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Thursday, January 15, 2004

The Progress Paradox

Great column by George Will reviewing a new book called The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. Essentially the book tries to explain why the increase in prosperity in America is not recognized and why Americans feel as if things are getting worse. I think the authors three most important explanations include:

  • "The tyranny of the small picture." Will notes that this "preference for bad news produces a focus on smaller remaining problems". A case in point here is the daily dose of "epidemics" that we're inundated with. I think we'd all agree that what the news media refers to as epidemics look pretty tame compared to the plauge. I would also add that a 24 hour news cycle creates a fixation on these "epidemics" complete with the "here-is-the-prototype-person-in-a-tough-fix" story that implies that you're next. It is for this reason that I don't watch local news (and becaue of all the silly banter and the overemphasis on weather that wastes 15 of the 30 minutes) or network news but stay informed through the web and radio reports which are more concise and typically don't have as a high an EQ (entertainment quotient). The news cycle also magnifies the seedy and unimportant (Scott Peterson and Michael Jackson to cite two recent examples), dragging everyone down.

  • "Catalogue-induced anxiety" and "latest model syndrome". Together these produce anxiety (the "tyranny of the unncessary") to keep up with the Joneses and a decreasing happiness with the things we do possess following the law of diminishing returns. Certainly TV exploiting human nature has played the biggest role here.

  • "The cultivation of victimhood" as practiced by politicians, lawyers, and the media. I would put this one pretty high on the list because it breeds a hateful attitude towards those who have supposedly wronged you. I think this one stems directly from the disease of democracy discussed by C.S. Lewis called "I'm as good as you".


  • To these I would add the "Myth of the Golden Age". Although the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a decline in this overarching belief that humanity's best days were in the past, it may have once again asserted itself. Basically, this belief runs throughout cultures through history, most notably in the story of the Fall of Man itself. In smaller ways I think this myth leads people to be pessimistic about the future and yearn for when things were more pure, simpler, etc.

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