2020: What a Time To Be Alive

A common theme in history is that progress happens too slowly to notice while setbacks happen too quickly to overlook. There are many overnight tragedies. There are no overnight miracles.

It’s a shame, because the amount of progress we’ve made during most of our lifetimes is both astounding and overlooked.

A new year brings dozens of articles analyzing what the past brought and what the future may hold. The problem with most these pieces is not their analysis; it’s their time frame. Analyzing 2020’s improvement over 2019 – or even a decade of progress – leaves you gasping for goofy things like “OLED screens will become more common this year” and “self-driving cars will see marginal improvements.”

When measuring progress we have to remember that it took 15 years from the time penicillin was discovered until it was widely used, and 20 years from the invention of the car until the time Henry Ford figured out mass production. These things take time.

The median American is 38 years old. If we use their birth year of 1981 as a starting point to measure progress during their lives, some astounding figures arise.

In 1981 the auto fatality rate was 21.49 per 100,000 people. In 2018 it was 11.18. The decline means every hour of every day in 2019 almost four Americans who would have died in 1981 did not die. Over the last decade, improved auto safety has saved the lives of a group of Americans equal to the population of Cincinnati.

Cumulative inflation in the five years before 1981 was more than cumulative inflation in the 25 years before 2020. It’s hard to overstate the calming effect this has on society, and we barely discuss it.

The homicide rate was just over 10 per 100,000 Americans in 1981, and 5.0 in 2018. That decline means 16,000 fewer Americans were murdered last year than would have been had the rate not improved during most of our lifetimes.

Infant mortality has fallen by 54%, from 12.1 per 1,000 births in 1981 to 5.6 in 2018. In 2019, 24,700 fewer parents buried an infant than would have if the rate not declined since 1981. Over the last decade there have been something like 210,000 fewer infant deaths relative to the rates seen in 1981, which is equal to the population of Rochester, New York.

Average miles per gallon among all vehicles has increased from 14.9 in 1981 to 22.3 in 2017. That alone cuts effective gasoline prices by a third.

Adjusted for inflation, median personal income has increased from $22,682 in 1981 to $33,706 in 2018. On an annual basis that growth is barely noticeable. But in most of our lifetimes the median worker has become almost 50% richer.

In the ten years before 1981, 25,995 people died in commercial aviation accidents. From 2009 to 2019 that number was 9,197. And passenger miles flown increased 4.7-fold from 1981 to 2019. So fatalities per passenger mile flown have declined more than 90%. A passenger who flies once a month today is safer than one who flew once a year in 1981.

The number of cigarettes smoked in the United States peaked in 1981 at 640 billion. By 2017 it was 249 billion and falling. That equates to 11,574 fewer cigarettes smoked every second.

Heart-disease deaths have declined from over 400 per 100,000 Americans in 1981 to 168 per 100,000 by 2015. That decline means 754,000 fewer Americans die each year than would have had there been no improvement since 1981. That’s equal to the number of Americans killed in World War II, saved every seven months.

In 1981 IBM sold its 5150 PC for $1,556, or $4,402 adjusted for inflation. It was effectively useless. Today the same amount of money can buy a Chromebook for every student in an average middle-school class.

Age- and sex-adjusted dementia rates have declined 44% since the early 1980s. The decline means 5.2 million fewer Americans have dementia today relative to the rates seen 38 years ago – about the size of Los Angeles and Dallas combined. No one knows quite why this is, but better blood pressure control is a leading theory.

A pessimist will have no problem pointing out the world’s problems in 2020. Bad news is real and it is everywhere. Throw a rock, hit a problem.

The difference between an optimist and a pessimist isn’t usually over substance. It’s the time frame they’re looking at. Problems are easier to spot today, but progress is almost always more powerful over time.

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