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Jewish World Review Jan. 2, 2001 / 7 Teves, 5761

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
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Consumer Reports

It's gettin' better all the time -- AS WE BEGIN the new year, one thing is certain - making new year's predictions is risky business. But here's one safe bet: no matter what the lead news stories are in 2001, life in America and even around the world will generally follow the same course it's traveled over the last 100 years -- It's getting better all the time.

That's the title of a new book by economists Stephen Moore and the late Dr. Julian Simon, published by the Cato Institute. (Dr. Simon died in 1998 after completing an initial draft of the book.) The authors write that "every day we are bombarded with bad news: AIDS, toxic waste, school shootings, homelessness, declining test scores, global warming, a widening wealth gap" and so on.

But, the authors contend, while some of the bad news is real, the trend, particularly in America, is still one of staggering progress in every material measurement of well being for every class, demographic, and racial group. (It was outside the purview of this book to examine the important issues of the state of America's cultural and moral well-being.)

We all know that life expectancy has dramatically increased around the world since the turn of the 20th century. In America, it's gone up 50% to about 75.

But progress is also measured in one's quality of years. So Moore and Simon draw a picture of what life was typically like here just a century ago. It was an "era of tuberculosis, typhoid, sanitariums, child labor, child death, horses, horse manure, candles, 12-hour workdays, Jim Crow laws, tenements, slaughter houses, and outhouses." It was an age of lynchings (and not just of blacks) of horribly polluted and garbage strewn cities and utterly primitive medical care.

Most work was low paying, dangerous and exhausting. There was little recreation and leisure time, housing and transportation were unacceptable by today's standards and food was costly. Only one in 10 children went to high school, natural resources were scarce and expensive, minorities were oppressed and women were second class citizens.

Yet in every one of these areas the improvement of every class, demographic and racial group has been astonishing (though hardly complete). This is all the more amazing when one considers that progress in these areas was virtually at a stand-still for the previous 1000 years.

Just consider a problem today considered one of our most intractable: the black poverty rate. It was 80 percent before the 1940s, while today it's a still-too-high but dramatically improved 25 percent. In 1940, 6 percent of black women were in the higher paying white-collar jobs. Now that's true for almost half of black women. (Scholars Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom have shown that on average college educated black women actually earn slightly more than similarly educated white women.) The authors note the work of economists Robert Higgs of the Independent Institute and Robert Margo of Vanderbilt University who calculated that over the last century, ". . . the average black income has increased much faster than average white income" though it has certainly not overtaken it.

But Moore and Simon examine almost every conceivable aspect of human material well-being, and they've found that today Americans are able to eat out more while spending less, enjoy more average living space, over the last half-century almost every form of pollution has been dramatically reduced, the stock market has skyrocketed to once unbelievable average heights, crime has dropped over the last decade, women now earn 98% of what comparably situated men do, there are more symphony orchestras in the U.S. than ever before and the typical light bulb has more life hours today than just a few years ago. They've even found that people bathe or shower in winter more often than they used to.

And that's just a sampling.

Sure there are very real problems that face us today, but the authors contend that the best way to make accurate predictions about the future is to accurately assess the past. And here they show that while the doomsday predictors often -- and often successfully -- sell to the public a frightening picture of the state of humanity, this is usually only to increase their own status along with government spending and meddling on behalf of their cause. In reality, Moore and Simon carefully demonstrate, it's unleashing political and economic freedom that produces innovation and advancement -- and thus the cure to so many of mankind's ills.

And that's why one can confidently predict that in the year and century ahead, we will consistently be able to say "it's getting better all the time."

JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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