Society Magazine

BOOK REVIEW: It’s Getting Better All the Time by Moore & Simon

By Berniegourley @berniegourley

It's Getting Better All the Time: 101 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 YearsIt’s Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years by Stephen Moore

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

The title says it all. The authors, Stephen Moore and Julian Simon, discuss 100 trends in 20th century America that give one reason to be optimistic about the future. These trends are grouped into the following areas: health, nutrition, wealth, poverty, children’s issues, labor, leisure, housing, transportation & communications, innovation, information technology, education, safety, environmental protection, natural resources, socio-cultural indicators, sports, women’s issues, racial issues, and freedom & democracy.

One of the co-authors, Julian Simon, died before publication of this book, but is famous for a bet that he made with Paul Ehrlich. The bet was that any five commodities of Ehrlich’s choosing would decline in price over the subsequent decade. Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, was a doomsayer, and believed the five commodities and most others would become more expensive. In other words, Ehrlich was betting resources would become more scarce as they were used up, but Simon believed our technological advances in discovery and extraction would outstrip our consumption. Simon won the bet. All five commodities became cheaper, though some have pointed out that if they had gone double or nothing over another decade the tables would have turned.

The authors attribute the world’s 20th century success to three technologies: electricity, vaccines/medicines, and the microchip. In answer to the question of why the United States did particularly well, the authors point to freedom as the main driver. Neither of these hypotheses are systematically evaluated in this work; they’re just presented with anecdotal support. I say this not so much as harsh criticism, but so as to make the reader aware that it is not that kind of book. The bulk of the book is one page of text for each trend, plus a line or bar graph to visually depict the trend.

This book makes some excellent points. People have a tendency towards pessimism, hence all the dystopian, zombie, nuclear holocaust literature. There’s also a common fallacy that there was once a golden age of humanity in the past that is never to be surpassed. One may find it hard to believe that it’s getting better all the time, but one can’t argue with the numbers. Life expectancy is up. Infant mortality is down. Housing is less crowded. We have more symphonic orchestras. On a host of issues, the quality of life of American’s has risen.

The previous paragraph notwithstanding, there’s room for criticism. While one can’t argue with the numbers, in some cases one might find oneself asking whether they are the right numbers or whether they tell the whole story. For example, the section on disease shows a strong decline across a range of diseases. However, it doesn’t cover any of the many chronic disease that arose in the 20th century and disproportionately affect wealthy countries such as diabetes and crohn’s disease. It’s hard to know how much of the trends represented are a function of data availability (covering so much ground, they had to rely on second-hand data) and how much reflects selection bias intended to support their argument. As implied in the preceding paragraph, some of the measures are undeniably the right ones. However, the reader may find themselves wondering about others.

It would be interesting to see an update to the study. For example, GDP growth is shown to be higher on average among the freest nations. However, with countries like China and Vietnam rocketing upward in GDP in recent years, it would be interesting to see if this trend has held.

There’s a CSPAN Book TV program with Moore available here.

Even though this book is 13 years old, I’d still recommend it. Given all the doom and gloom as of late, it might be a particularly good time to pick it up.

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