Best Decade Ever? Hell, Yeah!


Cheer up Tim - not everything is going to hell.

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 ….

NEXT: Is The Washington Post Going Tabloid (Style-Wise, Not Size-Wise)

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  1. Yeah I would have to say it has indeed been a doosie!


  2. To summarize:

    In the decade just ended, global hellholes were less hellish, and the developed world hit the unsustainable peak of leveraged prosperity.

    Question for the future: As the developed world deleverages, will the global hellholes be able to sustain their advances?

  3. I could be having the best times I ever had too if I was just charging booze and hookers to my credit cards and never worried about paying for it.


    1. Are you referring to the Chinese, Indians, and Brazilians?

  4. It’s easy to focus on the (relative) bads that occur in the US because we live in a communication-heavy, interconnected, post-scarcity society. Most people in the US don’t have to worry about malnutrition or diseases like dysentery or malaria. We worry more about cancer and stupid diseases like obesity.

    It is good news to see the relative state of the world improving, and that the most pressing issue of our time is whether some guys build something somewhere because it might make people cry.

    Also, Ron, on behalf of the commentariat, I want to congratulate you for learning the art of the alt-text. You’ve come a long way in a short time.

    Suderman, you’re next.

  5. It’s pretty simple.

    The income growth occurred among Chinese and Indian people.

    They don’t count. The only people who count are US blue collar workers and hipsters who like to use typewriters and wear funny hats. Until they are taken care of, global capitalism is a failure.

  6. I can’t just ignore the poor quality of music and cinema.

    1. I dunno, I think plenty of good stuff of both was made in the past decade. Now, the stuff that was good was not neccessarily the stuff that was popular or the stuff that was most hyped.

    2. Agreed. As far as music and movies this was easily the worst decade of most everyone still alive’s lifetime. There were

      1. (second time this has happened where the less than sign turns into an HTML tag…bah)

        less than 10 classic movies and less than 5 classic albums over the past decade, imho. Art is mostly done in Photoshop. Lame. Worst decade in most everyone alive’s lifetime for those three.

        Non-reality TV (Arrested Development, South Park, P&T: BS) and video games arguably had a pretty good decade.

        Still, the technological glut might have increased the quantity of art but certainly not the quality.

        1. South Park is from the previous decade.

          1. So was Radiohead. But SP’s best seasons have been in this decade.

  7. now just one shy of the biblical standard of three score and 10


    Then the LORD said, “My Spirit will not contend with man forever, for he is mortal; his days will be a hundred and twenty years.” — Genesis 6:3 (NIV)

    1. Psalms 90:10

  8. The sad truth is that this really is the best of all possible worlds.

    1. How could we possibly know that?

      1. Shouldn’t you be studying?

        1. Shouldn’t you be working?

          1. Oddly, when I do this, it looks exactly like work.

        2. Still summer break. Tomorrow is my last day of work.

    2. Dr Pangloss has a copyright on that expression.

    3. I make fun of shit like this.

  9. “I was still working in public television at the time”
    OMG!!! That is worse than me working for the gubermint

    1. Say what you want about public TV, but it still kicks the shit out of anything else on broadcast TV.

      1. And it provides welfare queen Ken Burns a reliable market for his narcoleptic documentaries.

        1. Say what you will about Ken Burns’ stuff, and I’ll mostly agree. He is as overrated as they come.

          But his film on Jack Johnson was one of the best things I can remember seeing on TV.

          On the other hand his film on mark Twain could have been about half the length and just as informative by just telling the story and leaving the blowhard “intellectual” commentators, especially the Marxists, in their ivory towers.

      2. Two words in reply: Deadwood. Firefly.

        1. “Two words in reply: Deadwood. Firefly.”

          Isn’t that four words?

  10. collapse of communism is one of the best things ever in human history

    The Obama-voting constituency begs to differ.

    1. Ron Bailey voted for Obama!

  11. Someone said, Everyone keeps complaing that everything will get worse, but it just keeps getting better.

    I’ll give that to PJ ORourke.

  12. Life is a marginal analysis.

    Rational people judge how well things are going by what we expect to happen tomorrow, and our government keeps making tomorrow harder and harder…

    We shouldn’t judge how well we’re doing by what’s happened in the past. The fact is that our government has worked progressively to make our lives less reasonably optimistic over the last ten years.

