In this article we’re going to go high altitude, and debate the question, are things getting worse – or better? This is a completely subjective debate, of course. Most likely, if you’re in the “bottom” 90% you see things getting gradually worse. But if you’re in the “top 10%” you see progress all around.
Which view is closer to the truth? If you follow the mainstream media, you can get the impression both are true to some degree – which is generally where I sit. But given that the media thrives on conflict, violence and scary stories, is it possible we have a darker view of the world than is actually justified?
Unfortunately, since the media fail to either report or properly interpret so much of what’s really going on – both good and bad – the question is even more complicated that it seems on the surface.
I’m giving examples of both things getting worse or better, but you’ll probably agree most could go either way. There are seven on each side.
What’s Getting Worse
The Global Population Explosion
The current population of the world is 7.66 billion. In 1970, it stood at just over 3.7 billion. That means the world’s population has more than doubled in less than 50 years. Most projections have this trend continuing indefinitely.
This is creating enormous stress, not only on the world’s resources, but also on relations between countries. It’s also resulting in a tremendous population disruption.
We in America like to refer to it as the “immigration problem”. But it’s really about millions of people around the world, leaving desperately poor countries to move to to rich ones. It’s not just the US either. Canada, Australia, and most of the countries of Europe are experiencing the same flow. And in many cases, the desperately poor are moving to not-so-rich countries.
Can we blame them?
Though this human flow has become more pronounced in recent years, it’s hardly unknown in human history. People have always moved from one place to another, looking for better living conditions and opportunities. America itself was founded by explorers, and populated by immigrants. After that, people moved from the East to the Midwest and the West, continuing the same pattern.
There’s no simple fix for this problem, certainly not building walls passing new laws. This is a condition we may have to live with for a very long time.
Everyone talks about how hostile politics has become, but they’re usually referring to the other party. In truth, hostility has become a part of the scene in American politics. And while it’s comforting to believe the country is polarized between Democrats and Republicans, that’s a gross oversimplification.
Closer to the truth is that there are hundreds of different issues near and dear to the hearts of the citizenry. At best, most are supporting the party that most closely aligns with those issues. But both parties are utterly unwilling and incapable of dealing with our most pressing problems. Instead, they’ve locked themselves into a death match in an attempt to run the other party out of existence. However the real end result is political paralysis.
This will not end well because:
a) Hostility only begets more hostility.
b) It solves nothing, which allows problems to grow into genuine crises.
c) It ultimately leads to political chaos, and even a breakdown in order.
We can only guess how far the current political civil war will last, but it’s not likely to lead to a happy outcome. It will eventually resolve itself – the cold, hard reality of life will see to that. But it will take unexpected turns that are likely to make things much worse in the near future.
Legal and Political Freedom
As the number of laws passed increases, as well as the severity of the penalties we face for violating them, the legal and political freedom that was once a signature component of the American experience is rapidly disappearing. Many support “get tough on crime” legislation and politicians, without considering how it reduces general levels of freedom.
There was a time in a more compassionate America when it was generally accepted that it was better for a guilty person to go free than for an innocent person to be wrongly convicted. But that’s long gone. The number of convictions is seen as a barometer of the success of the criminal justice system, rather than a very real human tragedy.
Political correctness is another poorly understood force that steadily chips away at personal freedom. When I was a kid I frequently heard the term ”I disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”.
But that concept is another casualty of the newer, more cold-hearted America. Today, if someone disagrees with what you say, they’ll find ways to silence you. Political correctness has become the common methodology. As Glen Beck once said, ”political correctness doesn’t change us, it shuts us up”.
That’s not the America I grew up in. We can no longer have open dialogue about our problems if that discussion might cause some to feel uncomfortable. That only dooms us to continue along the same failed paths. Even though most Americans don’t support political correctness it continues to be forced upon us by a small number of elites in media, academia and government.
And when you lose freedom of speech, you lose a lot more than “just” freedom of speech.
Despite the rosy statistics on unemployment, and confident assurances from government and industry leaders that employment might be better than ever, most workers have a strong sense it’s going in the opposite direction.
Many of those in the workforce are working at very low wages. Many millions earn no more than $8 to $13 per hour, which is hardly a living wage given today’s cost structure. Even worse, most people at that income level are unable to trade-up to a living wage job.
But even many people who hold good jobs at high pay live with a nagging fear that a pink slip is a real possibility. And for many over 50, that pink slip could signal the end of a career.
