Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Thoughts on The Progress Paradox

One of my goals for the year is to read several books that have been on my to-read list for at least five years. One of these books was Gregg Easterbrook’s The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, published in 2003.

Easterbrook makes many interesting observations in this book and offers some good explanations for them, but he covers so much ground (politics, poverty, health care, the environment, the history of the Islamic world, and more) that not all of his ideas are fully developed. His optimism is refreshing, but at times, it is too extreme. For example, I would love to believe his assertion that global poverty can be solved in a generation or two, but his suggested solutions are impractical. He argues that Americans should “tax themselves,” demanding to pay more for goods and services so that minimum wage can become a living wage. But if that happened, wouldn’t the people receiving minimum wage also have to pay more for goods and services, thereby making their new wage worth less anyway? He also says that Western governments could simply give people the money they need to survive through foreign aid, but he makes no suggestions about how we could ensure our money would make its way through red tape and corrupt officials and get to the people who really need it.
The book does seem well researched, and most ideas are supported by statistics. However, the only citation I checked was inaccurate – he quoted an article that contrasted York, PA (in the county where I live) with an upscale suburb, but when I looked up the article, I found it didn’t mention York at all – it was describing Franklin County, PA. Even if the other statistics are accurate, they are already outdated. I wonder which of Easterbrook’s conclusions – if any – would be different if he were writing the book now, several years after the national economy went south.
I would also have liked to see Easterbrook better define his terminology. For example, he talks about people who own speedboats and private planes as “not rich.” He also describes capitalism and market democracy as two completely different and somewhat incompatible political systems, but he doesn’t explain what the distinction is or why it’s important. (Trying but failing to remember whether my high school government classes had covered this topic, I did an Internet search to find the difference. I didn’t come up with any answers; in fact, some sources explained capitalism as “the market system” or saw capitalism as the system that makes democracy possible.)
When Easterbrook described himself near the end as a “churchgoing Christian,” I was astonished, as many of his presuppositions obviously came from a secular worldview. (He seems to have more faith in evolution and economic progress than in Jesus.) He does show respect for people of faith and talks about the need for everyone to value forgiveness and gratitude, but he says we should do so for selfish reasons. (The chapter that gets closest to addressing spiritual matters is titled “Selfish Reasons To Become a Better Person.”)
Frankly, I’m amazed that someone could write an entire book on our lack of happiness despite our wealth and give so little space to the spiritual aspect of the issue. As a “churchgoing Christian” myself, I would love to see more Christians talking about this topic from a biblical perspective. Simultaneous material blessings and lack of contentment is a defining characteristic of our culture that the American church has failed to address adequately.