Give thanks for Progress?

I’m an agnostic on the question of whether we are making progress, and I’d like to start by considering one type of progress, the war against dirt and germs. Over the course of my life, I’ve seen society put non-trivial resources into making our world cleaner and more germ-free. That sounds good! But I’m not entirely convinced, for numerous reasons:

1. When I go to another region, like East Asia, I see lots of examples that seem slightly unhinged. Lots of people wearing surgical masks in public. Waiters with plastic face guards. People forced to take off shoes every single time they enter a house. (Actually, my house is the same, as I defer to my wife.)

2. Intertemporal comparisons also seem dubious. Younger people (which is most people for a 64-year old like me) seem excessively fastidious. If I tell my daughter stories about how my dad used to take me to the “dump” when I was a kid, to search for useful stuff that people had thrown away, she’d be horrified. Ewww! Or that people didn’t pick up after their dogs in the 1960s. Indeed, I’m still a trash collector; the office chair I’m sitting in as I type this post was out at the curb of a neighbor’s house on Newton.  It looked useful so I grabbed it.

I’m self-aware enough to understand the “OK boomer” absurdity of what I’m doing here. I’m horrified when I read about how in the 1800s the streets of NYC were full of horse manure. Or the drinking water situation in London in 1840. Ewww!  It’s all relative.

If you put a gun to my head and forced me to defend the 1960s level of dirt and germs as optimal, I’d say the 1800s really did involve heath risks, but the recent improvements are mostly psychological. And I’d argue that due to the “hedonic treadmill” we are no longer getting better off, because we keep getting pickier about what we consider disgustingly dirty. Even worse, there are theories that too much cleanliness might actually make kids more susceptible to asthma.

But I’m not going to end up trying to defend the boomer generation, who I regard as just as irrational as any other. I plan to question All Progress.  So let’s take some examples:

1.  We obviously have better stuff, like iPhones.  But that’s not the issue. Just having iPhones makes us more impatient, less able to enjoy life’s simpler pleasures.  New York City has recently added a number of 100 story skyscrapers for billionaires to live in.  But that hasn’t made New York’s skyline any more impressive, as it diminishes the more beautiful art deco masterpieces from the 1920s.  It’s all relative.

2.  Suicide rates are rising.  Even worse, many deaths of despair (from drugs) are quasi-suicides.  The standard view is that this is due to hard times in Middle America.  But life expectancy only began declining after 2014, and has continued declining even as the labor market has improved dramatically (especially for low income groups.)  Hispanic life expectancy is nearly 82, far above whites and far above countries like Denmark.  And yet the economic situation of Hispanics supposedly approximates what caused all these deaths of despair—lots of low wage jobs.  If we are making so much progress, why do deaths of despair keep rising?

3.  What about progress made by formerly oppressed groups like blacks and women, and more recently gays and lesbians?  I consider this the single strongest argument for progress.  But even on the cultural front there are setbacks.  Some businesses now ban office romances.  Previous generations would be horrified by these modern killjoys.  Some of the most modern countries, such as Finland and Japan, are seeing a big drop in sex.  That’s a big deal given that we are talking about one of life’s most important pleasures.  Social media brings pleasure to some, but bullying to others.  People 18, 19, and 20 have lost the right to drink a beer.  Our legal system has removed many of life’s pleasures, as when public swimming pools are closed down due to liability issues.  People (including me) used to date people with differing political views—now we are far more intolerant of others.

4.  The Inuit of Canada were brought into the modern world, and it was a complete disaster.  They were a fairly happy group when they lived in their traditional societies, but are miserable today, despite all the “progress” that Canada gave them.

5.  Better health and longevity.  This is the strongest argument for progress, isn’t it?  But I’m one of those rare people who don’t believe in personal identity, just a flow of mental states.  Suppose we go from a society where families have 4 kids than live to 40, to one with two kids that live to 80.  The total number of “man-years” experienced by the family is the same, but recall that the first 40 years are far more enjoyable than the next 40.  So the flow of pleasure is greater in the society with shorter lives.  Once I hit 55, I got an ever increasing number of annoying ailments (fortunately all minor).  More importantly, you lose some of the youthful zest for an adventuresome life.

6.  Novelists are some of the keenest observers of life as it is actually lived.  Are people in 21st century novels experiencing a happier life than those in 20th or 19th century novels?  Most bizarrely, modern characters don’t even seem to suffer from less physical pain, even though we have all these new technologies like novocain.  In my own life, I subjectively “experience” just as much physical pain when I’m sitting around my office as when I do construction work, even though the latter job is objectively far more painful (as when I hit my thumb with a hammer.)  More hedonic treadmills.

7.  I experienced a brief rise in utility as the Milwaukee Bucks went from a 40-win team to a 60-win team.  But now that I’ve internalized their new level, I don’t enjoy games any more than before.  Today, a mere 9-point win over Atlanta is actually slightly annoying.

If you reply that you love your iPhone and would hate to live in the 1960s, then you’ve completely missed the point.  I agree that it would be annoying for a millennial living in 2019 not to have an iPhone.  That’s not the issue.  The issue is whether you would have enjoyed life in the 1960s, or the 1860s, when no one had iPhones, and no one even knew they existed.

There’s a reason why old people are annoyingly reactionary.  They recall a previous time when people were happy despite not having modern tech.  As for moral progress, they recall really nice sweet people who used to spank their children, and thus they don’t consider spanking to be a monstrous form of child abuse.  If you weren’t there you’ll never understand (just as I’ll never understand how dueling was once considered acceptable.)

Because I’m agnostic, I’ll continue working for Progress.  If there’s only a 15% chance that it’s good for us, that’s better than the 5% chance that it’s bad for us.  Pascal’s wager.

Let me conclude with a couple of anecdotes that drive home my skepticism about progress.  In April, my wife and I celebrated our 25th anniversary with a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Bora Bora, staying in two different “over water” hotels on stilts that cost three times more than any other hotel I’ve ever stayed in.  We also had the roof on our house redone this year, a major project as it’s a complicated house with Tuscan tiles and flat (leaky) aluminum sections.  There were lots of workers for three weeks, lots of pounding of nails, lots of mess.  Also the stress of cost overruns.

If you met me during the roof project, I would have told you that I couldn’t wait until it was over.  Bull****!  Deep down I never wanted it to end.  At the end of each workday I’d get up on the roof and chat with Isidro, the project manager, who was from Michoacan, Mexico.  I spent some time in Michoacan as a teenager, and we talked a lot about places we both knew.  He seemed to enjoy chatting to me; most (affluent) people he worked for probably ignored him.  He was also clearly proud of his work, and liked explaining how he solved each technical problem.  I used to do construction for my dad, so I was very interested and at least somewhat informed about his work.  We’d spend an hour or two at the end of each workday, up on the roof chatting as the sun went down over Lake Mission Viejo.  I enjoyed talking with him far more than I’d enjoy talking with an intellectual about public policy.

The Bora Bora trip?  I was sick the entire time, bundled up on the hot sunny beach in long pants and a sweatshirt, watching the young people in swimsuits enjoying life.

Have a nice Thanksgiving!



84 Responses to “Give thanks for Progress?”

  1. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    28. November 2019 at 14:18

    Life expectancy going up is progress. Life expectancy going down is not. There rest is commentary.

    I say that as a gay man. (The “I say that as …” trope is not progress.)

  2. Gravatar of P Burgos P Burgos
    28. November 2019 at 17:09

    The streets in China are covered in spit, cigarette butts, and frequently urine and dog and cat poop. It makes sense to me that when the streets are that dirty you would take off your shoes.

  3. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    28. November 2019 at 17:23

    The 90% reduction in smog in Los Angeles was a real Improvement. When I grew up the smog obscured images three blocks away. Some people say the smog took away IQ points from me, ergo…

    Women in Taiwan have 0.9 babies on average, Hong Kong a little higher (2.3 average is needed to sustain a population). Indeed, in most developed nations people are not reproducing themselves. That’s what biologists would call a sickly population.

    Interesting topic.

  4. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    28. November 2019 at 18:01

    I am banned from commenting on Econlog, so I post hear a response to Scott Sumner’s point of view that there is no such thing as a Deep State.

    There are lots of reasons to regard the US military apparatus as a global guard service for multinationals, although one so well entrenched it has developed some of its own imperatives and privileges.That is one element of what I think can be called a Deep State. 

    On a less dramatic level, the US maintains a Department of Agriculture, also deeply entrenched, and also operating largely beyond the review of the ordinary citizen. That is a perhaps more benign example of a Deep State operation. One might say that parts of the Deep State are not so much nefarious as unaccountable. No citizen has the time to review in detail the Department of Agriculture or any of the other federal departments, let alone City Hall. The citizen who becomes well-informed on the Department of Agriculture will be rewarded with highly intelligent futility.

    However, the Deep State in matters of military and foreign policy does have serious and regrettable consequences, as seen in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, or the annual consumption of 1.2 trillion dollars of taxpayer money, let alone oceans of human misery and carnage.

  5. Gravatar of Mark Mark
    28. November 2019 at 20:22

    The lesson of hedonic treadmills is to keep progressing. While perhaps no happiness is permanent, people at least get temporary happiness from improving themselves and the world but get no happiness and may even develop depression from staying in place. One sign of progress in modern times is that the rate at which we are developing new things to keep ourselves happy and beat the hedonic treadmill seems to have vastly accelerated; there are now many more things to try and I feel bored much less often than I did in the 80s and 90s.

