The Sustainable Solutions Network’s 2021 World Happiness Report is out, and America actually moved up a bit from the rank of 18th to 14th. This is partly because Costa Rica, which ranked 15th in 2019, was not ranked this time. But it is also because Canada and the United Kingdom lost a lot of ground. The U.K. was ranked 13th in 2019, and dropped to 18th. Many European countries saw their Happiness Indices fall – not too surprising, considering the pandemic that has swept the globe.
America’s score actually increased slightly, from 6.940 in 2019 to 7.028 in 2020. This may seem surprising, given the many Americans who have died from COVID-19, but the Happiness Index does not merely measure positive and negative “feelings” (what the SSN calls positive and negative affect). It examines life evaluations, including social support. Negative affect did indeed increase globally as expected, yet positive life evaluation increased. This illustrates how important it is to distinguish people’s subjective impressions from their evaluations of well-being. America remains behind 10 European countries, including all 5 of the Scandinavian countries, on the Happiness Index. Finland was at the number 1 position again, and 9 of the top 10 positions are occupied by European countries. The basic framework of happiness, as measured by the SSN, has not changed with the arrival of COVID-19.
Some countries moved up considerably. Germany ranked 17th in 2019 and moved up to 7th in 2020. Germany seems to have handled the pandemic quite well. Thus far there have been about 75,000 deaths, a rate of about 900/million residents. This compares to about 126,000 deaths in the U.K., a rate of about 1800/million. Finland has also done very well, with only 805 deaths, a rate of 145/million. Of the Scandinavian countries, Sweden has done the worst, with about 13,000 deaths, a rate of about 1300/million. It is probably no accident that Sweden chose to continue many activities in a more or less business as usual manner, depending on herd immunity to solve the problem, which has not happened. But Sweden ranked 7th on the Happiness Index in both 2019 and 2020, illustrating that overall life evaluation is more important than positive or negative affect.
Low perceptions of corruption continue to be a major reason why the Scandinavian countries rank so highly on the Happiness Index. Finland for example has the lowest corruption score in the world, 0.164. America ranks 31st on this, with a score of 0.678, behind 15 European countries. Americans do not trust their government to be free of corruption, and the presidency of the last 4 years has done nothing to improve that. On other measures of happiness, America does fairly well. But Americans do not perceive that their government operates in their best interest.
An American observer might ask, “Why should this one thing be given so much importance on the Happiness Index”? Well globally, it isn’t. Other factors, such as GDP per capita, life expectancy, and freedom to make life choices are more important. But among the highly developed countries these things tend to balance out. America has high GDP per capita, but lower freedom to make life choices than Sweden. These tend to balance each other out. So a factor like perceptions of corruption becomes an important indicator.
There is little doubt in my mind that trickle-down economics and its offspring, massive income inequality, have driven public confidence in government down in America. Until the shadow of Ronald Reagan is lifted, I don’t see this improving significantly. This in turn is intimately connected to America’s multi-ethnic character. It is all a package that must be taken apart and dismantled – racism, income inequality, our broken health care system – I think it will all have to be dealt with at once, if there is any hope of addressing any single element.
Human beings are not blank slates. We carry with us biases, cognitive fallacies, preconceived notions, and subconscious desires. Yet we usually recognize the value of logic, and are happy to use it, as long as it suits our purposes, which are often anything but logical. We take stances that are rooted in irrational motivations and come up with convoluted rationalizations to justify them.
The late William F. Buckley, one of the founders of the National Review, was a master of rationalization. Buckley helped fuse social conservatism, with its disgust of homosexuality and atheism, and economic conservatism, with its disgust of organized labor and government regulation. What does one have to do with the other? Many economic conservatives are also atheists and homosexuals, and many social conservatives are union members. But Buckley is not difficult to understand when you look at his roots.
Buckley’s father, William Buckley Sr., was a wealthy oil man. He raised his son not merely as a Catholic but as a divinely touched Catholic. And not surprisingly, he despised organized labor and government regulation. He opposed desegregation and taught his son to despise Jews. He told his daughter there was no way any daughter of his would ever marry a Jew.
The son, of course, is not guilty for the sins of the father. But in this case the sins of the father explain a great deal about the political positions of the son. The son took his father’s side when he opposed his daughter’s marriage to a Jew. The son angrily called Gore Vidal a queer and threatened to sock him in the face. The son defended segregation and McCarthyism.
Buckley was the epitome of “intellectual” conservatism in America, which takes motivations built on religiosity and white supremacy and attempts to cloak them in high-sounding reasonableness. The ultimate example of this was Buckley’s defense of creationism and its offspring, intelligent design. His argument was a familiar one, not so much a critique of evolution itself, but a more basic attack on materialist philosophy. Evolutionists were materialists, he argued, and materialists unfairly excluded supernatural causes from the outset. It is entirely reasonable, he argues, that some supernatural force has directed events leading to us, and evolution refuses to look at this possibility. The problem with this is that a supernatural cause is supernatural because it has no observable effect on the real world. If it has an effect, it is not supernatural! For centuries, gravity was observed but not understood. Even after Newton gave us equations describing it, we didn’t know WHY it occurred. It was just something that happened. It was an observable effect, therefore its cause could not be supernatural, by definition.
