Tuesday, August 27, 2013

A Little Perspective, Please

I have a friend who is convinced that this country is going down the toilet.  She believes that all parents are incompetent and are raising children who won't be able to live in society.  She thinks the economy will never improve, that college graduates can't get jobs, that divorce is out of control, and on and on and on.  It's depressing to try to have a conversation with her because she is so negative.  So when I saw this article, the words leaped off the page at me.  This is from an article published on Cracked.com.

"In general, it's easier to be negative.  It's easier for us as a generation, because to admit that the world isn't that bad right now would be to admit that we have it easier than our grandparents did and that the world thus has the right to expect more from us.  But as much as we like to joke about the sorry state of the world, the facts really don't back us up.  Here are four myths that the facts just don't back up." 

"Everything Is So Expensive."

The Complaint:
"The corporations and the government have us all living like slaves. I can back it up with numbers, too -- in 1950 you could buy a brand new nine-room brick home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, for the whopping sum of $11,500. A decent family car was about $500, and the gas for it was about 25 cents a gallon. A large loaf of bread cost under 15 cents. A large coffee was a nickel, with a free refill. I could go on and on. But now between greedy corporations and the government confiscating our income with sky-high taxes, you have to work two jobs just to survive."

The Reality:
Let's start with the obvious: A low-end job in the service industry paid a dollar an hour in 1950. A fancy job in insurance or real estate? A buck-fifty an hour. You'd take home $50 a week after taxes. So please don't talk about the good old days of 50-cent steaks when people were getting paid what would now be Tooth Fairy money.

So how does this all average out, once you account for income? We don't have to guess. Punch anything into the cost of living calculator -- the one that uses the exact same formula that the government uses to decide things like tax rates -- and you'll see that the prices of most things have stayed pretty constant over the years. High-end manufactured goods have gotten cheaper. Much cheaper, as manufacturing costs drop.

In 1954, the cost of a high-end Westinghouse color TV, with a massive 15-inch screen, was $1,295. No, not adjusted for inflation. That was the actual price at the time -- half of the yearly income for some families. Everybody writes this off as if it's a constant of the universe ("of course new technology gets exponentially better and cheaper with time!") instead counting it among the benefits of the modern system. Why? This economic system has resulted in handheld devices that can access all the information in the town library, at a price affordable to the working man, and all we can do is complain about the cost of unlimited data plans?

And the golden age of the $500 car... how many of you come from families with two cars? Statistically it's most of you, and far more than what it would have been in 1960, when there were half as many cars on a per-capita basis in the U.S. (it averaged about one car per household -- so if you had two, someone else had none).
And taxes? Again, the numbers don't lie -- in the U.S. taxes are the lowest they've been since 1950. The government even threw you an extra two percent reduction in payroll tax as a cherry on top. The U.S. has the second-lowest taxes among developed countries.
Yes, we're going through a worldwide downturn and yes, a bunch of you are unemployed. Those of you who are reading this at a homeless shelter, we're not saying it's all in your head. But on the whole we could use a little perspective.

"People Are Getting Stupider."

The Complaint:
"Two words: 'Jersey Shore.' People are getting stupider by the minute, and the stupid people are breeding faster than the smart people. They watch mindless reality shows, and all anybody cares about is celebrity gossip and bullshit. Teenagers are obsessed with Twitter and video games and have probably never read a book."

The Reality:
IQ scores have risen 24 points since 1914. And on top of that, you have to account for the Flynn effect, discovered by James R. Flynn, which is a way of compensating for increased education (but more on that in a moment). The intelligence quotient is set up in such a way that an average score is 100. So, what do you do if people keep getting higher and higher scores, to the point where 100 is no longer the average? You rejigger the way scores are calculated so that it goes back down to 100.
So, while IQ scores may appear to be similar from one generation to the next, the scores have to be constantly adjusted back down to 100 because children are doing better and better on the test. If you scored 100 on a test back in the day, you might actually be considered slightly mentally challenged now.

