As we begin a new decade, I thought it might be fun to open it with a little optimism.

Even though Extinction Rebellion death cultists and green justice activists have predicted the end of humanity in 12 years, no era has ever been better for our species. In an analysis of 2019 as the “Best Year Ever, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof crunches some numbers and shows there is plenty of reason to be joyful.

If you’re depressed by the state of the world, let me toss out an idea: In the long arc of human history, 2019 has been the best year ever.

The bad things that you fret about are true. But it’s also true that since modern humans emerged about 200,000 years ago, 2019 was probably the year in which children were least likely to die, adults were least likely to be illiterate and people were least likely to suffer excruciating and disfiguring diseases.

Every single day in recent years, another 325,000 people got their first access to electricity. Each day, more than 200,000 got piped water for the first time. And some 650,000 went online for the first time, every single day.

Kristof continues with a look at a substantial reduction in poverty levels around the world and increasing literacy rates, indicating these trends show a brighter future than the doom-and-gloomers would have you believe.

A recent article by John Phelan in the Star Tribune was also intriguing. Reflecting upon his father’s death this year, Phelan notes that it was historically more common for children to die before their parents. He asserts that capitalism is a crucial feature in reversing this sad statistic and creating “the Luckiest Era of History.”

In the U.S., in 1900, 1 child in every 4 died before his or her fifth birthday. Today it is 1 out of 167.

This 98% decline is an incredible success story. What changed? Call it the Industrial Revolution. Call it capitalism. The result was what economic historian Deidre McCloskey calls the Great Enrichment.

For most of history, humans survived on roughly the equivalent of $3 a day — enough for subsistence living. In good times living standards might rise, but one bad harvest or natural disaster could plunge a community back into abject poverty.

Around 200 years ago things began to change rapidly. Today the average American lives on about $130 a day. Europe, Canada, Australia and parts of South America and Asia have enjoyed similar increases.

This vast increase in wealth — widely shared — enabled us to afford medicines and medical treatments, diets, clothing and shelter, among other things, which banished such stories as the Pettijohns’ to the realm of freak horror.

Pheland also goes on to describe how wealthier countries become greener, showing capitalism and the “Great Enrichment” are better at saving the planet than die-ins or being scolded by teens.

Finally, at the Human Progress website, Marian L. Tupy analyzes the massive expansion in non-wage benefits that Americans have enjoyed since the 1950s.

…[H]ow come most Americans can now enjoy goods that were previously owned only by the rich?

First, it is important to note that hourly wages do not reflect the massive expansion in non-wage benefits, which rose from 19 per cent of wages in 1951 to 44 per cent in 2015. Today non-wage benefits include relocation assistance, medical and prescription coverage, vision and dental coverage, health and dependent care, flexible spending accounts, retirement benefit plans, group-term life and long-term care insurance plans, legal and adoption assistance plans, child care and transportation benefits, vacation and sick paid time-off, and employee discount programs from a variety of vendors, etc.

Also, many commonly owned goods have declined in price. In 1968, for example, a 23” Admiral colour TV cost $2,544 or 125 hours of labour in the manufacturing sector. In 2018, a 24” Sceptre HD LED TV cost $99.99 or 4.7 hours of labour in the same sector (all prices are in 2018 US dollars). That’s a reduction of 96 per cent in terms of human effort.

The upshot is that growth in nominal wages, or lack thereof, does not reflect the real changes in the standard of living experienced by vast majority of Americans.

And because President Donald Trump’s economic policies have also expanded wages for most workers, the next decade looks to be even more prosperous.

So, 2020 is shaping up to be the best of times. However, for social justice activists, eco-warriors, and Trump haters, 2020 is likely to be the worst.

 
 
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