    On the question of whether one would have enjoyed life in the 1960s or 1860s, that seems inseparable from one’s knowledge of modern pleasures and conveniences. If all of one’s memories of modern society were erased, that seems like it would also erase one’s personal identity—although that just goes back to the interesting point about whether personal identity is a real thing.

    I also don’t find the “deaths of despair” counterexample convincing. Both suicide and drug abuse rates are higher on average in richer, more advanced countries. Perhaps drug abuse rates most strongly reflect how many people can afford drugs, and suicide rates reflect whether miserable people see their condition as normal or aberrant. Suicide and drug abuse seem to be diseases of affluence, akin to obesity or cancer. Of course we should still try to solve them, but they aren’t signs of regression, quite the contrary.

  6. Gravatar of Pyrmonter Pyrmonter
    28. November 2019 at 22:10


  7. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    28. November 2019 at 22:14

    Everyone, Lots of conventional wisdom in the comment section. Now what about my arguments?

  8. Gravatar of P Burgos P Burgos
    28. November 2019 at 23:30

    Maybe this is a bit too classist of a take, but my impression is that life is better for college educated folks today than it was 30 or 40 years ago. The main reason being that most college educated folks who want to get married do get married, and the divorce rate for college educated Americans is quite low, and quite a bit lower than in decades past. There is no shortage of beer for you to drink in college, and you can drink good beer if you want, which was really hard to find in the US 30 years ago. Plus marijuana is legal in many places now. The opioid and suicide epidemics don’t seem to be having much impact on college educated millennials. If you want to put in the time to exercise and eat healthy, odds are that you can live a healthy life through most of your eighties, maybe even into your nineties. With a little discipline, you can retire at 59 and have 30 years of an active retirement. That means 30 years of shooting the shit with Isidro at habitat for humanity sites, if that is what makes you happy.

    I guess I find it hard to see a world in which a little self discipline and a little wisdom and little practical smarts go quite a bit farther in terms of health, wealth and happiness then they did in decades past, and it is hard not to see that as progress. But then again I am truly baffled why people don’t save more money, why they watch so much TV, why they don’t exercise, why they don’t learn new things, don’t go to church (or participate in a bowling league or whatever), don’t spend more time with friends and family, etc.

  9. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    29. November 2019 at 01:35


    1. Let’s not confuse happiness with progress. Many people choose other things over happiness. Happiness is not the be all and end all. It is only social engineers and progressive economists who create happiness (or well being) indices because they don’t agree with or want to dictate the choices individuals are making to maximize their own utility.

    2. I spend a lot of time in Ho Chi Minh and a lot of time in Tokyo. HCMC is disgusting. Tokyo is charming. I think it has a lot more to do with aesthetics than it does to do with sanitation. Rich people can afford beauty.

    3. Sounds like you should get James Taylor to re-record “Up on the Roof” and “Down in Mexico” into a single cut.

  10. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    29. November 2019 at 02:34

    Okay, about your arguments:

    That is a China Clipper seaplane pictured in the postcard image. The Clippers were luxury flying hotels, with sleeping accommodation, dining rooms and leisure facilities in addition to the usual aircraft seating.

    But a ticket was equal to an annual salary for many.

  11. Gravatar of JMCSF JMCSF
    29. November 2019 at 05:23

    I disagree with #1 to an extent. There are a dozen or so 1000+ foot skyscrapers going up in NYC, both residential and commercial. They may not be viewed aesthetically as progress over their Art Deco predecessors, but certainly functionally they are leaps and bounds ahead. Aesthetically I would say they are much better than what had typically been built in the 70s, 80s, and 90s – so that is progress IMO.

    Even using your own example, the Chrysler building recently sold at a huge loss for a mere $150 million, partially because the outdated structure cant match the functionality of new construction (consider many of the new office towers cost over 1 billion to build!)

  12. Gravatar of sty.silver sty.silver
    29. November 2019 at 06:45

    > 7. I experienced a brief rise in utility as the Milwaukee Bucks went from a 40-win team to a 60-win team. But now that I’ve internalized their new level, I don’t enjoy games any more than before. Today, a mere 9-point win over Atlanta is actually slightly annoying.

    This is the general argument for why most tech doesn’t increase happiness. Insofar as happiness is actually a function of the difference between current experience and a baseline, it’s very hard to permanently increase happiness. And while happiness doesn’t quite work like that, it seems to mostly work like that.

    On the actual question of whether we’re happier now than we used to be, I think I’m not qualified to have a strong opinion. I suspect that it is easier to teach a person to be happy now than it used to be, but that’s only tangentially relevant.

    I do think that current trends are unlikely to continue past the arrival of AGI, regardless of takeoff speed, so I think the importance of the question is overrated.

    Scott, when you say you believe in “just a flow of mental states”, does that correspond to being an open individualist on the open/closed/empty categorization? I would point out that if the answer is yes, your primary measure for progress should be animal suffering.

  13. Gravatar of John S John S
    29. November 2019 at 07:00

    Re: #7 — For an NBA utility boost, you can follow the Lukamotive’s career for the next 4-5 years. Unfortunately, the rise will indeed be temporary because once Luka’s 3 pt % catches fire, he will break the game and our enjoyment of all pre-Luka stats will fall precipitously.

    (Seriously though, isn’t it amazing that, just a couple seasons after Curry’s explosions and Giannis’ rise, a 20-year-old came out of nowhere and provided us with an **equivalent further increase** in our views on what is possible on a basketball court? Who could have predicted that?)

    Thinking Basketball:

  14. Gravatar of Cameron Blank Cameron Blank
    29. November 2019 at 07:43

    I like the face mask norm, as I am someone who tends to have horrible symptoms when I get sick and this both reduces my chance of getting sick AND the negative externalities I impose on others if I get sick.

    Other than that, I agree completely on hygiene. What people associate with being “clean” has almost no relation to preventing disease or maintaining health. Probably the opposite (hygiene hypothesis) as you mention.

  15. Gravatar of Cameron Blank Cameron Blank
    29. November 2019 at 08:12

    With regard to your larger point, I don’t think we can point to an example of a modern society without “progress” that seems appealing either from the inside or out.

    1) Maybe tribal societies provide more happiness/person, but at a cost of FAR fewer people, the total flow of experiences would be reduced 90%. Probably not worth. Violence and tragedy would also likely be higher per person if you think those matter.

    2) To a large degree, progress is necessary to sustain the environment and population of today. If we became indifferent to progress we would quickly find the 1960s US quality/quantity of life difficult to maintain. To non-economists endless economic growth/productivity seem unsustainable, but really its the opposite (Julian Simon).

    3) Maybe built-in expectations for progress are why progress doesn’t make us happier. That might mean after a while we would not longer expect it, but what would be the payoff? Again, no progress is less sustainable and also less likely to get humanity/human-made AI onto other planets and past the heat-death of the sun, so I don’t see the benefit.

    4) I think the most important implication of your views is that we should spend more resources trying to ensure as many humanity/human descendants live for as long as possible given the heat death of the universe. Admittedly there can be pretty reasonable debate as to how we can best do that. If we are successful, 99.9999999%+ of intelligent existence lies ahead of us. The problem is a lot of people are indifferent to the distant future of life/experience. Perhaps we should all have our brains scanned/DNA stored and make a pledge that if we successfully get past a certain point (time-wise or technologically), we all get to be recreated again in the future? Not sure if that sounds appealing.

  16. Gravatar of MJ MJ
    29. November 2019 at 08:20

    My understanding is the masks worn in East Asian Countries are for the “yellow dust” weather pattern from the Mongolian desert that affects air quality, and has nothing to do with germs.

    Second hand stores are more common, so we are just more productive and don’t have to search through our neighbors’ trash.

    Smartphones and social media alleviate boredom and maintain otherwise lost friendships. This is especially important to the working poor who spend a significant amount of time on public transport and performing menial tasks.

    Suicide and drug overdose are just replacing other now solved health ailments, and progress can now be made against these new ailments.

    Spanking did real harm to children and we are better off that it is stigmatized.

    Liability concerns in general reflect improved safety and well being. The lady who successfully sued Mcdonalds because her coffee was too hot became a big joke in the media, but she was actually hospitalized with severe burns and the lawsuit paid her medical bills.

    Pascal’s wager doesn’t specify which God or Progress I should believe in.

  17. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    29. November 2019 at 10:49

    Burgos, What makes you think a lower divorce rate means a better life? Would my parents have been better off if they had not gotten divorced?

    dtoh, People have been maximizing utility throughout all of human history. I see no evidence that they have more utility now than in the past. Where would I get such evidence? Please be specific.

    Do heroin addicts get utility from injecting drugs?

    Ben, And your point is?

    JMCSF, You entirely missed the point of my skyscraper metaphor. It has nothing to do with whether the new buildings are more functional. It’s about whether the skyline seems “taller” when viewed from a distance. In my view, it does not. I’m using that as a metaphor for the hedonic treadmill.

    Silver, Yes, in my view animal suffering is very important.

    John, Luka’s just a child. He’s not allowed to drink beer. I’d rather focus on adults.

    Seriously, sometimes I think this country’s no better than Saudi Arabia. What must Europeans think when they visit here?

    Cameron, America is far cleaner and more germ free than in the 1960s. But I don’t notice people getting fewer colds. Do people in (crowded) Hong Kong get more colds than in (uncrowded) Wyoming? This is a genuine question, I’m not sure the answer.

    You second comment makes some good points.

    MJ, I see people in China and Japan wearing masks where there is very little pollution.

    You said:

    “Spanking did real harm to children”

    I actually doubt that, unless they were beaten severely. I grew up in a world where most children were spanked, and all the kids I talked to just joked about it. We would have much rather been spanked than sent to our rooms. I’m not advocating spanking (I didn’t do it), I’m just saying I very much doubt whether it harmed kids.

