A record-high number of Americans — 90% — say they are satisfied with their personal lives, according to Gallup. And 74% are optimistic that they will continue being financially satisfied moving forward. Needless to say, the United States will never be a utopia, but for the vast majority of its citizens, most things are going in the right direction.
During the Democratic presidential debate last night, Bernie Sanders, lamenting how a once-prosperous society had been hollowed out by capitalism, claimed that we are no better off today than we were many years ago. It’s a shame that not a single debate moderator ever challenges this farcical assertion. In Sanders’ telling, “people … after 45 years of work are not making a nickel more than they did 45 years ago.”
For those who weren’t alive then, the 1970s were largely a crime-ridden decade of stagnant economics, city bankruptcies, crushing energy prices, sky-high interest rates, institutional rot, garbage and retirement-destroying inflation. Though it was a far better place than the Communist hot spots Sanders praised during those years, it certainly was not ideal.
And a big part of the post-’70s economic boom we’re still experiencing today — the one that certain progressive and some statist right-wingers like to disparage — was propelled by policies that freed Americans from overbearing technocratic oversight, intrusive regulations and stifling taxes that undermined growth.
The alleged “wage stagnation” to which Sanders and others are constantly referring is a myth. For one thing, “wage stagnation” fails to take into account the health care benefits, pensions, vacations, family leave and other perks now embedded in job packages — somewhere around 30% of an employee’s overall benefits. Once those benefits are added, Americans probably have seen about a 45% wage increase since 1964. More important, the amount of time we work to buy things we need is less. What we buy does more, and it’s of higher quality. Does anyone believe that a dollar spent on medical care in 1975 equals a dollar spent today?
Partly because of a worldwide retreat from collectivism, extreme poverty has dramatically decreased. Massive new markets have opened to us. Despite the perception of many, medium household incomes are at an all-time high. The middle class is growing — especially the upper-middle class. In the past 50 years, spending on food and clothing as a share of family income has fallen from 42% to 17%. Your house is probably more expensive than the average house was in 1975, but it’s also more comfortable and safer.
The year Sanders graduated from college, less than 6% of his fellow Americans — the majority of them wealthy, very few of them minorities or women — were enrolled in higher education. In 1975, only around 11% were enrolled in college. According to the Federal Reserve study, millennials are the most educated generation, with 65% of them possessing at least an associate’s degree.
Better education, soaring productivity and technological advances allow an increasing number of Americans to pick vocations that are safer, less monotonous and more rewarding.
In 1970, around 14,000 workers were killed on the job in the United States. That’s somewhere around 10,000 more deaths yearly than the number of those who perished in the entire Iraq War. Although the workforce had more than doubled since then, the number of occupational deaths in the United States has dropped to around 5,100.
There’s a decent chance that Sanders’ heart attack would have killed a 78-year-old man in 1975. If not, it would have required dangerous surgery. Despite a small dip recently, life expectancy has skyrocketed in the United States over the past 45 years — adding more than six years since 1975. The cancer casualty rate has fallen more than 27% in the past 25 years — which adds up to more than 2 million deaths averted during that time. We’ve been able to mitigate the damage of so many diseases and ailments over the past 45 years — allowing millions to lead longer, more active and less painful lives — that it would take a book to lay out the miraculous number of advances properly.
Most of these developments, not incidentally, were brought to us by profit-driven companies.
In 1975, the child mortality rate was 18.8 per 1,000. In 2019, it was 5.7. Fatalities due to weather events have plunged. Deaths due to air pollution — surely near its smoggy height in 1975 — have fallen, as well. We have cleaner water and cleaner streets.
In 1975, Sanders’ hometown of New York City saw 1,645 murders and rampant criminality. In 2017, there were 286 homicides in NYC. Vehicular fatalities per 100 million in 1975 were at 3.35; now they’re near a historic low of 1.13.
Also, you have a supercomputer in your pocket that offers you instant access to all of human knowledge.
Yes, some Americans still suffer, and some of our goods and services are more expensive than they once were (usually due to market intervention). But we are, by nearly every quantifiable measure, collectively better off today than ever before. And what sufferings millennials do experience today often are a result of their making different choices than their parents did. Bernie should understand this better than most. It’s not in every country that a professional revolutionary can afford to buy a dacha on Lake Champlain.
David Harsanyi is a senior writer at National Review and the author of the book “First Freedom: A Ride Through America’s Enduring History With the Gun.”