The Pain of Progress

In 1997, Tony Blair’s British Labour Party swept to power against the soundtrack of chosen campaign song “Things Can Only Get Better,” by the Northern Irish band D: REAM (yes, they really are called that). It is an absurdly catchy tune, lodged in the musical memory of every British person of a certain age.

The track title also suffices as a summary of trends in material welfare, as summarized by Megan McArdle in her opening essay. It is a small overstatement to say that things can only get better. But it is a perfectly reasonable suggestion that most things will, since most things have, for most people, during the modern era. While there are arguments to be had about real trends in median male earnings, as Jared Bernstein’s contribution makes clear, nobody can sensibly deny that over the long term, living standards measured in material terms have risen.

Progress is old news, but just as old is a lament for the good old days. Here is one such cry: “The world is passing through troubled times. The young people have no reverence for their parents: they are impatient of all restraint; they talk as if they alone know everything, and what passes for wisdom is foolishness for them.” That was Peter the Hermit – 1,000 years ago. But you can pick any decade of any century, and find eloquent pleas for a return to better, safer days – usually from old men.

At an individual and societal level, a process called habituation takes place: we become used a new living standard, bank it, and then expect more. At one level, the fact that dissatisfaction keeps pace with material progress is good news, since it spurs a drive for further improvements for nations as well as individuals. Yesterday’s stunning breakthrough in health care or technology or entertainment quickly becomes today’s everyday norm. A few decades ago, an air-conditioned home represented opulence and luxury, and an air-conditioned car was the stuff of science fiction. Now most poor families – as captured by the Federal Government official poverty line – have an air-conditioned home. This allows some on the political right to claim that such people are not “really” poor, just as those with running water were not “really” poor in the 1940s. But poverty is, by and large, a relative concept. Any attempt to determine any “absolute” poverty line will be defeated by progress. Against a global or historical standard, it seems almost offensive to compare the poverty of the American without air conditioning or a room of their own to the poverty of the African without food or a home. But it is in fact equally offensive to claim that poverty has been eradicated in advanced economies, just because they have advanced.

But as Brink Lindsey points out, a richer conception of the standard of living would include not just the hard facts of material welfare, but also the softer facets of human flourishing, including purpose, status, and prospects. Here, as both he and Jared point out, relative comparisons may count for a great deal. The extent to which our life is going well has to be judged in large part by how it is going compared to those around us. Perhaps the most worrying trend from this perspective is the pulling away of the elite from the pack. As Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids – The American Dream in Crisis shows, on almost every dimension ­– skills, education, income, wealth, neighborhoods, parenting, marriages, civic engagement – the top tier of American society is separating. This does not mean that ordinary folk are actually worse off, of course: simply that the rate of improvement in their quality of life is lagging behind the leaders. “What’s wrong, mom?” asks Dorothy Boyd’s son during a plane ride in the movie Jerry Maguire. Her answer: “First class is what’s wrong. It used to be a better meal. Now it’s a better life.”

There is a danger that deep inequalities justified on meritocratic grounds become self-perpetuating, as the children of the elite inherit their parents’ social status. One of the most striking findings highlighted by Putnam is that poor kids with high test scores are now slightly less likely to get a college degree than rich kids with low test scores (28% v 30%).

In his book The End of Equality, Mickey Kaus worried that the growing physical and social separation of different classes would end up becoming self-replicating:

Give the affluent two more decades to grow comfortable in their gated suburbs, two more decades to revile the underclass and avoid the cities as if they were a dangerous foreign country, two decades to isolate their “gifted” children from their supposed inferiors, two decades of “symbolic analysts” and assortative mating, and we might wake up to discover that Americans aren’t such egalitarians at all any more.

Here’s the thing: Kaus wrote that more than two decades ago, in 1992. As it turns out, many of America’s inner cities have undergone a revival, with falling crime and prospering public spaces. But the rest of his prediction was pretty much on the money. Which means his question is at hand: are Americans such egalitarians any more? The reaction to the attempt by the president to raise the taxes of the affluent – by eliminating the deeply regressive tax breaks in 529 college savings plans – does not bode well.

So: even against a general rise in material living standards, certain forms of inequality can cause a loss of welfare in other, less material, domains – as well as potentially reducing the rate of material gain among the less fortunate.

But I wonder if there is something even deeper going on here. Modern advanced economies have tended to loosen the grip of social institutions on the lives led by individuals. Families, churches, and communities all count for a good deal, of course. But they count for less than they did even just a few decades ago. Modern societies have progressively placed the question “what is a good life?” into the hands of individual men and women. The resulting kaleidoscope of life choices and lifestyles available today would have bewildered our grandparents, and indeed may bewilder some of us.

When conservatives of both left and right yearn for “the good old days,” they typically mean a world in which individuals were more certain of their roles and their places in the order of things. Greater freedom to depart from narrower but more certain lives has come at a price, most obviously in terms of family instability, community disengagement, and much greater insecurity. It is, in my view anyway, a price worth paying: the steady shift of power from institutions to individuals has been massively liberating, perhaps above all for women. But we should not kid ourselves that the greater individual freedoms offered by modern society have come without a cost. Some of our apparent discontent in the midst of plenty may stem from our sometimes contradictory desires for security and freedom.

More of us have now been granted what the philosopher Isaiah Berlin described as “the painful privilege of choosing.” It is obvious that choice is a privilege, perhaps less so that it can cause pain, too.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • It’s Complicated. But Hopeful. by Megan McArdle

    Megan McArdle makes the complicated case for optimism: Present-day Americans generally enjoy lives that at a comparable age their grandparents could only dream about. Technology has turned many onerous chores into trivial ones. It entertains us and supplies us with a wide variety of consumer goods. We spend more on health care, but it’s better care, and it’s also an accomplishment that we can spend so much on it at all. Yet many problems remain: Life is good for college graduates, but for others it can be increasingly hard. Mass incarceration raises questions about how good prisoners’ lives can possibly be. And family and community breakdown seems by many measures all too great a problem. As a result, McArdle’s optimism is decidedly guarded.

Response Essays

  • Tangible Gains, Intangible Losses by Brink Lindsey

    Brink Lindsey argues that improvements to our standard of living have been real and easily measured. But there have been significant areas of decline as well, and these, while real, are often harder to measure: We can measure increased life expectancies, or declines in the crime rate, but it’s harder to measure the alienation that comes from lost social status, or the long-term effects of pervasive single parenthood, or the fact that fewer and fewer men of working age are staying in the workforce. These negative trends are mutually reinforcing, he warns, and they may represent a growing threat to future generations, no matter how much life may improve by some metrics.

  • Let’s Compare Our Standards in the Present by Jared Bernstein

    Jared Bernstein argues that the less privileged take no comfort from improving living standards. The privileged of today are the relevant comparison cohort, and until the less privileged are comparable in wealth, liberty, and dignity, they have every right to complain. People should - and indeed do - think about inequality in relative terms, and in present-day ones. They are rightly uninterested in historical comparisons. And they are correct to complain when the wealthy get still further ahead than they have. Absolute progress over time is real, but it’s also irrelevant in any conversation that values equality.

The Conversation