We really are better off

Posted: Sep 14, 2005 12:00 AM

It's easy to miss the good old days.

 Watching TV news makes people long for them. We are always ranting about the latest horror. When I asked a class of grade-school students whether what they saw on TV made them feel safe, they said, "No, no, no."

 Many worried about being kidnapped.

 "They keep on saying stuff like 'a kid got kidnapped' or something, and they start telling you everything bad."

 "Anyone could just grab me at any time."

 "A lot more kids are being kidnapped."

 They believe that because they watch the news. But the crime rate is the lowest it's been in more than 15 years, and the Justice Department says there's been no increase in kidnapping. As economist Stephen Moore, author of "It's Getting Better All the Time," puts it, "These are the safest times ever to have lived on the earth."

 Not that you'd know that from watching TV.

 "Stress kills" is a frequent feature on the morning shows. TV news tells us that Americans work themselves to death and that we're working "harder than ever." But in the old days, most Americans worked on farms. People romanticize farms but forget that the old-fashioned family farm meant backbreaking labor under a broiling sun.

 As Moore noted, "One of the reasons people left the farms was because their lives were so tough." Mines were worse, and life in factories wasn't much better. Modern jobs are "much more interesting."

 The media's reporting about poverty is misleading too. It's true that the official poverty rate has risen lately. Some people do line up at food banks. But what Americans call poverty is totally different from what it's meant through most of history. A "poor" man at a food bank told me he had "the normal things": cable TV, a microwave -- the "normal things" that not even rich people used to have.

 We complain about pollution and car exhaust, but think about what it was like when the pollution came from horses and cities were clogged with the smelly beasts. Manure was everywhere.

 Today, the media are so hysterical about environmental "destruction," you'd never know that over the past half century, the air and water have steadily gotten cleaner. As Moore said, "Fifty years ago, many American cities had permanent black fogs over them."

 The rivers surrounding Manhattan were once disgusting. Millions of people live in my city, and just 25 years ago, pipes simply carried the waste from their bathrooms, untreated, right into the Hudson and East rivers. Now, treatment plants clean the sewage, and the rivers around Manhattan are so clean you can legally swim in the Hudson. I swim there -- within sight of the Empire State Building. 

 The media rant about new dangers such as West Nile virus, avian flu and SARS. You'd think life was more dangerous than ever. But how many Americans died during last year's SARS crisis? None. Worldwide, SARS killed fewer than 1,000 people. Yet for weeks, it was the terrifying headline du jour. By contrast, the health crisis of 1918 was the flu.

 It killed 20 million.

 Perspective, please. Americans are healthier than ever. I asked the elementary-school students about polio, diphtheria and rheumatic fever. They hadn't heard of them. "We have conquered the killer diseases that wiped out as many as a third to a quarter of population in previous times," said Moore. And we take that for granted.

 In general, that's what people do: We conquer the challenges that face us. We make our world better. Innovations in nearly every field make us healthier and safer than we used to be, and let us do things that used to be impossible. Eventually, we take even the most brilliant inventions -- such as the light bulb -- for granted. The average American not only lives 30 years longer than his counterpart of a century ago, he lives much better.

 We should complain less and celebrate the good.