Heard the Good News?

Posted: May 22, 2006 12:05 AM

Things are better than you think. Yes, I know, most Americans are in a sour mood these days, convinced that the struggle in Iraq is an endless cycle of bloodshed, certain that our economy is in dismal shape, lamenting that the nation and the world are off on the wrong track.

That's what polls tell us. But if we look at some other numbers, we'll find that we are living not in the worst of times, but in something much closer to the best.

What do I mean? First, economic growth. In 2005, as in 2004, the world economy grew by about 5 percent, according to the International Monetary Fund, and the IMF projects similar growth for several years to come. This is faster growth than in all but a few peak years in the 1980s and 1990s, and it's in vivid contrast to the long periods of stagnation or contraction in history.

The great engine of this growth is, of course, the United States, which produces more than one-quarter of world economic product and whose gross domestic product has been growing at around 4 percent -- 4.7 percent in the latest quarter. Other engines are China and India, each with about a sixth of the world's people, and economic growth of 10 percent and 8 percent, respectively. But other areas are growing, too: Eastern Europe (5 percent), Russia (6 percent), East Asia (5 percent), Latin America (4 percent), even the Middle East (6 percent) and sub-Saharan Africa (5.5 percent).

Lagging behind are the Euro area (1 percent) and the rest of Western Europe (2 percent). Lesson: Sclerotic welfare states produce mass unemployment and stifle initiative and innovation. In contrast, the Chinese and Indian growth rates show how freeing up an economy produces rapid growth, and the continued contrast between the United States and Europe makes the same point. Free market economic growth is enabling millions of people to rise out of poverty every year. Even more than the experts expect -- as the IMF writes, "The momentum and resilience of the global economy in 2005 continued to exceed expectations."

It's worth noting, as the IMF does, that this growth is being achieved with minimal inflation. "The present era of globalization and low inflation has an important precedent: 1880-1914, the era of the classical gold standard," it notes. That period ended with the outbreak of World War I, and there is no guarantee that the current low-inflation growth will continue. There are always downside risks in the economy. But we seem to be living by far in the best economic times in human history.

But aren't we also living in times of record strife? Actually, no. Just the opposite. The Human Security Centre of the University of British Columbia has been keeping track of armed conflicts since World War II. It reports that the number of genocides and violent conflicts dropped rapidly after the end of the Cold War, and that in 2005 the number of armed conflicts was down 40 percent from 1992.

Wars have also become less deadly: The average number of people killed per conflict per year in 1950 was 38,000; in 2002, it was just 600. The conflict in Iraq has not significantly changed that picture. American casualties are orders of magnitude lower than in the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, and precision weapons have enabled us to vastly reduce the civilian death toll.

After our victory in the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama proclaimed that we had reached "the end of history," by which he meant the end of any serious argument over what constitutes the best kind of society. That is disputed by the Islamist fascists, who have made it clear that they will do whatever they can to inflict harm on our civilization.

As Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in his recent letter to President Bush: "Liberalism and Western-style democracy have not been able to help realize the ideals of humanity. Today, those two concepts have failed."

That's obviously nonsense, of course. Free markets and democracy are chalking up one ringing achievement after another -- as we can see from the surge in world economic growth and the reduction of armed conflict -- while the Islamists can achieve their goals only through oppression and slaughter.

Yes, they can inflict severe damage on us by asymmetric warfare, as they did on Sept. 11, and we must continue to take determined action to prevent them from doing so again. Yes, a nuclear Iran is a severe threat. But we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that, in most important respects, our civilization is performing splendidly.