- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 28, 2002

As a Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, Julian Simon optimist (or "realist"), I wince when I hear complaining about how bad things are now compared to "the good old days."
When exactly were the "good old days," if not now?
When people complain about the sorry condition of our society today, the question to ask them is: OK, if by magic you could transplant yourself back into time, when would you have rather lived in history than today? And where would you have rather lived than in the United States?
Before you answer these questions, here's a reality check. Over the course of the last 100 years, almost every measurement of material human welfare ranging from health, wealth, nutrition, education, speed of transportation and communications, gains for women, minorities, and children, leisure time, to the proliferation of computers and the internet has shown wondrous gains for Americans.
There has been more improvement in the human condition in the past 100 years than all of the previous centuries since man first appeared on the Earth. More wondrous inventions have been brought into the American home in the past 100 years than the previous 10,000.
Most Americans do not fully appreciate how truly fortunate we are to be alive today. Today (less than ever before) we are not plagued with the truly wicked forces of the past that our ancestors lived in constant terror of: war, genocide, starvation, slavery, disease. What about terrorism? a skeptic might ask. Hey, do you really think there is anything new about terrorism? Why do you think nations built great protective walls around their borders? Why did castles have moats, draw bridges and iron gates with guards dressed in armor? It wasn't to keep the riffraff or irritating door-to-door salesmen away. You think Osama bin Laden is a tyrant. Try Attila the Hun on for size.
Are you angry with the "profiteers" of the pharmaceutical industry? As recently as 50 to 100 years ago, the leading causes of death were typhoid, small pox, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and diarrhea. Polio crippled and killed hundreds of thousands of children and infants in the 1930s. Those diseases have been wiped out thanks to the "evil" drug companies, and now even the two remaining leading killers, heart disease and cancer, are being successfully combated by modern drugs and medical treatments. Half of all medical treatments in use today were invented in the last 25 years. Prior to 1900 you only had a 50-50 chance of benefiting from a trip to the doctor.
Even the "bad news" of recent times is often good news disguised. For example, the greatest nutritional problem in America (and in most nations of the world today), is obesity. To be sure, obesity is a major health problem. But it is not nearly so problematic as the nutritional problem for most of mankind throughout the ages: chronic hunger and periodic famines.
Or consider a recent AP newswire. It warns us that one of the challenging nutritional problems in America today is pet obesity. We have become a nation of rich fat cats, literally. These are nice things to worry about.
Mark Twain used to quip that old age isn't so bad when you consider the alternative. Anthropologists inform us that for thousands of years the average human being could expect to live about 25-30 years of age. In other words, if you were born 200 years ago, you wouldn't be reading this, you would be dead already.
Historians tell us that the average global per capita income throughout history in today's dollars was a bit more than $200 a year. Queen Elizabeth I once famously described England as containing "paupers, paupers, everywhere." And Britain was one of the rich countries.
The average speed of movement and communications throughout the ages was about 3 to 5 miles per hour and top speeds (on horseback) were no more than 30 miles per hour. In the Middle Ages it could take months for word to spread in Europe that the pope had died.
Perhaps you have the same longing as Pat Buchanan does, to return life to the "fabulous '50s." There were no computers, almost no TVs, no microwaves, cellular telephones, stereos, modern refrigerators, air conditioning. The average poor family today has more modern conveniences in the home than the average middle-income family in 1950. There were no effective treatments for cancer or heart disease.
If you had a child in 1950, his or her likelihood of dying was about 2 to 3 times higher than it is today. If you were a woman or a minority, you were truly a second-class citizen compared to today. The least of your concerns was getting into Augusta National to play golf. Women didn't participate in virtually any sports back then. They rarely went to college, they had far fewer professional opportunities. Today, more women graduate from college and graduate school than men. The average black had an income that was only about half that of a white then. Today, blacks have incomes that are more than 70 percent those of whites.
Back in those "golden '50s," notes Fortune Magazine, "most Americans did not notice or care that a third of the elderly and half of black people were destitute." The good old days indeed.
So if you accept the fact that this is the best moment in time to have ever lived and that this is the best place on Earth to reside, then the "woe is me" syndrome of modern America seems a bit ungracious at best. Consider this: There have been something like 10 billion people who have ever lived on Earth. And there are just under 300 million Americans. So every American alive today had a 3 in 100 chance of being placed here on Earth in this miraculous time in history. We Americans have truly won the greatest lottery in life. In my book, that's a whole lot to be thankful for.

Stephen Moore is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and co-author with the late Julian Simon of "It's Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Past 100 Years."


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