Of course it is perfectly possible that some very powerful intelligence could tweak events in a way that we would never detect. Some intelligence could be dictating the timing of the opening of individual flowers in a field, so that to us it merely looks random. But if it looks the same as if there were no intelligence directing it, who cares? Buckley cares. Because he needs to rationalize his religiosity. Whatever “reasonable” argument can be made must be made. Only his motivation is not reason.
And so it goes with so much “intellectual” ideology. Instead of being honest about their motivations, ideologues rationalize. When the evidence doesn’t support an ideological position, the ideologue deflects, distorts, and distracts, all the while insisting that he is being completely and totally reasonable and logical. The result is a lot of wasted time on ideas that have been shown to be meritless. The result is lots of needless suffering and death. I have no doubt that humanity will ultimately outgrow its barbarism. Philosopher Raymond Smullyan once wrote, “The only difference between the so-called saint and the so-called sinner is that the former is vastly older than the latter.” Smullyan argued that the time required for this process was necessary, that once we understood this we would see that the finite suffering, as painful as it was, was necessary, and would diminish, ultimately to the vanishing point.
I wish I could agree. The waste really bugs the shit out of me. I have lived my entire adult life in the shadow of trickle-down economics and anti-government cynicism. I can’t help thinking about where we could have been by now, if we had kept moving forward.
Today’s NY Times contains an editorial by Thomas Friedman entitled “China Doesn’t Respect Us Anymore – For Good Reason.” Here are a few excerpts:
“For many of our political leaders, governing has become sports, entertainment or just mindless tribal warfare. No wonder China’s leaders see us as a nation in imperial decline, living off the leftover fumes of American ‘exceptionalism.’ I wish I could say they were all wrong.”
“What did you think, that the Chinese didn’t notice that our last president inspired his followers to ransack our Capitol, that a majority of his party did not recognize the results of our democratic election, that a member of our Congress believes that Jewish-run space lasers cause forest fires, that left-wing anarchists were allowed to take over a section of downtown Portland, creating havoc for months, that during the pandemic the U.S. printed money to help its consumers keep spending — much of it on Chinese-made goods — while China printed money to invest in even more infrastructure, and that gun violence in America is out of control?”
“You think they didn’t notice?“
Something’s gotta give. If America is worth saving, it will be saved. If not, well….
Lurking not very far behind a lot of anti-immigration rhetoric in America is a belief that somehow, some way, the browning of the country will be kept from happening. There is an implicit assumption that if only immigration could be curtailed, America would continue to be a majority white country indefinitely. “You will not replace us!” is associated with rabid, screaming white supremacists. But it is a sentiment lurking much more broadly and covertly among white American minds.
The results of the 2020 census will soon be published, but already we know a lot about population trends. America’s population growth is slower today than it has been in more than a century. The population is becoming increasingly aged and urbanized. What is vastly underappreciated is that the population of children is hardly increasing at all. Americans are just not producing babies at the rates they used to.
The white population of America is now in a state of decline. This has never before happened in the country’s history and is likely to accelerate over the next 20 years as the baby boomers die off. Most of the country’s growth over the last 10 years has been amongst the Hispanic population, although Asian Americans have also made a big contribution. And contrary to popular perception, in recent years most of the growth in these populations has been due to births, not immigration.
The majority of the American population under the age of 10 is now non-white. Even if net migration into America were zero, it stands to reason that within 20 years, the majority of the population under 30 will be non-white. Since many baby boomers are now in their 70’s, large numbers of them will be gone within 20 years.
At the recent peak in immigration in 2016, net migration into America was about 1 million. The Census Bureau projects that America will become a minority white country around the year 2045. If net migration is high, it could push this earlier to the year 2040. If net migration is low, it could delay it to the year 2050. That’s it! The difference between low and high migration only changes the outcome by 10 years.
Even if net migration were reduced to ZERO, it wouldn’t change the basic trend. It would delay the inevitable by a few decades, that’s all. But it would also mean the total population of America would start declining much sooner. In fact, the Census Bureau projects that if net migration were reduced to zero, the American population would start declining within about 15 years. At it is, America is expected to continue to grow slowly for the next century. Keep in mind that even today, many immigrants are white. With zero net migration, the white population of America would be expected to drop by 30 PERCENT over the next 40 years. With current trends, the white American population will drop 20% by 2060.
It’s remarkable how few white Americans, even those who fear the browning of the country, have noticed the absence of white children in the country. Large numbers of white American women (and American women in general) are going to college and delaying giving birth, which has a huge effect on the birth rate. Many, like my wife, are simply not giving birth at all. Is someone going to convince all of these white women to suddenly start having lots of children? I don’t think so.