    But I also don’t believe it does much good, I don’t believe in “spare the rod and spoil the child.”

    I completely disagree on liability. The cost in foregone utility from the loss in freedom is much greater than the benefit from a reduction in risk. It’s OK if a few people drown. It wasn’t McDonald’s fault that the lady dropped hot coffee on her lap, sometimes bad things just happen.

  18. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    29. November 2019 at 11:57

    Simple. Assume that if someone chooses A over B, then A has greater utility.

    How many people do you know who would choose go back to the era where you had to chop firewood for 3 hours a day, piss in a privy, no cars, no phones, no TVs, no hamburgers, no aspirin, and a third of your siblings and children died before their 5th birthday (and that’s only going back 120 some years.)

  19. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    29. November 2019 at 12:09

    Not to mention higher rates of opioid addiction back then.

  20. Gravatar of sty.silver sty.silver
    29. November 2019 at 12:34

    > Simple. Assume that if someone chooses A over B, then A has greater utility.

    That assumption is clearly untrue. People aren’t anywhere close to utility maximizers in any meaningful sense.

  21. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    29. November 2019 at 13:38


    “That assumption is clearly untrue. People aren’t anywhere close to utility maximizers in any meaningful sense.”

    A typical patronizing progressive point of view. People make bad decisions so we have to tell them what to do.

  22. Gravatar of John S John S
    29. November 2019 at 16:37

    Haha, good one. But it’s your utility loss. “Child” or not, Luka has guided 11 nobodies (and yes, with his awful FG%, Porzingis still counts as a nobody) to the best offensive rating of all time. If that’s not worth something to an NBA fan, I don’t know what is.

  23. Gravatar of John S John S
    29. November 2019 at 17:12

    Re: the hedonic treadmill and utility burnout — perhaps an individual solution is to embrace processes and focus less on results. So in the case of the improved Bucks, one would pay less attention to whether they won or lost their last game but instead delve deeper into why and how they’re winning or losing. (E.g. “Is Giannis vulnerable to the Jazz’s ‘defensive wall’ scheme that cuts off his Euro step lanes?”) There are plenty of free resources for this kind of learning (ex: take a Luka Doncic pick & roll quiz):

    Rather than being stuck on a treadmill, this is more like a pleasant, never-ending stroll — one can enjoy the previous step while looking forward to the endless steps that beckon. Seems like a nice way to pass the time without the emptiness and waste of billionaire apartments, ever-increasing hygiene standards, and piles of electronic junk.

    On a societal level, maybe the schools need to start teaching Stoicism and mental hacks such as “negative visualization” (i.e. frequently imagining how much worse things could be than the present). Such an outlook would probably help at least some of the Boomers and Zoomers who end up dying deaths of despair (Stoic equanimity has helped me through many trying circumstances; without it, I’d certainly be much worse off).

  24. Gravatar of DonG DonG
    29. November 2019 at 17:46

    Horse manure is dirty, but not very dangerous. Human feces and hypodermic needles can carry deadly diseases.

  25. Gravatar of Matthias Görgens Matthias Görgens
    29. November 2019 at 18:02

    We take our shoes off in Germany and Scandinavia as well. It’s just considered good manners and more comfortable.

    We think the Brits are weird for keeping their shoes on. But apparently the Americans are the same?

  26. Gravatar of Matthias Görgens Matthias Görgens
    29. November 2019 at 18:17

    Scott, independent of progress or not: have you considered hanging out more with people in the construction trade? You seem to have really enjoyed it, and I am sure there’ll be plenty to blog about: Restrictions on construction are one of the most important stylised facts about the American economy today.

    And I’d gladly read even pieces about some technical aspects of the trade. If you find something interesting enough to blog about, so far I found it interesting to enough to enjoy reading.

    This reminds me of the book ‘Why wages don’t fall during a recession’ where the authors Truman Bewley actually went out and talked to people.

  27. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    29. November 2019 at 20:16

    Without Progress, Sumner would have been a door-nail years ago. With Progress, he is here blogging at 64. He is in good company with economists like Krugman and Cowen who have never taken a science course in college and can’t fathom that life in 2032, 2042 and 2052 might be a wee bit different health-wise than 2019.

    They are techno retards. (Not that there is anything wrong with that.)

  28. Gravatar of Negation of Ideology Negation of Ideology
    29. November 2019 at 21:09

    “Because I’m agnostic, I’ll continue working for Progress. If there’s only a 15% chance that it’s good for us, that’s better than the 5% chance that it’s bad for us. ”

    I think there’s more than a 15% chance it’s good for us overall, because some people escape the hedonic treadmill using techniques similar to what John S describes.

    Let’s say 80% of the population are on the hedonic treadmill – they are certainly no worse of if there’s progress. But the other 20% are better off. Therefore, progress improves mean utility, but not median utility.

    Now, if you could educate people as John S suggests, maybe you could improve things even more. I suspect it won’t be easy. Many people borrow to buy the most expensive car they can afford so they can sit in traffic behind someone with a paid off car. They are gaining no utility – unless you count the utility they get for showing off to their neighbors. But that’s a zero-sum game. If people simply paid attention to their own happiness instead of worrying what they imagine others are thinking about them, they’d be much happier.

  29. Gravatar of ChrisA ChrisA
    29. November 2019 at 23:38

    Scott – hope you had a good thanksgiving. Thought provoking column, so here are my thoughts that it provoked;

    If the hedonic treadmill is correct, then doesn’t that mean the final nail in the coffin of utilitarianism (along with all the other nails)? After all if people are equally happy in any state then there is no improvement that can be made to improve happiness?

    If we take an international view, we see strong correlation at the lower end between the wealth of a country and happiness, it is only at a high wealth end that the correlation flattens. But that doesn’t mean that we have reached the end of happiness improvements, just that we a different approach now that we have reached the end of materialism as a happiness improvement system. I can well imagine people researching as we speak ways to further improve happiness by means other than simply improving material welfare – for instance ways to bring like minded people together to become friends, or better drugs to allow people to relax more, or better vacation structures for people like you who don’t enjoy classic beach holidays.

    Avoidance of physical pain must have been a huge rise in measured happiness, if you have ever had chronic toothache you will know what I mean. Manual work is a big factor in causing physical pain, especially in older people. So maybe what makes richer people happier is not more material goods, but less physical pain, because they can get better medical treatment and do less manual labor. We have largely eliminated this physical pain factor for the vast majority of people in developed countries, hence the flatlining with wealth at higher levels. In that sense perhaps we have won the war on happiness, and it is time to move on to other things like life satisfaction.

  30. Gravatar of Doug M Doug M
    29. November 2019 at 23:52

    The world is less violent.

    In the bad old days of the 1970s, my family found themselves in the cross-hairs of a domestic terrorist organization. The FBI came to our door to tell us that we should hire bodyguards to walk us children to and from school. My parents and grandparents had discussions on the subject that should one of them be kidnapped (my parents, not us kids) did they want to be ransomed?

    One night, the park across the street from the house was stormed by SWAT teams because they thought they had the Zebra killers (yet another domestic terrorist organization) surrounded.

    And yet, my parents frequently left the front door unlocked and they usually left their cars unlocked with the keys hidden under the seat.

    As Stephen Pinker points out, the perception is that the world has become more dangerous, when it has, in fact, become safer.

    On the subject of the utility of a playoff run. As a season ticket holder, I get far more utility out of my tickets in the seasons when we have a winning record, make the playoffs, or best of all win a world series.

  31. Gravatar of sty.silver sty.silver
    30. November 2019 at 02:56

    dtoh, I did not claim that we should tell people what to do. You are pattern matching me with a version of a progressive in your head (which is probably fairly inaccurate). I said people don’t maximize utility, nothing more.

  32. Gravatar of sty.silver sty.silver
    30. November 2019 at 02:58

    EBWOP, I meant it is inaccurate if applied to me; I don’t know how accurate it is for your average progressive.

  33. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    30. November 2019 at 05:04

    Sty – I think they do. If a person choose one state of affairs over another, that’s the definition of relative utility, i.e. the state of affairs they choose has greater utility than the one they didn’t choose.

    You can argue that with hindsight they would have made different decisions, but that’s really a different argument.

  34. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    30. November 2019 at 06:16

    “Avoidance of physical pain must have been a huge rise in measured happiness, if you have ever had chronic toothache you will know what I mean.”

    Tooth decay was the 4th leading cause of death in London in 1600. Now one American a year on average dies from tooth decay. That is probably under reported but still quite a shift.

    The profound medical improvements coming in the 2020s will result in much less pain and far more freedom for the elderly. Most will see that as progress.

  35. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    30. November 2019 at 09:41

    dtoh, OK, but that means heroin addicts are making smart decisions. I’m not quite willing to go that far, although it’s certainly a plausible argument. As I said, I’m agnostic on progress.

    We are genetically programed to act in certain ways because that has (in the past) had survival value, or reproductive value. Nature gives us a “happiness reward” for doing so, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t on a hedonic treadmill, having to run ever faster to stay in the same place (in terms of happiness.)

    John I enjoy watching Luka, who will probably lend up being the best white player in NBA history.

    Matthias, By 2030, the American upper class will be taking off their shoes, and by 2050 most families here will do so.

    I have had a lot of workers at my house this past year, and have enjoyed chatting with many of them.

    Todd, LOL, Right about the time you started promising huge leaps in life expectancy, it started declining.

    I remember people in the 1970s saying we were close to a cure for cancer.