There may be more people working now than ever, but there’s less security than at any time since the 1930s. And because of the shift to technology, robots, contract and temporary employment, part time, and offshoring of jobs, that situation is most likely to get steadily worse going forward.
Violence and a Decline of Civility
The Pittsburgh synagogue and yoga class shootings last week are only the latest episodes in the epidemic of violence that’s sweeping the nation. In fact, they seem to be happening so fast that we’re even losing our ability to recall them, or even to be shocked anymore.
Many want to ascribe these events politics, but that’s another common oversimplification. It’s part and parcel of the blame the other guy mentality. It’s convenient, but it misses the mark, and solves nothing.
The truth is, no one really knows why these events are happening, or with such frequency. My own theory is that all the problems described in this article are playing a role.
People are angry about forces they don’t even understand, and not everyone can handle that without an extreme reaction. Right now, millions are walking on the very edge of sanity, and very capable of irrational and even violent responses.
This situation may eventually get better. But that won’t happen until we see substantial change in the other problems that are causing enough pressure to drive people to choose extreme options.
Exactly where you see this situation depends on where you are on the economic ladder. If you’re in the top 10%, you probably don’t see a problem at all. But if you’re in the bottom 90%, it’s practically a fact of life.
We’ve already discussed employment insecurity. And part of that is manifesting itself in a rising debt problem. Then there’s the rarely discussed problem of under-reported inflation, that’s eating away at household finances like a slow acting cancer.
And it seems every week we’re being treated to new reports about Social Security going broke, and a looming pension crisis. Add health insurance affordability to the mix, and there’s little to feel secure about. It’s likely that even millionaires are worried about losing their fortunes in a stock market crash.
The Decline of Truth
We’ve already discussed the war on truth that’s represented by the political correctness movement. We can add fake news to the equation. In an era when every media outlet is looking only to get attention, stories have to be ginned-up just to get noticed. (Or written for click bait on the web.) When you add the political blame-game to the mix, there’s probably very little of what we’re being told that’s even as much as partially true.
With a common belief that everyone’s lying, or that you have to lie to stay competitive or prevent panics, the truth is rapidly morphing into a divisive notion. People are even accustomed to voting for politicians who they know were lying, as long as the lies are headed in the right direction.
OK, now let’s shift gears. It actually isn’t all getting worse.
What’s Getting Better
I’m not of the opinion that technology is going to be the savior of humanity that some make it out to be. But there’s little question that technology has advanced to miraculous levels.
Smart phones are just one example. Not only can you be in communication with virtually anyone on the planet from a small handheld device, but you can also use it to access the World Wide Web. That’s a lot of power in a tiny box.
Computers are another example. The first ones filled a large room, and could perform only very limited functions. But today a laptop is the size of a 1950s magazine, and a tablet that’s even smaller, can give you access to all the information in the world, enable you to shop, invest and even to earn a living. And today, most households have at least one.
We also can’t forget advances in healthcare. I recently had a preventative procedure and the nurse told me that the imaging equipment being used has improved so much in the last six years, that there now finding and preventing issues that were previously undiscovered.
From everything were seeing, and based on articles I’ve read specifically on this topic, the pace of technology will only increase going forward. It may not solve many of our problems, but we should fully expect it will improve at least some of them. This is an area to be very optimistic about.
We just discussed smartphones and computers, and how they enable us to communicate with people all around the world. The negative side is that constant connectivity is putting us in a state of perpetual distraction. But that’s more of a problem to be managed on a personal level.
The ability to reach people and services quickly is a positive force overall. Just the ability to contact 911 when you’re in an emergency situation, or a ride sharing service on short notice, are huge advantages we hardly think about it anymore. That’s because instantaneous communication is one of those technologies that’s very easy to get used to very quickly.
It’s hard to imagine communications getting any quicker than they are right now. But we’re likely to see improvements in the quality of those communications, and hopefully reductions in the cost.
Today we enjoy the ability to go virtually anywhere we want, and in a minimal amount of time. Let’s start with air travel. The entire world is linked by it, and it puts virtually any location in the world within mere hours. The cost of airfare has fallen to such a level that even people of ordinary means can travel to other countries and even continents.
