George Will has an interesting column based largely on Gregg Easterbrook’s book, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. The titular paradox is that, while life for Americans is getting radically better by all reasonable measures, we don’t seem to be getting any happier. (I note, however, that I haven’t read the book and Will doesn’t explain how comparative happiness is measured.)
The good news is indeed remarkable when taken cumulatively:
American life expectancy has dramatically increased in a century, from 47 to 77 years. Our great-great-grandparents all knew someone who died of some disease we never fear. (As recently as 1952, polio killed 3,300 Americans.) Our largest public-health problems arise from unlimited supplies of affordable food.
The typical American has twice the purchasing power his mother or father had in 1960. A third of America’s families own at least three cars. In 2001 Americans spent $25 billion – more than North Korea’s GDP – on recreational watercraft.
Factor out immigration – a huge benefit to the immigrants – and statistical evidence of widening income inequality disappears. The statistic that household incomes are only moderately higher than 25 years ago is misleading: Households today average fewer people, so real dollar incomes in middle-class households are about 50 percent higher today.
Since 1970 the number of cars has increased 68 percent, and the number of miles driven has increased even more, yet smog has declined by a third and traffic fatalities have declined from 52,627 to 42,815 last year. In 2003 we spent much wealth on things unavailable in 1953 – a cleaner environment, reduced mortality through new medical marvels ($5.2 billion a year just for artificial knees, which did not exist a generation ago), the ability to fly anywhere or talk to anyone anywhere.
The incidence of heart disease, stroke and cancer, adjusted for population growth, is declining. The rate of child poverty is down in a decade. America soon will be the first society in which a majority of adults are college graduates.
Will condenses and enumerates several of Easterbrook’s explanations, all of which seem plausible. An even simpler explanation is what Robert Merton termed “relative deprivation.” Robert Saunders explains it elegantly:
In his study of the American soldier, Merton’s conclusions concerning relative deprivation were based on a comparison of the military police and the air corps. The ranks of the military police were relatively static: promotion was rare, and everyone was perfectly happy with their career prospects. The air corps, however, proved to be very different. Due to the high risk and high fatality rate associated with the job, the air corps experienced a high turnover rate of personnel. No sooner were one set of sergeants, for example, promoted than another group of sergeants were required. Promotion prospects were abundant, however many in the air corps were dissatisfied with their career prospects. Merton explained this by the theory of relative deprivation. People in the air corps were seeing many of their colleagues being promoted, thus leading them to question why they, also, were not receiving promotions. This was set in contrast with the military police, who were seeing no promotions, and thus did not question their career prospects as frequently.
The same is likely true of modern American society. Because of the mass media and our propensity to travel much further beyond our insular groups than our predecessors of even a generation ago, we’re much more likely to see how the proverbial “other half” lives. Even though we live in nice houses, drive nice cars, and wear nice clothes, we’re far too aware that others are doing better and we thus feel like we’re falling behind. Our comparison group isn’t our grandfather or even our Western contemporaries overseas–let alone the starving masses in sub-Saharan Africa–but those rich people on television.