Is the World Really Falling Apart, or Does It Just Feel That Way?

That’s the title of an article by New York Times reporter Max Fisher.  He summarizes, “By most measures – with one glaring exception – people around the world are better off than ever.  So why doesn’t it feel that way, especially to Americans?”

Scanning the headlines, it’s easy to conclude that something has broken.  The pandemic.  Global grain shortage.  Russia’s war on Ukraine.  Political and economic meltdown in Sri Lanka.  A former prime minister’s assassination in Japan.  And, in the United States: inflation, mass shootings, a reckoning over Jan. 6, and collapsing abortion rights.

That sense of chaos can be difficult to square with longer-term data showing that, on many metrics, the world is generally becoming better off.

War is rarer today, by some measures, than it has been for most of the past 50 years – and, when it does occur, is significantly less deadly.  Genocides and mass atrocities are less common all the time, too.  Life expectancy, literacy and standards of living are all rising, on average, to historic highs.

Also steadily declining: hunger, child mortality, and extreme poverty, liberating hundreds of millions from what are, by sheer numbers, among the pre-eminent threats facing humanity.

So why does it often feel like, despite all the data, things are only getting worse?

He writes that we are more conscious of obvious crises than subtle gains.  “[M]any of the positive changes are about prevention.  No one notices the wars that don’t happen, the family members who aren’t claimed by disease, the children who don’t die in infancy.”

This dynamic of focusing on the problems is aggravated by the internet and the media bias in favor of spreading bad news, which can make crises feel ever-present.

Mr. Fisher writes that surveys show that residents of rich countries like the United States are more likely to feel that the world is getting worse, while majorities in low-income and middle-income countries tend to express optimism about the future. This should not be surprising considering that people tend to judge how they are doing compared to those around them or compared to their own recent past, not abstract benchmarks or previous generations.  Things generally have been improving in countries at the bottom and declining for those at the top.

Mr. Fisher also argues that we are in an “era of democratic decline,” which obviously is discouraging.

For seven decades, the number of countries considered democratic grew. The average quality of these democracies – the fairness of elections, the rule of law and the like – also improved steadily.  That rise began to slow about 20 years ago, though.  And beginning five or six years ago, researchers have since found, the number of democracies in the world has shrunk for the first time since World War II.  Existing democracies are also becoming less democratic, as well as more polarized and more prone to political dysfunction or outright breakdown.

People look for patterns and confirmation bias kicks in, reinforcing our perceptions.

Consistent with Mr. Fisher’s article, controversial Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker has argued in several books, especially The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), that there has been a major decline in all forms of violence.

On the other hand, Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman analyzed a raft of economic data from the very recent past suggesting that the entire economic space-time continuum may be discombobulated.  A slight paraphase.

Take a look.

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