BETHESDA, Md. – Unlikely as it may seem, one of America's leading optimists grew up rooting for the Buffalo Bills.
And now, a quarter century after seeing the Bills lose four straight Super Bowls and 47 years after graduating from Kenmore West High School, Gregg Easterbrook bears good news for us all.
Not about football, but about life.
"On a strict objective basis, the world is steadily improving. Of course, not for every single person, but for most people in most nations" – including the United States – Easterbrook said over coffee at his home in Washington's suburbs last week.
Easterbrook proves just that, too, over the 286 pages of "It's Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear." Easterbrook's 11th book serves as a fact-based rebuttal to those who set the tenor of the times, from the network news anchors who veer from "crisis" to "crisis" to the president who spoke of "American carnage" in a nation where crime had been dropping for years.
Most notably, Easterbrook shows that while Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were raging about the wrongs of the American economy in 2016, the "misery index" – the combined rate of inflation and unemployment – was at its lowest point in 50 years. And on the day Donald Trump was elected president, "objectively, America was in the best condition it had ever been in," Easterbrook noted.
A longtime writer for the Atlantic, Easterbrook is probably better known in his hometown for "Tuesday Morning Quarterback," the football column that's appeared over the years on ESPN, in the New York Times and now the Weekly Standard.
But he's also a serious author with a Fulbright fellowship in his background and a long history of tackling big, broad topics ranging from the environment to the space program to global progress. And his latest book proves there's plenty of the latter, if we would only notice it.
Here's just a sample of the statistics Easterbrook cites that might improve your mood:
• Americans may feel like they're not getting ahead if they, like the politicians and pundits, just look at pre-tax income – but Easterbrook thinks it's the wrong number to look at. "Census Bureau statistics show if lower taxes, higher benefits and consumer prices are taken into account, since 2000, middle-class buying power was rising at about the postwar average of about 3 percent a year," he wrote.
• Meanwhile, the world economy is growing in the best way possible – by spreading the wealth. The percent of people worldwide who live in extreme poverty shrank from 37 percent to 10 percent since 1990, as the growth fired by globalization lifted more than a billion people out of destitution in China and other Asian and African nations. This, Easterbrook noted, "should be viewed as the focal story of the last quarter century" – yet it goes largely unnoticed in the United States and Europe.
• Violence no longer ranks as one of the world's leading causes of death. In fact, save for Syria and other isolated war zones, violence is receding everywhere. That includes the United State, where – despite mass shootings – the murder rate fell by more than half between 1990 and 2015.
• Gigantic challenges remain, most notably inequality and climate change, but there's hope for addressing both. In a coming era where artificial intelligence will remake the world economy and leave the uneducated behind, Easterbrook advocates tearing up much of the existing social safety net and replacing it with something simpler, a Universal Basic Income paid by the government. Meanwhile, he said climate change can be limited by the shift to green energy – which is already happening – and a carbon tax.
There's more, much more, all of which combines to leave the reader asking: If things are so good, why do people think things are so bad?
You might be holding one reason in the palm of your hand.
"The short-term difference now is that the news is on our phones," Easterbrook said. "It physically follows us around. We physically hear bad news vibrating; it goes off in your pocket or your pocketbook. It used to be if you turned on '60 Minutes' and they were telling something terrible, you could walk away; '60 Minutes' didn't follow you into the next room. The phone makes it more immediate and more weird than it was before."
Of course, our phones wouldn't be such little torturers if the news wasn't so bad in the first place. For that Easterbrook blames the mainstream media, saying it accentuates the negative and eliminates the positive.
Stories about the 2015 Ebola outbreak started with doom-and-gloom front-page predictions, he noted, while the fact that the epidemic was nipped in the bud got buried, he noted.
As for the economy, Easterbrook tracked how the New York Times and CBS News covered the monthly jobs numbers over a period of five years and found that when they were bad, they were big news. When employment went up, the news sometimes didn't get noted at all.
"They helped create the illusion that everything was going to hell in a handbasket," Easterbrook said of the mainstream media.
And then a couple master illusionists made that illusion their own.
"Donald Trump lives in a made-up world, and he convinced 63 million Americans in November of 2016 that the United States was in the worst shape that it had ever been in," Easterbrook said. "And it's not just Trump, At the same time, Bernie Sanders almost won the Democratic nomination doing the same thing – relentlessly exaggerating everything bad and ignoring everything good."
If you can't tell already, Easterbrook is a man of no particular political party. He voted, reluctantly, for Hillary Clinton – whom he described in his book as, well, oily – saying it was "a lesser of two evils." And he longs for the day when pragmatism trumps partisanship.
"If there was a raging moderate party, I would join it," he said.
It already sounds like Easterbrook is developing something of a moderate party platform, one with a key aim of making America more democratic. He suggests eliminating the electoral college and electing the president by popular vote, while eliminating the gerrymandering of congressional districts by instituting at-large voting where those districts don't even exists.
And while those would be heavy political lifts, he also stresses that each and every one of us can avoid stressing out so much and make the country better by taking a few simple steps.
"We should all have a fact-based world view," he said. "We shouldn't be basing our view of the world based on what appears on our phones. That's a highly distorted image."
His suggestion? Stop with the news alerts, but read the news seriously, and in depth.
"People should read serious news – including The Buffalo News," he said. "Reading books by thoughtful authors – hey, I can think of one! – would be good, and not just me."
In fact, Easterbrook's book is part of an optimism boomlet. In “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” another book released this year, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker bemoans the fact that studies found that in the United States and 13 other countries, people think the world is getting worse.
“This bleak assessment of the state of the world is wrong ... flat-earth wrong,” Pinker wrote.
The research in Pinker's book, as well as "It's Better Than It Looks," shows that they're an accumulation of evidence that the world is getting better, Easterbrook said.
He stressed, though, that this does not mean all things are getting better for all people.
Insisting that he's no Pollyanna, Easterbrook proved it when asked how he thinks the Bills will do this year.
"I think 8-8 would be a huge relief," he said, smiling.
President Trump is vacationing at his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., where he will have dinner with supporters...Vice President Mike Pence meets with with Kenneth Mapp, governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, at the White House...The Senate begins its August recess...The criminal trial of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort resumes in Alexandria, Va...The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine releases a report titled "Vision and Voyages for Planetary Science in the Decade 2013-2022."
The New York Times notes that steel firms with ties to President Trump are blocking tariff relief for other firms...Also at the Times, Bret Stephens warns of the ramifications of Trump's demonization of the media...The Wall Street Journal tells us that tech firms are now thinking privacy legislation may be necessary...At New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan sees racism in reverse on the New York Times editorial board...And the Sunday Times of London discovers America's best summer city: Buffalo.