Meanwhile, the quality of education has been going up for the past 40 years, with children scoring higher in reading and mathematics. That's not just in the U.S. -- it's worldwide. Graduation rates, too, are on an upward trend. So by the sheer numbers, we are actively creating useful members of society at an increasing rate. The world collectively is getting smarter. If you treat the combined mass of human knowledge as a resource for the future (and you should), then we're drowning in riches like Scrooge McDuck.

It seems like part of the negative perception is from trying to judge the intelligence of a people by their pop culture. But remember that most people spend their whole day at work or school thinking and making decisions and doing complex troubleshooting -- they treat entertainment as the break from all that.

And if you think that it's a sad sign of the times that Jackass 3D made a ton of money at the box office, hop in your time machine and go back 80 years. You'll find audiences howling with laughter at the Three Stooges.

"All This Processed Food Is Killing Us."

The Complaint:
"Just look at a label. High-fructose corn syrup? 'Phenylketonurics'? Hell, a simple chicken dinner may have 36 ingredients. Who knows what chemical preservative bullshit we eat in an average day? What happened to old-time family meals, when a roast was just a roast, and a loaf of bread just had flour and yeast and other natural ingredients?"

The Reality:
Think those ingredients in your TV dinner are scary? Prior to 1966, there was no ingredient labeling of prepared foods. You bought a tin of meat-and-potato stew, and what was in it was left to the goodwill of the manufacturer, who may have had to fatten profits by feeding people elk hooves and sawdust. You simply didn't know what you were eating.

The ingredient and nutrition labeling acts changed all that. Sure, food manufacturers can still try to lie and put bug shit and viruses in your food, but if caught, they get to pull all of their product off the shelf and dump it, at their own expense. And all those scary chemicals on the ingredients list? Many of those are preservatives. Meant to preserve the food. So it isn't rotten when you eat it.

Also, let's not forget that the refrigerator and freezer are both recent inventions -- go back to the Great Depression or earlier and you find that refrigerators cost more than a car. So keeping food cold or preserved was a crapshoot, with listeria, botulism and the shits acting as the dessert to granny's wholesome down-home country meal.

Oh, and feel free to browse through some recipes from the 1950s -- savor the Baked Corn Chex 'N' Cheese Custard and Spam fritters.

Again, we're not saying there isn't some gross stuff in your food -- there totally is and we have examined it in some detail -- just as we weren't saying that there are no stupid people in the world in our first entry up there.

All we're saying is that we're not at the disastrous nadir of some long downward trend.

"Crime Is Out of Control.”

The Complaint:
"A member of Congress gets gunned down in yet another mass shooting. You can't turn on the news for five seconds without hearing of a child being abducted and mutilated, or a massive gang war along the Mexican border. Every city in America has one section that you wouldn't dare drive through at night. Now compare that to the 1950s, when nobody even locked their doors at night. What changed?"

The Reality:
There absolutely was a huge crime wave in the 1980s, thanks to the crack epidemic (this graph shows the spike in murders in L.A., for instance). But the numbers do not lie: Crime, property crime, theft and burglary have actually been dropping since about 1993. Dropping and dropping, below even where we were before drug violence skewed the stats upward.

If you look at the homicide rate per 100,000 people, which is one of the only crime stats reliably tracked through the 1900s and into today, you can see that not only is it the lowest since the 1950s, but that it's quite a lot lower than it was in the 1970s and even the 1930s. (And it's a scaling formula, meaning it isn't skewed by population.) Now why would the crime rate be so high in the 1930s?

When the economy is bad, people get desperate, and desperate people will do whatever they can to survive, right? And here we sit, 80 years later, with the worst economy since the Great Depression. How's the crime rate faring now? It's lower than it was before the recession. A few days ago, the FBI published its statistics for the first half of 2010, which show that crime has dropped further still.
What has not dropped is the number of TV shows and news features about crime, and newspapers' need to report on violence whenever it occurs. Therefore, the only thing about crime that seems to be going up is the perception of how bad it really is.

So, by the sheer numbers, you would be just as safe keeping your doors unlocked at night as your grandparents were back in "the good old days."

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