Commentary Magazine

The Progress Paradox by Gregg Easterbrook

The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse
by Gregg Easterbrook
Random House. 400 pp. $24.95

Americans have never been so educated, healthy, well-fed, long-lived, or fabulously rich. In fact, by any reasonable measure, we live more comfortable, bountiful lives than 99 percent of the human beings who have ever walked the planet, including most of history’s kings, emperors, and pashas. So—are we having fun yet?

The answer is no, according to Gregg Easterbrook in The Progress Paradox. Easterbrook, a senior editor at the New Republic, has long been known for sharp, balanced commentary on everything from the environment to military hardware, from economics and politics to football. Recently, though, he earned himself a less savory reputation when, in the course of a hastily composed online condemnation of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, he wondered about “Jewish [movie] executives [who] worship money above all else, by promoting for profit the adulation of violence.” Easterbrook’s new book does not betray the remotest sign of prejudice, but it does leave some idea of how he got himself into such a fix.



The Progress Paradox begins by exploring the astonishing improvement over the past century in the living standard of ordinary Americans. Not so long ago, the tycoon and the shoe salesman lived dramatically different lives. No longer. Today regular folks go to college, own stocks, are served by maids in fancy hotels and waiters in fancy restaurants, and—despite the steady drumbeat of reports decrying our hyperactive lives—enjoy unprecedented amounts of free time. They use their leisure for, among other things, some 25 million overseas vacations a year; as Easterbrook quips, “70 percent of the nation are members of the jet set.”

The change over the last 50 years has been especially dramatic. After World War II, a returning GI believed he was fulfilling the American dream when he moved his young family into an 1,100-square-foot, one-bathroom house in Levittown. The homes occupied by his baby-boomer children are typically more than twice that size, with several bathrooms and central air-conditioning.

But does not rising inequality in incomes mar this happy picture? Not on careful inspection, Easterbrook argues. Yes, a substantial group of Americans is “stalled” at the bottom of the income scale, but this is largely a consequence of our generous immigration policies. Most new arrivals are poorly educated, and their earnings tend to be low. “Factor out immigration,” Easterbrook writes, “and the rise in American inequality disappears.”

The more emblematic story has to do with economic mobility, which has swelled the ranks of the upper middle class. Twenty-three percent of U.S. households now enjoy an annual income of $75,000 or more, as compared with under 1 percent (adjusted for inflation) in 1890. In 2000, 13 percent of home sales were for vacation houses and condos, where Americans could enjoy the catamarans and Grady White powerboats for which in that year alone they shelled out $25 billion—more than North Korea’s GDP.

Widespread material comfort is just part of the good news. Americans today are also safer and healthier than their grandparents. Over the past generation, the nation has seen decreases in crime, gun and traffic deaths, and infant mortality, as well as in the use of drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol. Despite ominous reports on the evening news, the environment has also improved markedly. Twenty-five years ago, only one third of our lakes and rivers were clean enough for swimming and fishing; today, two thirds are. Toxic emissions are down by 51 percent since 1988.

As for the spiraling cost of health care, it is a blessing in disguise. Health care is more expensive because there is so much more that doctors can do for those who suffer: it is now taken for granted that insurance companies should pay for the artificial knees and hips that did not exist a mere 30 years ago. Perhaps the most striking sign of the success of our much-criticized medical system is that one no longer sees class-based differences in height, life span, or other measures of health—a situation almost unique in civilized history.



Yet, for all this, Americans are mucking around in the dumps rather than dancing in the gold-paved streets. Easterbrook cites a 1996 poll showing that 66 percent of us believe “the lot of the average person is getting worse.” Not only have the trend lines in surveys of happiness been flat since World War II, but the percentage of people who consider themselves “very happy” has declined and the number of those suffering from depression has increased tenfold.

