Best Decade Ever? Hell, Yeah!


The title for this blogpost is ripped off from a remarkably upbeat (and I think largely accurate) article in the October/September issue of Foreign Policy by economic development analyst Charles Kenny. Back in the 1990s, I was once complaining about some political or policy horror (it might have been the Clinton plan to socialize medicine) to my friend Virginia Postrel who was then editor of Reason (I was still working in public television at the time). Virginia replied to my grumping by saying something like, "You know, Ron, whenever I feel down about some policy outrage or other, I think to myself, 'the Soviet Union is gone,' and I feel better." Virginia was reminding me that collapse of communism is one of the best things ever in human history.

Well, history marches on (just one damned thing after another) and here we are in 2010. In Foreign Policy, Kenny lists a whole bunch of positive developments that we should pause to savor:

For all its problems, the first 10 years of the 21st century were in fact humanity's finest, a time when more people lived better, longer, more peaceful, and more prosperous lives than ever before.

Consider that in 1990, roughly half the global population lived on less than $1 a day; by 2007, the proportion had shrunk to 28 percent—and it will be lower still by the close of 2010. That's because, though the financial crisis briefly stalled progress on income growth, it was just a hiccup in the decade's relentless GDP climb. Indeed, average worldwide incomes are at their highest levels ever, at roughly $10,600 a year—and have risen by as much as a quarter since 2000. Some 1.3 billion people now live on more than $10 a day, suggesting the continued expansion of the global middle class. Even better news is that growth has been faster in poor places like sub-Saharan Africa than across the world as a whole.

There are still 1 billion people who go to bed each night desperately hungry, but cereal prices are now a fraction of what they were in the 1960s and 1970s. That, alongside continued income growth, is why the proportion of the developing world's population classified as "undernourished" fell from 34 percent in 1970 to 17 percent in 2008, even at the height of a global spike in food prices. Agricultural productivity, too, continues to climb: From 2000 to 2008, cereal yields increased at nearly twice the rate of population growth in the developing world. And though famine continues to threaten places such as Zimbabwe, hundreds of millions of people are eating more—and better—each day….

The overwhelming global picture is of better health: From 2000 to 2008, child mortality dropped more than 17 percent, and the average person added another two years to his or her life expectancy, now just one shy of the biblical standard of three score and 10. We can thank improved literacy, which has played a role in spreading vital knowledge in low-income societies, for some of these health gains. More than four-fifths of the world's population can now read and write—including more than two-thirds of Africans. The proportion of the world's young people who go on to university climbed from below one-fifth to above a quarter from 2000 to 2007 alone. And progress in education has been particularly rapid for women, one sign of growing gender equity….

Even the wars of the last 10 years, tragic as they have been, are minor compared with the violence and destruction of decades and centuries past. The number of armed conflicts—and their death toll—has continued to fall since the end of the Cold War. Worldwide, combat casualties fell 40 percent from 2000 to 2008.

Kenny does acknowledge some ongoing environmental problems and notes that the HIV/AIDS epidemic is still spreading. So given all the positives listed by Kenny, why do so many people have the impression that the whole world is going to hell in a handbasket? Kenny suggests:

Perhaps technology also helps account for the striking disconnect between the reality of worldwide progress and the perception of global decline. We're more able than ever to witness the tragedy of millions of our fellow humans on television or online. And, rightly so, we're more outraged than ever that suffering continues in a world of such technological wonder and economic plenty.

In the end, I agree with his rousing conclusion:

Nonetheless, if you had to choose a decade in history in which to be alive, the first of the 21st century would undoubtedly be it. More people lived lives of greater freedom, security, longevity, and wealth than ever before.

Go cheer yourself up for a moment and read the whole Foreign Policy article here. Then get back to damning the corrupt and clueless politicians and bureaucrats in Washington, Sacramento, Richmond, Helena, and ….