Takeaway: In most ways, the world is better now than it ever has been.
It might be surprising to many of us, especially in the midst of our current economy, but the world is actually fairly well off. In fact, if you are an average middle class person right now, then you are better off in virtually every way than 94.6 percent of everyone that has ever lived.
Upside is a very good follow up to Wright’s first book, Christians are Hate Filled Hypocrites and other Lies You’ve Been Told. Wright has the same basic point, to objectively look at the statistics and try to separate the hype and doom-sayers from reality. In the first book, Wright shows that while there indeed are problems with the church, the church is not going to end in this generation and that most people do not hate Christians.
In Upside, Wright looks at the general state of the world. Wright takes a long view of the issues and sees real improvement. Early in the book he shows that most people view the best historic decade as the one that they spent their 20s. So if you were born in the 1960s, you would view the 1980s as the best decade. We have a relatively short view of the world, so humans in general always think things are getting worse, because the our lives are always getting more complex.
Economically, in spite of this short-term economic problem, the average family in the US has about twice as much income (inflation adjusted) as in 1950 and much more than in 1900. In health areas, many diseases are significantly decreased, while there are others (like cancer and AIDS) that have increased.
His chapter on Education is interesting. In virtually all areas, we are doing better in education. But as a whole, everyone agrees that schools are broken. Wright says that the difference is between the actual growth and the desired growth. We want education to be better than it is, but we need to be careful to understand that in absolute terms, education is doing better. (For instance the rates of literacy are approximately double what it was 100 years ago and the number of years of education is also significantly higher than 50 or 100 years ago.)
I would also recommend the chapter of the environment. While, not all things are getting better with the environment, many things are. For instance the amount of lead in the air has dropped by 99.5% from its high point. The air quality in US cities is significantly better than the 1950-70s. Wright will irritate many conservatives because he shows that government regulation is at the root of most issues that are getting better. But Wright will irritate many liberals because many of the environmental issues are getting better, not worse.
Wright’s problem with statistics (as with his first book) is that stats are often used by advocacy groups to paint the worst picture imaginable instead of a fair and accurate picture of reality. Advocacy groups are successful in changing things for the better, but they need to focus on the bad to get things accomplished. A good quote about this point:
The prevailing view that most everything is getting worse makes it difficult to prioritize, since we don’t know what is actually getting worse. If everything is a problem, then, in a sense, nothing is. David Whitman put it: “False alarms drive out true ones.” Our fear of plane accidents might blind us to the reality that driving to the airport is actually more dangerous than flying. Similarly, the steady stream of fear messages about the environment can lead us to incorrectly prioritizing environmental problems. This incorrect prioritization literally can be a life-and-death matter. For example, in the 1990s, AIDS activists sought to raise concern about the disease, so they emphasized heterosexuals’ potential risk of contracting it, even though it struck mostly gay men. As a result of this distortion of risk, government agencies shifted their focus to AIDS prevention among straight people—at the cost of giving it to the more needy gays. In California, from 1989 to 1992, only 9% of AIDS prevention funds targeted gay men despite the fact that they constituted 85% of all AIDS cases. This incorrect prioritization probably cost lives.
Wright is concerned about priority and accuracy, but not necessarily political expediency. For instance in the case of AIDS, the political realities around AIDS assumed that if it was a disease that only affected gay men, then it was not a disease that most people needed to think about or be concerned about. So even though 91% of funding was diverted to 15% of the cases, the 9% of spending on 85% of the cases may not have been spent at all if it was viewed as a ‘gay only disease’.
The conclusion of the book is that the world really is getting better.
“When people explain why the world is getting better, they often point to a particular invention or development such as antibiotics or improved agricultural practices. The economist Julian Simon, however, has identified a broader process at work. According to Simon, serious problems regularly arise in the world that, left unchecked, would cause significant harm. However—and this is Simon’s main point—problems are not left unchecked. Instead, human effort and ingenuity solves or ameliorates most, if not all, problems. From Simon’s perspective, society has short-term problems but long-term solutions. As he puts it, “Almost every economic and social change or trend points in the positive direction, as long as we view the matter over a reasonably long period of time. That is, all aspects of material human welfare are improving in the aggregate.”
Problems solving is complicated because
Problem solving is not a linear process of identifying a problem and then solving it. Rather, it’s an iterative process. Problems are identified, solutions are applied; solutions cause other problems, these other problems are identified and given solutions; problems arise from these secondary solutions, and so on. Social progress, then, comes not with the complete elimination of problems, but rather having tomorrow’s problems be less severe and less costly than today’s problems. We will always have problems; we just hope they will become smaller and smaller over time.
This is a statistics heavy book, but it is well written, clear and fairly funny. Upside is very hopeful. Wright is a Christian and speaks as a Christian sociologist, but it is much less Christian focused than his previous book. I highly recommend it.