Yes, Virginia… it is getting so much better all the time

David Dixon

Pandemics, floods, fires, war, climate change… Donald Trump! It seems that, sometimes, the world, to use the popular phrase, is “going to hell in a handbasket.”

The latest instalment in the relentless end-of-civilisation ambience that we seem to be experiencing is the so-called coronavirus epidemic that seems to have pushed some sensitive souls over the edge.

Watching the media’s wall to wall coverage of a disease that some experts declare is not much worse than the average flu (with a far-lower infection rate) has seen the stock-markets crash with some other panicked overreactions to COVID-19 ranging from hoarding toilet paper to avoiding Chinese restaurants.

Some claim that we are witnessing the so-called “End of Days” of the Book of Revelation in the Bible.

It is what legendary American journalist and author Tom Wolf described as most journalists’ instinctive tendency to take the “grim slide” view of any issue; that any changes to society or events are likely to lead to things always getting worse.

But the doomsayers and prophets-of-woe should heed the words of that legendary editorial in the New York Sun of 1897, in answer to an innocent eight-year-old girl’s earnest inquiry, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” This famous missive reassured the young letter-writer that in fact miracles do happen and that life itself is the greatest miracle.

And we should also remember that, as a society, we are living through miraculous times. By any objective metric, by any measurable standards, things are getting better all the time.

At no other time have so few people lived in poverty; the absolute poverty rate worldwide (less than US $1 a day to live on) has declined from about two billion people as recently as 1990 to less than 500 million now. That meant that, even less than 30 years ago, nearly half the world’s population lived lives of grim survival completely vulnerable to exploitation, injury, disease, and early death.

As for political freedom, at the end of World War II there were only 12 functioning democracies in the world, of which Australia, noticeably, was one. But there were 137 autocracies where average people had little political say over their own lives and those who governed them.

Only ten percent of the world’s population lived in democracies, generally regarded as the most equitable and fairest form of government for all citizens to enjoy happiness and some control over their lives. By 2015, though, more than four billion of the world’s seven billion citizens lived in democratic countries.

Education, universally-accepted as the easiest and fairest way to allow the poor to rise out of privation, is now available to almost everyone on the planet. In 1900 less than a third of all the world’s citizens over 15 had a basic education, but by 2015 it was 86 per cent.

Despite the continuing tragedy of Syria and Yemen, (and to a lesser extent, Afghanistan) wars are becoming increasingly-rare as the way to resolve international disputes. Since 2007, the number of violent deaths by conflict has declined to about .33 deaths per 100,000 of population.

This compares to thousands of deaths per 100,000 in ancient tribal societies and hundreds of deaths in the conflicts of the 20th century.

As an example, the United States has suffered less than 2500 casualties in Afghanistan over 18 years. Yet it suffered more than 50,000 deaths in Vietnam over less than 10. Australia suffered about 500 deaths in Vietnam, and less than 50 in the two-decade-old Afghan conflict.

In our own societies, despite the lurid reports from our media of youth-run-amok, crime has decreased dramatically since the 1970s. Criminologist Don Weatherburn from the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research has battled public perception for years pointing-out our increasingly-lower crime rates.

“People don’t fully realise the extent to which crime has dropped,” he said in 2017 “…the rates of home burglary and motor vehicle theft are the lowest they’ve been since records began in the early 1970s.

“The fact of the matter is we’ve really never had it so safe as far as those major categories of property and violent crime are concerned,” he said.

Growing-up in south-western Sydney in the 1970s, it was common-enough to see assaults, robberies, fights in public places on a regular basis. The expansive and unattended carpark at Liverpool Railway Station, for instance, had a week-in, week-out, nine cars stolen a day.

It was not unknown for neighbours to openly-threaten each other with firearms over backyard disputes with regular out-of-control brawls at local pubs (watering holes) that were famous for their pugilistic clientele. It was nothing to see security (bouncers) commit violent assault on unruly patrons at venues with witnesses rarely raising an eyebrow and certainly never reporting the offenders to the police.

These events went almost uncommented on and were certainly never reported in the local media. This was all part of the supposed colour of growing-up in a working-class area.

It was the same for most other western countries. In Britain, football hooligans regularly engaged in pitched battles on the terraces; people were reported to have been kicked to death in some suburbs for wearing the wrong team’s colours on their way to a match.

In New York, the murder rate in the late 1970s and early 1980s was more than 2000 victims a year; with more than 100,000 violent robberies. Now it is less than a quarter of that for a far larger city. Many who remember those times have commented that, part of the appeal of the movie, Joker, was how it was able to capture the grim reality of a major city of those times.

But what about income inequality? The idea that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. Well that is half-true, the rich have objectively gotten richer over the past 40 years, but so has the poor.

We are in fact a far richer society at all levels than we were 50 years ago. In 1979 a new colour television set cost more than $1500, a video recorder more than $4000.

And let’s not go near how new technologies like smart-phones, computers, the internet, and home reverse-cycle air-conditioning; a world-away from the two-bar Vulcan Conroy that families would crowd-around on winter evenings.

Wanted a telephone? A Telecom technician would come around to your house in a few days and book your visit for the actual installation sometime in the next couple of months. Too bad if you weren’t home on that day, you went to the back of the queue for another two months.

Which reminds one of the old joke about the man wanting to buy a car in Soviet Union in the 1970s. He is told after paying for the little two-cylinder Trabant, that he can pick-it up in 10 years’ time on the same day.

“This day? In 10 years time? That’s impossible,” the buyer says to the dealer. “Why?” the dealer asks, “That’s when the plumber is coming,” the man replies.

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