The Optimist

Counting Our Blessings

From Twitter to vegetarianism, 10 things to celebrate this Thanksgiving.

It's been a tough year, and one in which a lot of people around the world might be struggling to find things to be thankful for. In the United States, unemployment remains stubbornly high, growth stubbornly low, and good sense on Capitol Hill stubbornly absent. European debt, meanwhile, looks about as secure as a Las Vegas mortgage. But look more broadly at the state of the world and there's a lot going right -- so give that thanks and pass the gravy.

1. Let's start with the good news … for turkeys: Vegetarianism in the United States may have expanded by as much as two-thirds since 2009. As many as 5 percent of Americans now claim they don't eat meat. From a fowl's perspective, the cloud to that silver lining is that Americans are eating less red meat and more poultry. But the last 20 years have seen meat consumption per capita plateau in developed countries around the world, according to research from the National Institutes of Health. And some of the biggest and fastest-growing developing countries remain comparatively safe places for a gobbler: Forty percent of Indians, for instance, don't eat meat. That's good for the rest of us as well, of course -- in an age where we are trying to use the same land and fewer resources to feed a larger and more affluent global population, a diet that switches out meat for the stuff meat eats is one of the most effective tools we have.

2. People are healthier than ever. According to World Bank data, roughly two million children born this year worldwide will live to their fifth birthday who would have died were mortality rates what they were 10 years ago. And this year has seen further progress in the fight against child mortality -- not least in the effort to vaccinate children everywhere against a growing range of illnesses. A particularly exciting advance was the rollout of a new vaccine for pneumococcal diseases like pneumonia and sepsis, which kill 1.6 million people a year. One selfish reason to cheer this progress in the United States: If we contain a disease worldwide, the misguided evil of parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids against it here at home won't matter as much.

3. The world is richer than it has ever been. Even as stagnation and popular angst gripped the U.S. economy this year, a historically unprecedented decline in levels of absolute poverty continued worldwide. In 1981, half of the developing world was living on less than $1.25 a day. Today, that proportion is less than one-sixth. That's reason enough for cheer in the United States, because those richer people are new consumers of American goods. U.S. exports to the 19 fastest-growing economies worldwide over the past decade grew approximately fivefold.

4. We're getting smarter. Technological and scientific advance in the United States and other developed countries continues at a remarkable pace -- this was the year, after all, that Google premiered a robot that could attend boring meetings in your place, and we discovered 21 more planets orbiting distant stars. And never before have so many people been able to share in that knowledge. Even in Sub-Saharan Africa, the most recent statistics suggest more than three-quarters of primary-age children are enrolled in school. There's a big gap between being in class and learning the three "R's," but it is a powerful step in the right direction. And for all we talk about a crisis of education in the United States, the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress reported the highest scores since testing began in 1990.

5. We're more peaceful than we used to be. The last decade has seen fewer war deaths than any decade in the past century, as Joshua Goldstein recently observed in Foreign Policy. The United States -- embroiled as it was in two wars and continuing military activities in Iraq -- sadly, did lead the world in overseas combat deaths last year, but at least the troops have begun to come home. On the domestic front, violent crime continued its downward trend through the start of the recession -- from more than 1.8 million reported violent crimes in 1990 to 1.2 million in 2010.

6. Freedom and democracy are spreading. Tunisia went to the polls a few weeks ago, elections are still (in theory) scheduled in Egypt, and Libya has finally dealt with the Qaddafis. The road from autocracy to stable democracy is rarely free of twists and potholes, but at least large parts of the Middle East and North Africa have at last begun the journey; perhaps Burma won't be far behind. And that's good news for the United States, because democracies really do fight less often.

7. Social networking is bringing us all closer together. Tweets alone may not be responsible for the Arab Spring, but they did help organize it -- and spread news about what was happening (without YouTube, the violence in Syria would be a matter of unconfirmed reports). Meanwhile, advances in communications technologies are strengthening relationships across the globe. So, even if they can't sit down at the same table this week, the families of 214 million international migrants worldwide -- and the millions more who have moved around within their home countries -- can talk to their loved ones at a fraction of the old cost: a few cents per minute from the United States to Africa, for example, compared to dollars only a decade or so ago. And America -- a land that celebrates its immigrant heritage this week -- should be particularly happy about this; closer communications leads to more trade and investment, making people better off both here and abroad.

8. Money is not just stuck in big banks. On the strength of the same technologies, global remittances have climbed from $132 to $440 billion over the course of the past decade. With advances in mobile banking and ID technology, it is possible to directly transfer cash to more and more of the world's most disadvantaged people -- providing a straightforward way to end global poverty at an affordable price.

9. Technology really does make our lives better, and longer. 2011 was the year that research suggested we may be closing in on a powerful AIDS vaccine, that we came even closer to the global annihilation of polio, and that we learned renewable energy investment in the developing world had outstripped such investments in rich countries. Alongside strong economic growth in developing countries and the spread of peace, democracy, and learning, continued technological advances will underpin a healthier, wealthier, more stable, and more sustainable world in the years ahead.

10. And to conclude with what Thanksgiving is all about: There are more families and more people to be friends with than ever before. This year the world's population crossed the seven billion mark. That's seven billion people to share a meal with and 14 billion shoulders to cry on when the basting gets to be too much. What's more, World Values Survey data suggests this bigger global population is overwhelmingly content. In China and India, over three-quarters of the population claimed to be quite happy or very happy. In Brazil, it was 90 percent. The vast majority of the planet is glad to be here -- and we should be glad, too. To be sure, we face the challenge of moving the world onto a more sustainable path of consumption. (Do your part: skip the second helping of pumpkin pie.) But combined with the global spread of education, a larger population means there are far, far more potential geniuses like Norman Borlaug or Maurice Hilleman out there who can help create solutions to that challenge.