It’s important to note that by “white” here, I mean non-Hispanic white. The distinction between white and Hispanic will tend to degrade over time. Many Hispanics also self-identify as white. When we include these in the picture, America does indeed remain a majority white country for the foreseeable future. But it hardly needs to be said that fear of the browning of America does not come from white Hispanics, whose children often self-identify as Hispanic or of mixed ethnicity.
The reality is that the future will almost certainly fall somewhere between the low and high migration scenarios of the Census Bureau – that America will become a majority non-white country between 2040 and 2050. Long before then, the young, vibrant population of the country, those under 30, will be majority non-white. It is a reality that many older white Americans refuse to accept. But then many of them won’t be around to see it. America is not an ethnicity. America is not a culture. America is a set of ideas, the ideas of justice, equality, and tolerance. Brown America will still be America. Different, yes. But change has always been an inevitable part of life.
Last year, WalletHub published an analysis of health care in America, state by state. This analysis examined many factors, including costs of medical visits, average insurance premiums, physicians per capita, share of insured adults, and medicare acceptance rates. These are cost and access issues. It also looked at outcomes, including such things as child mortality rate, life expectancy, and cancer incidence rate. The data came from a number of sources, including the U.S. Census Bureau, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Council for Community and Economic Research, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the United Health Foundation, the Association of American Medical Colleges, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among others. In other words, it was not merely a half-ass study thrown together for the internet.
On cost, Montana was rated the best, followed by Maryland. None of the top 10 states were in the South (unless Kentucky is counted as a southern state). Alaska was rated the worst on cost, with North Carolina ranked second to last. On access, Maine was rated the best, followed by North Dakota. Again, none of the top 10 states were in the South. 5 of them were in the Northeast. Of the bottom 10 states, 6 were in the South. Georgia was rated the worst for access.
On overall score, Massachusetts was rated number 1, followed by Minnesota. 4 of the top 10 states were in the Northeast. Georgia was rated the worst, with Louisiana second to worst. 9 of the bottom 10 states were in the South.
A few details emerge from the study. Massachusetts ranks number 1 in lowest average insurance premiums, 2nd in most physicians per capita, 1st in proportion of insured adults and children, and has the 4th lowest infant mortality rate. Georgia ranks 48th in proportion of insured adults. The 5 states with the highest infant mortality rates are in the South, the worst being Mississippi.
It is worth noting that Massachusetts, a state which has more than 3 times as many democrats as republicans, currently has a republican governor, Charlie Baker. However, he bears little resemblance to republican governors in the South. He has supported provisions of Obamacare, opposed cuts to medicare, defended abortion rights, and supported insurance mandates for contraception. In many respects he is more “liberal” than the current governor of Louisiana, who is a democrat. Massachusetts illustrates a profound disconnect between media coverage of partisan politics and the reality of policy in America. The average American has probably never heard the name Charlie Baker, or Phil Scott, the republican governor of Vermont. They are much more likely to be familiar with names like Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott.
As with so many measures of human well-being, the South stands out in its low ratings on health care. The Northeast tends to have high ratings. This is not because of political party per se. The South was dominated by the democratic party not so very long ago. The republican party once contained large numbers of moderates who supported abortion rights and many social programs. But the South has long been ruled by white business owners who have had politicians in their pockets, whether democratic or republican.
The outcomes speak for themselves. Policies must be judged on their results. Ideology has never been a solution for anything. If something works, it works. If it doesn’t, it should be abandoned. Astonishing amounts of time are wasted on failed policies because of nothing more or less than ideology. It is inevitable that America will eventually have some sort of universal health care, just as the rest of the developed world has. Yet many people will needlessly suffer and die in the meantime. I often feel that watching America flounder is like watching 2 people fight over a glass of water in the living room when there is a faucet in the kitchen.
In the previous post, I mentioned that Americans have a lower life expectancy than those in most European countries, as well a few Asian countries (Japan and South Korea). This can be partly attributed to America’s very high rate of obesity. However, there is something else noteworthy about American health – child mortality. America’s child mortality rate – the percentage of newborns who do not survive to their 5th birthday – is higher than that of virtually all of Europe. It is higher than that of Singapore and South Korea. It higher than that of Cuba. Although America’s rate (6.7/1000 births) it is still lower than that of China (10.0/1000 births), China’s child mortality rate has dropped 91% since 1969 and may drop below that of America.
Presumably, keeping small children from dying is something most reasonable people can agree on, regardless of their ideology. Iceland beats the world on child mortality – its rate is about a third of America’s. Somalia has the highest rate, more than 60 times that of Iceland. In Somalia, more than 1 out 10 children die before the age of 5. South Korea’s rate is about half that of America’s. Cuba’s rate is about 20% less than America’s.