Less well appreciated is ground transportation. For example, few stop to consider that virtually every city of any size in the US is connected by the interstate highway system. It’s 42,000 miles of superhighways linking every corner of the country, that didn’t even exist less than a human lifetime ago. The same can be said of the European railway grid. It enables millions of people to travel from one country to another in a matter of hours.
The net result is that 1.2 billion people traveled internationally in 2016.
Our pastor recently said the internet is the greatest thing for the spread of the Gospel since the printing press. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration either. In so many ways, the Internet is an equalizer. It allows an individual to reach thousands or even millions of people, without having the type of budget normally required for that kind of outreach.
It’s also been said that the average person today has access to far more information than kings and captains of industry had 100 years ago. That information can be leveraged to improve your life, and even to create new opportunities. It’s size and capacity continue to increase in leaps and bounds.
The Decline of Borders and the Nation State
We’ve just discussed with a positive effects of technology, communications, travel, and the Internet. But what’s not always appreciated is that each is contributing to the decline of borders and even of nation states.
That’s happening because both people, products and money routinely move across borders every day. Seemingly ordinary services, like Amazon and eBay, allow even ordinary citizens to transact business internationally. Communication with people on a global level can be accomplished free of charge, through email and online video chat. Meanwhile, the explosion in travel and transportation has resulted in record numbers of people traveling to foreign countries.
Despite the political rhetoric aimed at preserving the borders – which is sounding increasingly desperate – those borders are becoming increasingly irrelevant, as people, information, and capital move across them with incredible speed and regularity.
We may yet see either the decline or even elimination of national borders. And depending on your worldview, this could be either a good thing or a bad one.
The Formation of New Ways to Earn a Living
It’s likely the average person hasn’t grasped this concept yet. But I think it’s gradually making its way through the population. The combination of advances in travel, technology, communications, and the Internet are literally changing the ways people can earn a living.
While it’s true most people are still wedded to the idea of a full-time stable job, reality is definitely heading in the other direction. What hasn’t happened yet is the realization that the same technologies that are eliminating traditional jobs are creating brand new ways to make a living. While millions continue to pursue traditional employment, hundreds of thousands of people – maybe even millions – are making a living on the web.
I’m an example of this. I earn my living from blogging and freelance blog writing, two activities I was completely unqualified for before taking them on. As people begin to grasp this concept, the current problems of employment and financial insecurity may begin to give way to completely new ways to earn a living – absent control or employment by large institutions. This could represent a return to the 21st Century version of cottage industry that dominated human economics for thousands of years.
Unlimited Investment Options
This has been something of a loud revolution, but even so, I doubt most people get the magnitude of it. With a combination of the technologies above, as well as rapid evolution in the securities industry, it’s now possible even for a person of ordinary means to take advantage of virtually unlimited investment options.
Many people have experienced in this with trading stocks online, or owning funds with an online account. You buy, hold, and sell investments from your computer or smart phone, and never enter a building or talk to investment company employees face-to-face.
That’s just an example of the methodology. But you can now invest in stocks, bonds, government securities, international securities, real estate investment trusts, precious metals and other commodities, specific investment sectors, and even trade options and futures. And if you choose, you can have your investments professionally managed at a very low fee through robo-advisors.
These were options that were once available only to the very rich. But today you can begin investing in a diversified portfolio with just a few hundred dollars. Some brokers will even allow you to open an account no money at all.
This type of investment activity has become quite ordinary. The investment universe has become much more democratic, and is open to virtually anyone.
Though the system naturally favors those with the most capital to invest, it’s nonetheless possible for a person of limited means to begin investing in ways that were once available only to the very rich. That’s an advantage that needs to be fully appreciated, and participated in on a regular basis.
Are Things Getting Worse – or Better?
The world has never been perfect. Good and evil have always existed side-by-side in a nervous balance. But clearly, in some times, and in some places, life has been either better or worse than it is now. In truth, throughout most of human history, life has never been kind to the masses, particularly to those on the bottom of the socio-economic scale.
But part of what distorts our current worldview is the fact that we’re gradually coming out of the Post World War II era, a time that was especially kind to people in America. That era began unraveling in the 1970s, and while there have been ups and downs along the way, most of us sense we’re heading in the wrong direction.
But are we really heading in the wrong direction, as America’s golden era draws to its final end? Or are we experiencing a general purge that’s tearing down structures that no longer work, in preparation for replacement by systems and technologies that will work even better?
What are your thoughts? Are things getting worse – or better? There are no right or wrong answers.