Give thanks this week for those near and dear to you, then, and also for a world in which there are more people who are leading a higher quality of life than ever before in recorded history. But while there are few people worldwide less fortunate today than there were last year or the year before, there are still far too many living lives of unnecessary suffering. So, before the tryptophan haze sets in, spare a thought for what you and your country can do to make the world an even better place next year.

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The Optimist

The Accidental Capitalists

Occupy Wall Street's threat of class war could be good for everyone -- rich and poor alike.

As the Occupy Wall Street protests drag on into their ninth week, the movement has spawned global "occupations" from Rome to London, Toronto to Santiago, Hong Kong to Taipei. Meanwhile, the protesters continue their calls for "democracy not corporatocracy" -- revolutionary language, even if it falls just a bit short of "eat the rich." So perhaps it is no surprise that some of those more at home with the traditional occupants of Wall Street have been quick to complain that this is just one more sign of growing class warfare.

But is the threat of conflict between the rich and the rest a good thing once in a while? Talk of class warfare rears its head when more people start thinking that the rich are rich not because of their hard work or talent but because they are lucky or because the system is stacked in their favor. That view is becoming increasingly widespread -- 75 percent of Americans back a millionaires' tax, for example. And to an extent, it's right -- not just as a matter of fairness, but as a matter of economics. A bit of redistribution might actually help make everyone -- including the rich -- better off in the long term.

Behind the protests is a growing level of frustration over the yawning income gap. The top fifth of households in the United States earn 10 times what the poorest fifth makes and more than the rest of the country combined. The incomes of the richest 1 percent are 67 times those of the poorest 20 percent of households. And over time, that gap has widened. According to the Congressional Budget Office, between 1979 and 2007, the richest 1 percent saw their after-tax incomes climb 275 percent compared with an 18 percent rise for the poorest fifth. The story is similar, if less dramatic, in other rich economies.

In the United States, a number of prominent Republicans, including House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, have responded to disquiet over this income gap by emphasizing the need for equality of opportunity for all Americans. That is surely the right focus: We want to reward both hard work and talent to ensure continued prosperity for everyone. But the evidence suggests we are a very long way from equality of opportunity in most countries, and in particular the United States. According to an analysis by economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis at the Santa Fe Institute, of children born to the poorest 10 percent of parents in the United States, more than half remain in the bottom fifth of incomes as adults.

This is a problem for everyone, rich and poor, because international evidence suggests that more equal economies grow faster. In fact, the historical evidence for the Americas, compiled in 2005 by economists Stanley Engerman and the late Kenneth Sokoloff of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) suggests that an early source of wealth in the American Northeast was a colonial farming system based around small landholders that encouraged equality and the provision of public goods -- as opposed to the plantation model used in the South and the Caribbean, which favored a small elite uninterested in representative government or widespread education. Similarly, a number of East Asian countries such as South Korea started their path toward miracle growth with land reform and broad-based education, which leveled the economic playing field. More recently, New York University economist William Easterly and others have argued that a higher share of total income for the middle class is associated with improved outcomes in health, education, stability, and growth for all. Consider the economic burden of unequal opportunity on the United States today, with 9 percent unemployment, seven-tenths of a percent of the country in prison, and 28 percent of the population without a high school diploma.

Of course, actual class warfare itself usually doesn't turn out well for any of the classes involved. But the threat of class conflict is a different matter -- it can help galvanize reforms that benefit not just the poor but the whole of society. And when people in the middle start empathizing with the poor they fear becoming, rather than the rich they dream of joining, reform movements take hold. Take British Prime Minister Earl Grey, who took time away from tea-tasting to expand the right to vote in 1832, explaining, "The Principle of my reform is to prevent the necessity of revolution. … I am reforming to preserve, not to overthrow." Faced with the threat of violence in the streets during the Great Depression, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., at the time a prominent businessman and later Franklin D. Roosevelt's Securities and Exchange Commission chairman, justified his support for the New Deal on similar grounds, writing after the fact, "[I]n those days I felt and said I would be willing to part with half of what I had if I could be sure of keeping, under law and order, the other half." He wanted Roosevelt in the White House, he suggested "for my own security, and for the security of our kids."

Kennedy was right -- Roosevelt's New Deal legislation laid the basis for recovery and sustained, equitable growth over the next 40 years. According to NBER economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, the top 10 percent of Americans' share of total national income dropped from around 45 percent in the 1930s to 32 percent in the postwar period and stayed there until the end of the 1970s. Since then, it has climbed back above 40 percent, while average income growth rates have moved in the other direction. The three decades from 1950 to 1980 saw annual per capita income grow at about 2.2 percent a year; the average rate in the 30 years since then has been nearer 1.8 percent.

If the threat of class war helps create pressure to deal with the unearned privileges of the rich and the unrealized potential of the poor, that would be a struggle of which not only Karl Marx but also Adam Smith could be proud. The unlikely class warriors of Occupy Wall Street are derided as a bunch of spoiled kids who should have better things do to than camp out in parks, and maybe that's the case. But they could also be a force for greater economic liberty and, however paradoxically, a wealthier America.

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