How is it that countries like Slovenia, South Korea, and Cuba have lower rates of child mortality than America? One big factor is that the proportion of premie newborns is high in America (9.6%), higher than in almost any other first world country. Premature births are undoubtedly made more likely by America’s high obesity rate. This is not the whole story, though. Some countries like Belgium, Greece, and Serbia have even higher proportions of premies, yet their child mortality rates are lower than America’s.
We get a strong hint of one big factor by looking at the geographic variation in infant mortality in America. It is considerable. Massachusetts has the lowest infant mortality rate, only 3.7/1000 births. Mississippi has the highest rate, more 2.5 times that of Massachusetts. This is a familiar pattern. The southeastern states, except for Texas and Virginia, do poorly. The northeastern and West Coast states do better. It isn’t about rural versus urban. Very rural states like North Dakota and Vermont do pretty well. Most of the sparsely populated mountain states do much better than the Southeast.
WalletHub rates states on their health care. Guess which state ranks the highest? Massachusetts. North Dakota and Vermont also rank highly. Of the bottom 10 states, 9 are in the Southeast. Even relatively wealthy Florida, which has no state income tax, ranks a somewhat poor 36th. Massachusetts was reported to have the highest number of physicians per capita and the highest percentage of insured adults and children. Mississippi had the 5th fewest physicians per capita. All 5 of the bottom states on percentage of insured adults were in the Southeast.
The percentage of uninsured adults is what really distinguishes America from other first world countries. Most such countries have universal health care of what sort or another. In America, large numbers of people hesitate to access the incredibly expensive health care system. Even if they are insured, high deductibles and out-of-pockets discourage them. Countless Americans, young and old, have died needlessly because they or their parents hesitated to access the system. This is simply not a feature of health care in most developed countries. The reason a county like Belgium has a lower child mortality rate than that of America is that Belgium has universal health care. Every single employed person in Belgium pays into the health care system. Even if you are not a citizen of Belgium, if you live there you are entitled to subsidized health care. The system covers maternity costs. Child benefits packages are generous. Quite generally, all of the costs of pregnancy and child birth are covered by a combination of insurance and public welfare.
All of this of course sounds very strange to an American. But it is really not that unusual among first world countries. America stands out in its willingness to let pregnant women and young children fend for themselves. Starting with Ronald Reagan, and reinforced with Bill Clinton, America became all about individual responsibility, no matter how many small children suffer for it. Most Europeans figure that a child should have a chance to live long enough to take responsibility. The battle is still being waged. There is no doubt about how it will resolve. America will one day have some sort of universal health care system. But this has been delayed tremendously by ideology.
America ranks 40th in the world on life expectancy, behind most of Europe and all 5 of the Scandinavian countries. Part of the reason is undoubtedly our second-rate health care system. Life expectancy for the wealthiest 1% of American women is 88.8 years. No country on earth does better than that. By contrast, American women in the bottom 1% of income have a life expectancy of only 78.5 years. However, it is also undeniable that America has high rates of obesity compared to many countries, including virtually all of Europe, Asia, and South America. In fact, America ranks 12th in the WORLD on obesity. If we exclude small island nations like Palau and Kiribati, America actually ranks SECOND IN THE WORLD on obesity, behind only Kuwait.
This of course raises the question, why is obesity so prevalent in America, compared to other countries? Well, let’s look at rates of obesity within America. It might be tempting to point to ethnicity as a factor. It is true that obesity rates vary widely among ethnic groups. Asian Americans have an obesity rate of only 10.7%. Among white Americans the rate is 29.7%, and among Hispanic Americans 31.8%. African Americans have a high obesity rate, 39.8%. For Native Americans the rate is even higher, 42.9%. However, this cannot be the whole story. West Virginia is one of the whitest states in the country. It ranks 40th in its percentage of African Americans, only 4.8%. Yet it ranks number 1 in its rate of obesity. New York ranks rather highly, 14th in its percentage of African Americans, at 17.6%. Yet it has a low obesity rate, ranking 45th.
American women have a somewhat higher rate of obesity than men. This is not surprising. The human body has evolved for scarcity, and this is particularly true of the female body. When scarcity is replaced by a cornucopia, we should expect obesity to result. We should also keep in mind that unhealthy foods full of fat, salt, and sugar are quite vigorously promoted in America. Highly processed frozen dinners and candies tend to generate more profit for supermarkets than produce and seafood, despite the fact that they are often cheaper. Particularly among poor American women, such foods are more attractive for feeding their families. Being a poor woman in Ethiopia is a very different thing from being a poor woman in America. The obesity rate in Ethiopia is 4.5%, to America’s 36.2%. High-income American women have an obesity rate of 29.7%. The lowest-income American women have a rate of 45.2%.
