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Man holding sign during travel ban protest rally in Boston, January 29, 2017. Photo credit: Kristin Shoemaker / Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Are Americans Afraid of Optimism?

Did False Pessimism Help Elect Trump?


The US and the world are doing better by almost every metric. So why is there so much pessimism?

We live in an age of paradox. According to study after study, almost everything we can measure is moving in a positive direction. Worldwide, there is less violence, less pollution (except for greenhouse gases), less war, greater longevity, and most diseases are declining. From the perspective of material living standards, in every part of the world, things are getting better.

But there is another side.

Diseases that were once a death sentence are now manageable, but healthcare costs are escalating, and the divide between those that can and cannot afford quality healthcare is widening.

Millions of people in the developing world are experiencing a standard of living never imagined possible, yet how people feel about the world is increasingly negative, especially in the United States. Technology has made life easier in so many ways, yet Silicon Valley is becoming the boogeyman.

In spite of all the positive trends, tribalism divides us; social media, politics, and economics reinforce the divide; and the 24/7 always-on culture makes it happen even faster.

So where are the reasons for optimism?

In this WhoWhatWhy podcast, Jeff Schechtman talks with prolific author and longtime Atlantic journalist Gregg Easterbrook about why he believes things are much better than they look.

Easterbrook reminds us that pessimism was in our national psyche long before social media. He argues against the common claim that the good old days were so good. In his view, it is this false pessimism that in large measure gave us Donald Trump.  

His goal is to make optimism intellectually respectable. While he agrees there is plenty to worry about, Easterbrook insists that a change in national attitude could go a long way toward making positive change. In fact, he says that history shows that optimism is the best argument for reform: only optimism could have lifted 1.8 billion people, in China and India, out of extreme poverty in a single generation.

In discussing the broader consequences of negative thinking, Easterbrook explains why we have to take a more global view, and why we should not be so quick to discard the mechanisms for reform we already have.  

And while it might be OK, as someone once said, to be a pessimist about tomorrow, Easterbrook exhorts us to at least be optimistic about the day after tomorrow.

Gregg Easterbrook is the author of It’s Better Than it Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear (PublicAffairs, February 20, 2018), and The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (Random House Trade Paperbacks, November 9, 2004).

