Category Archives: Policy

Getting Better, VI: Looking Beyond the Headlines for the Trend Lines

A report last month from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation indicates that humanity is headed in the right direction in many important ways. “Goalkeepers: The Stories Behind the Data” sheds light on how far public health officials have come in the fight against infectious disease and poverty.

Bill Gates says that global trends—including wins in the following areas over the last twenty-five years—indicate that “the world is far from falling apart. In fact, it has never been better—more peaceful, prosperous, safe, or just.”:

  • Childhood mortality
  • Maternal mortality
  • Family planning
  • HIV
  • Stunting
  • Poverty
  • Smoking
  • Sanitation
  • Financial services for the poor
  • Neglected tropical diseases
  • Vaccines

“Looking beyond the headlines for the trend lines,” as President Bill Clinton says, and understanding how many challenges have been overcome so far can be motivation to help solve current problems and prevent even more in the future.

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A Tendency to Cooperate

Teamwork is mankind's greatest achievement

Ayn Rand believed that people could become self-reliant by elevating their own interests above all else; as the Ayn Rand Institute’s web site says, she “wrote volumes urging people to be selfish.” As a result, she opposed religious and political controls that could hinder individuals from pursuing their personal goals. Certainly, there’s something to be said for having a society of people who are free to achieve their goals, right?

But when Rand’s followers extol her promotion of personal liberty, they fail to recognize or admit that individualism—or objectivism, as she preferred to call it—as a guiding principle:

  1. Doesn’t work in practice, and
  2. Is not the highest expression of mankind.

After reading Rand’s 1943 novel, The Fountainhead,” I came across Randall Munroe’s comic that pretty much depicted my impression. He said:

“I had a hard time with Ayn Rand because I found myself enthusiastically agreeing with the first 90% of every sentence, but getting lost at ‘therefore, be a huge a**hole to everyone.'”

And there are concrete examples of her philosophy’s failure in practice and as a description of what drives human achievement.

Sears CEO Eddie Lampert has been largely guided by Rand’s ideas in his leadership of the company:

“Lampert broke the company into over 30 individual units, each with its own management, and each measured separately for profit and loss. Acting in their individual self-interest, they would be forced to compete with each other and thereby generate higher profits…What actually happened is that units began to behave something like the cutthroat city-states of Italy around the time Machiavelli was penning his guide to rule-by-selfishness. As Mina Kimes has reported in Bloomberg Businessweek, they went to war with each other.”

A decade into Lampert’s tenure, Business Insider said, “the 124-year-old retailer is imploding.”

Rand said, “Man must choose his actions, values and goals by the standard of that which is proper to man—in order to achieve, maintain, fulfill and enjoy that ultimate value, that end in itself, which is his own life.” She believed that teamwork was for savages.

But not only have humans always had a tendency to cooperate and to look out for each other, in fact, it may be “that it is our hyper-social, cooperative brain that sets us apart [from other human-like species]. From language and culture to war and love, our most distinctively human behaviours all have a social element.” Teamwork is mankind’s greatest achievement.

Oftentimes, Rand’s self-interested fans end up simply sounding like children who scream through tears, “You’re not the boss of me.”

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The Good Nurses

At first reflection, Charles Graeber’s 2013 book, The Good Nurse, might provoke dread in anyone who thinks they or their loved ones will depend at some time on the work of health care professionals. But my further thoughts about the story led me to affirm that, while anyone in Charles Cullen’s position could do what he did—kill dozens (maybe hundreds) of patients with random overdoses in order to satisfy his need for control—none of the nearly three million nurses currently working in the US has.

If I didn’t know any nurses and had never been a recipient of their care, Cullen’s chilling work might cause me to fear nurses or hospitals in general. But in the last few years I have depended on the care of some excellent nurses, and I currently hang around a lot of them as a volunteer. My relationship with genuinely good nurses protects me from such an irrational fear.

Indeed, irrational fears are often enabled by a lack of familiarity with their object:

One of the most common abuses of power is generating irrational fear based on hate and mistrust. But we can choose not to be controlled and limited by irrational fears and resist the appeals to hate by taking control and overcoming those fears.

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Getting Better, V

News of success is the best way to inspire continued progress, according to Australian think tank Future Crunch.

“We really feel that negativity leads to cynicism, apathy, hopelessness and even hate,” said FC’s Tane Hunter. “While it does galvanise a few people into action, for the vast majority it really causes a retraction.”

“We believe a much better way to inspire change is through optimism. We believe that’s the best method and emotion to drive creative innovation and to build a better future.”

One example is to go beyond the stories heralding the economic “success stories” of these nations in the last few years:

According to Future Crunch, the greatest economic success story of all time is currently taking place in countries around the world.

For most of recorded history, they said, only a tiny elite enjoyed higher standards of living. By far the majority of people were dirt poor—”bone-crushing, unrelenting, one-inadequate-meal-a-day, soul-destroying, no-dentist, no-doctor, no-electricity, single-accident-means-life-and-death poor”; inequality was just the way the world worked. As recently as 1970, around 60% of the world’s 3.7 billion people lived in extreme poverty. Today, less than 10% do, the lowest proportion of people in extreme poverty ever.