    Chris, You said:

    “We have largely eliminated this physical pain factor for the vast majority of people in developed countries,”

    Not for me, and not for lots of people I know in their 50s and 60s. I’m fairly healthy, but have heel pain, knee pain, back pain, sleep apnea, and various other issues I don’t care to discuss. If you met me at a party you’d think I’m 100% fine. Trust me, the world is full of hypochondriacs like me. (Maybe I should use medical marijuana.)

    I doubt utilitarianism will not become obsolete, because people will continue to believe that progress will boost utility, or at least might do so (my view.)

  36. Gravatar of ChrisA ChrisA
    30. November 2019 at 10:08

    Scott – if you are like me, the old age pains are irritating rather than debilitating. My knees are creaky and give me some pain, but most of the time I can forget about them (I am still running!). The kind of pain I am talking about cannot be ignored. My only experience of this was when I was in Thailand on vacation over New Year and I got a serious toothache. There were no dentists available and I had to suffer for about a week before I got home. This was nothing like creaky knees, I couldn’t sleep, or do anything really other think think about the pain, despite popping as many nurofen as I could. It made me realise the level of discomfort that most people experienced a lot of the time in not too recently times past.

  37. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    30. November 2019 at 11:43

    “Todd, LOL, Right about the time you started promising huge leaps in life expectancy, it started declining.”

    It looks like the 2019 estimated number is in:

    2016 78.86, a 0.03% decline from 2015
    2017 78.84, a 0.03% decline from 2016
    2018 78.81, a 0.03% decline from 2017
    2019 78.87, a 0.08% increase from 2018

    So back to 2016. But we know the mortality rate for cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and Alzheimer’s will fall sharply by 2029 so life expectancy increases will keep climbing. This isn’t string theory…

  38. Gravatar of Saturday assorted links – Marginal REVOLUTION Saturday assorted links - Marginal REVOLUTION
    30. November 2019 at 11:50

    […] Scott Sumner on progress, […]

  39. Gravatar of Owen Owen
    30. November 2019 at 12:25

    Hispanic life expectancy: how much is due to the large increases in wealth from immigrants, plus a strong family structure?

  40. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    30. November 2019 at 12:44

    “I remember people in the 1970s saying we were close to a cure for cancer.”

    I don’t think you’ve been following cancer since the 1970s, either. Immunotherapy will be huge in the 2020s. For now, the five year survival rate of several cancers:


    1980 84%
    2015 94%


    1980 75%
    2015 90%

    Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma

    1980 50%
    2015 70%


    1980 55%
    2015 75%


    1980 40%
    2015 60%


    1980 50%
    2015 67%


    1980 13%
    2015 23%


    1980 3%
    2015 10%


    1980 5%
    2015 20%


    1980 15%
    2015 30%

  41. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    30. November 2019 at 13:17

    Chris, Whether one can “forget” about pain is mostly a matter of lifestyle, the baseline you are used to.

    I’m surprised you couldn’t buy painkillers in Thailand. I had thought the US was the only country insane enough to torture people in pain by denying them painkillers.

    Also keep in mind that in societies with lots of pain the non-pain moments are much happier than in our society.

    (I am still able to run, but I pay a heavy price if I do so. I don’t have knee pain all the time, but when I do it’s similar to dental work with no novacain. Hard to ignore.)

    Todd, Those numbers don’t mean anything unless I know when the cancer was diagnosed. Cancer is not even close being cured, despite all the false predictions from people like you.

    You remind me of the commenter who for the past 10 years has been telling me that Australia is sliding into recession.

  42. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    30. November 2019 at 14:47

    “Todd, Those numbers don’t mean anything unless I know when the cancer was diagnosed.”

    The only cancer on that list that has been diagnosed earlier than before is colon cancer. Prostate cancer is also detected earlier. The 5 year survival rate was 70% in 1980 at 98% in 2015.

    “Cancer is not even close being cured, despite all the false predictions from people like you.”

    So let’s see what three people, who know what they’re talking about with expertise beyond economics, have said:

    Cancer researcher Tasuku Honjo, winner of last year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology:

    “Well there are still several problems, but two are most important. One is, still only 30% of patients are responding [to immunotherapy], so we wish to have some biomarkers to predict whether he or she is responsive or not. Secondly, definitely we wish to improve the efficacy of this treatment, and I’m sure this is a target of many, many scientists in the companies. So I believe these two problems will be solved in the near future.”

    Cancer researcher James Allison, also winner of last year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology, said last year that in coming years
    immunotherapy will work on more cancers and be more effective as combination therapies become routine.

    Cancer researcher Sir David Lane says he expects cancer will become a manageable disease in the 2020s.

  43. Gravatar of RM RM
    30. November 2019 at 15:21

    WRT the discussions on cancer, ultimately the question is whether cancer survivors today are happier than cancer survivors in the 1970s.

  44. Gravatar of Robert Brown Robert Brown
    30. November 2019 at 16:01

    Scott raises a great topic, but the thread conflates progress with happiness. Progress is state of something, happiness is a state of mind. At 74 I have seen a lot of material and societal progress. My happiness I derive from my two granddaughters and their well being.
    My concern today is that my generation’s progress my hinder their future happiness. My focus should not be on my happiness but theirs.

  45. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    30. November 2019 at 16:59

    Todd, Yes, I’ve seen those sorts of predictions quite often over the past few decades.

  46. Gravatar of Alan Duncan Alan Duncan
    30. November 2019 at 17:04

    Scott –

    In the comments, you claim that spanking of children is neither harmful nor helpful. Are you referring to a specific study in your assertion that spanking is not harmful? Multiple studies and meta-analyses have concluded otherwise. In fact one recent meta-analyses of studies of spanking (and physical abuse) found no statistical difference between the effect size of spanking and physical abuse on multiple endpoints of harm. Both of which were non-zero.

  47. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    30. November 2019 at 18:00

    Alan, I am extremely skeptical of all social science research, much of which has been discredited. Lots of studies confuse correlation with causation, for example. I think it’s very likely that children who have been spanked do less well than those who were not spanked, but I very much doubt that it is because they were spanked.

  48. Gravatar of BC BC
    1. December 2019 at 02:13

    I think the hedonic treadmill effect actually implies that we *underestimate* progress. Suppose people are free to choose whether they adopt smartphones, i.e., no law requires or prevents them from doing so. If most people adopt smartphones voluntarily, then they reveal that smartphones add utility. However, due to the hedonic treadmill, smartphones soon stop making people happy and suicide rates rise (but no one chooses to give up their smartphones). Some people might ask, “Do smartphones really represent progress?” The answer is yes because, if they didn’t, then people would give them up. It’s just that suicide rates aren’t a good measure of progress: revealed preference > suicide rates, surveys about depression or happiness, etc.

    Similarly, we should look at whether Inuit choose to migrate into the Canadian mainstream or to move back into the wilderness to establish communities with traditional Intuit culture. We should ask Milwaukee Buck fans whether they want the Bucks to win 40 games or 60 games this season.

    To avoid being misled by hedonic treadmill confounders, in thinking about progress it’s best to rely most heavily on revealed preference. If a time machine allowed people to migrate across time, I suspect (though admittedly can’t prove) that we would see more net migration towards the future/present than towards the past. I have no idea what would happen to suicide rates or subjective evaluations of NYC’s skyline.

  49. Gravatar of BC BC
    1. December 2019 at 02:20

    “There’s a reason why old people are annoyingly reactionary.”

    Actually, my observation of people older than me is that they are reactionary mainly because they are set in their ways. In contrast, people younger than me find my generation reactionary mainly because we have learned a lot from experience that young people seem ignorant of.

  50. Gravatar of MarkW MarkW
    1. December 2019 at 06:53

    “Intertemporal comparisons also seem dubious. Younger people (which is most people for a 64-year old like me) seem excessively fastidious.”

    My kids don’t. But one of them spent a couple of in South America, and both of them have done a fair bit of ‘dirtbag’ traveling.

    “Just having iPhones makes us more impatient, less able to enjoy life’s simpler pleasures.”

    I find that a smart phone makes it easier to enjoy simpler pleasures. My wife and I love to hike in the back country. Smart-phones have made it much easier to discover places to go, to drive to trail-heads, and to head off the main trails without worrying about getting lost. Also, I’ve been an amateur photographer since I was a teen with a basement dark-room. I usually carry a fancier camera when hiking, but not always, and current smart phones can take glorious photos under the right conditions. When I think about the amount of time (and money) it used to take to print a few black-and-white 8x10s in the dark room, clicking through 60″ ‘enlargements’ on our 4K TV (which were automatically uploaded and stored for free) is miraculous.

    “The issue is whether you would have enjoyed life in the 1960s, or the 1860s, when no one had iPhones, and no one even knew they existed.”

    I was a kid in the 60s and 70s and I did enjoy life. But not, I think, as much as my own kids enjoyed theirs in the 90s and 2000s. I think about car trips in the family station wagon — the tedium, the squabbling, the threats to turn the car around. That didn’t happen with our kids — our vehicles were so much more comfortable and there was much more to keep them entertained. So we took them on many more trips than my parents could endure with me & my siblings. Also in the 60s and 70s, I lived in a suburban neighborhood with a bunch of kids and we were pretty bored a lot of the time in the summers. I remember big groups of us sitting on a wide front porch on hot summer days sometimes wondering what to do after we’d worn out our welcome with the last mom willing to tolerate us hanging out in the basement. If I was given the chance to choose between a 60s-70s childhood and a 90s-00s childhood, I’d take the later.