Naively, we might expect that urban Americans would tend to be more obese than rural Americans. We tend to caricature rural people as rugged farmers and ranchers, spending much of their time outdoors. In fact, the opposite is true. Rural Americans, on average, have higher rates of obesity than urban Americans. This partly explains why Asian Americans have such a low obesity rate. As I have explained before (here), Asian Americans are highly urbanized. People in cities tend to do more walking and bicycling. A few years ago, I went to a conference in San Diego. Along one major thoroughfare in the city, there was a 4-lane bike path! Many urbanites do not even own a car. The use of mass transit is commonplace, which means you have to get yourself to a bus stop or subway station. With subways particularly, you do a lot of climbing. Almost everyone in rural America has a car. They go to work in their cars, they go shopping in their cars, they visit relatives in their cars. It’s usually not practical to get to a store or get to work by walking or riding a bike. They tend to do a lot of sitting.
When I visited London, I did a lot of walking, including climbing. There were tons of pedestrians and the subways were usually packed with people. The people I stayed with owned cars, but they didn’t generally use them on weekdays. A large percentage of the cars I saw in London on weekdays were taxis, not private cars. The city is not all that hilly, but you spend quite a bit of time climbing, mostly on stairways coming out of underground stations. In the outer suburbs you often have a nice walk just to get to the local commuter train station.
Diet of course is important. A diet containing a lot of fried foods, salty snacks, and sugary drinks is not healthy. But I am fond of Korean dramas, and one of the things you learn from Korean dramas is that fried chicken is quite popular there. Other fried foods are also common. Yet South Korea has an obesity rate of only 4.7%, the 9th lowest in the world. In urban areas like Seoul, Koreans spend a lot of time catching buses, walking up and down hills, and climbing stairways at subway stations. In rural areas people often use bicycles, or simply walk.
The use of cars versus bicycles is in fact one of the more striking differences between America and Europe. Denmark has one of the lowest obesity rates in Europe, 19.7%. In its capital, Copenhagen, about 50% of the people use a bicycle for their daily commute. The other 4 Scandinavian countries also have noticeably low obesity rates compared to America: Finland – 22.2%; Iceland – 21.9%; Norway – 23.1%; Sweden – 20.6%. And they have lots of cyclists. Almost 10% of all journeys in Finland are made on bicycles. Finland, Norway, and Sweden are all in the top 10 in bicycles per capita.
If we look within America, a striking pattern emerges. California has one of the lowest obesity rates of any state, 23.1%. And if we look at top 20 cities in America with populations over 65,000 on rates of bicycle commuting, 5 of them are in California. Davis, California has the highest rate of bicycle commuting at 23.2%. If we look at the top 27 cities in America on this measure, 12 are on the West Coast. In the Northeast, walking is popular. If we look at pedestrian commuters in cities of 100,000 or more, among the top 50 cities, 21 are in the Northeast. Massachusetts has the 6th lowest obesity rate in the country, 20.9%. Boston ranks 7th in its rate of pedestrian commuting. Cambridge, Massachusetts ranks 4th in its rate of bicycle commuting, and number 1 in its rate of pedestrian commuters. Most big cities in the Northeast came into existence long before the automobile occurred. Cities in other parts of the country, particularly in the South, are much more designed around cars.
For 5 years when I lived in South Texas, I bicycled 2 miles to work. There were no bike paths and it was considerably dangerous. I did fall on one occasion, injuring my hand, which took months to heal. Most parts of America are quite bicycle-unfriendly. Nor are most American cities designed for walking. In many cases there is barely room for pedestrians on bridges and overpasses. Simply to walk across the street to a store a few hundred feet away is often an ordeal, if not downright impossible.
Physical activity clearly makes a huge difference. Americans have been conditioned to use their cars for everything. How many times have you seen an American cruise around a parking lot, waiting for a spot close to the entrance to open up? Shopping malls have virtually disappeared in America. We just don’t walk much. Diet is of course also important. Supermarkets are fond of presenting “meal deals,” low-cost combinations of items clearly directed at parents. When is the last time you saw a meal deal combining lean meat or fresh seafood and produce? Those are not big profit-makers. Meal deals usually combine such items as pizza, chicken nuggets, or fish sticks with frozen potatoes or ice cream. Unhealthy, high-profit food is often placed conspicuously to take advantage of impulse buyers.
All of this is a function of American consumerism, something those who live in other countries REALLY notice about us. We are conditioned to buy big cars, eat lots of unhealthy food, and stay inside watching television. Walking or bicycling to the store doesn’t consume fuel, so we aren’t encouraged to do that. Buying fresh seafood or produce doesn’t make big profits, so we aren’t encouraged to do that. Hiking or riding a bicycle in the park doesn’t cost anything, so we aren’t encouraged to do that. We are encouraged, LOUDLY, to spend money, even if spending money is often bad for us, and the poorest in our society often end up suffering the most.
No doubt some would argue that it is all a matter of individual choice. We can choose to eat healthy food, or exercise. Even if our society throws up impediments, we can overcome them. I think this misses the point. Why do we need a system that encourages unhealthy habits and causes people to die prematurely? What is the imperative to encourage unhealthy habits? Just one thing, profit. So what is the imperative to put profit above all other values? It’s like saying we should get rid of food safety regulations, and let children eat whatever is thrown at them, at their own risk. Valuing profit above all else seems like a kind of religion in America. I have to judge this by its results.