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. We live in an age of paradox. Crime and murders are down, yet we are more fearful than ever about gun violence. Technology has made life easier in so many ways, yet Silicon Valley is becoming the boogeyman and technology is and will be replacing jobs with greater and greater speed. Diseases that were once a death sentence are now manageable, but healthcare costs are escalating and the divide among those that can and cannot afford quality healthcare is growing. And we’re not living as long as we used to, and other nations have a better quality of life.
Millions and millions of people in the developing world are experiencing a standard of living never imagined possible, yet some would pull up the bridges and have us disconnect from that world, all while the doomsday clock moves closer to midnight. Tribalism divides us, social media, politics, and economics reinforces that divide, and the 24/7 always on culture makes it happen faster and faster. So, where is there any reason for optimism in all of this? We’re going to talk about this today with my guest, Gregg Easterbrook.
He’s the author of 10 previous books, including the New York Times bestseller The Progress Paradox. He’s been a staff writer and national correspondent and contributing editor to the Atlantic for nearly 40 years. He’s written for numerous publications and was a fellow at Brookings and at The Fulbright Foundation. It is my pleasure to welcome Gregg Easterbrook here to talk about It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear. Gregg, thanks so much for joining us.
Gregg Easterbrook : Thank you for having me, Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: I want to talk about the general sense of optimism that you convey in It’s Better Than It Looks. Certainly, it’s reflective of where we are at a particular moment in time. I guess the question is, is it possible that we just haven’t realized yet that everything is going in the wrong direction?
Gregg Easterbrook : Well, it’s possible. A lot of things are possible. But I don’t think so. I think there’s a very compelling case that nearly everything that we can measure objectively, of course, not everything, has been moving in a positive direction for years, if not decades. When I say that, I don’t mean for every individual. Obviously, the world is full of people who have health problems, money problems, who feel lonely. But what I do mean is the main currents of what you can measure and to go over them quickly, all forms of pollution except greenhouse gases are in a long-term cycle of decline. Violent crime is in a long-term cycle of decline. Believe it or not, war, both intensity and frequency is in a long-term cycle of decline.
Longevity is rising by not every measure, but almost every one; most diseases, including cancer, are declining. Either in absolute numbers or in rates or in both, material living standards are rising. Just about everything you can measure that’s objective looks good. Now, when you turn to what’s subjective, how do you feel about all this? Well, how you feel about things is a choice and many people make the choice to feel worried or even paralyzed with anxiety about the many, many, many things that might go wrong in the future.
Although I can’t give you a definitive reason why you shouldn’t choose to feel anxiety, I can tell you this. When you choose the negative, pessimistic view of the world, what you do is you open the door for Donald Trump, who campaigned on a relentlessly negativistic platform saying the country’s in the worst shape it’s ever been in, everything is down, down, down. He got 63 million votes for that position, even when on the day he was elected, the United States had never been in better condition by almost any barometer.
Jeff Schechtman: Which begs the question, why the great disconnect between what those objective measurements tell us and how people are feeling and reacting?
Gregg Easterbrook : Well, I would like to be able to blame this all on Facebook and similar social media projects. Well, right now, it’s very fashionable to blame Facebook for things and you know what? I think we should blame Facebook for things. Facebook and similar social channels relentlessly emphasize the negative and sources of discord. Of course, you can also use them to find out, get pictures of birthday parties and cute puppies. But most of what’s striking in social media is what’s negative.
Unlike newspapers that also contain negative news, but the newspaper sits on a table. If you get up and walk to another room, the newspaper doesn’t get up and follow you. Your smartphone does get up and follow you. The negative stuff that we see in social channels is physically right up next to our face and it follows us from room to room. So, I think that’s a recent factor. But if you go back into the doomed distant mists of history before Facebook, in other words, you go back just 10 years before people were carrying smartphones in their pockets, you find the same thing in polling data.
You find people feeling dissatisfied, worried, thinking things are going down rather than up. I have a section in It’s Better Than It Looks where, without telling you the titles, I describe a series of great works of literature, nonfiction books, novels, and theatrical plays that had pessimistic views of the United States. Everything’s declining, winter is setting in, we’re being overwhelmed by dishonesty, and illegal immigrants are a huge theme in all these works. Then at the end of the section, maybe you’ve already guessed, I tell you the names of the books and the plays and they’re all between 50 and 100 years old. So, this thinking has been deep in our American psyche for some time.
Jeff Schechtman: Coming back to the first point you made about social media and our phones, what’s different this time is the self-reinforcing aspect of the tribalism that is so much a part of what’s going on and that we’re constantly reinforced with that. Viewpoints from people that feel the same way we do and also, that it’s happening at such an alarming 24/7 speed, one begins to think maybe this time, it really is different.
Gregg Easterbrook : It could be. Polling data has been showing for about 10 years, that is to say about the time that Facebook and smartphones have existed, I don’t claim that you can show a direct causation, I only say that data show that these two things are happening concurrently. But Americans have begun to say that the country is falling apart and that other parts of the country and the national government are in terrible condition.
