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The Progress Paradox
How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse
By Gregg Easterbrook
Random House
HC, 376 pg. US$25.95/C$37.95
ISBN: 0-6794-6303-8

A problem with prosperity?

By Steven Martinovich
web posted January 12, 2004

The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel WorseWith The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, Gregg Easterbrook asks a very interesting question: Why, in this time of unparalleled prosperity and personal freedom, do people in the West seem increasingly disenchanted with their lives? By nearly every statistical measure Americans and their counterparts in Europe are enjoying the fruits of many generations of labour and yet, Easterbrook argues, we seem dissatisfied with our lives, increasingly telling pollsters that we expect life to get worse.

"Arriving at this moment, your great-great-grandparents would be surrounded by people who take for granted circumstances our ancestors would view as astonishing progress in the ancient quest to banish privation and establish a Gold Age. But even if the arrow of progress points toward an even better life, unhappiness persists and is wholly real regardless of whether our recent forebears might find it unbelievable that anyone could be unhappy in an air conditioned house with a refrigerator crammed with food and ambulances on call."

Easterbrook devotes the first third of The Progress Paradox to arguing that things are indeed better. The explosion of wealth, he argues, has primarily benefited the middle class, a group that now individually and collectively own assets that would have been barely dreamed of a generation ago. Although the rich have gotten richer, so has everyone else for the most part. The size of the average home has increased markedly, we work less and have more leisure time, live longer, are smarter, eat better and to excess in many cases, have access to the best health care in the world -- even if you don't have medical insurance. Without exaggeration, in many ways the average American lives better than the royalty of past eras.

As the second third of the book relates, however, this material wealth hasn't translated into overwhelming feelings of contentment. Polling data suggests that most people are about as happy as they were five decades ago while millions of others suffer anxiety and depression. Instead of being pleased about our larger homes, better food and superb health care, many of us are instead despondent because we believe things can't get any better, or worse, we can lose it all. We feel pressure to not only keep up with the new standards that the Joneses have set, we need to surpass them, spawning the type of home that has a DVD player in almost every room. Of course, as Easterbrook points out, these are problems that billions would gladly accept.

Unfortunately at a certain point The Progress Paradox loses its way and never recovers. Although Easterbrook works hard to prove the rich Western world is suffering an epidemic of depression, research has shown that it is the poor of the Third World who are more likely to suffer. He admits that no long-term, cross-sectional studies have been undertaken to study whether depression has really increased over the past few decades. While claiming that unipolar depression has increased tenfold since the end of the Second World War, he concedes that the author of the most compelling study has shown "only" a two or three times increase, seriously undercutting his argument.

It only goes downhill from there during the last third of the book. Although he tacitly accepts the free market as the best economic system to date, he dreams of a world where capitalism is superceded by a new economic system that delivers greater economic equality. He objects to "extreme" wealth because it violates a "sense of justice." He agrees that a doctor should make more than a garbage man, but asks if that doctor should make so much more? Why shouldn't successful people be satisfied with "psychic income" -- things like respect and status -- instead of fighting to add another zero on their paycheque? At times you can clearly sense that Easterbrook seems not to understand the fundamental role of the market.

After spending an entire book complaining about universal health care, minimum wage and greed -- not to mention his well-known hatred of SUVs -- it shouldn't be a surprise to find out that Easterbook thinks we can make ourselves happier by moving on these fronts. He urges Americans to call for higher prices, a voluntary self-tax as it were, to support a higher minimum wage -- forgetting perhaps that higher prices will effectively negate the increase and increase unemployment -- what he calls a "living wage." The United States should work to create a universal health care system, ignoring the problems that nations like Canada and Great Britain are facing. Greed at the top, represented by CEOs and upper management, should be tackled by making sure they don't earn too much, though what that means is left up to the reader to decide. If that agenda doesn't seem too relevant to the problems Easterbrook has chronicled, don't worry, he also wants you to participate in a global campaign to eradicate poverty.

The Progress Paradox does raise some interesting questions: Why aren't we happier? Why do many of us ignore the bright side of life in favor of minor problems? Is being happy simply a matter of learning how? Unfortunately Easterbrook doesn't provide us with any real answers, preferring instead to advance an unrelated political agenda. If unhappiness is really an aspect of ever-increasing prosperity, Easterbrook doesn't seem interested in finding out. Though he is right in arguing that we need to adopt a more positive view of humanity, it's hard to see why we need bigger government for that to come about.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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