    There are contrarian reasons to be optimistic… Perhaps the best is the fact that there is so much investment capital sitting on the sidelines in treasuries right now, that when somebody finally puts all that money to work, it’s entirely reasonable to assume that great things can and will happen.

    Sooner or later, it’ll occur to someone that our government may want to stop doing things to discourage investors from investing in growth, technology, etc.–no matter how profoundly stupid our politicians are, eventually that thought will almost certainly occur to some of them!

    In the meantime, anyone who’s found a way to measure progress over the last ten years–especially as it pertains to public policy–and come up with something like progress? Should recalibrate whatever it is they’re using to measure with because I don’t think we’ve seen so much cold water thrown on the future since before the Second World War.

    1. Perhaps the best is the fact that there is so much investment capital sitting on the sidelines in treasuries right now, that when somebody finally puts all that money to work, it’s entirely reasonable to assume that great things crippling inflation can and will happen.

      1. I don’t know where the cliff is or how deep, but I agree that once there are more sellers of debt than buyers, it’s a steep drop.

        All markets for everything are like that.

        Anybody who doesn’t see the bubble in treasuries right now, doesn’t want to see it. It’s just like housing was. Rents couldn’t support home prices, but people kept buying them anyway–treasury prices aren’t justified by their yields, so people won’t be parking their money there forever.

        I don’t know if market interest rates are gonna skyrocket to 20% or just 7%, but getting a less than 1% return isn’t a reasonable investment expectation for the long term. 30 year treasuries at around or less than 4%? That money doesn’t want to be there…

        When it comes out into the wild again, it’ll go to more productive uses. There’s hardly anything that could be less productive, economic activity wise, than misinvestment in government debt.

        All that’s fuel in the economic growth engine. Some day, somebody’s gonna start the engine again… When it does, inflation may flare up, but as it does, treasuries will be an even less attractive place to park your money.

        Until then, being fiscally responsible isn’t about fighting inflation. It’s about sustainable growth. It’s about not taking the proceeds of our most productive economic activity and squandering it on the least productive use from an economic activity standpoint–government.

  13. If we keep printing money, the number of people living for under $1 a day should reach 0 in the next decade.

    1. Here’s how concerned you should be about inflation…

      “We’re seeing heated debate in regards to the fact that the yield on U.S. treasury inflation-protected securities (TIPS, ie. inflation-protected government bonds) has fallen below 0%, ie. the bonds provide a negative real yield.”…..urce=yahoo

      People who want market solutions to things really shouldn’t ignore what the market is telling them about stuff like inflation…

      I understand if you want to say taxes, or temporary flights to safety, or some such thing are distorting what the market is telling us, but with ten year TIPS offering less than 1% yields, it’s a really, really contrarian* time to be talking about inflation.

      *…for want of a less disparaging term.

      1. I see no reason, whatsoever, to doubt that we will see sovereign defaults of one kind or another over the next decade (including slow-motion “quantitative easing” inflation-driven devaluing of currencies and bonds).

        The thing is, when defaults and currency crises hit, they usually hit very fast and out of the blue.

        But none, not one, of the underlying causes of economic and fiscal distress has been dealt with. Instead, we have piled on the leverage. Leveraging a bad system just leads to bigger train wrecks.

        Of course, in investing, timing is always the question. When will the wheels come off? I couldn’t say, beyond that my belief that we don’t have ten years.

  14. Did governments gain more power in the aforementioned decade?

    1. My short answer is “Hell Yes.”

      From the Bush Administration’s worst excesses regarding the War on Terror to the stupidity of Bailouts, nationalizations and healthcare…

      But that’s the long version.

    2. It depends. Totalitarianism has probably continued to fall, while the nanny state has only gotten worse in most parts of the world.

      1. Exactly. As bad as Russia is today, it is not nearly as bad as it was 20-50 years ago. Same with China. North Korea and Burma are arguably the worst of all countries, but are to some degree kept in check by China, which has less interest in angering its trading partners than it did back in the day. Cuba is bad, but looking up to some slight degree. Venezuela and Iran have regressed, but all in all the 90s and 00s have had far less hard totalitarianism, but more nanny statism. Good for the people in China, Libya and Liberia; bad for the people in the US and the UK.