When you poll the same people, they say, “Oh, where I live, things are fine. The schools, the businesses, the healthcare facilities that are around me that I see with my own eyes, those things are fine. But the stuff that I hear about on the news, oh, it’s really bad.” The news is full of things that are intended to be as negative as possible and then involve people you will never meet and places you will almost certainly never go, but it’s scary, right?
Jeff Schechtman: Does it become then in this environment a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in ways that it didn’t in the past?
Gregg Easterbrook : Well, I spend a fair amount of time in It’s Better Than It Looks expressing skepticism about good old days arguments of many types, including the incredibly crazy good old days argument that both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders made during this 2016 campaign that somehow, we were better off in the ’70s and better off in the ’80s. Remember how high unemployment and inflation were in the ’70s? Remember how terrible discrimination was in the 1980s? Gays couldn’t marry. To romanticize the past seems crazy to me. So, I won’t romanticize the past on communication either.
Suppose you lived 50 years ago in New York City or Boston where there was a huge selection of newspapers with different political slants. What did you buy? You bought the newspaper that agreed with your political slant. So, this self-reinforcing echo chamber, it’s not new just because of our phones. I think it has gotten a little bit worse and it accelerates something that’s already in our national psyche.
Jeff Schechtman: What is the consequence of this negative thinking that it’s so much a part of our political and social and economic landscape today, and what happens if it continues at its present pace?
Gregg Easterbrook : Well, I shudder to think that it will. My main purpose in writing It’s Better Than It Looks was to make optimism intellectually respectable again. You go back a hundred years to the Progressive movement, the Progressives of the turn of not this century, but the turn of the last century, were fundamentally optimists. They believed in the Four Freedoms, they believed the Four Freedoms could actually be achieved, that they weren’t pie in the sky, they believed that life could become better not just for a few, but for everyone. That was the optimistic point of view.
Now, we think that life is getting worse and we started off by saying, “Well, that’s the choice. If you want to be depressed all the time, okay. That’s the choice that you make.” But think what the consequences are. The reason I think optimism should become intellectually respectable again is it is the best argument for reform. I spend a lot of time in the book looking at past reforms that have worked in healthcare, environment, economics, many areas.
Seeing the fact that these reforms have worked in the past is the reason we can be optimistic that the reforms that are needed today for climate change, inequality, and other big issues, that those reforms will work too. If you’re an optimist, you think that reforms will work. If you’re a pessimist, you think we might as well just give up. My big fear when I look at the American polity and our social fabric is that more and more people want to just give up rather than fixing what’s wrong.
Jeff Schechtman: That desire to give up, do you think that some of it comes from the fact that, given the environment right now and given the political direction right now, then rather than reform, it’s a little bit like Alice in Wonderland, it just takes all the running we can do just to stay in the same place to prevent things from getting any worse?
Gregg Easterbrook : Well, I know a lot of people are looking at Donald Trump and saying, “Oh, Trump’s a terrible president.” Let’s suppose they’re right. I think he’s a terrible president too. That means we can’t get anything done. That is not the lesson from the past. The lesson from the past is you name almost any reform, and civil rights reform is a good one to think of right now, when it was happening, everybody was saying, “Oh, we can’t get anything done. We might as well give up because we can’t get anything done.” Instead, things that you weren’t supposed to be able to get done, in fact, got done and we’re all better off as a result.
Let me cite for you an effective reform that most Americans don’t even know has happened. Gerrymandering has made the incumbents in the House of Representatives, who were incredible unpopular according to polls, nevertheless likely to be reelected all the time with one big exception. The State of California was able to eliminate political gerrymandering. At the time, and this was done under the leadership of Arnold Schwarzenegger, a retired actor. I guess he’s not retired anymore.
But if you look back at the time when Schwarzenegger, as a Republican, a pretty goofy governor of a mainly Democratic state, said, “I’m going to take on gerrymandering and fix it,” everybody at that time would have said, “Oh, no. This can never happen” and it did happen and it’s working just fine. So, it is possible to swim against that huge current of people who believe the change can never happen. But, you got to try.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent does looking at the world as a more global entity impact this?
Gregg Easterbrook : Well, the line I use in It’s Better Than It Looks is that great things are happening all over the world, just not here. There’s good reasons to be worried about the specific status of the United States right now. If you look at the larger world, the larger world is by far in the best condition than it’s ever been in. Democracy is winning, certainly not everywhere. But almost everywhere, the number of people, the percentage of the global population who participate in genuine multiparty elections is the highest today that it’s ever been in human history. The percentage of literate citizens of our world has skyrocketed. A century ago, 15% of the human family was literate. Now, it’s 85, maybe even 90% now.