    “We’d spend an hour or two at the end of each workday, up on the roof chatting as the sun went down over Lake Mission Viejo. I enjoyed talking with him far more than I’d enjoy talking with an intellectual about public policy.”

    If you like building better than Bora Bora, then do more of the one and less of the other. I also have a desk job and a bit of construction background when I was young. In my spare time, I’ve built shelves, and decks, and a little wooden boat. Dug a french drain. Rebuilt a stone wall. Laid tile and flooring. Designed and built bits of furniture. And a bunch of these, BTW, were internet-assisted (getting ideas and suggestions from various forums and youtube videos)

    As for the hedonic treadmill — you don’t have to ride it! It’s not that difficult to hop off. Yes, it’s pretty easy to go through life not noticing the everyday miracles around you, but it’s also pretty easy TO notice if you bother. Sometimes I wonder, for example, who the first person in history was to enjoy a hot shower (I love hot showers)? Or to sleep in a bed as comfortable as mine? Or to have a house with bug screens and a fan (let alone A/C) in the summer?

    I have to say, you kind of sound like you need a vacation (though obviously not in Bora Bora). You mentioned camping positively in passing — do you still do that? We’re headed back here in January and — if history is a guide — will enjoy it immensely (BTW, one of the nice things about this particular remote site in the desert is…there’s actually pretty good data coverage).

  51. Gravatar of Cameron Blank Cameron Blank
    1. December 2019 at 07:49

    “America is far cleaner and more germ free than in the 1960s. But I don’t notice people getting fewer colds.”

    I don’t think we are cleaner in a way that prevents colds. Cleaning surfaces and hand washing might prevent cold virus transmission slightly, but wearing masks would more plausibly prevent transmission.

    That’s not to say I wouldn’t be persuaded by data against this theory, I’m just not aware of any data that compares cold frequency by location or over time.

  52. Gravatar of dtoh dtoh
    1. December 2019 at 08:09


    You said,
    “OK, but that means heroin addicts are making smart decisions.”

    Not necessarily. You’re equating your definition of “smart” with someone else’s utility.

  53. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    1. December 2019 at 08:31

    BC, Does revealed preference apply to heroin addicts?

    You second comment is very, very funny. Good one.

    Mark, I usually need a vacation right after I return from a vacation, not now. My life is actually not very stressful at all, and I get plenty of vacations (I’m off to New Zealand next). Don’t make the mistake of confusing philosophical positions with personality.
    This post is mostly based on how happy people seemed to me when I was young, and how happy they seem today. I don’t see any change.

    Kids don’t seem happier today, but who knows?

    I enjoying doing home improvement projects around the house, but for me it’s mostly simple things like gardening, painting and patching cracks. I’m pretty clumsy.

    dtoh, Then I guess I don’t see your point. I thought you were arguing for revealed preference.

  54. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    1. December 2019 at 08:40

    “This post is mostly based on how happy people seemed to me when I was young, and how happy they seem today. I don’t see any change.”

    But you went back in time beyond the 1960s to 1919 and 1819 to argue people were probably as happy.

  55. Gravatar of Phil H Phil H
    1. December 2019 at 09:01

    My best guess on what progress is is that it’s what John Rawls said: slowly building a society that we’re not scared to bring a child into, whatever they’re like. That means eliminating risk, and that’s what most progress has been. I find watching parents instructive: they say they know that screen time is bad, but they give kids TV and iPads all the time because it’s safe. Vaccines, welfare, airbags, democracy… they all reduce the brute chances of you dying.
    The rise in suicide does seem like the first thing that might cause a rethink of progress.

  56. Gravatar of Miro Miro
    1. December 2019 at 09:11

    Interesting post, Scott! I can hear some echoes of Derek Parfit’s argument for utilitarianism in your discussion of personal identity vs mental states.

  57. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    1. December 2019 at 12:10

    Todd, I extrapolated, partly based on the impression I get reading old novels.

    Phil, In poor countries like Mali people feel very good about bringing lots of children into the world. In rich countries like South Korea . . . not so much. But when Korea was as poor as Mali (in 1960) they also had huge families.

    Miro, Thanks, I need to read Parfit sometime.

  58. Gravatar of Tom Jackson Tom Jackson
    1. December 2019 at 14:45

    I am about Scott’s age (I’m 62) and I’m struck by how technology has improved my life. I used to have to spend a lot of time tracking down books by favorite authors, saving up money to buy record albums by musical artists I liked, etc. Now it’s almost too easy to read anything I want or stream anything I feel like listening to. I don’t miss eight track tape players at all.

    All of my other hobbies seem much easier, too, thanks to the Internet. I used to be a big fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers; to read anything about them, I used to have to go to the store to buy copies of the Sporting News. Now there’s endless stuff on the Internet about any sports team out there.

    I spend a lot of time feeling envious of young people, as in many ways their lives seem better than mine was when I was in my 20s.

  59. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    1. December 2019 at 18:23


    lots to agree with here but always with a tinge of “yes but”.

    I’ve had the privilege of living through some pretty extreme variations in human experience. Spending some years as a kid in Burkina Faso, for example, in the 70s, must have cone pretty close to a ca. 1850 experience in, say, England. Yes, antibiotics already existed, but phones (land lines) were pretty useless and rare, no TV to speak of, no A/C initially, water supply came on and off at random, we all nearly died of very painful infectious diseases in the first year, I went to a local school where kids were brutally spanked, dead goats putrefying on the streets, and what have you. Yet everyone seemed happy overall (careful this may also be an illusion – a lot of survivorship bias here). Most importantly though, I was happy, eventually. Now I live in Singapore, the pinnacle of material progress, and of course I am not one iota happier. Between the two I lived in LA for some time where I was at my most unhappiest.

    In fact I can still remember in 1977 when I arrived in Burkina Faso, my first thought was “how can people live in this way” – the lack of even basic amenities, the dirt, what have you. But I quickly changed my mind and found that, as long as you have friends to hang out with and decent food, you actually don’t need much else. Much later when I first landed in LA, again I had the exact same thought – “how can people live in this way”: the social isolation, the paranoia, the void in human values. Once again, after a while, you get used to it. But I only ever got to the stage of absence of pain in LA, never to actual happiness.

    My take is, thanks to material progress, life has become much easier and painless, including, less boring in its empty parts (thanks, smartphones!) But, there has been no emotional progress, quite frankly, there has been rather a regression in emotional and affective experiences. That’s because people want human contact way more than they need stuff, or even life. I’m sure you heard of the experiments with Rhesus monkeys, where babies grown in isolation from their mothers, would rather have a cuddly doll than food. Humans need other humans and daily challenge.

    Part of why progress worked but we don’t care, is because the world has become more WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic). This was a precondition of material success – WEIRD means, less tribal, less personal, less emotional, and so the mechanic of material progress work their charm. But that’s not what makes people happy. People don’t need “easy”. People need challenge. And other people. Emotions make people happy. And WEIRD kills human contact, tribalism, and emotions. Not to forget: less emotional ups and downs too, which create the necessary contrast. Let’s take war as an example. Quite a few people remember their wartime experiences very fondly: there is a mix of carefree lulls and horrifically intense emotions, cameraderie, and the closeness of death makes you enjoy life so much more. And you get this tribal experience that humans crave so much.

    Mind you I’m not advocating war of course. I am pointing out that material progress is just a painkiller. Other than that, it is orthogonal to what creates happiness – human bonds under challenging conditions. “Progress” as we know it works mainly through removing material problems. More worrisome, I have often wondered to what extent the exact same conditions that foster material progress are the ones that make the world bland and emotionally insipid.

    Modern life means, less challenge, less contrast between pain and pleasure, and less human affect in our lives. We live longer but we stop caring about it.

  60. Gravatar of Collin Collin
    2. December 2019 at 07:43

    The standard view is that this is due to hard times in Middle America.

    Still could be right. For the most part, the US has always been very hard for people are failures and what we are seeing is WWC in Rust Belt dropping economic classes which is very hard to do. (And remember Trump won the older WWC wanting this for their families more than 24 WWC that never lived in this past factory town.) So on paper WWC and Hispanic-Americans working class are similar with income levels but a good portion of the Hi-Am are improving class for their children and the Rust Belt WWC are seeing a number of the young people drop in class. (So the WWC wants the return of their histories instead of moving to California to pick seasonal agricultural.)

  61. Gravatar of Patrick Holmes Patrick Holmes
    2. December 2019 at 09:52

    For me the most important part of progress is reduced mortality, especially child mortality. Next is adult lifespan and quality of life. All seem vastly improved over the long haul 200+ years). If they don’t seem improved over the last decade or three, I put that down to short term variations. I try not to let the short term variations cloud the big picture of progress. It would be a shame to terminate the long term improvements because of some short term fluctuations that we can’t see past.

    In other areas besides lifespan, we have (over the long term) far better communication, travel, entertainment, healthcare, safety, reductions in violent crime–I am having a hard time thinking of any part of life that has not improved.

    On a larger geographical scale, we have a couple of billion people moving from subsistence living to industrial and service living. This is one of the biggest eras of human improvement ever. There is still plenty of poverty and child mortality. For already-rich westerners to question the system that made them rich and that is bringing about this enrichment to the rest of the world is foolish.

    The author’s arguments themselves seem to target the idea that happiness is subjective and “gains” in happiness are fleeting as we get used to the advances and ask, “What have you done for me *lately*?” And some studies do show that people adjust to their situation in terms of how happy they are. But so what? Any person would prefer to live with our modern advances than without them. I don’t think the author adequately refutes that idea. Humans will always, unavoidably adjust to their situation. It’s how we adapted and survived as a species. It is a built-in feature.

