How Bad Is It Out There?

My wife and others occasionally accuse me of being too optimistic and seeing only the bright side of life. I plead guilty. I believe there has never been a better time to be alive on our planet than now and that life is only going to get better in the future. Furthermore, Oregon is the best state in the best country on the planet, and that’s saying a lot because we are competing against many great places.

I offer the following evidence to support my claims. Life expectancy at birth is a relatively reliable measure that has been kept for decades by reputable national and international agencies. The World Bank maintains an easily accessible report on this information from 1980 to 2013, and the news is all good. I did a brief survey of countries where I have worked over the past decade and found the following information: In Afghanistan in 1980, the life expectancy at birth was 41 years. By 2013, despite nearly continuous conflict, the number had risen to 61 years. Croatia went from 70 years in 1980 to 77 in 2013, while in Ethiopia life expectancy rose from 44 to 64. During this 33-year span, people in Indonesia saw a gain of 12 years, from 59 to 71, and Iraq went from 60 to 69.

I have done brief assignments in Jordan and Lebanon, where life expectancy increased by 8 years and 12 years respectively between 1980 and 2013. Lebanon’s number rose to 80, one of the higher numbers in the world. Morocco, where I did a short assignment in 2013, saw life expectancy increase from 58 to 71, while Pakistan moved from 58 to 67. A child born in Sri Lanka in 1980 could expect to live 68 years, while one born in 2013 will, on average, live to age 74. Here at home, U.S. life expectancy has increased from 74 to 79 since 1980.

I think most of us understand that life expectancy has increased because of better medicine, better food production, and generally safer conditions; but I wonder how many of us consider why those conditions are possible. Many people love to hate government or big corporations, but the truth is these institutions are better now than they were 35 years ago. Nonprofits and NGO’s are also playing a bigger role, thanks in part to better assistance from government and business. Longer lives do not just mean longer lives. This important statistic also means better lives with fewer tragedies, less hunger, less violence, more prosperity, and greater equality.

I fear that if we believe the world is steadily getting worse when it’s really getting better, we will make bad decisions about what to do in the future. The improvement over the last three+ decades doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t improve. We can and should invest in more and better education, improved and accessible health care, more nutritious and abundant food, better environmental protection, and more prosperity for more people.

Just as many people are pessimistic about the fate of the world, some people who reside in Oregon seem to think we live in a terrible place. I came across an interesting study this morning that ranks Oregon as the 11th best state for “taxpayer return on investment.” The study looks at the total state and local government tax burden and quality of services. Our relative tax burden is low and our services rank in the middle of the pack (27th), so the study concluded we are among the best managed states. Of course, the top state is Alaska because oil revenue keeps taxes low and pays for many services.

Even if we were a poorly managed state, a drive over to the coast this past weekend and a great hike through old growth forest out to Cape Falcon reminded me of how lucky I am to live in this place. Numbers can be used or abused to support many different arguments, but there is no denying the natural beauty of this state.

The Partisan Divide

Every time I see an article about how divided we are as a country and how uncivilized our campaigns have become, I think of a book one of my professors gave me when I was a graduate student at the University of Oregon. I’m not sure why he gave me the book, but I value it both as a resource and a reminder of the person who gave it to me. The title of the book is Presidential Campaigns, written by Paul F. Boller, Jr., copyrighted in 1984. It begins with the startling assertion that, “Presidential campaigns are a lot nicer today than they used to be.”

Cable “news” and the Internet were largely unknown to the public in 1984; but even considering these developments, Mr. Boller makes a strong case that we have yet to reach the levels of our ancestors’ partisanship. He points out that, “In 1800, Abigail Adams lamented that the contest between her husband John and Thomas Jefferson that year had exuded enough venom to ‘ruin and corrupt the minds and morals of the best people in the world.’” Boller contended that politics, although taken seriously, were also regarded as entertainment or a sport with no-holds-barred. I think we have inherited this legacy, and many of today’s practitioners are just indulging their own baser instincts in the same way they might yell obscenities at a baseball umpire. I hope I’m right because some of the things I see and hear today would be depressing if I thought the people who spoke or wrote them actually believed they were true.

At least politicians and pundits today generally refrain from physically attacking one another. Following the election of 1824, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Henry Clay challenged Senator John Randolph of Virginia to a duel. While bullets flew, none struck home and the combatants lived to resume “social relations.” The attack on Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts in 1856 by Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina on the floor of the U.S. Senate nearly killed Sumner and left him with a permanent disability. A few years later, Harper’s Magazine published a list of the names Abraham Lincoln was called by critics in the election of 1864: “Filthy Story-Teller, Despot, Liar, Thief, Braggart, Buffoon, Usurper, Monster, Ignoramus Abe, Old Scoundrel, Perjurer, Robber, Swindler, Tyrant, Fiend, Butcher.” Lincoln once remarked, “It is a little singular that I, who am not a vindictive man, should have always been before the people for election in canvasses marked for their bitterness.”

Lincoln’s death just over 150 years ago, on April 15, 1865, was caused by political zealots who convinced themselves that killing him was justified by the terrible things he had done. They were abetted by rhetoric dehumanizing the President to the point where he might no longer be considered human. I hope as we remember the man many consider our greatest president and as we begin another long presidential campaign, we temper our own partisan thoughts, words, and actions with his humility, patience, and tolerance.

Visitors

Nearly two years ago, two professionals from New Zealand spent two weeks working at Albany City Hall on a project to help with improving citizen understanding of urban renewal districts and how they work. The work of our visitors was funded by the U.S. State Department as one of many thousands of exchanges that take place every year through programs such as Fulbright Scholarships and the Professional Fellows Program.

We have been fortunate to be accepted as a host community again this year and will soon welcome two professional researchers and planners; one from Indonesia and the other from Cambodia. Dr. Seila Sar and Mr. Sugeng Hartanto will be here for about a month, working on some planning issues that we hope will match their skills and interests with some of our immediate needs. These exchanges are not designed to be vacations and require a significant amount of investment from participants.

Dr. Sar describes his research interests as focusing on “rural development, food security, and nutrition….” He earned his Ph.D. in Nutrition and Food Sciences from the University of Queensland in Australia and is currently working as a quantitative specialist for the Asia Foundation, a U.S. non-governmental organization (NGO) in Cambodia. Mr. Hartanto describes himself as a civil servant who works in the planning office in Semarang City, Indonesia. He earned a Master’s Degree in Urban Development Planning from Diponegoro University and a BA in Public Administration from Semarang University. I think we will have a great opportunity to learn from their fresh perspective on some of our current issues.

The Fellows Program also involves sending a representative from the City abroad, and our Planning Manager Bob Richardson was selected to travel to Cambodia this summer as part of the exchange. Bob spent some time working in the South African country of Lesotho as a Peace Corps volunteer before starting his planning career. He will be working with Dr. Sar in Cambodia.

While I have never participated in the Professional Fellows Program, I have seen the benefits it provides to communities and to the fellows. We gain some insight into our common concerns as well as the many differences among cities around the world, and the fellows learn lessons that will stay with them throughout their careers. Problem-solving, mutual understanding of different cultures, project ideas, appreciation for what you have, and exposure to new perspectives are just a few of the benefits that come from working internationally.

I hope people will take the time to welcome our visitors to Albany and have a conversation with them. They are scheduled to start work May 4 and will be here until around May 28. Anyone interested in hosting a guest for a view days or assisting with transportation needs should contact Bob Richardson or me.