Looking past the headlines

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 7, 2013

RALEIGH — What makes news? Three conditions certainly help: scope, rarity, and tragedy.
No one will ever headline a newspaper or lead off a newscast by reporting on what you had for dinner last night, how many airplanes didn’t crash, or how many people aren’t suffering from cancer. The nature of the news business is an inescapable fact of life, so there’s no point trying to figure out how to change it. Journalists simply respond to what people want to know. Be honest: how often would you read an online news site that ignored celebrities, celebrated the mundane, and reported only good news?
That having been said, our constant news diet of ridicule, controversy, and relentless pessimism gives us a warped sense of reality. Most people in America — indeed, most people in the world — do not live miserable lives and argue incessantly with their friends and co-workers. For the vast majority of human beings, being alive in 2013 makes them among the luckiest people in the history of the world. They will live longer, healthier and happier lives than all but the wealthiest and most exceptional people of the past.

Not every social indicator points towards progress, admittedly. But most do. And the rate of progress appears to be accelerating. My favorite example has to do with economic freedom and prosperity. Although the recent Great Recession was immensely painful for many people in America and around the world, it didn’t come close to erasing the dramatic gains in living standards that have occurred during the 20th and early 21st centuries.
As I wrote in the Heritage Insider a few years ago, most of the world has become friendlier to free enterprise during the past half-century, with important consequences:
Of all the regions on Earth, only sub-Saharan Africa has failed to make significant progress on economic liberalization over the past three to four decades. That’s one reason why it is also the only region that has failed to achieve strong economic progress during the same period. In 1970, the three poorest regions were East Asia, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Each had a poverty rate (as measured by the World Bank, not comparable to the U.S. poverty line) of about 35 percent. By 2000, the poverty rate in East Asia (including China and Indonesia) had plummeted to 2 percent. It fell to 2.5 percent in South Asia (including the Indian subcontinent). But in Africa, poverty rose to 50 percent by 2000. Among the handful of countries bucking Africa’s poverty trend were Mauritius and Botswana, which happen to be ranked first and second, respectively, in economic freedom among African countries.

A fellow optimist, Reason science correspondent Ronald Bailey, is working on a new book titled “Ten Surprising Truths About the World.” He previewed some of the truths in a recent magazine column. The item I found most interesting has to do with intelligence. “About half of Americans two generations ago would have been diagnosed as mentally retarded based on today’s IQ tests,” Bailey wrote. What’s going on, both in America and in much of the rest of the world, is a rise in average measurable intelligence. Although many factors are likely at play, including higher household incomes, recent research suggests that advances in public health help to explain the trend. Specifically, the growing use of vaccines, water and wastewater treatment, pesticides, and other interventions to combat parasitic and infectious diseases have allowed infant brains to develop more rapidly, since “mobilizing the immune system to fight off diseases and parasites is very metabolically expensive,” as Bailey put it. So average IQ is rising.
However, the same body of research suggests that because today’s infants don’t have to fight off as much disease as previous generations did, their immune systems “have become oversensitive, attacking the bodies they are supposed to protect.” So as children get older, they are more prone to allergies and asthma than previous generations were.
Obviously, the benefits — stronger brain function, longer lives, less criminality, and higher living standards — outweigh the costs. But what do you think is most likely to get the headline?

John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.