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Things Looking Up All Across America

by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, May 6, 1997

I noted last week that the Sunday New York Times (on April 27, 1997) carried a lead story called, “World beaters,” signaling to the rest of the media establishment that it is now OK to acknowledge America’s high performing economy.

Sure enough, two days later USA Today’s front page lead story was entitled, “Economy hitting on all cylinders.” Of course, most of our numbers have been good for a long time — and in general things in America are getting better — and not just the economy. In the words of environmental writer Gregg Easterbrook, “[M]ost indices of US life have been positive for years, even decades.” Examples:

  • The environment is improving, by almost any measure — including air quality, water quality, mined land reclamation, the management of hazardous materials, etc. Just think of pictures you’ve seen of Pittsburgh in the 1950s or Lake Erie in the 1960s — or the day the Cuyahoga River caught fire in Cleveland.In a recent book, the Ultimate Resource 2 (Princeton Univ. Press, 1996), respected social scientist Julian Simon presents data and analysis clearly showing that the planet’s environmental future is growing brighter, not darker. We are, he says, “at a moment when the world is creating new resources and cleaning up the environment at an ever-increasing rate. Our capacity to provide the good things of life for an ever-larger population is increasing as never before.”
  • Material prosperity is secure. There are nagging problems of distribution, but the often discussed “shrinking middle class” is primarily because our growing economy is propelling middle income people (those between $25,000 and $75,000 annual income) into upper income categories, by a ratio of 2:1 — i.e., for every person who falls out of the middle class into lower income categories, two rise to upper income categories. So, yes, there is a shrinking middle class, but the picture painted by the hand-wringers is a far cry from reality.
  • Often criticized turbulence in the enterprise sector actually shows its underlying resilience. “Downsizing,” “delayering,” “outsourcing” and other examples of “churning” that get so much media attention today are really signs of strength. These dynamics are characteristic of healthy, changing and adaptable enterprises in a free economy. Go to Europe, with double digit unemployment and industries that can’t compete globally, to see what happens when laws and regulations prevent business executives from managing capital, labor and technology in the most efficient way.
  • The threat of nuclear war has sharply diminished.
  • Public health is improving by almost every measure. From the eradication of polio to sharp reductions in the incidence and severity of most childhood diseases, Americans are healthier. In this century we have added nearly 30 years to our life expectancy. We eat better. We smoke less. We last longer.
  • Race and gender barriers are eroding. During the past 40 years, we have opened up our electoral system, schools, labor unions, and the professions — including the highest levels of management — to women and minorities on a scale unprecedented in human history.
  • Americans remain an optimistic, can-do people. And this traditional American perspective persists despite years of negativism by political leaders.

The list goes on. It would be good if we could begin to celebrate the substantial and often unprecedented achievements of our society and economy. We still have many problems to overcome, but they are best addressed by people who know who they are, who are as familiar with their achievements as they are with their shortcomings. Good cases make good law.

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