If I buy unhealthy food, that’s production. If I pay for diet pills to try to lose weight, that’s production. If I get sick and have to use the health care system, that’s production. It all counts as economic activity, and if we only care about economic growth, it’s all good. But to me it’s a strange kind of obsession. Does it actually improve human well-being? Does it make Americans happier than others? Does it make them healthier? Less stressed? I’m not interested in ideology. I’m interested in results. The reason we live in a society at all is to give each other support, not to take advantage of each other.
In previous posts (for example here and here) I have compared the social and economic characteristics of America with those of other countries, particularly the 5 Scandinavian countries. These countries are often trashed by conservatives as “socialist.” Actually, Wikipedia lists 17 socialist countries in the world, and only 1 of them, Portugal, is in Europe. The Scandinavian countries in fact have mixed economies, fundamentally capitalistic, but with strong social safety nets and, in some cases, government ownership of major businesses such as banking and energy production. Nevertheless, political parties that include the word socialist or the phrase social democratic in their names are prominent in these countries, as they are in many parts of Europe. The Party of European Socialists includes the Social Democrats of Denmark, the Social Democratic Party of Finland, the Labour Party of Norway, and the Swedish Social Democratic Party. The Social Democratic Alliance is prominent in Iceland, and its current prime minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir, is the leader of the Left-Green Movement Party, a socialist party. All of these parties are major political players in their respective countries. Socialism, and particularly social democracy, is far from a dirty word in many European countries.
In America, of course, it’s a different story. Even in 2019, 58% of Americans reported an unfavorable view of socialism, compared to only 28% who reported a favorable view. These data come from an NPR/Marist poll. What is so striking, though, is the generational divide on this. In a Gallup poll the same year, only 32% of Americans over 55, and 39% of those aged 40 to 54, reported positive views of socialism. But among Americans aged 18 to 39, a whopping 49% viewed socialism positively. Gallup has been conducting this poll every year since 2010, and the percentage of Americans in this age group who view socialism positively has consistently hovered near 50%. What’s more, this is about the same percentage of Americans in this age group who reported a positive view of capitalism. This is a strong contrast to previous generations, who view capitalism much more positively than socialism. In a YouGov poll that year, 70% of millennials reported that they were somewhat or very likely to vote for a socialist candidate.
An important factor may be that millennials particularly, those born between 1985 and 1995, entered the work force just as the Great Recession hit. This had a big effect on their attitude toward capitalism. Many of them were unable to get jobs, even with college degrees, and were then faced with enormous college-related debt. Free college is a big motivator for many of those who favor socialism in America.
There is also the fact that, today at least, the more educated people are, the more they tend to support socialist programs. In a Pew survey in 2015, almost a quarter of those with college degrees held consistently liberal views on the social safety net. For those who studied in graduate school this rose to 31%. By contrast, among Americans with high school or less, only 5% held such views. There is no question that young Americans, particularly women, are going to college in increasing numbers. Today about 40% of young American women, and well over 30% of young American men, have college degrees, and these numbers are rising.
Like so many things in America, there is also the issue of ethnicity. A 2019 poll by the Cato Institute found that only 36% of white Americans had a positive view of socialism, compared to 64% who had a negative view. These numbers were almost exactly reversed for African Americans: 62% had a positive view of socialism, while only 40% had a negative view. As America becomes more brown, Americans’ views of socialism become more favorable.
White Protestant American culture is, to a great extent, inherently anti-socialist. It is highly individualistic and competitive. It incorporates a narrative that goes something like this: Hard work has always been, and should be, rewarded. America has been built by hard-working individuals who have lifted themselves up without any help from government or anyone else. America also contains lazy individuals who want handouts, and who, given a chance, parasitize the hard-working. The extent to which we allow this to happen is exactly the extent to which America is degraded and loses its position of world leadership.
This narrative is almost never spelled out so explicitly, but it is always in the background of countless white American minds. One of the most prominent differences between the Scandinavian countries and America is the enormous power of labor unions in the former. Historically, anti-union propaganda in America has been closely associated with white supremacy. Vance Muse, the father of the so-called right-to-work movement in America, once warned “From now on, white women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.” The decline of unions in America has tended to keep American workers atomized and blaming other workers, not owners, for their difficulties. Overt anti-black racism has been de-legitimized in America and replaced by coded language. Often times the phrase “hard-working Americans” is thrown out; it is almost invariably applied to white Americans, usually in rural areas or small towns. In more recent times we have seen strong anti-immigrant sentiments, but it all comes back to the same idea: Lazy non-whites want to parasitize hard-working white Americans and gain power over them..
