Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Nattering Nabobs of Negativity

Three years into what we now popularly call the Great Rescession, or as Ken Rogoff would have it “The Second Great Contraction,” pessimism abounds. We are bombarded daily with negative stories about lost decades, American decline and Chinese hegemony, PIGS feeding on Germany’s trough, declining standards of living, a broken education system, infrastructure falling into decay, and a fatalistically self-destructive political environment. It’s enough to make sound bite addled journalists like Jonathan Alter call the last decade “the worst in 100 years.”

But every now and then it’s important to say “enough already, let’s get a grip.” The worst decade in a century? Worse than 1929-39? Really? Back then GDP dropped 47% and unemployment was 25%. We didn't have all those achievements in place that Alter boasts for the latter half of the 20th century.  Worse than 1939-45 and its 60 million dead, including close to half a million Americans? Fact is, things ain't so bad.

Here are a few things we have accomplished during the last ten years (give or take), and that we are working on:

1. Knowledge sharing: Google, Wi-Fi, IPhone, IPad, Wikipedia, social networking sites (facebook, myspace, linked-in, etc.), digital cameras, digital books; on-line newspapers and periodicals; research papers widely available on-line; blogs (today I can read Brad DeLong, Greg Mankiew, quality legal group blogs, Crooked Timber, Mondoweiss, and each one of us can have our individual list of quality blogs to follow), and storage of personal data in the cloud.

2. Medical advances: heart attack deaths are cut by 40 percent; AIDS has turned from deadly scourge to a manageable illness; stem cell research advances; big advances in breast cancer treatment and other cancer treatments; great progress in minimimally invasive robotic surgery techniques; advances in functional MRI's, etc.

3. 27 states have passed no-smoking laws.

4. Equality for gays is progressing. We have a continuing and strenghtening commitment to disability accessiblity.

5. Child safety: Between 2000 and 2009, non-fatal injuries for people under 21 decreased by 20 percent, according to the California Department of public health. The incidents of car related injuries for children has dropped by 40 percent. This is due to child seat safety laws, helmet laws, improved regulations for playgrounds and pools, etc. , and advances in technology.

6. Health insurance: We've passed significant legislation to drastically reduce the number of uninsured. Lot's of work to go here, but it's a start.

7. Progress has been made in reducing green-house gas emissions, and in developing alternative energy. LEED standards and other industry standards have been developed for the design and construction of energy efficient, and people friendly, buildings. We have made lots of progress in developing alternate energy: solar, wind, thermal, wave, etc.

8. There have been strong developments in harnessing computers in construction. Building Information Modeling (BIM) is leading to better designs, more efficient construction, and better more energy efficient buildings.

9. There has been lots of research and groundwork-laying for eventually moving beyond the internal combustion engine. Electric cars, electric batteries, high speed trains, etc. Progress has been made on all these fronts.

10. There has been much progress on the aviation front: drone technology is a symbol, but it extends to all manner of lighter, more efficient aircraft, from commercial liners to small private planes.

We all need to take a deep breath and get a grip on reality with both hands, as Brad DeLong says. Neither Obama nor Perry (and never mind Romney) is the Messiah.  We have lots to do, from adjusting the out of whack income and wealth inequality, creating jobs and getting productive, adapting education for this new century: let’s get to work, let’s study hard, let's work hard, let’s have some fun, and as Spiro Agnew might say, let’s not pay so much attention to the nattering nabobs of negativity in Congress and the press.

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