War is declining, malnutrition is declining. The human population has grown, as you know, spectacularly in the post-war era and yet with each passing year, there’s a smaller percentage of people who are malnourished. The big story of the last 25 years on Planet Earth is practically unknown to citizens of the United States, and that’s the decline of extreme poverty, mainly in China and India. Something like 1.5 to 1.8 billion people have been lifted out of poverty in a single generation. That’s more than the total number of people who existed in the entire world when the Declaration of Independence was signed.
Jeff Schechtman: Is that somehow part of the issue, part of the problem, at least here in America, that we’re looking at this so myopically?
Gregg Easterbrook : Yes. Americans, although we’re basically a generous country and we’ve mainly been generous to the rest of the world, we tend to judge everything based on our own circumstances. Now, this is not unusual. Many other nations are the same. So, I think if you told a factory worker in Wisconsin who had lost a job in a washing machine factory to globalization, and there are job losses to globalization. The extent is drastically exaggerated in political commentary, but nobody can deny that they actually occur. So, you take your factory worker and tell him, “Well, the same global trade forces that cost you your good job have also helped lift 1.8 billion people out of poverty in a single generation.” Our friend the factory worker might answer you with a colorful expletive.
Of course, he cares about all those impoverished people who are not impoverished anymore. But the first thing you see in front of your own face is your own job or your own situation, whereas 1.8 billion, that’s a number that’s real hard to conceptualize. You can’t physically see it, you can’t observe it, there’s no proof of it around you. What there is proof of around you is that you lost your job. So, we tend to focus on those things. It’s very hard to make to people, even to goodhearted people, the argument that as long as the larger trends are positive, and they are in almost everything, that you shouldn’t care about your own personal negative trends.
Jeff Schechtman: Yet while we see this improvement in the global landscape, we see particularly, certainly here in the US and in the West in general, as election after election in Europe keeps proving, this trend of dissatisfaction and this kind of populism we see.
Gregg Easterbrook : Well, yeah. I mentioned the fact that negativism helped elect Donald Trump. People believed the country was, in Trump’s word, everything bad, down, down, down when in fact, things were good. But let’s move away from the United States and move to Western Europe. Look at what happened in the United Kingdom in the same year. Brits voted to leave the European Union. The European Union has existed since 1957 and what’s happened since 1957? There have been no wars in Europe while prosperity has risen in every country.
Well, no war and rising prosperity, those things sound, they sound pretty good to me. Yes, the European Union can be ridiculous, the bureaucrats in Brussels, that Brussels is featherbedded, they issue ridiculous edicts. But no war, rising prosperity, and British voters said, “To hell with that,” and they decided to leave. This is how pessimism is not just a personal choice. It can backfire on your society.
Jeff Schechtman: So, what does history tell us is perhaps the catalyst to begin to turn this attitude around?
Gregg Easterbrook : Well, people’s attitudes, I think, have to evolve on their own. There’s nothing you can do by legislation about attitudes. People look at discrimination against minorities or gender discrimination against women and say, “Well, what can we do?” Everything that you can think of that could be done legally on those two scores has been done. You can’t legislate what people believe in their minds. That can only gradually evolve as society changes. I think we’re seeing gradual evolution in a desirable direction. But Congress can’t tell you, “Okay, stop being prejudiced.” It just doesn’t work like that.
So, when we look at the larger world, things are mainly going a lot better than expected. You go back and read the commentary of the ’60s and ’70s, all the runaway calamities that were expected, basically none of them have happened. That’s not a guarantee that they’ll never happen in the future. But it is sort of an indicator that maybe reform works better than we think. Political reform, technological reform, social reform, these forces tend to work.
So, you take that knowledge, and I spend the last third of It’s Better Than It Looks talking about the lessons you would learn from successful reforms of the past, how would you apply those lessons to climate change, inequality, refugee movements, lack of fair wages in many states, and similar issues? I hope that by reading this material, people will become, not Pollyannas. Optimism doesn’t mean to walk around with a smile on your face. Optimism means to believe the problems can be fixed, and that’s the message I’m trying to sell.
Jeff Schechtman: Is it possible, though, that the way we have fixed them in the past, that the institutions of reform simply don’t work anymore, that we need to find new ways and new institutions to put those reforms into place?
Gregg Easterbrook : I think we may reach that point someday, but I don’t think we’re there yet. Think about climate change, greenhouse gases. Greenhouse gases fundamentally are an air pollution problem and all past air pollution problems have been solved faster and more cheaply than expected. The decline of smog, not just in the United States, but also in Mexico. Mexico City used to be, 25 years ago, you couldn’t breathe there. Now, it’s basically okay. Smog is declining in most, although not all of Europe. Acid rain, big decline in the United States, big decline in Europe, moderate pace of decline in China, even, in acid rain, and at a lower cost than anybody expected.
So, if you take both the technical things that were done on these issues and also, the business models, like in the case of acid rain trading programs, you apply them to greenhouse gases, yes, greenhouse gases are a really big problem, it will take a generation to solve them. But the likelihood is that you’ll get the same effect that you got with smog and acid rain, and that is faster progress costing less than expected.
Jeff Schechtman: What impact have we seen and how should we look at generational change in this context?
