Monday, August 15, 2011

A bright future

Recently I have been asking people a question.

"If you could choose any year in which to be born for a random person, which would you choose?  You don't get to pick your social status, ethnicity or gender, just a country and a year.  Your goal is to maximize quality of life for this random person."

The responses have generally fallen neatly into two camps.  Either people say '2011' or they say something between 1950 and 1960.  They generally agree that growing up before 1950 is not ideal because you might be born nonwhite, a female, gay or anything else outside white straight man and find that your life sucks for no particular reason.  The stark difference between the answers seemed to come down to people who thought that the future was going to be a bad place and those that thought it would be a good place.  If you think things are getting better then it makes sense to pick 2011 as the date because there is no more equality or freedom at any point in the past than there is today and things look like they are going to only improve.  If you think the future is bleak then picking 1950 allows you to grow up, have a career, have kids and be in the later stages of life when witnessing the fall or perhaps just decay of humanity.

I don't buy the idea that things are getting worse.  Overwhelmingly our indicators of quality of life have been improving all over the world for decades or centuries now and that improvement is accelerating.  There is no sign of a collapse of civilization nor some levelling off of improvement.  There is no end of doomsaying and pessimism of course but I have not yet seen any of that which has convinced me that the constant upward trend will stop, particularly because no matter what time period you examine the same refrain of 'civilization has hit its peak and it is all downhill from here' is constant.  Were there people predicting imminent collapse of the economy, the environment and morality in the 1950s?  Yes!  How about 1800?  Yes!  How about 2800 BC?  Yes!

“Our earth is degenerate in these latter days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching,” attributed to an Assyrian stone tablet of about 2800 B.C.

No matter when or where you look the conclusion that we are at the peak and everything is going to hell is ubiquitous.  The most remarkable thing is that these conclusions are so constantly wrong.  There were a few times when they were right, of course, like just as the Roman Empire was set to collapse.  Of all those millions of predictions though very, very few were correct.  The things we know for sure are that things have consistently, constantly gotten better for humanity with a few bumps in some places and that doomsaying has no correlation whatsoever with actual danger.  We can look forward to cars powered by thorium reactors that produce no emissions and never need to be refueled for their entire useful life, a cure for HIV and a cure for the common cold.  These aren't proven technologies yet but they are happening.  There is so much more that we can and will develop to make things better than they ever have been before.

Don't believe me?  Read The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley.  Note that it isn't that we don't have problems, we do.  The world isn't perfect and many of the new solutions we come up with will create their own issues.  Nobody rational is claiming that the world is perfect, nor that it will be perfect.  There are plenty of people claiming that things are good and that they are going to get better though, and those people are right.  The future is going to be *awesome*.


  1. Corporate PlundererAugust 16, 2011 at 12:18 PM

    Are people not allowed to answer this question with dates in the future? Or is that cheating?

    The dominant factor would seem to be healthcare; even in the 50's infant mortality was an order of magnitude greater than it is now. ((ref:)[]) Go back further and it's more than a little terrifying. Perhaps if you have a large appetite for risk you could roll those dice, but I wouldn't.

    Another risk-related aspect of this question is not just the overall quality of life of a particular era, but also class equity. As you've pointed out yourself, being much less prosperous than your peers is much more relevant to a random person's happiness than absolute measures thereof.

    Finally, I think the suggestion that growing up after 1950 protects one from discrimination is a bit optimistic. Even in our generation many marginalized groups face massive systemic and social discrimination on a daily basis. Fewer lynchings, certainly; but a far cry from equality. Still, it says a lot that a future where race and orientation have no bearing on one's life is even conceivable.

    A way to game this question which leaps out at me is the choice of country. Being able to choose to be a random person in, say, Norway, significantly improves one's overall odds for a lot of the reasons listed above.

  2. I specifically didn't allow choosing future dates because it is hard enough to figure out what the next 80 years will be like - I find it hard to imagine that choosing 2176 over 2289 would be any kind of informed choice. Once you are already choosing the unknown I don't see much argument for going further.

    I agree that the world isn't perfect and that there is still regular discrimination against many groups. However, discrimination is way, way down and your options for being accepted are way, way up. Things are getting better though, which is basically my whole point.

    I agree that choosing country is important. Everyone I asked so far was born in Canada (I think?) and so we used that as a reference point. Choosing other countries changes the answers to some extent of course since some of them have had really bad things happen at particular times. I like Canada as an example because there haven't been any particular events that would cause you to choose a certain date - the graph is pretty predictable.

  3. I'm picking a Scandinavian country for sure.

  4. Corporate PlundererAugust 16, 2011 at 3:19 PM


    Ditto. Norway is tempting, but a good argument could be made for Sweden. Once you're in the region it's a little arbitrary.

  5. Corporate PlundererAugust 16, 2011 at 6:51 PM

    I dunno... I've spent a lot of time in Singapore, and unless you're in the top 5% it's pretty awful.

    If the question were "if you could choose any year and country to be born as a random rich white ex-pat, what would you choose?", I'd totally agree.

  6. I've spent a lot of time there too and my impression was that things were pretty good for the average Singaporean.

    Looking at wikipedia a bit, inequality is about at the US level but purchasing power is rather higher (3rd in the world behind Qatar and Luxembourg, which come to think of it sounds like a good choice too). Top notch public health, education and transit, low crime, etc. Running a country the size of a postage stamp isn't rocket surgery, I think they're a good long term bet.

  7. Excellent!

    You should all post countries and dates, by the way.

    I choose 2011, but I don't know exactly which country. New Zealand has fantastic weather, Scandinavian countries have great policies... but I do like Canada and it seems like a pretty safe bet. Not sure.