Of course, there are other, very different narratives about America. One could easily argue that early America was largely built by people who indeed worked very hard, and whose reward was relentless brutalization and marginalization. That it was only when a healthy middle class was created, due to the impact of organized labor and progressive reforms, that the American economy really took off. That it is not hard physical work that generates wealth. That on the contrary, it is scientific breakthroughs and technological advancement, along with an investment in human capital and education, that produces wealth and a high standard of living. As I have pointed out previously (here), the OECD countries with the shortest work weeks have the highest labor productivity, and vice versa.
Since most Americans have only the vaguest idea of what socialism is, it has historically been quite easy to simply give it a bad name and leave it at that. So it is somewhat surprising to see young Americans embrace the word socialism rather unflinchingly. But whatever label you attach to it, large numbers of young Americans support universal health care, free college, and a strong social safety net. The Scandinavian countries have all of these, and it is only a matter of time before America follows suit.
The 20th century was a remarkable century in many ways. Take human speed for example. In 1900, the highest speed achieved by humans was about 100 miles per hour. Within 70 years, it increased to about 25,000 miles per hour. In 1900, it was believed that atoms were indestructible. The field of nuclear physics didn’t exist yet. By the end of the century, nuclear power plants and nuclear-powered vessels were commonplace. In 1900, world oil consumption stood at about 0.2 barrels per person. Within 70 years it increased by about 2400% to 5 barrels per person.
My grandparents were born around the year 1900. Over the course of their lives, they were introduced to chlorinated water, antibiotics, vaccines, telephones, refrigerators, flush toilets, air conditioning, radio, television, space travel, the list goes on and on. So much of what we take for granted was state-of-the-art technology at various times in their lives. America rapidly became the most technologically advanced country on earth. It’s interesting to see the progression of different technologies during this century.
The YouTube channel “Data is Beautiful” has many animated charts, showing the historical progression of everything from GDP to baby names. One of these shows the progression of the adoption of household technology in America from 1910 to 2019. Here it is:
In 1910, only 27% of American households had a telephone. Only 16% had a flush toilet. There were no refrigerators – some households did have an icebox, a cold storage box which simply provided a space for a large block of ice. There were no washing machines, no air conditioners and no radios to speak of. In the 1920’s the radio burst on the scene and by the early 1930’s more than half of American households had one. By 1940 this had grown to 80%. But interestingly, 43% of households did not have a flush toilet at this time, 57% did not have a refrigerator, 64% did not have a telephone, and 76% did not have a washing machine.
Over the next 10 years, refrigerators became much more widespread in America. But even in 1950, 23% of American households did not have one. About a third of American households had no flush toilet! 39% still did not have a telephone, and 83% did not have a washing machine.
Over the next 20 years, refrigerators, flush toilets, and telephones became pervasive in America. By 1970, 99% of American households had refrigerators. 93% had flush toilets, and 89% had telephones. Interestingly though, 42% still did not have washing machines. Air conditioning expanded rapidly during this time, but even in 1970, only about a third of American households had it.
In the 1980’s microwave ovens burst into American homes. By 1990 67% of American households had one. In the 1990’s personal computers became widespread. By 2000 almost half of American households had a PC. In the early 21st century the cell phone rapidly became ubiquitous. By 2019 93% of American households had at least 1 cell phone. Interestingly, this is greater penetration than air conditioning (86%) and washing machines (83%). Many American households have a television, a personal computer, and at least 1 cell phone, but no air conditioning or washing machine.
Note that communications/entertainment technology has often penetrated American households more rapidly than more mundane devices associated with human health and comfort. By 1930, almost half of American homes had radios. But only 33% had a flush toilet, and only 5% a refrigerator. By 1980, 79% of American homes had color televisions. But only 72% had washing machines, and only 56% had air conditioning. And as I have mentioned, today many American homes have at least 1 cell phone, yet lack a washing machine or air conditioning. Many American households, particularly in big cities, do not have an automobile. This illustrates that human beings are very social, and value social connections very highly.
The other thing to note is that a lot of technology that Americans take for granted is really a very recent phenomenon. In 2021, teenagers have no memory of an America without cell phones or flat screen televisions. I remember very well going to school in hot schoolrooms. Air conditioning did not really become widespread in America until the 1970’s. And the flush toilet, something that is in virtually every American home today, was absent from about a third of American homes in the mid 20th century.
Other technologies, particularly medical breakthroughs, are very much 20th century introductions. Antibiotics, vaccines, organ transplants, CT scanners and other medical scanners, the list goes on. Many formerly widespread diseases have been virtually eradicated in America. Others, such as breast cancer, that once had very high mortality rates, are much more survivable now.
It is possible that we will see another giant leap forward in technology in the 21st century. It is likely that by the end of this century, artificial intelligence and robotics will revolutionize our society. But even if this happens, future generations will probably consider the 20th century to be quite unique in many ways. It was a time of incredible growth in the human population, incredible increases in consumerism, incredible declines in infant mortality, and incredible amounts of death and destruction in wars. Human beings first ventured out into space and we obtained our first close-up looks at many other worlds. Weapons technology reached the capability of destroying global civilization, which has utterly changed the relationships between world powers.
