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.