Be prepared to see a lot of doom and gloom this week. Those year-end video and photo montages, year-in-review summaries and "a look back" reflections are inevitably gloomy even in boom times. That's likely to be especially true in 2008, a year that, admittedly, wasn't particularly filled with hope (Barack Obama's campaign promises aside).
I recently heard a conservative talk show host bemoan the "lack of God in our society" as reason for, among other things, the recent "Santa shooting massacre" in Covina, Calif. The left, meanwhile, is pointing to the financial meltdown as indicative of a different kind of moral failing — the unbridled greed they associate with free enterprise.
Truth is, they're both wrong. The last 12 months may prove not to be the most fondly recalled in recent American history, but things aren't all that bad. Most social indicators are still moving in the right direction. In general, our standard of living continues to improve. Advances in technology are helping us beat the diseases most likely to kill us; giving us more leisure time; making us more comfortable; giving us more convenience; and with the Internet, putting much of the world — quite literally — at our fingertips.
So here's the good news:
— Crime rates are still falling. Violent crime in America has been in a freefall since the early 1990s, despite a slight uptick in 2005 and 2006. Economists, criminologists, and sociologists can't conclusively say why. Explanations range from the 1990s economic boom to changes in crime-fighting strategy to the legalization of abortion to reductions in childhood exposure to lead. Whatever the reason, long-term trends show crime is down across the board.
— Sex crimes are down, too. Many conservatives and some leftist feminists often argue that the widespread availability of pornography and the "mainstreaming" of sex may effect an epidemic of sexual violence. It hasn't happened. Incidence of rape in America has been in swift decline for 20 years. In 2006, it hit its low point since the government started keeping statistics. Crimes against children have also been in decline. Both trends have taken place over a period in which there has been less social stigma attached to being the victim of a sex crime — meaning we're seeing fewer rapes, even as rapes are more likely to be reported. More interestingly, they've also taken place alongside the rise of the Internet, the medium that has done more than any other to mainstream and provide easy access to pornography, gambling, and a host of other vices. Somehow, society has managed to stay afloat.
Our allegedly sexualized culture hasn't had much effect in other areas, either. The divorce rate is at its lowest point in four decades. This is in part because people are waiting longer to get married. More women in the workforce means more women are waiting to get married. And they are getting married for the right reasons, not merely for financial security. It's hard to argue that society is worse off with strong marriages, even if that means fewer marriages over all.
— Life expectancy is up. In June, the Centers for Disease Control announced that in 2006 (the latest year for which data is available), Americans once again set a record for life expectancy. Men, women, blacks, whites — all can expect to live longer today than at any point in American history. Discrepancies in the average age of death between ethnic groups are narrowing, too. All of those things we're told need heavy regulation because they're potentially killing us — obesity, alcohol, coffee, sodium, pollution, stress, cell phones — aren't doing a very good job.
— We're beating our biggest killers. The same CDC report noted that mortality rates for eight of the 10 leading causes of death in America dropped in 2006. In fact, deaths from the two biggest killers — cancer and heart disease — have been in decline for a decade. Deaths from the third leading cause of death, stroke, are also down.
A generation ago, a cancer diagnosis was a death sentence. No more. In November the National Cancer Institute announced that for six years, bothincidence of and deaths from cancer have been in decline, the first time that's happened since the organization began issuing its report. The drops were consistent among both sexes and across all ethnic groups, with the exception of American Indians, for whom incidence and deaths largely remained stable. In 1962, the 5-year survival rates for five of the 10 leading causes of childhood cancer were 10 percent or lower. Today, the survivial rates for all 10 are at least 55 percent, and six are above 80 percent.
— The kids are all right. Despite the periodic outbreak of moral panic over violent videogames, MySpace, "rainbow parties," and dirty lyrics in rap music, America's kids are getting along just fine. Teen pregnancy was up slightly in 2006 (again, the latest year for which data is available), but that's after a 15-year decline to historic lows — again over the very period during which critics say our culture is overly sexualized. Since 1991, fewer teens are having sex, fewer are having sex with multiple partners, and more are using condoms when they do engage in intercourse. The abortion rate is also at its lowest point in 30 years.
Beginning in 1994, juvenile crime dropped dramatically for a decade. By 2004, juvenile crime was at its lowest point in a quarter century. The numbers edged up slightly in 2005 and 2006, but juvenile violent crime is still 40 percent lower than it was in 1994. The juvenile murder rate is a whopping 73 percent below its high in 2003.
— We have more leisure time. Americans work on average eight fewer hours than we did in the 1960s. Believe it or not, lower-income Americans are actually more likely to spend time at leisure and less time on the job than their wealthier counterparts, suggesting that when we do work long hours, it's more likely to be because we want to than because we have to. We also seem to be enjoying ourselves more. We're spending more money per person on recreation. And the toys we do have (high-definition televisions, iPods, computers, sound systems) are immeasurably more fun than they were generations ago.
Doom and gloomers have been predicting the downfall of American society for generations. The last 20 or so years in particular have seen incredible advances in technology that have given us a wealth of new choices, exponentially enhancing our personal and economic freedom. The worrywarts fret that our society can't handle that sort of freedom — that prosperity and unlimited choices coupled with the absence of need will spell our ruin.
This year's headlines aside, we seem to be handling it all pretty well.
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