The Power of Progress

“To make a better future, you have to believe in a better future”

In his magisterial book The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, the economic historian Benjamin Friedman considered the historical relationship between economic growth and social values and identified a clear pattern. During periods of rising economic prosperity, people tend to be more tolerant, optimistic, and egalitarian. Periods of stagnation and recession, by contrast, have been characterized by pessimism, nostalgia, xenophobia, and violence. During times of scarcity, people are more likely to look for scapegoats than to pull together, more prone to zero-sum thinking, and more susceptible to the appeals of populists and demagogues.

Many on the left of the political spectrum, following Marx, have long imagined that the immiseration of the poor and working classes would lead to revolution. And while there are a few examples where declining economic fortunes have led to a transformative politics that advanced the cause of justice, equity, liberty, and democracy, most notably the New Deal response to the Great Depression, more often than not, the loss of economic and social status for those at the bottom has turned the losers in the economic game against one another.

When people lose hope in a better future, when they conclude, as demagogues on both sides of the political spectrum have told them so persistently, that society and the economy are rigged against them, the response is more likely to be sectarian or fatalistic than progressive and inclusive.

It turns out that to make a better future, you have to believe in a better future.

And to believe in a better future, it is essential that one appreciate the ways that the present too is better than the past. Scholars like Hans Rosling, Max Roser, Steven Pinker, and Charles Kenny have provided the empirical basis for that view, and suggest the social, political, and economic processes that have made that progress possible. What I want to talk about today is why that story is so important to tell.

Now, just so we’re clear, to recognize that by most social and material metrics, almost everyone in the world is better off today than they were a generation ago, much less a century ago, does not mean that there is not still enormous work to do. A billion people globally are still mired in deep agrarian poverty. Feudal and patriarchal social arrangements and traditions still condemn women around the world to second-class citizenship. Civil strife and famine, although on the decline, still plague many regions of the world. Even in the rich world, slowing economic growth and rising economic inequality threaten to upend the institutions and social norms that have provided the foundation for peace, prosperity, and comity since the end of World War II.

It is also true that solving old problems more often than not creates new ones. The era of cheap food and rising incomes that brought an end to hunger in the developed world also brought us higher rates of obesity. The fossil fuels that made modern societies possible brought us first smothering air pollution and now global warming. An increasingly educated populace, with an encylopedia of answers to any query at its fingertips, has proven ever more adept at finding facts, some real, some alternative, to justify its prejudices, biases, and ideological priors.

But for the most part, the new problems are better than the old problems. Climate change is a major threat to human well-being, especially for the poor. But given the choice, poor nations still reliably elect to pursue fossil-fueled development in order to lift their populations out of poverty in the present and take their chances down the road with climate change. The techno-narcissism that fuels our increasingly uncivil democracy still trumps ignorance and autocracy. A beer gut, when all is said and done, is a better problem to have than a swollen belly.

Some would tell us that to recognize these facts risks complacency or the belief, as per Dr. Pangloss in Candide, that we live in the best of all possible worlds. But I want to suggest that the opposite is the case. To appreciate the world that our ancestors built, to express gratitude for the good fortune to have been born at a time when human prosperity, freedom, and possibility are greater than at any time since the remarkable human journey on this planet began 200,000 years ago, is precisely the posture that will be necessary to take on the great challenges that we face in the 21st century.

Meeting here in modern California, it is easy to forget that our great coastal cities, the great agricultural valley just to the east of us, the great waterworks that has made life for 30 million people in this arid and beautiful place possible, were built by people who were much poorer than we are.

But even after a great depression and a great war, they were optimistic about the future. They had seen the world torn apart and then transformed in the space of less than a generation. They understood from their own experience what progress was and what a common faith in a providential future could accomplish.

That same generation extended the franchise to all Americans and passed the laws that brought us clean air and water. And it transformed this valley from a sleepy mosaic of orchards and farms to a great center of technology and learning.

Today, by contrast, the apocalyptic style in American politics is ascendant. Many on the Left would have us believe that addressing climate change, racial inequity, and economic inequality requires nothing short of an end to capitalism, while the Right insists that we must “charge the cockpit or die.” Captivated by fever dreams of apocalypse, Left and Right compete to see which vision of a dystopian future can more effectively galvanize public revulsion at our democratic institutions.

The danger is not so much that either vision will prevail. Advanced developed democracies are proving more resilient to demagogues and populists than many feared a year ago. And conservatives are learning today the same hard lesson that progressives learned during the Obama years. “Change we can believe in” requires engaging interests, values, and perspectives in the world that we might prefer to ignore.

No, the danger in these notions is that we lose our collective sense of gratitude, for the remarkable world that those who came before us built and with that, a working knowledge of how they did so. When we become so consumed by the world’s problems and its failings that we can’t allow ourselves to see progress, we lose sight of our assets and capabilities. We become entitled, not empowered.

If the perfect is the enemy of the good, then gratitude, for the shared sacrifices that our forebears made, and for the progress that those sacrifices have brought, is the antidote to cynicism and grievance. And that will be our objective today. To deepening our commitment to the practice of progress: to making a good world better, to creating the conditions in which we can all become our best selves, and to remembering in the face of great challenges how much we have already overcome.