  62. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    2. December 2019 at 10:42

    Tom, You said:

    “I spend a lot of time feeling envious of young people, as in many ways their lives seem better than mine was when I was in my 20s.”

    I see that too. But they don’t seem happier. Why not?

    mbka. Great comment. Shorter version: Modern life is a drug.

    (I presume you’ve read The End of History?)

    Collin, The economic explanation is too easy. Prosperous New Hampshire is one of the hardest hit states in the opioid epidemic.

    I can’t even imagine wanting to commit suicide because I was earning less than I hoped to. Is money really that important?

    Patrick, Not sure how your comment relates to my post. I don’t need people to give me lots of examples of how things have improved. I’m not stupid.

  63. Gravatar of Trommul Trommul
    2. December 2019 at 11:07

    The experience of pain is very subjective. I do yoga, and continue to be amazed by how many very healthy-looking 20/early 30s-something women attend yoga because they say it helps relieve their physical pain. Obviously they might be exaggerating for social reasons when they say they wouldn’t be able to move without yoga, but many complain about bad back, bad knees, hip pain, debilitating conditions that most people would associate with someone at least 45 years old. I don’t know if young people now have a lower threshold for experiencing discomfort/pain as debilitating rather than a fleeting inconvenience or mildly irritating the way a 20-something would have in 1985, or that something about the way we have been raising or feeding our kids over the past 30 years has made them less physically strong (rather than simply less psychologically resilient).

  64. Gravatar of msgkings msgkings
    2. December 2019 at 11:38


    It’s not the money per se that increases suicides of despair. It’s the loss of self esteem that comes with not being able to work productively (not just a little less money, more like going from earning a decent wage to nothing or close to it), with watching your dead-end town keep dying, with entering middle age and seeing nothing in your life to be proud of. Seems pretty obvious why an economically declining region would have more despair than the opposite.

  65. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    2. December 2019 at 11:57

    No one is more effusive in their praise of this blog than me – I’ve learned – aspirationally, of course, not necessarily in reality, I could be fooling myself – so much from it, and find almost every post to have some sort of worthwhile nugget or two. (And it’s all so well written, despite the occasional false claims otherwise).

    But every now and then we get a real head-scratcher. I must be missing something, but what? Help me out, man! (Or not, as you so choose).

    Point 2. “If we are making so much progress, why do deaths of despair keep rising?”

    First of all, don’t we have to establish that “deaths of despair” do, in any meaningful sense, “keep rising?” I get the whole idea, but are we really supposed to just accept it, unconditionally?

    I notice you don’t link to one of those FRED graphs with “deaths of despair” on the vertical axis. Right away I suspect a weakness in the concept….

    How often does Tyler C. link to or adduce something that makes some sort of “do we really understand what is going on” or mildly de-bunkish type of point? About once a week? Okay, not that often. But still…. Here’s the most recent one, I think:

    Okay, let’s say we think there’s something to this whole thing with falling life expectancy, drug use, suicide rates, “despair” and so on. Has this blog had anything useful to say about that, before? Of course! I would say a good starting point vis-v-vis “despair” as it’s commonly understood would be a detailed examination of and/or understanding of the historical workings of the labor market.

    Isn’t this blog all over that? How the Fed has been dealing with its “dual mandate” over the past 75 years or so?

    I can understand the idea that if you have an economy that runs its labor market (in concert with other bureaucratic and/or policy odds and ends) in such a way as to allow or incentivize more idleness among the labor force, or among certain segments of the labor force, yes, you’ll get more of something that has “despair”-like aspects in some sense.

    “They say the number one killer of old people is retirement. People got ’em a job to do, they tend to live a little longer so they can do it.” (Budd, _Kill Bill_).

    Of course you still have to untangle the “despair” bits from the “anti-despair” bits, since especially as soon as you start talking about “despair” you’re talking about something that can, seemingly, arise from either deprivation or from affluence. Or maybe not from either, or from anywhere that we can translate easily into some sort of public policy Power Points. Right? (Right? Don’t we all know this? Don’t we read novels that remind of this? Aren’t novels in general – or at least many of the best ones – just a gloss on “we are born into sorrow as the sparks fly upwards?” Not to mention films, maybe to a lesser extent, but not to no extent, especially some of the true greats like Bresson and Ozu.)

    So to me anything less than a full-blown Scott Alexander “let’s take this apart and examine it from every angle” blog post, which really would be way too much for even him, I think – it would just keep going and going, splintering into a thousand dead alleys of incomplete or missing data – is completely pointless. Why even bring it up?

    By the way, when I went to the Wikipedia “Suicide in the United States” article, I was expecting something more dramatic. Yes, suicide rates are in general, “rising,” but rising as in “rising very gently” for the most part. The big exception is non-Hispanic whites since 2000.

    Of course who knows exactly how accurate the underlying data is, how classification of various deaths changes over time and so on, but what are we to make of a “despair” issue that afflicts white people so much more than black people?

    To me a good example of a “death of despair” is a young black man being shot by another black man in a drug deal gone awry. Season 4 or 5 of The Wire. But on that FRED graph that doesn’t exist, this wouldn’t be counted.

    A bad example of a “death of despair” is a young white man, whose parents had a combined average annual income of over $125,000 over the past decade, dying as a result of injecting fentanyl. On that FRED graph, this would be counted. It’s ridiculous.

    Yes, it’s a death and it’s just as tragic in its own way as the other death, but the word “despair” is only being used to lie to me. I don’t like being lied to! (But I notice that people seem to care a lot more about some lies than others – some lies butter the right parsnips, as it were).

    (I should hasten to add that this blog is generally a “no lie zone,” as it were – one of its many features).

    (Note: some of the kids in my high school graduating class took all kinds of drugs, at least one had some sort of “chemical lobotomy,” but heroin was definitely not in fashion, as I understand it, nor were dangerous types of heroin around, hence less “despair,” I am gratified to know).

    Anyway, if I never see the term “deaths of despair” again, it won’t be too soon. Do we really know that “despair,” in *any* meaningful or insightful sense, has really been rising in the US over time? I say the null hypothesis, “no,” has most decisively NOT yet been rejected.

    Some things ARE rising, things we can measure, like obesity, income, single-parent families, labor-force non-participation rates for some groups, fentanyl deaths, usage rates for some drugs, urban/rural shifts in job opportunities, etc.

    And what is unquestionably on the upsurge is a certain “negative” take – on both the left and right – about what all this means. (Not that I have a FRED graph for this, but forget about that – CITHOSM). I think it’s pretty common for a certain mediocre type of right-winger, sometimes trying to not-so-subtly defend Trump, who likes to bring up the “despair” thing and hit you with it like a stick. “Here’s why Trump won!” But it’s also common for mediocre left-wingers to make similar points – “here’s why Capitalism sucks!” On both the left and right, I see “despair” as a concept (like so many of the “isms”) employed not to shed light, to tell truths, but keep the light out, to tell lies.

    So it bugs me, I guess. What does “despair” even really mean, if it’s not a universal thing? The “born into sorrow” thing, again?

    Take a particular case where “despair” and “suffering” are always very much prevalent in our society – bullying among children of Junior High School age. Does this tend to rise over time, or fall, or neither? I’d say neither, but certainly in the short run it can look like it’s rising or falling, as various interventions (“we can’t give the rock-heads hacks any more, their rock-head parents will sue the district”) can raise or lower the price in certain ways. But the underlying supply and demand factors are basically constant, aren’t they? The human condition doesn’t change that fast, does it? If so, I think we’re getting dangerously close to Marxian balderdash about the potential of improving social outcomes….

    Hmmm, I was going to go on to some of the other points, but I think I’ve used up my time, and no doubt the patience of the blogger and/or any blog comment readers desperate enough for things to fill their time as to have made it this far. (My goal is to be just as annoying as some of the other commenters, only with < 2 or 3% as many total comments).

    Okay, point 3 doesn't cover enough ground, I think you should expand that one, and make it even less intelligible. (I'm trying to be funny, sorry).

  66. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    2. December 2019 at 17:44


    agree, modernity is a drug. To be precise, a painkiller – and this is valuable in itself. But as much as ibuprofen does wonders for toothache, in and by itself it does not create happiness. You can’t go back because, who would want to go back to the toothache? (and the child mortality and dying at 45?) And now you sit there without the toothache and wonder, now what, this is boring, why even live?

    And I keep forgetting, and keep trying to remember, how much happier I was under so much less ideal conditions. It feels so unbelievable once you get to “better” conditions, that anything else is even livable. But it is, because you get compensated. Yet I am surrounded by people who have felt absence of pain but I suspect, never happiness.

    I am a big fan of the work of the late Jaak Panksepp. He worked on what he called “affective consciousness”. In brief, he concludes that humans (and other mammals) have a small number of affective modules that underlie emotions and the will to live. Of importance here are the “seeking” affect and the “panic/attachment” affects: “seeking” is basic curiosity and drive to live, and is never satisfied by finding what you were looking for (it is not like hunger, that can be satiated – it is our endless curiosity). It is stimulated by drugs such as cocaine or crystal meth. The “attachment” affect drives us to close bonds with others, and to panic when feeling left out or alone, especially when feeling left out from family. This feeling of panic and isolation is soothed by opioids.