Easterbrook proffers a wide variety of theories for this striking disconnection between our material and our emotional states. There is the fact, for example, that progress inevitably brings with it new problems. Automobiles, for instance, have added immeasurably to personal freedom, convenience, and productivity, but they have also given us traffic jams, pollution, road rage, rising rates of obesity, and general anomie. Further fueling our discontent is “catalogue-induced anxiety”: luscious displays of $10,000 Hermès handbags or $25,000 imported faucets make mass-marketed Coach knockoffs and Kohler fixtures seem shabby. Easterbrook also turns to evolutionary science. A “yearning for love and intimacy” is part of our make-up, but many more of us now live in smaller, more atomized families. Stress, too, is natural and necessary—an element in our “survival strategy”—but the Western way of life tends to intensify it.

Easterbrook devotes the final part of his book to how we might overcome our happiness deficit. The most important tool, he believes, is “positive psychology,” a therapeutic approach that rejects the pessimism of Freud and the coldness of behaviorism. It aims, in the words of one of its exponents, to help people “learn optimism.” Drawing on a “new wave of forgiveness research,” Easterbrook urges that, rather than nursing our grievances, we work instead to cultivate mercy and gratitude. “If positive psychology can show that when you behave in a kind way, what’s in it for you is a happier life,” he writes, “this will create a powerful new incentive for people to emphasize the better parts of their nature.”

Easterbrook also recommends that restless American souls seek fulfillment by improving the lives of others. For all our progress, there are still serious flaws in the Western way of life, flaws that could be resolved. The lack of universal health insurance, for instance, is a continuing blight on our progress. One American in eight continues to live in poverty, a sorry state of affairs that, according to Easterbrook, could easily be fixed through “living wage” laws. Nor is he an isolationist when it comes to spreading the emotional benefits of progress; he encourages us, through the use of foreign aid, to turn our attention to “the defeat of global despair.”



The Progress Paradox is best understood as two books: the first of these is an analysis of the gap between our astonishing material progress and our disappointing levels of happiness; the second is a how-to manual for closing that gap. The first book is a pleasure, filled with curious examples and illuminating insights. Although he has a mature grasp of the trade-offs that come with modern progress, Easterbrook is unafraid to rub our faces in our good fortune. We have much to be thankful for, and it is to his great credit that his own recitation of our blessings inspires some of the feelings of delight and gratitude that he rightly claims are missing from our lives.

Would that he had stopped with that humble reminder of our happy predicament. Unfortunately, Easterbrook’s second book sorely overreaches, leaving a trail of assertions ranging from the commonsensical to the naive and the ham-fisted. Few would argue with his discussion of the many ways Americans have misused their bounty, but he has little to add to an already abundant literature of complaint about consumerism and hyper-individualism.

As for the final section of The Progress Paradox, it touches on a deep idea, with roots in Aristotle and the writings of the American founders. Happiness, as Easterbrook reminds us, is both a personal and a social good, and is closely intertwined with the idea of virtue. But he tends to bang around these hefty notions as a fishmonger would a carp. For him, thinking happy thoughts is just the reasonable thing to do. “Meaning can be found,” he assures us. “If God exists, then surely life has meaning. And if God does not exist, then surely life has meaning. Meaning may be divinely conferred. If not, we can create meaning by living decent and admirable lives.”

Easterbrook is a logical, left-brain sort of guy who has blundered into the thorny fields of psychology, philosophy, and religion. Analyzing research on economics and the environment, he is as agile as they come. But when he turns to deeper questions—and here we return to the ugly statement from his online column—he is clumsily utilitarian. The writer of The Progress Paradox is not a man who would allude to the Jewish background of movie executives to lend support to noxious stereotypes; he is, however, an earnest, somewhat naive man, determined to do good yet deeply frustrated by the reason-defying complexity of human motivations.

It is this same blunt utilitarianism, I suspect, that leads Easterbrook to suppose that the progress paradox is in fact a paradox. Alas, it is not. Just about every serious thinker, from Plato to Shakespeare to Tolstoy, has scoffed at the notion that health and wealth bring happiness in their wake. In his conclusion, Easterbrook announces as something of a discovery what is little more than a truism: “Happiness must come from within, and money cannot buy it.”


About the Author

Kay S. Hymowitz, a contributing editor of City Journal, writes frequently for COMMENTARY on social and cultural issues.

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