 cover story, the world's population has increased from 4.75 billion to 6.78 billion people. This year, the World Bank's Poverty Analysis reported, "Living standards have risen dramatically over the last decades. The proportion of the developing world's population living in extreme economic poverty...has fallen from 52 percent in 1981 to 26 percent in 2005.... Infant mortality rates in low- and middle-income countries have fallen from 87 per 1,000 live births in 1980 to 54 in 2006. Life expectancy in [low and middle-income] countries has risen from 60 to 66 between 1980 and 2006." According to the peace advocacy group Ploughshares, the number of armed conflicts across the globe has generally been in decline since the mid-1990s (PDF). As for "authoritarianism," with the fall of the Soviet empire, a far greater percentage of the global population lived under such regimes in 1984 than do today. Even the massive population in China is freer (if not actually "free") than it was in 1984.
7. September 15, 1986: Drugs: The Enemy Within
Why So Worried? This Time cover story simultaneously fans the flames of drug war hysteria while acknowledging it may not be all it's...er...cracked up to be. The article admits that a vanishingly small number of people actually die of cocaine overdoses (just 563 in 1983, out of tens of millions of users), yet still refers to the drug as a "taker of lives." After suggesting that the country might be overreacting to drug use and acknowledging the drug war causes far more problems than it helps, the article concludes, "If Americans are willing to say clearly—to their workmates and schoolmates, to their neighbors and friends, to their communities and to themselves—that drug use is not acceptable...then even all the hype and excess may in retrospect be worthwhile." No, Time, it wasn't.
Cue Ominous Music: "To a nation that espouses self-reliance, drug dependence has emerged as the dark side of the American character, the price of freedom to fail. It is as if America, so vain and self-consciously fit, has looked upon itself and suddenly seen the hideously consumptive portrait of Dorian Gray. The country, it seems, is awash with drugs. Fine white powder pours past the border patrol like sand through a sieve. On busy street corners and in urban parks, pushers murmur, 'Crack it up, crack it up,' like some kind of evil incantation, bewitching susceptible kids and threatening society's sense of order and security."
Oh, Just Settle down: Overall use of illicit drugs has largely remained constant over the years, though individual drugs go in and out of vogue. Crack in particular was singled out in the late '80s; Time called it "the most virulent" form of drug abuse, while one expert quoted in a similar Newsweek article called it "the most addictive drug known to man." As Reason's Jacob Sullum explains in his book Saying Yes, studies show that the vast majority of crack users never went on to become addicts. One 1994 survey, for example, showed that 93 percent of respondents who had admitted to trying crack weren't using the allegedly instantaneously addictive drug as much as once a month when the survey was taken. Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman even theorzied in the Wall Street Journal that it's actually the prohibition of cocaine that gave us drugs like crack, likening the intoxicant to the bathtub gin that soaked the black market during alcohol prohibition.
More to the point, drug scare stories like this one—and Time has run a number of them over the years (see, for example, this one about Ecstasy, also mostly overblown)—have contributed to mass public panics that gave us the nation's odious drug laws, which while producing mass collateral damage, have had little effect on the actual drug supply.