As Oxford researcher Max Roser puts it, the front page headline every day for the last 25 years should have read:

SINCE YESTERDAY, 137,000 PEOPLE
HAVE BEEN LIFTED OUT OF EXTREME POVERTY.

Future Crunch know the world is not a perfect place. “We still have massive issues with climate change, mass migration, Trump, Brexit, the rise of the alt-right, terrorism and Syria,” Hunter said.

But they insist, “you have to hold two ideas in your head at once: that the world is getting better and the world is not yet good enough. Our successors in the past should really give us hope as we move forward into the future.”

For the average human being on the planet today, the world has never been a better place. That’s a story well worth telling.

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Getting Better, IV

Max Roser, an economist working at the University of Oxford, said that at the close of 2015, only 6 percent of Americans surveyed believed the world was getting better when, in fact—by many significant measures—it is:

According to Future Crunch, the year 2016 saw:

  • The discovery of potential cures for Parkinson’s, AIDS and sepsis, the rollout of a cheap vaccine for cholera, and dramatic declines in malaria death rates
  • Big wins for LGBT activists in Japan, Finland and Slovenia, and women’s rights in India and Iceland
  • Global declines in executions
  • Drops in income inequality in the US and China
  • Increases in German employment (despite huge refugee intakes)
  • Big conservation wins for tigers in China, elephants in Chad, bees in Europe, forests in Cameroon and oceans in Indonesia
  • The accelerating death of the fossil fuels industry and the incredible explosion of renewable energy around the world

…but these stories were vastly underreported.

“Forget fake news,” Future Crunch said. “Our real problem is balance. Respectable news outlets say they’re giving us an objective view of the world, yet drown us in a daily deluge of conflict and negative headlines. It’s manufactured drama and we can’t tear our eyes away. Bad news is great for business…because it’s an addictive product. That’s why it’s everywhere.”

Roser gives three more reasons for these overwhelmingly negative erroneous views:

  • It is hard-wired in human psychology to watch for signs of danger.
  • The 24/7 structure of the media highlights negative subjects.
  • We are unaware of how inconceivably exceptional our current living conditions are from the perspective of our ancestors.

Each of us controls the information we consume and the worldview we form as a result. Are you brave and discerning enough to recognize how far we’ve come and help continue to make things better?

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The Most Important Place in Town

public-library

I was reminded recently how starkly the mission of the public library contrasts with that of the “membership library” near me. An article described the membership library as having the look of “a turn-of-the-20th-Century private club,” which it is since “use of the collection and reading room is restricted to current subscribers.”

The public library’s mission, on the other hand, is simply “connecting people.” All of the people in its community, that is. No paid subscription ($55 – $1,500/year for the membership library) required. For this and other reasons, a community’s public library can be its most important place. By allowing everyone to explore, interact, and imagine, public libraries do more than provide information. They build citizens.

In the Seinfeld episode, “The Library,” Jerry said, “What’s amazing to me about the library is that, here’s a place where you can go in, you take out any book you want, they just give it to you and say, ‘Bring it back when you’re done.’ It reminds me of like this pathetic friend everybody had when they were a little kid that would let you borrow any of his stuff if you would just be his friend. That’s what the library is, it’s a government-funded pathetic friend. That’s why everybody kind of bullies the library. ‘I’ll bring it back on time, I’ll bring it back late. Oh, what are you going to do? What are you going to charge me, a nickel?'”

A seemingly devastating characterization. But if you take away the smarmy, hipster snarkiness, the comedian is paying the library a massive tribute. Indeed, the public library is about going out of its way to lend things—books, movies, music, magazines—that many people couldn’t or wouldn’t acquire for themselves. And, yes, it does it on very generous terms. Pathetic? On the contrary, I consider it remarkable and an incredibly noble facet of our society.

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Getting Better, II

getter-better-chart

It has become a recurring theme for me to dwell on the belief that, in the grand scheme, things are truly getting better. I’m now considering a previous post to be Getting Better, I and this as a second installment.

Last month, Max Roser of Vox.com shared what he considers proof that life is getting better for humanity. Listed here and depicted by the chart above is my summary of that information:

  1. Percent of people living in extreme poverty:
    • 1910 – 82%
    • 1950 – 72%
    • 2015 – < 10%
  2. Percent of people dying by age five:
    • 1900 – 36%
    • 1940 – 24%
    • 2015 – 4%
  3. Percent of people literate:
    • 1900 – 21%
    • 1950 – 36%
    • 2014 – 85%
  4. Percent of people in democracy:
    • 1900 – 12%
    • 1950 – 31%
    • 2015 – 56%

May this data affirm that our efforts—large and small—do have a positive effect and motivate us to keep on keeping on to make the world better for as many people as possible.

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