Feb 04 2011

It’s Getting Better All the Time

Category: goodness,optimism,religion,sex,warJames @ 7:00 am

I frequently hear people say that they think the world is getting more evil and more dangerous. But the statistics show that, in most ways, over the last few decades life has been getting better for most people, and violence and crime are decreasing in meaningful ways for most people.

Let’s talk about some of the many ways in which the world is getting better. Let’s start with the most evil things in many religions: murder and abortion:

Murder, violence, and death

The murder rate in the United States has gone down from 10.2 per 100,000 in 1980 to 5.0 in 2009 – a greater than fifty percent decrease.1

Many people don’t really understand the scale of death and horror which occurred in the first half of the twentieth century. It was truly the bloodiest, most deadly period in all of human history. Things have significantly improved since then. During World War I2 and its aftermath, 9 million combatants died, 5 to 10 million Russians died in the famine of 1921, about one million Armenians were died in Turkey, and the 1918 flu pandemic (which spread mostly because of the wartime conditions) killed at least 50 million people. Between 11 and 17 million people3 died in the holocaust (six million Jews, plus gypsies, POW’s, Jehovah’s Witnesses, other political prisoners); during World War II,4 a total of between fifty and seventy million people died as a result of the war (about 20 million soldiers and about 40 million civilians) – one of out every four citizens of the USSR was wounded or killed.

The number of people killed during Stalin’s rule in the USSR has been estimated at between 3.5 to 50 million people.5 The number of people killed under Mao’s rule in China has been estimated at between 19.5 and 77 million. The number of people who died under communist regimes has been estimated at between 94 and 144.7 million.

So, let’s add up these numbers from WWI, WWII, and from communism gives us a range of between 220 million and 284 million (the numbers of people who died from the 1918 flu account for 50 million of each of these numbers, since the principal cause of the pandemic was WWI, I think it appropriate to include them as being a result of the violence and murder of the war). These numbers are so big that it can be easy to gloss over them. To emphasize: 284,000,000 individuals and their potential descendants, each with families, hopes, and aspirations are gone forever. The numbers I cite are for the years from 1914 to 1976, which would be a yearly death rate of between 3.5 and 4.6 million people (there was significant variation in the rate – the yearly rate trended down after WWI and would have been much lower in the 1970s than during WWI or WWII). How does that compare with now? In 2004 the worldwide number of people killed in armed conflicts was 250,000, and number killed by intentional homicide was 490,000, for a total of 740,000 killed as a result of violence.6 Doesn’t the huge decrease in murder mean that on the whole, the world is much less evil than it used to be? Doesn’t this mean that goodness, and not evil, has increased in the world over the last thirty to fifty years?

Worldwide, the risk of dying in armed conflict is 0.8 per 100,000 population – if you only count countries in conflict, the risk is 2 per 100,000.7 I don’t have the numbers for the first half of the 20th century, but I am sure that this number was much higher then. The number of direct conflict deaths from intrastate conflict decreased by almost one-third from 31,607 in 2004 to 23,517 in 2007. In 68 countries examined, homicide rates decreased in 33 of them and stayed flat in 17 of them between 1998 and 2006 – that is a total of 50 countries where homicide rates decreased or stayed flat. In only 11 countries was there an increasing trend in homicide rates.

Abortion and Sex

The rate of abortion peaked in about 1981, and has been steadily falling ever since.8 Most people, whether they are pro-choice or pro-life, believe that abortion is not a good thing. Most people who are pro-choice generally believe that even though abortion is often a difficult thing, each woman should have the right to evaluate her circumstances and decide for herself whether to get an abortion. Since abortion is still legal and available in the United States, if abortions are going down, then it is because more women are choosing not to get one. This fact is something that both the pro-choice and pro-life crowds can agree is a good thing. Many people who are pro-life are motivated by a religious conviction that abortion is evil; from that perspective, then the last thirty years have brought a significant decrease in evil and increase in goodness

How about sex? I hear people in church talk all the time about the sexual immorality running rampant in the United States. In 2009, teen birth rates hit the lowest rate they’ve ever been since the government started measuring statistics in 1940.9 The teen birth rate is lower now than it has even been in the last 70 years (and it is not because teens are getting more abortions, since abortion rates are down too). Teen pregnancy rates (which can be different than teen birth rates because of abortions) have also been decreasing10 (there was a 28% decrease11 from 1990 to 2000).

The percentage of teenage boys, aged 15-17, who claim to be virgins has increased from 50% in 1988 to 69% in 2002 (for girls it increased from 63% to 70% over the same time).12 Here is a good quote from Reason Magazine summarizing the trends in teen sexual behavior:

Despite all the lascivious music, sexual activity among teens has been on the decline. A federal survey found that in 1991, 54 percent of high school students reported they had had sexual intercourse. In 2005, the number was down to 47 percent. Oral sex is allegedly the rage among the pubescent set, but David Landry, a researcher at the Alan Guttmacher Institute, says its popularity has been stable.13

Not only are teenagers more cautious about having sex, they are more cautious while having sex: Condom use has risen by more than a third since the early 1990s. From 1990 through 2000, the pregnancy rate among adolescents fell every year, for a cumulative decline of 28 percent.

Now let’s look at violence. Teen violence in the United States is also down. Again, from Reason:

Teens today are considerably less likely to get in fights or carry weapons than they were 15 years ago. Kids under the age of 18 commit only one-third as many crimes as they did in the peak year of 1993.14

Violence

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, violent crime rates have been decreasing since the 1970s.15 The U.S. rate in 2009 was 16.9 crimes per 1,000 of population. The rate in 1973 was 47.7 – that means that the violent crime rate in 1973 was almost three times higher than it is now. By other measures, the violent crime rate peaked in 1991 and has been declining since then and is now at the same level as 1973; either way, there has been at least a two-decade decrease in crime rates.16

Living Conditions

And finally, living conditions. Despite the recession, living conditions have significantly improved for most people over the last few decades. Poverty rates (as measured by the percentage of people living on less than $1 a day) have been decreasing in all regions of the world for the last few decades.17 Other indicators of human development (such as literacy and life expectancy) have been getting better as well. For most parts of the world,18 the last decade has been the best ever.19

In the United States, things have also been getting better for the poor, especially when you account for the lower rate of inflation of goods purchased by low-income households.20 By most measures, the poor in the United States today enjoy a higher standard of living than the middle class did in 1971.21 People in the United States need to spend far less of their income on food, clothing, and shelter,22 and have a far greater percentage of their income available to spend on non-necessities than ever before.23 Americans have more leisure now, and spend less time working.24

Conclusion

So why do we hear people talking about how bad and dangerous the world has become? Warning people about the dangers and problems they face (even if they are not real) is a great rhetorical tool to get people to pay attention to you and follow your advice. It is also a natural human reaction to filter our memories and remember the past as the “good old days.” But as W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm said in 1995, the good old days are now. The truth is that there has never been a better time to be alive. We should be grateful every day for the amazing living conditions we enjoy. The world is a beautiful place, and it is getting better and better. Does this mean it will always improve? No. Does that mean that it can’t get worse? No. We should be vigilent in working to address the problems that still exist in our world. But we have so many more reasons to be optimistic and hopeful than to be negative or fearful about the state of the world and its future. We should all realize how many reasons we have to be happy, hopeful, and optimistic, instead of focusing on doom and gloom.

9 http://www.newsday.com/news/health/teen-birthrates-in-u-s-lowest-in-70-years-1.2578646 . Admittedly, the high numbers in the 1940s and 1950s were not because of unwed mothers, but because people got married younger. I would argue,though, that a teen pregnancy, even when the girl is married, is a bad thing.