  15. Just want to say, FP is easily one of the best ‘magazines’ out there.

    I put it in quotes because they (like reason) have about as much (or more) good stuff on their blogs as they do in their print content. They are a cast of world-class people chucking out smart stuff every day. They (unlike all the major broadsheet american newspapers) understand how to do the internet thing. And they do it well. (NYT for instance has so many blogs you can’t keep track of them, no one knows any single one of them as being any good – except maybe ‘the Lede’ – and the commentariat is purged of anything except bourgeois liberal cheerleading. Note the ‘highlighted’ comments; 99% of the time they are chosen because they echo the editorial bias of the paper )

    One of the more entertaining (or maybe not, if you’re not into that sort of thing) aspects of FP is the AfPak channel, where 2-3 Pakistani and Indian posters shit all over each other every day. Well, yes, it can get boring, but if you like catfights, its a nonstop peepshow.

    Which drove me to link to this classic piece once:

    “Indians and Pakistanis Too Faggy For War”…..y-for-war/

    Will India and Pakistan ever finish the cat-fight and get on with a real war? “We live in hope,” like my grandma used to say ? but don’t hold your breath. Listening to the Indian and Paki generals shaking their little fists at each other, with their little mustaches going up and down, hearing the Indians talk about how their patience is “almost” exhausted ? it just gets me down.

    This fag-slapping shit gives war a bad name.

    I used to live next to a housefull of Pakistanis in Santa Ana. They were all brothers or cousins or something and ran this pirate cab company, and they fought non-stop ? but I never saw a single punch thrown. It was this weird Pakistani style of fighting: they’d yell for hours before they escalated to slapping ? weird downward slaps, like elephants hitting each other with their trunks. After a couple minutes of that, they’d each retreat about five yards and look around for automotive parts to throw. They’d keep throwing till they were tired, or till they accidentally hit one of the half-fixed taxis parked in the yard. That was the only thing that sobered them up: hurting a car. When they drew blood on each other they’d cheer, but if they broke a windshield they’d instantly stop fighting and run up to the car moaning and sobbing.

    That guy (The War Nerd) is also a good read, BTW. Check him out. Another example of great stuff on the intertubes.

    1. The Pakistani sound a lot like the rural poor I grew up with in Texas. They’d pound each other silly but touching another man’s ride was worse than grabbing his groin. Brothers were the worse.

  16. I came of age in the 70s which politically, culturally and economically was 73-83. Things ain’t anywhere near as bad now and don’t really look to be.

    Back then: We had just lost our first war. Communism was running riot and apparently kicking our asses. The threat of an extinction level intended or accidental nuclear war hung over our heads. We had the “energy crisis”. Inflation was double digits. Government was growing explosively. The great industrial heartland turned into the “rustbelt”. Media was firmly controlled by three government sanctioned networks and handful left of center papers and magazines. It was the only era in American history, including the Great Depression when our standard of living actually dropped. The popular culture was saturated with stories of social decay, social collapse and apocalypse. A profound sense of helplessness infected almost everyone. Look at old episodes of “Hill Street Blues” to get a feel for times.

    In the end, everything turned out to be caused by delusional leftwing policies. We ended the policies and the problems cleared up in a few years.

    We can do the same today. Our problems are smaller and even more self-inflicted. The world is not as dangerous. Terrorism isn’t as bad as the Cold War. We don’t suffer as much under the intellectual hubris of those who believe in centralized state control. We have the internet and free and open public debate.

    A little work and we can easily fix things.

  17. If I ever feel down, I remind myself that Virginia Postrel is no longer editor of Reason, and it is a real libertarian magazine again, and I feel better.

    1. Im pretty sure there’s a “Drink” in there somewhere, even though its a positive thing.

      Like, anytime someone either accuses Reason of “not being really libertarian”, or “finally libertarian again after that other shit”, seems the same thing to me. So DRINK anyway!

  18. we are all lucky guys in this peaceful and advanced society relatively fulling with possibilities every where waiting us to create

  19. Be nice to people on the way up, because you’ll need them on your way down.

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