MANY of us are often disappointed with what we have or what we see around us because we tend to compare them with what we believe we should have or see around us.
This is the “nirvana fallacy,” a phrase coined by UCLA economist Harold Demsetz. Here’s how another economist, Nathan Goodman, explains it:
“The world we live in is full of imperfections. As one looks around society, it’s not hard to find examples of externalities [i.e., the costs or benefits of an economic activity experienced by an unrelated third party], imperfect information, or collective action problems that leave public goods insufficiently dispersed. But from these failures, it’s all too easy to leap to advocating idealized solutions. The problems we’re trying to solve arose from imperfect institutions populated by imperfect people. Positing perfection on the part of the institutions one advocates to solve a problem is unrealistic.”
It should be much better — and possibly more productive — to find out what we can obtain or implement based on the actual historical record, including the track record of the parties involved, and the actual experience of, more or less, similar societies. We ponder possibilities, not fantasize about utopia.
Many of us, however, will always notice the bad more than the good. This is our “negativity instinct” at work, wrote Hans Rosling, M.D., in his superb book “Factfulness” published in 2018.
“There are,” he said, “three things going on here: the misremembering of the past; selective reporting by journalists and activists; and the feeling that as long as things are bad it’s heartless to say they are getting better.”
He added, “For centuries, older people have romanticized their youths and insisted that things ain’t what they used to be. Well, that’s true, but not in the way they mean it. Most things used to be worse, not better. But it is extremely easy for humans to forget how things really did ‘used to be.’ ” In the NMI’s case, I suggest that, now and then, we read the back issues of Marianas Variety and other local publications, especially their issues from way back, the 1970s or even earlier.
In Western Europe and North America, Rosling said, “only the very oldest, who lived through the Second World War or the Great Depression, have any personal recollection of the severe deprivation and hunger of just a few decades ago. Yet even in China and India, where extreme poverty was the reality for the vast majority just a couple of generations ago, it is now mostly forgotten by people who live in decent houses, have clean clothes, and ride mopeds.”
Swedish author and journalist Lasse Berg wrote an excellent report from rural India in the 1970s, Rosling said. “When he returned 25 years later, he could see clearly how living conditions had improved. Pictures from his visit in the 1970s showed earthen floors, clay walls, half-naked children, and the eyes of villagers with low self-esteem and little knowledge of the outside world. They were a stark contrast to the concrete houses of the late 1990s, where well-dressed children played and self-confident and curious villagers watched TV. When Lasse showed the villagers the 1970s pictures they couldn’t believe the photos were taken in their neighborhood. ‘No,’ they said. ‘This can’t be here. You must be mistaken. We have never been that poor.’ Like most people, they were living in the moment, busy with new problems….” (My italics.)
A few years back, I wrote about the islandwide littering problem that also affected Managaha and the Grotto as well as the overflowing former U.S. military scrap-metal dumpsite in Puerto Rico — in the 1970s, before the tourism industry took off, before the garment industry, before the growth in population, etc. etc. One reader’s reaction: “No way.”
Today, Rosling said (a few years before Covid-19), we “are subjected to never-ending cascades of negative news from across the world: wars, famines, natural disasters, political mistakes, corruption, budget cuts, diseases, mass layoffs, acts of terror. Journalists who reported flights that didn’t crash or crops that didn’t fail would quickly lose their jobs. Stories about gradual improvements rarely make the front page even when they occur on a dramatic scale and impact millions of people. And thanks to increasing press freedom and improving technology [smartphones, social media, etc.], we hear more, about more disasters, than ever before…. Alongside all the other improvements, our surveillance of suffering has improved tremendously. This improved reporting is itself a sign of human progress, but it creates the impression of the exact opposite.”
For their part, “activists and lobbyists skillfully manage to make every dip in a trend appear to be the end of the world, even if the general trend is clearly improving, scaring us with alarmist exaggerations and prophecies. For example, in the United States, the violent-crime rate has been on a downward trend since 1990. Just under 14.5 million crimes were reported in 1990. By 2016 that figure was well under 9.5 million. Each time something horrific or shocking happened, which was pretty much every year, a crisis was reported. The majority of people, the vast majority of the time, believe that violent crime is getting worse.”
Rosling said the news constantly alerts us to bad events in the present. No wonder we get an illusion of constant deterioration, he added. “The doom-laden feeling that this creates in us is then intensified by our inability to remember the past; our historical knowledge is rosy and pink and we fail to remember that, one year ago, or ten years ago, or 50 years ago, there was the same number of terrible events, probably more. This illusion of deterioration creates great stress for some people and makes other people lose hope. For no good reason.”
Rosling said some may feel “that me saying that the world is getting better is like me telling you that everything is fine, or that you should look away from…problems and pretend they don’t exist…. I agree. Everything is not fine. We should still be very concerned. As long as there are plane crashes, preventable child deaths, endangered species, climate change deniers, male chauvinists, crazy dictators, toxic waste, journalists in prison, and girls not getting an education because of their gender, as long as any such terrible things exist, we cannot relax.”
However, the good doctor said, “it is just as ridiculous, and just as stressful, to look away from the progress that has been made. People often call me an optimist, because I show them the enormous progress they didn’t know about. That makes me angry. I’m not an optimist. That makes me sound naïve. I’m a very serious ‘possibilist.’ That’s something I made up. It means someone who neither hopes without reason, nor fears without reason, someone who constantly resists the overdramatic worldview. As a possibilist, I see all this progress, and it fills me with conviction and hope that further progress is possible. This is not optimistic. It is having a clear and reasonable idea about how things are. It is having a worldview that is constructive and useful.”
To be continued
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