Jeremy's Weblog

I recently graduated from Harvard Law School. This is my weblog. It tries to be funny. E-mail me if you like it. For an index of what's lurking in the archives, sorted by category, click here.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Book Review: "The Progress Paradox" by Gregg Easterbrook

The subtitle of "The Progress Paradox" does a great job summing up what the book is about: "How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse." Basically, the book's about how life for people in the Western World has never been better -- people are healthier and live longer than ever before, have more leisure time, an abundance of food and consumer goods, luxuries people a few generations ago could never have dreamed of -- yet we're not any happier. The book is littered with conversation-droppers, little facts that percolate in your head and end up finding an appropriate place in all sorts of discussions -- two that I've found myself using just in the day or so since I finished the book: (1) people complain about having to spend money on health care, but what better thing could we be spending money on than living longer, healthier lives -- Easterbrook argues we should be glad that we can spend such a substantial fraction of our income on something as important and rewarding as health care; (2) society as a whole is well-off enough that even people at the lower end of the income scale live lives that are much closer to how the rich live than ever before in history -- they have cars, and cable TV, and a place to live, and enough food -- the differences are much more marginal than in the past -- life expectancy for the poor is not substantially lower than for the rich -- heck, one of the biggest problems is that poor people are overweight. Poor people in generations past simply could not afford enough food that they could ever be overweight. Crime is down, jobs are less labor-intensive than in generations past, people have more leisure time, education is more obtainable, etc, etc, etc. The vast majority of people live in something approaching The American Dream.

But trend-lines say we're no happier than we used to be. And that beyond an income of $11,000/year, more money really doesn't seem to buy more happiness. Depression rates are rising. Self-reported happiness surveys report happiness down. Easterbrook spends a while arguing that part of it is that people don't feel like the next generation will be any better -- that we already have so much how can quality of life continue to rise. That argument doesn't ring true to me as much as his other big one, that for most of humanity we've had to worry about necessities like food and shelter, and now that most of our necessities are taken care of, we worry about wants -- and there are always more things to want, and more things that other people have, that we can never get fully satisfied. And the wants disappoint when we get them, so we're never really happy. His third (related) argument is that for the first time people aren't worried about the necessities and now have time to ponder the meaning of life and worry about fulfillment -- and that's harder to satisfy than food on the table will satisfy hunger.

This was all very interesting to read, because it's the kind of stuff I sometimes ponder and he's pondered it in a more organized and better-researched way than I ever have, obviously, so I found this compelling. But then the last half of the book seems to lose its nerve and its ambition. Easterbrook argues we should all sleep more, be more forgiving, and keep a "gratitude journal," and that as a society if we raised prices a little bit we could pretty much eradicate the problem of world impoverishment and that we have a duty to give more aid to poor countries. I don't disagree with any of that, but it's not as bold and insightful as the first half of the book got me revved up for. I sleep a lot, and I'm pretty grateful, I think -- but I still wrestle with questions about how to really feel like I'm living a life that matters and wake up each morning content and happy and fulfilled. The book didn't get me any closer. It didn't help explain why it seems like so many people don't admit these concerns and go on living lives that seem shallow and unrewarding. It pretended we all care about this stuff, and I'm not sure we all do. And the foreign aid stuff is great -- but it's not prescriptive toward individual lives so much -- I could give $30 a month to Save The Children, but beyond that there isn't a ton I can do to effect governmental policy (although I guess if everyone read his book and lobbied for higher sales taxes...). CEOs get paid too much, sure. We don't need three TVs per person, sure. But this wasn't what the book built up in its excellent first half to leave me hoping for in the less-excellent second half. I can't recommend the first 187 pages of this book any more than I do. Read them. They're fascinating, thought-provoking, and really excellent. But the next 150 didn't do it for me. I don't know. I don't know what I was waiting for, but it didn't hit me hard enough. I can't help but think there's a different second half of this book on Gregg Easterbrook's hard drive, and his editors wanted a different story. But read the book. It's mostly quite fantastic.