If everything is getting better, why are people dissatisfied?

Matthew d’Ancona has written an interesting piece asking why, despite the number of indicators showing that the world is getting better (with lower poverty, violence and disease across the globe), is there so much gloom around politics. In particular, he asks why the right accepts these facts as grounds for optimism, and why the left continues to despair of the status quo. d’Ancona’s answer is that “people are not circuit boards governed by rationally constructed algorithms”. In other words, people’s lack of hope for the future is driven by their emotions, rather than the facts.

That may be so, but I definitely do not agree that the only rational response to the facts is optimism. There are at least four possible reasons why we might look at the facts adduced by d’Ancona and have cause for complaint:

1. Things are not getting better for everybody

The fact that things are improving on average does not mean that they are getting better for everybody. For example, though global incomes have consistently risen, those in the 80th-90th percentile of the global income distribution (the middle classes in rich countries, such as the UK and US) have remained stagnant over the past 30 years. It is hardly surprising that some people are getting frustrated when everybody else but them seem to prosper.

2. The positive trends of the past may not continue

Another reason for concern might be the fear that the future will not the resemble the past. We may be sitting on the verge of a major discontinuity which disrupts the positive trajectory of these indicators. For example, economic fears around ‘secular stagnation’ reflect a worry that the trend economic growth enjoyed by developed economies since the war may come to a halt.

3. Things could improve more quickly

A third possibility to consider is that these trends are positive but sub-optimal. In other words, even if the current situation is good and improving, under alternative policies and institutions things could be even better. d’Ancona attributes the positive trends to “the operations of the market, technology and digital culture”, a consequence of the “triumph of globalisation”. He therefore sees it as vindication for the libertarian right. But it is at least plausible that alternative political approaches, such as state-led investment and redistribution, could have got us to this point even faster.

4. People’s expect things to improve more quickly than they are

A final factor is expectations: if progress is slower than anticipated, that is another recipe for disappointment. This ties in to d’Ancona’s point about politicians ‘urging’ citizens to feel hope: one of their roles is to manage expectations, generating enthusiasm or stoicism as appropriate. For example, it has been suggested that the boom in credit in the US before the financial crisis was the result of politicians’ desire to improve living standards faster than wage growth.

Thus even if we accept that the world is moving in the right direction, this does not imply that the status quo is justified or that we should be complacent for the future. That might explain some of the left’s disquiet.

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One comment

  1. Seems that this time of year is when folks reflect on how good or bad things are:
    http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/12/24/how-bad-are-things/

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