We're deep into another presidential election. It's a time when a few of the wealthiest, most cossetted and least appealing members of society try to convince us that America basically is an impoverished wasteland, filled with untold suffering and blight. The nation won't heal itself until we put one of them in charge of its behemoth government.
"The United States has more people living in poverty than at almost any time in the modern history of our country," intoned leftist Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders. He's so out of touch with reality that he hired a top adviser who once praised the "economic miracle" in socialist Venezuela, which is one of the most genuinely miserable places on Earth.
The populist Right isn't much better. Trump-supporting pundits have spread wild tales of misery afflicting the Rust Belt and the nation's middle class, with Fox News' Tucker Carlson last year engaging in an infamous critique of free-market capitalism. Their policy prescriptions (more government) aren't remarkably different from those championed on the Left.
Obviously, in a land of 329 million flawed human beings one can always find stories of people who are living on the streets, lacking proper healthcare, addicted to drugs and whatnot. Some people are sick, unhappy, out of work and living crummy lives. The only thing lacking from these analyses is a little perspective about the human condition—and about the limits of government uplift.
The data shows that poverty is diminishing rapidly, which no doubt explains why the doom-mongers focus mainly on anecdotes. Conservatives (including President Trump) point to progressive San Francisco as a foreboding place filled with homeless encampments and crime. I'm in the city frequently. It has lots of self-imposed problems, but remains one of the wealthiest and most beautiful cities in the world. It's easy to forget that crime rates are near-record lows in most of America.
I recently returned from rural Appalachia, another place that politicians point to as a sea of despair. The region is in decline, but it's mostly a middle-class place. (Don't tell Trumpsters this, but the best thing that could happen to these hard-edged towns—with their low-cost real estate and aging populations—is an influx of immigrants.) I'm not downplaying enduring problems in cities and the countryside, but the nation is doing well by almost any measure.
The world's doing pretty well, too. Microsoft founder Bill Gates last year tweeted an infographic showing how much living conditions have improved over time. The number of people in extreme poverty has fallen from 94 percent in 1820 to under 10 percent today. Child mortality rates have dropped like a rock, while literacy rates have soared. Instead of welcoming this good news, commentators chided Gates for pointing it out.
Politicians and policy wonks of all stripes have a vested interest in depicting the world as far worse than it really is. It's not hard to understand. No one follows a leader, or pays much attention to their policy proposals, if they argue that life is pretty good and mostly getting better.
Before we get taken in by grandiose political promises or radical political platforms, it's worth recognizing this point made by the Brookings Institution: "Something of enormous global significance is happening almost without notice. For the first time since agriculture-based civilization began 10,000 years ago, the majority of humankind is no longer poor or vulnerable to falling into poverty." Consider, also, that poverty today is a far cry from what it was in the past given the level of technological innovation that permeates every part of society.
There's an entertaining little book from 1974 called "The Good Old Days—They Were Terrible!" It reminds Americans of the days of sweat shops, tenements, widespread opium addiction, of rampant crime and cities where horse poop (in the days before automobiles) was piled high on nearly every corner. We worry about air quality now, but it's nothing compared to the Industrial Revolution. I was just in a museum in Pittsburgh, Pa., and was astounded by the dark-as-night daytime photos of the pollution-clogged city.
The first step in reducing poverty is understanding the fundamental nature of it. "(I)f we say that they're poor because we rich people stole everything then the correct policy is going to be rather different from if we acknowledge reality," argues Tim Worstall of the Adam Smith Institute in London. "Which is that abject poverty is the natural state of mankind and it's wealth that is the thing that needs to be created to end it."
Of course, we should try to fix problems and make life even better for more people, but we need to start with some real-world understanding. That begins with recognizing that freedom and the free marketplace are the sources of wealth—and that politicians who peddle doom and gloom are likely only to make us poorer and miserable.
This column was first published in the Orange County Register.