A lot to be thankful for and much work yet ahead of us

  • Geneva Overholser / Washington Post columnist
  • Thursday, November 23, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — It’s time to take a breather from our electoral fretting and be thankful. There’s more than enough to be thankful for — and not just in our own individual lives, as we seem inclined to think.

You know the tendency: We like our own particulars fine, but we worry about why so much around us seems to have gone to pot. Our member of Congress is a swell fellow; too bad Congress as a whole is a pit of vipers. Our kids’ school is good; what a shame the others have gotten so awful.

It’s time we did some stock-taking over this swollen store of pessimism, and Washington’s libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute, has just the tool we need — a compendium of good news called "It’s Getting Better All the Time." The book looks at "the 100 greatest trends of the last 100 years," and turns up plenty of convincing counterweights to our gloom and doom.

Take the environment, where admittedly there’s still plenty of work to be done. We should go at that work bolstered by powerful feelings of success. Air pollution in U.S. cities has been falling for three decades, says Cato. Smog levels have declined by 40 percent. Our rivers, streams and lakes are much cleaner, too.

But perhaps you’re feeling unsafe? You shouldn’t be. You probably know already that crime is down. But there are also far fewer fatal accidents — whether travel-related or at home — than a century ago. Deaths on the job have plummeted dramatically. Even deaths from natural disasters are down.

But what about our youth? Aren’t they headed toward ruination? In fact, teen drinking, smoking and drug use have declined substantially over the past decades. So has the rate of teen pregnancy.

Adults, too, are behaving more healthily in many respects. Just before the Surgeon General’s 1964 report, Americans were smoking 4,500 cigarettes a year per capita. That figure is now fewer than 2,700. Even consumption of alcohol is down, when comparing the 20th century to the 19th. And fatalities due to drunk driving have declined by 20 percent just since 1980.

Culturally, too, there’s much to cheer about. Twice as many American adults volunteer as 20 years ago. Charitable giving is higher, in real per-capita terms, than ever in history. There are more than 800 nonprofit professional theater companies in the country today, compared to 60 in 1965. Book sales have soared, and classical music is flourishing in symphonies as well as on the radio.

One of the most telling statistics, of course, is life expectancy. In 1900, it was just under 50. Today, it is 77 years. For gaining more than a quarter of a century of life, it’s hard to be grateful enough.

So why, with all these good things going on around us, do we persist in our pessimism? We media folks are of course part of the answer. As the Cato book notes, in 1998 there was not a single commercial airline crash. Yet it’s a pretty sound bet that not a single news story noted that remarkable fact with anything like the same play that every single plane crash warrants. Bad news that doesn’t happen — no matter how noteworthy its absence — just doesn’t rival bad news that does, when it comes to what we like to call news judgment.

There’s also the fact (a happier one) that we as a society have set our sights much higher. As Fortune magazine has noted, "Back in those golden ’50s, most Americans did not notice or care that one-third of the elderly and one-half of black people were destitute." Now we do notice, care, and — though things have improved dramatically — believe we can and should do more.

Then there is that old tendency to think our own good fortunes must be unusual. A Pew Research Center poll last year found that 63 percent of Americans say their own lives are better than those of their families in 1950. Yet only 44 percent say life in the U.S. improved during that period.

So maybe this is the year, as we sit down to celebrate with friends and family, to remind ourselves that our countrymen and countrywomen share our happiness in large numbers and on many fronts.

That’s a lot to be grateful for — and a lot of good fodder for the confidence we need to move on to the rest of the tasks at hand.

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