There are fewer and fewer people alive today who remember a time without telephones, antibiotics, or flush toilets. The result is a strong tendency to take for granted the benefits of science and technology. Sometimes I wonder if American children might not benefit from participating in a simulation, for a week or so, of the life of a typical American in the year 1900. Certainly there needs to be a greater understanding of where all of these advancements have come from. They didn’t come from popes or princes. They didn’t come from clinging to traditions or perpetuating dogmas. They came from a revolution in thinking about the world, called science. They came from a commitment to open-minded skepticism, an unflinching insistence on questioning, an unwillingness to be led by anything but evidence and reason, wherever they might lead.
Carl Sagan was a big influence on me. One of his more famous quotes is, “Better the hard truth, I say, than a comforting fantasy.” But what if some truths are more than just uncomfortable? What if some are downright dangerous? Sagan was well aware of this fear. He felt that we should have the courage to try to understand the universe, and ourselves, as they are, not as we would want them to be. We should not be afraid to question everything, especially ourselves. Because we are very prone to delude ourselves with “answers” that we want to hear, regardless of reality. But is the quest for truth itself a kind of blind faith? What if it takes us to a place we would be better off avoiding?
I don’t think it’s blind faith at all. Blind faith is believing in things without evidence. Yes, science and technology have given us dangerous tools. We are always at risk of falling behind our own technological advancement, with our obsolete social, economic, and political systems. In a previous post (here), I discussed the question of whether our scientific and technological progress will lead to our demise. Many people seem to think that somehow we would be better off without a lot of it. Of course I don’t know what the future holds. I can only look at the past and try to draw a conclusion. That’s what science does. It looks at the past and tries to make a prediction. The prediction is based on a working hypothesis. That’s all scientific truth is or ever was. It’s not truth with a capital T. It’s provisional truth, with a small t.
Unlike many things in life, the issue here is pretty clear-cut. We can either cling to comfortable fantasies or unflinchingly confront uncomfortable truths. The evidence of history is overwhelming. Centuries were wasted in the pursuit of alchemy, until the science of chemistry came along. This has given us refrigeration, chlorinated water, and modern medicine, among many others. How many people suffered and died over those centuries unnecessarily? How many centuries have been wasted by humanity because it has wallowed in fear, prejudice, and cognitive fallacies? Critical thinking gives us the tools to understand the ways in which we can be our own worst enemies, but we have to be willing to use them. In Olaf Stapledon’s highly imaginative novel Star Maker, he presents us with worlds in which the inhabitants recognized that “the whole pre-revolutionary population was afflicted with serious mental diseases, with endemic plagues of delusion and obsession, due to mental malnutrition and poisoning.” Worlds in which “every individual was generously and shrewdly nurtured, and therefore not warped by unconscious envy and hate.” Barbarism is easy. Wallowing in fear, prejudice, and tribalism is easy. Civilization has to be taught.
I often feel that those who trash science and technology haven’t given the issue much thought. Perhaps they should be made to live in a simulation of the life of a typical human being in the 18th century, when many children died before the age of 5 and no one had electricity or antibiotics. We take so many things for granted – modern transportation, refrigeration, sewerage treatment, weather forecasting, heart surgery, the list goes on and on. I wonder how many of those who denigrate science and technology are drinking water out of a nearby lake, or never visiting a supermarket. Even my grandparents, who grew most of their own food, enjoyed electricity, refrigeration, indoor plumbing, and modern medicine. My grandfather, even though he was a farmer his whole life, was happy to have access to modern technology. I can’t help but wonder if this is precisely because he didn’t have most of these things as a child.
In any case, my belief, along with Sagan’s, that we should value uncomfortable truths over comfortable lies, and have the courage to ask tough questions, is simply a working hypothesis. It is truth with a small t. I look at the centuries of human history, I look at the evidence, and I draw my conclusion. I value questioning, because to me it is very, very obvious that unflinching questioning has improved human lives by leaps and bounds. I am unwilling to say no to uncomfortable questions, because to me it is very, very obvious that the courage to question has greatly reduced human suffering and death. And conversely, the unwillingness to question comforting falsehoods, often promoted by those who wanted power over others, has produced untold human suffering and death throughout history.
Carl Sagan once said, “We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good.” Of course human beings are still quite vulnerable to believing what they want to hear. To counteract these tendencies requires education. It requires a habit of mind that does not come easily to us. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that most of us can manage it, given the tools and the encouragement. It’s just that our education and media systems haven’t really made the effort. There has been an implicit assumption that only those who create and implement the technology, the scientists, engineers, doctors, and so on, need to have the habit of mind called critical thinking. This may have been true when the world was large, but the world is small now. We all live on a tiny island. It is a very long way to the next island. Sometimes I can’t help wondering if that’s by design, so that we are forced to grow up, or perish, as a species quite on our own, before we can inflict our barbarisms on the rest of the universe.