Reading the front page of the newspaper , watching the TV news it is difficult not to feel pessimistic . Afghanistan, climate change , the Middle East , Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath , the fiscal cliff , trade deficits , infrastructure problems, China’s superpower ambitions , our stagnant economy , murders , natural disasters … the list goes on and on . It is almost enough to make one believe those predictions of an apocalypse next month (12/12/12) .
And yet are things really so hopeless, so bad ? I used to think so, but no longer . More and more , I think we’ve turned the corner and that things will improve , that happy days will be here again.
I too had been very pessimistic about the future when I attended my nephew’s graduation at Duke this past May. The commencement speaker that day was Fareed Zakaria , who has his own talk show on TV and is a columnist for Time . I’d never seen his show or read his articles but his speech that day bowled me over . His message to the graduates was that while they were entering a difficult job market , they were also living in a world ” profoundly at peace”. Arguing that we were living in “astonishingly peaceful times “, he pointed out that the US was not involved in any major wars ( as we ‘d previously been, in WW II , Korea and Vietnam ). Yes , we were involved in Iraq and Afghanistan but , in spite of that , the number of casualties this decade was down 50% from the 90’s. He went on to say that the global economy was growing 10-20% faster than a decade ago and that the computing power of a computer was doubling every 18 months even as the price was halved . He gave a particularly vivid illustration of technological progress when he said that today’s cell phone has more computing power than the Apollo space capsule did .Another interesting statistic : every day that passes adds five hours to our expected life span ( that’s something I still find difficult to grasp) . Zakaria said that economically , technologically and societally , the US is vibrant and dynamic and he urged the new graduates to go out and make an impact.
It was not only the graduates who came away from the commencement feeling optimistic . I did too, though I didn’t fully buy into everything he was saying . In the months since then , I have seen his comments to be prescient . Articles in a variety of publications have trumpeted some astonishing news . I will mention only two of them .One article was about innovations such as 3D printers , “modified ink-jet printers that deposit successive layers of material until a three-dimensional object is built up…..they typically use a tenth of the material needed when machining a part from bulk. “. Using these printers , one could manufacture items anywhere , not merely in huge factories . This innovation stuck in my mind because it sounded so unique , but there were many others that were mentioned . The net result was that some manufacturing jobs that had flown to China and other low wage countries were coming back to the US … slowly , it’s true but they were coming back.
Another article in Time mentioned that the U.S was poised this year to be a net exporter of petroleum products . This past Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal featured the headline “ U.S Redraws World Oil Map”. The WSJ article said that the shale oil boom would help the US surpass Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer by 2020. Not fifty years from now , not twenty-five years from now , but by 2020. The difference this will make to the US is unimaginable as the Middle East will no longer be able to hold us hostage . What a change it will make to our balance of payments and to US politics and diplomacy !
There are , I’m sure many such innovations and projections but we would be hard put to find them in the newspapers or TV news .The modern world has become so complex and constantly changing that there are very few who have the ability and the time to assess it properly and come away with an accurate picture. The media , I feel , prefers to stress the negative and the sensational . Bad news sells . I also question how sophisticated our journalists are . Most of them are talking heads accustomed to short ,quick , flashy newsbytes. The collapse of the newspaper industry means that there is very little in-depth reporting and , even if there were , the public is not interested .
Politicians are too interested in attacking those in power and they too focus on the shortcomings and problems of our society. Is it any wonder then that the American public is so fearful , so divided , so despairing for the future ? With a shortage of well-paying jobs , falling house prices , 8% unemployment and worries about Iraq , Afghanistan and the Middle East it is not surprising . I would not say this to someone who’s without a job and who’s living on his dwindling savings BUT : if they were able to look beyond their immediate situation and take the long view , they would see that while things aren’t great right now , the indications are that they will get better. Yes there are big problems with our education system , with healthcare , with the economy and so on ; even oil extraction by fracking has caused concerns but I feel that the problems will be addressed and mitigated , if not conquered.
Happy days will be here again . Let’s hope that it happens sooner , rather than later.