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The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse Hardcover – November 25, 2003
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Ordinary middle-class Americans have often tried to assuage their jealousy of the rich by repeating the axiom "money can't buy happiness" to themselves. But according to New Republic senior editor Gregg Easterbrook, "the rich" are, in fact, those same ordinary middle-class Americans and no, they're not happy at all. Wages have soared over the past fifty years and regular citizens own large homes, new cars, and luxuries aplenty. Better still, the environment, with a few exceptions, is getting cleaner, crime is on the decline, and diseases are being wiped out as life span increases. So why do people report a sense that things are getting steadily worse and that catastrophe is imminent? Easterbrook presents a few psychological rationales, including "choice anxiety," where the vastness of society's options is a burden, and "abundance denial," where people somehow manage to convince themselves that they are deprived of material comforts. The sooner we accept how good we have it, the better off the whole world will be, he says, because if we would just realize that we have this wealth, we could be using it to alleviate hunger, provide health care for the millions who lack it, and otherwise address the ills that actually do exist. While at times the book's attempts to make the world a better place seem a bit of a stretch, it's admirable that Easterbrook is willing to make that stretch and not suggest people simply light up cigars and bask in their newly discovered joys. One might look a bit askance at some of Easterbrook's sunny perspectives on our societal fortunes--he celebrates rampant consumerism while skating past the rampant consumer debt that lies beneath it, for instance--but it's hard to deny that the pessimistic viewpoint is much more widely stated than that of optimists. Is the glass really half empty or should we, as Easterbrook indicates, enjoy the wonderful world in which we secretly live? --John Moe
From Publishers Weekly
Easterbrook sees a widespread case of cognitive dissonance in the West: according to Easterbrook, though the typical American's real income has doubled in the past 50 years, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as "happy" remains where it was half a century ago (oddly, Easterbrook doesn't tell us what that percentage is). Why do so many of us remain discontented, he asks? Is it because now that even the middle classes can afford nearly every conceivable luxury, we have nothing left to look forward to? Easterbrook, a senior editor at the New Republic and contributing editor to the Atlantic, believes so. He also castigates modern psychology and the media for dwelling on minor problems without celebrating the broader, more upbeat context in which they exist. But his endless nagging about how Americans and Western Europeans should be more grateful for their standard of living leads him to overcompensate: for instance, he minimizes the harm done to Wal-Mart employees who were forced to work "off the clock" hours without pay because, after all, they're still living better than their ancestors, since stores like Wal-Mart sell necessities at such affordable prices. The book does confront some serious problems, like the health-care crisis, but suggests that they can be licked as effectively as we've fixed environmental, racial and other seemingly intractable problems. Sarcastic patter and a flair for catchphrases like "abundance denial" and "wealth porn," however, barely disguise a padded thesis and one easily argued against with an alternative set of statistics.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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In parts, the author does a great job looking at the 'why'. But I'd have expected this to be the whole focus.
The book also diverges into some odd areas, such as a general criticism of various CEOs who take disproportionately large salaries. I could follow at least tenuously where he was going, but it seemed to be more pushing a personal complaint about the individuals than presenting a tight and coherent case for why capitalism makes people sad.
Ultimately while I read the whole book and found some of it interesting, it didn't impress me and I felt the quality was inconsistent.
There are essentially three parts to The Progress Paradox. In the first part Easterbrook makes the case that life is indeed getting better. Through countless examples, some of which are truly stunning, Easterbrook methodically shows that in virtually every measurable way our lives are not just better, but significantly better, than they were a generation or two ago. This applies not only to personal indicators such as health, wealth, and leisure time, but also to larger geopolitical trends such as the spread of democracy.
In the book's second act Easterbrook explains why, despite the overwhelming number of positive indicators, people tend to feel like things are getting worse. Easterbrook examines a multitude of causes ranging from simple biology to the media's obsession with bad news. Politicians, in particular, are demonstrated to have a vested interest in making sure that Americans think things are not going well.
In the final portion of the book Easterbrook attempts to strike an upbeat note, giving the reader a host of reasons to believe the future is going to be even better than the present. While this is where Easterbrook most tends towards preachy, it is undeniably refreshing to read something positive about the direction in which we are all headed.
Overall I found The Progress Paradox highly illuminating. In addition to being extremely educational, I think any reader will come away feeling better about their life and about the world in general. I can honestly say that I think the world would be a better place if everyone read this book.
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