Rational Pessimism

Matt Ridley’s new book about how we’ve got it so good today, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, has met with pretty decent reviews. I only just got around to reading Brendan O’Neill’s review for The American Conservative today (yes, yes, I know it’s dated August 1, but I’ve been busy), and it quashed any desire I might have had to read it.

I mean, I know I’m a pretty ornery cuss, but let’s face it: despite rapid advances in material prosperity, we as a society don’t seem particularly happy with our lot. O’Neill is right in saying that all the threats guaranteed to kill us all – Y2K, Bird Flu, that Man-Bird-Pig disease of a year or two ago – have never materialized, and that despite our constant worrying over the end, if it indeed comes it is almost certain to catch us by surprise.

And yet, there is so much of Ridley’s overall hypothesis that seems to make no sense. At the risk of becoming one of the “angry, graph-obsessed nitpicking” types O’Neill warns against, I think it would make sense to examine Ridley’s actual claims and see why they ring hollow.

In just the past 50 years, the average human “earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one-third as many of her children, and could expect to live one-third longer.”

Right off the bat, I can see one problem here: the average human. While wages and prosperity have risen steadily around the world, in the United States income disparity is at historical levels. Productivity has soared in the past fifty years,  but relative worker pay has dropped precipitously. We’re doing more and getting paid less to do it. So while much of the world may have seen a tangible increase in quality-of-life, we’re in many ways worse off than we were 20, 30 years ago.Ridley also cites much longer life expectancies throughout the world as cause for celebration, and then goes on to condemn the “mean-spirited and inaccurate generalization” that this might be a Bad Thing. But he also assumes that fear of the Gray Society is due to their presumed feebleness and drain on resources. Well, I’m more worried about the healthy 65 year-olds who remain in their jobs. The coming bottleneck, combined with the effects of long-term unemployment and a historic recession, will prevent my generation from advancing nearly as far in life as we’d like to.

And then comes (to me) the big paragraph of falsity. I feel a compulsive, nitpicky need to address these points one-by-one:

Today, Ridley points out, among Americans officially designated as “poor,” 99 percent have electricity, running water, and a fridge; 95 percent have a television; 71 percent have a car; and 70 percent have air conditioning.

How many still have jobs? How many are going to lose their things when the repo man comes? How many are going to have to leave that ‘stuff’ in their house when the bank forecloses on them?

Some people—usually well-off commentators, people like Oprah—scoff at the little guy’s desire for more and more stuff. Yet we underestimate how these things have improved human life. How much backbreaking female drudgery was wiped out by the invention of the washing machine?

That’s your first point? Look at Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s More Work for Mother, or  Susan Strasser’s Never Done, or Jeanne Boydston’s Home and Work; they all conclude that the length of time it takes to clean the house has not decreased by a single minute despite all our new time-saving technologies. And in the instances where it does free up women to take a second job, then much of the home labor is replaced by domestic help, insuring backbreaking female drudgery – just for a different female.

How many man-hours have been saved by the availability of cars for shopping, school-drops, and visiting relatives?

The car in fact filled much of the time freed by miraculous new devices, adding a new duty to “the housewife’s traditional job description: chauffeur.” And yes, O’Neill in his review does account for the green point of view about the perhaps less-than-positive environmental effects of the automobile: “today’s veritable army of Green activists never tires of telling us that we have raped Gaia and polluted the planet through our creation of this stuff that we’re all so desperate to get our grubby hands on.” Well, so much for global warming, then.

How much healthier is our food, and longer-lasting, now that virtually everyone in the Western world has a refrigerator?

The only thing I wouldn’t dispute here is longer-lasting. But what are we putting in our fridges and in our bodies? I love food; I love food that’s terrible for me; I’m not a proselytizing food Nazi like so many seem to be these days. And yet I recognize the awfulness of today’s junk. It may last forever, but only because it’s crammed full of the same chemical designed to dissolve limescale.

Ridley blames any opinion to the contrary – the idea that maybe these things are irrelevant in the long run – as an episode of fake “affluenza,” a made-up disease that apparently isn’t real. He thinks that money can buy happiness.

If he’s right in some fashion, it would be solely a material wealth that we have. We have lots of stuff, but who has more? The classes tearing the country apart and the ‘vampire squids’ sucking it dry. I can find little solace in my material situation (which frankly, isn’t even that good) when our political – and dare I say, metaphysical? – situations are so sorely lacking. Now is no time for optimism; optimism breeds complacency. Now is a time for pessimism, for righteous anger, and more than anything, for action.

Crossposted from The Smolerian.

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