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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. JW says:

    I don’t think it can be repeated enough–we are living in the best of all possible worlds right now. The flip side of course, is that both liberals and conservatives refuse to acknowledge the roles both philosophies have played in accomplishing such–the liberals refuse to see how efflicient capitalism is in distributing resources throughout a society, while the conservatives refuse to acknowledge that the social conscience of many liberals has contributed to many issues, including civil rights and the old-age safety net. We really need both impulses in this society–and we forget that at our peril.

  2. Bob Hawkins says:

    Langston Hughes once observed that “Solvency is a matter of temperament, not income.” It’s my observation that the same is true of happiness.

    I once had an argument with a guy who was determined to be unhappy with the state of the world. Finally, he challenged me: “Tell me one thing that’s better.”

    “Nobody gets smallpox any more,” I said.

    It took him less than 2 seconds to come up with, “Maybe it prevents something even worse.”

  3. John Lemon says:

    Just an observation, James. It took you 20 words to explain a perfectly clear 11 word title.

    When I teach a variety of classes, I always try to put our contemporary situation in perspective. While most students seem to have some idealized notion of ancient Greek and Roman living — living in marble buildings and eating grapes all the time — I remind them that they didn’t have toothpaste, highly developed sewer systems, or soap. Even just 50 years ago, most of the mod cons that the poor in our society take for granted were largely luxury items for the upper classes.

    I think a big part of the problem is the expansion of the news media that is always hyping the next crisis.

    Oh, and JW, while Social Security has had its benefits, some of us conservatives think it could be done better with an injection of free market principles.

  4. bryan says:

    I have been thinking recently as I scan through the TV channels and see all the “lifestyles of the rich” programs on MTV, etc. If all these shows aren’t unwittingly creating the class envy of the next generation.

  5. david foster says:

    JW, I think you are right that there have been valuable contributions from both liberalism and conservatism. Unfortunately, the mainstream of what now goes by the name “liberalsm” is something different, and much closer to classical extreme reactionary beliefs than either true liberalism or true conservatism.

  6. setmajer says:

    American life expectancy has dramatically increased in a century, from 47 to 77 years.

    And yet it still lags well behind other industrialized nations including all of Western Europe.

    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.

    That statistic is just about meaningless without also specifying the number of wage earners per household.

    The author’s assertion is apparently that while real-dollar total income per household may be flat, fewer people per household means that each person in the household has a higher real-dollar income (in other words, the same size pie is now being split among, say, four people instead of six so each gets a bigger slice).

    However, if the number of wage earners per household has remained constant or increased (some studies I’ve seen have indicated that dual-income households are more common now than they were 25 years ago) then the increased income per person in a household may be due to fewer dependents per wage earner, not to greater income per wage earner. It could be that with fewer dependents, there is less pressure on wage earners who, as a result, opt to expend less effort earning. Or it could be that the wage earners are limiting the number of dependents they must support in order to make static wages stretch further. Or the two phenomena could be unrelated.