    Now if you put 2 and 2 together, you get a picture of why the WEIRD world feels so deeply less satisfying than, say, mayhem and civil war fought in a proverbial band of brothers. And what our most attractive drugs would be. We need that seeking for solutions and we can’t stand worlds where everything is too easy or when we lose that drive for other reasons. And we need deep emotional bonds with a few fellow humans or we feel dreadfully alone. WEIRD worlds are notoriously bad at sustaining either. Liberalism is built on the idea of individuality and individual striving, at the cost of bonds we give up when we move away for that better job, education, and the like. And it creates worlds of abundance and sameness where meaningful seeking becomes harder and harder to sustain.

    And of course that is also why opioids and cocaine/methamphetamine should predictably be so attractive. They are the drugs that fulfill the most unmet needs of the Western world.

  67. Gravatar of TGGP TGGP
    2. December 2019 at 20:00

    You forgot to provide the actual link regarding Finland and Japan.

    The acceptability of dueling makes sense to me. Better to have structured violence that both parties to a conflict agree to than someone unilaterally deciding to do it to another, prompting unrestrained retaliation.

  68. Gravatar of peri peri
    3. December 2019 at 06:59

    I remember sometime in the past 20 years, the NYT reported on a rural area in China whose residents had been forcibly “urbanized”. They moved them into an apartment tower. (I am not sure if that was in the middle of nowhere and meant to seed a new urban area, or what.) The CPC then turned one of the local farms into a “museum of the past” which they had been living in up until that moment. I don’t know that we would even have heard this story except for the framing, which was the litany of suicides among the mostly-idle residents (the younger ones played a lot of video games) of the housing project. [No, I have no proof, no graph, showing that this represented a real increase, versus a perceived one; it will have to be enough that the story made intuitive sense to people both Chinese and American.]

    I have here a ringbound mimeographed cookbook – “What’s Cookin’ on High Prairie” – given to me by an elderly aunt upon my marriage. It was the work of her club. The first page says “The High Prairie Improvement club was organized in December 1932 at the High Prairie schoolhouse. The club motto is “NEVER FAIL TO TRY”. The club color is blue. Each member through the years has tried to live up to the club motto. We enjoy our club and have many good times such as: picnics, ladies day out, Christmas party and many other activities. We have a devotional at each meeting, a good lesson, and games. We have learned many useful things …”

    Interspersed with recipes for Tuna-Biscuit Bake and Liver Casserole and “Wacky Cake” and Vinegar Pie are such nuggets of wisdom as: “Life is 10% what you make it and 90% how you take it”; “You’ve reached middle age when all you exercise is caution”; “Happiness consists in activity – it is a running stream, not a stagnant pool”; and “Blessed is the person who is too busy to worry in the daytime, and too tired at night.”

    Anyway, that was the thinking of a bunch of women familiar with work, of presumably very ordinary mental gifts, whatever that’s worth. It made me smile at the time, but life has not supplied me with any better aphorisms.
    I have noticed that my husband is only made really happy by achievement, not busyness for its own sake, and that even that has a short half-life; but I’m not sure he’s representative. Still, it would surprise me if one could speak of the factors leading to happiness without any reference to gender.

  69. Gravatar of Michael Rulle Michael Rulle
    3. December 2019 at 09:48

    I think I generally agree. But this is a tough one, nevertheless. In grad school I wrote a masters thesis on Dostoevsky. What struck me most about his writings had very little to do with what he is known for. Rather, I was basically amazed that some guy who was Russian, writing 130 years earlier, seemed to be writing about the same world I lived in half way around the world 130 years later. It was just so familiar. Read Mark Twain—same thing. However, one thing that struck me to counter that was how many children died.

    It seemed every family had at least one child who died—-in fact, most seemed to have multiple deaths. I would think—“were they used to it and had less pain”?–or was it just horrible? Don’t know.

    I agree on the physical nature of things—we cannot miss what we don’t know about—hence–no one gave a damn about iphones.

    Another thing I like to do is watch old movies—and engage in the same ruminations. Bottom line—-behind the different fantasies of then versus now one observes the same kind of people who are here today. So when I watch Bette Davis in “Dangerous” in 1935—yes the story lines are different—-the moral messages are geared for their time—-but it just feels remarkably like today.

    I watch Alfred Hitchcock’s very long running TV show —-hundreds of 22 minute “plays” made from 1955-1963 (about)—and they had cars, radios in cars, music, TVs, news, personal problems—like today.

    You could go to libraries and get info—-newspapers etc.

    Even religion was not much different. Almost everyone went to Church 150 years ago—-but I am not sure the level of belief was much different than today. Nietzsche “God is Dead” pronouncement was a comment on that observation.

    Your view is quite gloomy, however. I am not sure it is unwarranted—but its gloomy still. You do not speak of love or hope—perhaps that is not your topic—but utilitarianism–as I understand it—is a short little jump from Nihilism.

  70. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    3. December 2019 at 09:55

    This is one of the most hilarious posts you’ve ever done. I like how it’s impossible to draw a conclusion from it. I especially like the stories at the end.

    Also, don’t forget that at some point we’ll probably be replacing troublesome sections of our brains that cause nostalgia: either with electronic equivalents or through genetic engineering.

  71. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    3. December 2019 at 10:10

    Do you have a place right on the lake with your own boat dock?

  72. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    3. December 2019 at 11:55

    “What about progress made by formerly oppressed groups like blacks and women, and more recently gays and lesbians? I consider this the single strongest argument for progress. But even on the cultural front there are setbacks.”

    Why not just at from the point of view of the choices people make?

    Throughout history, many people in many places have been slaves. As I understand it, typically if offered the chance to not be a slave, they took it. Often they took great risks to be non-slaves. So obviously the eradication of slavery was progress, certainly.

    And so on down the line. Women wanted to have more choices, and now they have them. Escaping the Malthusian Trap has given us all more choices.

    “But even on the cultural front there are setbacks.”

    No kidding. But so what? Does the noise change the nature of the signal?

  73. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    3. December 2019 at 12:12

    “Novelists are some of the keenest observers of life as it is actually lived. Are people in 21st century novels experiencing a happier life than those in 20th or 19th century novels?”

    Well, first of all, are you talking about 21st century novels that people actually read, like James Patterson novels? Or are you talking about the highbrow stuff?

    Let’s say the best novels being written today are these diaristic things like Knausgaard and Ferrante. Of course as novels become more and more like “real life,” you should expect more of a “flat affect,” where observing the “people” in them is more like observing the people in them we meet in our own lives.

    19th-century novels, like Dickens or Trollope or Flaubert or the Brontes (using examples I have at least some familiarity with) don’t have “people,” they have “characters.”

    The “characters” in these older works don’t necessarily seem any happier or less happy to me than the characters or people in more modern, more realistic novels, say 20th-century novels by the likes of Nabokov or Anthony Powell or Faulkner. The novelists in both cases are more concerned with the choices the characters are making, which can be good choices or bad choices, but not necessarily choices that will make them happy or unhappy.

  74. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    3. December 2019 at 12:48

    “But I’m one of those rare people who don’t believe in personal identity, just a flow of mental states.”

    If you really want to argue against progress, consider how people today can become absorbed with ideas like this one. Meanwhile 3000 years ago some Jewish shepherds came up with Job and Ecclesiastes, timeless commentaries on the human condition that are actually meaningful and can tell us something.

    Obviously “there is nothing new under the sun,” and “we are born into sorrow as the sparks fly upwards,” we’re just humans and there’s nothing we can do about that. Does that mean that we would be happier to live as pre-modern Inuits, or that that pre-modern Inuits would be happier to live as us? I’m guessing this is a pointless question – or it’s a coin flip.

    I’m guessing a pre-modern Inuit would experience far more natural beauty than us, and notice it more. Lots of visual artistic experience. They have their own crafts, and stories, and songs – surely they’ve selected them reasonably well. Fish and seal may get tiresome after awhile, but maybe there are nuances to a diet where things are the same all the time that we can’t appreciate.

    They may experience more intense friendships, due to the need to truly rely on one another. Probably an Inuit, once he learned English, could, if doing the NYT Crossword and being given the clue “person you enjoy talking to” and the letters “F_I__D,” could get the answer more quickly than, say, er, I’ve forgotten who I was going to point to here, probably some rootless cosmopolitan person. And maybe better romantic relationships, as the balance between the “intoxication of new love” and teh “drudgery of married life” and the shared interest in the children may be healthier or ultimately be experienced more positively in those sorts of societies. I dunno, have anthropologists tried to answer this? (Like a lot of things raised in this post, it seems ultimately an empirical question, but not necessarily an empirical question for which I think anyone would ever have much confidence in what the data could tell us).

  75. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    3. December 2019 at 14:20

    anon, You said:

    “By the way, when I went to the Wikipedia “Suicide in the United States” article, I was expecting something more dramatic.”

    If you added drug overdose deaths then the data would look much more “dramatic”.

    I agree that “despair” is a somewhat fishy concept. But it’s one of many data points that cast doubt on the idea that society is becoming happier.

    mbka, Good points. I once knew a women who went through a very difficult and life-threatening illness when only about 30 years old. After she recovered she said that life felt incredibly good.

    peri, Yes, good examples.

    Michael, You said:

    “You do not speak of love or hope—perhaps that is not your topic—but utilitarianism”

    Love and hope? Aren’t those the two biggest providers of utility?

    Tom, Yes, the HOA has a dock, but I’m not a boater. My house is on a hill with a nice view. The houses on the lake cost twice as much, but I prefer the view. I’m a looker, not a doer.

    Anon, On slavery, check out my follow-up post. I think liberalism is more conducive to happiness than other systems.