Gregg Easterbrook : Well, although I am mainly optimistic, I think we’re cruising for a bruising on that one because the United States is borrowing far too much money to subsidize the old at the expense of the young, and that’s a group that when you say “the old”, well, we all hope to join that group. I hope to join that group. But if you look at national economics, we spend too much on the old and we expect the young to foot the bill. I think there’s, I think, a big intergenerational clash is coming.
The other possibility is what’s happened in Japan. Japan is the oldest society in the world, in terms of longevity and several other barometers. Their political apathy has struck the young in a very disturbing way. The young just think: “We can’t do anything about the power of the old. Therefore, we don’t want to have anything to do with politics.” That’s the wrong reaction. Oh, man, do I want the young to get more involved in American and European politics.
Jeff Schechtman: Do you see it happening in either of those places? Is there any reason for optimism there?
Gregg Easterbrook : Well, I think if there’s one good takeaway from the ’16 election, it’s that if the young had voted, we wouldn’t have got Donald Trump as president. If you look at voter turnout data, the people over the age of 60 voted at the highest percentage and people under the age of 30 voted as the lowest percentage. If we could just get people under the age of 30 to vote at the overall national norm, our politics would be very different and you would be able to inject new ideas into the system.
Any of your listeners, Jeff, who are young, I know they’re rolling their eyes and saying, “Oh, great. They’re lecturing the young about our responsibilities again.” Yeah. That’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m lecturing the young about their responsibilities to vote because, young people, if you don’t vote, the old are going to steal your money. So, vote and stop that from happening.
Jeff Schechtman: Why do you think that is? Is it something in the educational system or is it something larger as to why there is such apathy, political apathy in particular, with respect to young people today?
Gregg Easterbrook : I’m one of the many people who would agree on Churchill’s famous statement that democracy is the worst possible form of government except for all other forms. Right now, democracy is the best hope we’ve got almost anywhere. In the United States, the two infuriating faults of democracy are that young people don’t vote and the poor don’t vote. Okay, that’s the choice they make. But it’s a really bad choice to make. I’ve heard young people say, very smart and very well informed, and I’ve heard from more than one young person, and I’m about to lecture the young again, that when I say that, they start into, “Oh, you can show with mathematics that no one vote can possibly affect the outcome of an election.”
I think that’s arguing no one visit to the doctor can possibly make me live longer. So, therefore, I should never consult a doctor. I think it’s the same kind of logic. If we could just figure out a way to get young people and the poor to vote at the same percentage that everybody else votes, I think you would see American politics revitalized.
Jeff Schechtman: Of course, countering that is all the voter suppression efforts that we’re dealing with every day.
Gregg Easterbrook : Well, I say in It’s Better Than It Looks that both voter fraud claim by Republicans and voter suppression claimed by Democrats, they are the Loch Ness Monsters of politics. They always vanish back into the lake before anybody can show up with a camera.
Jeff Schechtman: You raised an interesting question before about the local aspect of this because one thing that we are seeing, and it is, I guess, an optimistic indicator, I suppose, is that even among young people with respect to local issues and local elections and community participation, there is certainly more of a sense of interest, if not active involvement than there is at anything that goes on outside of the community.
Gregg Easterbrook : Well, I sure hope so because the famous saying that all politics fundamentally is local, if local politics gets young people involved, that would be so great. I live near Washington, DC and all of the Democratic Party senior leadership is over 70 years of age. The President is 71 years of age. Four of the nine Supreme Court Justices are over the mandatory retirement age for judges in most states. The leadership of Washington is two things. It’s old and it’s out of touch. It’s not going to reform itself. It will have to be forced to reform by young people.
Jeff Schechtman: Is there anything that really chips away at your optimism? What is the one thing that you are the most worried about?
Gregg Easterbrook : Oh, there’s several terrible, terrible things that could go wrong. Obviously, if an atomic bomb goes off somewhere in the world. Even one atomic bomb, not just the explosion itself, but the political consequences could start a new Dark Ages, basically. Imagine if a bomb built in Pakistan went off on the soil of the United States or European Union. The retaliation would kill 500 million people. So, I worry about that. I don’t think it’s going to happen. But I think you should worry about it. There’s a few natural threats and we can’t control natural threats. Or can we? We could stop an asteroid from hitting the earth.
Recent science has shown that asteroid strikes are not something of the distant past, that they’re disturbingly frequent and disturbingly modern. We could do something about that. There’s a fear that the Luddites will eventually be proved right. Just because the Luddites were wrong 200 years ago doesn’t mean that they’re not going to be wrong in the middle of the 21st century. It’s certainly possible that automation could take away so many jobs that people who aren’t well educated will have no meaningful role in society.
Automation is a much greater threat, 10 times greater threat to manufacturing jobs especially than international trade is. So, there’s a lot of things that could go wrong. But I think no matter how far human civilization gets, there will always be things that could go wrong.
Jeff Schechtman: Gregg Easterbrook, his book is It’s Better Than It Looks: Reason for Optimism in an Age of Fear. Gregg, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Gregg Easterbrook : Thank you for having me, Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to

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