  76. Gravatar of Tom Brown Tom Brown
    4. December 2019 at 10:31

    Looker vs doer: I’ve lived in the Santa Barbara area since 1984, and 20 years in my current house, which is a short walk to the ocean. In all that time I’ve never owned any kind of sea going vessel: boat, surfboard, paddle board, … nothing. I guess I’m a watcher too. However, a year and a half ago I bought a drone: one with goggles that lets you really get an experience of flying. I’ve had so much fun watching other people have fun in the water (surfing, sailing, etc) that I’ve decided to take the plunge and buy an inflatable kayak: $85 for everything you need, and it easily fits in the trunk of my car. I have yet to try it though. (They were on sale for $50 on Monday BTW). Especially since I’ve been seeing Great White sharks here with the drone. I guess I just felt the urge to be out in the ocean vulnerable to razor sharp teeth. Here’s a 1 min video I took recently showing an unwitting paddle boarder pass right over one: Enjoy!

  77. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    4. December 2019 at 11:00

    “I agree that “despair” is a somewhat fishy concept. But it’s one of many data points that cast doubt on the idea that society is becoming happier.”

    I think the real problem with this formulation is the idea that “many data points” can cast doubt on the idea that society is becoming happier.

    If Donald Trump was giving a speech, and he told the crowd that US Auto just announced they’re not closing their plant in Poughkeepsie, and then said “this is one of many data points that show that manufacturing jobs are not disappearing,” we would immediately see the faulty reasoning.

    If manufacturing jobs are in a long-run decline, of course we will always observe this or that “data point” to the contrary, as manufacturing jobs in this or that sector or in this or that company or in this or that week go up.

    Now, you might say, well, with manufacturing jobs, we have BLS statistics that measure this quite well, so we don’t have to rely on “data points,” we can observe the big picture. With societal happiness, we don’t have a Bureau of Hedonic Statistics, and so we have to rely on some assemblage of “data points.”

    So we go up to Fred, our co-worker, and ask, “Hey Fred, how’s it hanging,” and he gives us a glum look, boom? – data point that casts doubt on the idea that society is getting happier?


    You can’t just cherry pick things – no matter how big of a deal they may seem, at the time – and then say “society seems to getting happier” or “society is getting unhappier.” Society is either getting happier or it isn’t, but at any one point in time you’re going to have a massive number of “data points” pointing in each direction. Maybe Fred will smile next time.

    And anyway, the point is well taken that “happiness” is just a relative and/or meaningless concept. Life as a pre-modern Inuit was brought up to reinforce this point, or so I thought. I don’t think I was just blathering about that – I was trying to argue, in my usual poor fashion, that yes, we really have no idea whether we, any of us or some of us or all of us, would be happier if that was our life. And it’s even hard to know what aspects of life would be better or worse in some other type of life, we can speculate this way and that way but who can be sure?

    I thought the point of the Inuits was “the Inuits tell us something about happiness being a meaningless concept” not “the Inuits tell us something meaningful about happiness.”

  78. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    4. December 2019 at 22:26

    Tom, I’ve thought about getting a kayak.

    anon, If happiness is meaningless then the argument that progress is good becomes even weaker. What’s the point?

  79. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    5. December 2019 at 00:53

    The underlying problem is that we are (the only?) animal that realizes that we are going to die and that life has no “higher” purpose. That can be really depressing.

    But this has nothing to do with the question if there is progress or not. That’s just the wrong question. I’m normally not like this but I think what Scott wrote is a typical “white male text”. I don’t think most women or minority groups would wonder if there really was progress compared to the Stone Age, the 1950s, or even the 1980s.

  80. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    5. December 2019 at 11:26

    “If happiness is meaningless then the argument that progress is good becomes even weaker. What’s the point?”

    Of course “meaningless” wasn’t the right word. “Difficult?” “Unintelligible?” “Paradoxical?” “Elusive?”

    It’s better if people lead happier lives rather than unhappier lives – or at least it’s better for us, if we truly wish this were so.

    And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. (C. 1 verse 17)

    For in much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. (C. 1 verse 18)

    I made me great works; I builded me houses; I planted me vineyards … etc etc … I gat me men singers and women singers, and the delights of the sons of men, as musical instruments… (C. 2 verses 4 – 8)

    Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought … etc. … and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and here was no profit under the sun. (C. 2 verse 11)

    Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better. (C. 7 verse 3)

    The heart of the wise is the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. (C. 7 verse 4)

    Of course the authors of Ecclesiastes say one thing, then they say another, who knows what they were trying to say? I’m not claiming any great insight into their thinking, myself, I just think pretty much everything you can say on this general topic, that’s worth saying, is there.

    If anyone has ever said anything that hits the mark better than “sorrow is better than laughter, for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better,” I’d like to know what it is. Also if anyone thinks this isn’t a great theme and/or effect of almost every great novel, I think they should either learn to read better or read some better ****in’ novels. (That may be a tad strong; I probably haven’t thought about this enough to be making this point).

    Anyway, when I read this post it never occurred to me that progress was supposed to make us *happier.* That seems like an issue that is almost beyond understanding. Certainly it must be better if humans are striving to make other humans happier, rather than the opposite.

    My thought was something like “of course we make progress, but people are still people.”

    And progress seems like a process of accretion, where someone thinks of an idea and then the idea spreads, and things get a little better. Of course there always lots of bad ideas, so plenty of retrograde motion to observe. At any given point in time, you can point to the significance of this or that negative thing, as this post seems to want to do, but that doesn’t really tell us anything about whether we’re making progress. You have to look at everything, or nothing. The big picture seems reasonably clear to me, but maybe I’m just an incurable optimist.

    (Also I like to react – perhaps mindlessly – against faulty reasoning by others, as when “negativity” and “seriousness” are mindlessly conflated, as they so often are. I think Tyler C. has done a service by introducing the term “mood affiliation,” though in his use of it I’m not always sure I understand what he’s getting at).

  81. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    5. December 2019 at 13:33


    TC found out that there is something called confirmation bias and renamed it “mood affiliation”, acting as if it is something relevantly new — not his strongest intellectual work.

  82. Gravatar of Postkey Postkey
    14. December 2019 at 01:14

    So far, so good?
    “The IPCC report that the Paris agreement based its projections on considered over 1,000 possible scenarios. Of those, only 116 (about 10%) limited warming below 2C. Of those, only 6 kept global warming below 2C without using negative emissions. So roughly 1% of the IPCC’s projected scenarios kept warming below 2C without using negative emissions technology like BECCS. And Kevin Anderson, former head of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, has pointed out that those 6 lone scenarios showed global carbon emissions peaking in 2010. Which obviously hasn’t happened.
    So from the IPCC’s own report in 2014, we basically have a 1% chance of staying below 2C global warming if we now invent time travel and go back to 2010 to peak our global emissions. And again, you have to stop all growth and go into decline to do that. And long term feedbacks the IPCC largely blows off were ongoing back then too.”
    ‘Limiting global warming to two degrees Celsius will not prevent destructive and deadly climate impacts, as once hoped, dozens of experts concluded in a score of scientific studies released Monday.
    A world that heats up by 2C (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit)—long regarded as the temperature ceiling for a climate-safe planet—could see mass displacement due to rising seas, a drop in per capita income, regional shortages of food and fresh water, and the loss of animal and plant species at an accelerated speed.
    Poor and emerging countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America will get hit hardest, according to the studies in the British Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions A.
    “We are detecting large changes in climate impacts for a 2C world, and so should take steps to avoid this,” said lead editor Dann Mitchell, an assistant professor at the University of Bristol.
    The 197-nation Paris climate treaty, inked in 2015, vows to halt warming at “well under” 2C compared to mid-19th century levels, and “pursue efforts” to cap the rise at 1.5C.’
    “The new study suggests otherwise. In the Pliocene — and especially the mid-Pliocene warm period, when atmospheric carbon dioxide was at about the level where it is now, 400 parts per million, but global temperatures were 1 or 2 degrees Celsius warmer than at present — the model not only collapses the entirety of West Antarctica (driving some 10 feet of global sea-level rise) but also shows the oceans eating substantially into key parts of East Antarctica. In particular, the multi-kilometer thick ice that currently fills the extremely deep Aurora and Wilkes basins of the eastern ice sheet retreats inland for hundreds of miles — which would have driven global seas to a much higher level than a West Antarctic collapse alone.”
    Will there be change?
    “Today’s global consumption of fossil fuels now stands at roughly five times what it was in the 1950s, and one-and-half times that of the 1980s when the science of global warming had already been confirmed and accepted by governments with the implication that there was an urgent need to act. Tomes of scientific studies have been logged in the last several decades documenting the deteriorating biospheric health, yet nothing substantive has been done to curtail it. More CO2 has been emitted since the inception of the UN Climate Change Convention in 1992 than in all of human history. CO2 emissions are 55% higher today than in 1990. Despite 20 international conferences on fossil fuel use reduction and an international treaty that entered into force in 1994, manmade greenhouse gases have risen inexorably.”
    “ . . . and this year 2019
    07:53 the atmospheric carbon dioxide increase
    07:56 rate was the highest that it’s ever been . . . “

  83. Gravatar of Itai Bar-Natan Itai Bar-Natan
    23. March 2020 at 20:44

    For your point #5 to make sense, it is not enough to reconceptualize human lives in terms of moments of experience, you also have to be an average utilitarian with respect to moments of experience. Under a total utilitarian viewpoint it is preferable to have additional life-years as long as they are on the whole good, even if they are not as good as earlier years. In fact, under total utilitarianism increases in population are more important than increases in longevity and give another form of progress. Average utilitarianism but with respect to life moments rather than lives is an unusual position; I don’t recall ever seeing someone take that stance before.

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