Do Better Times Breed Dissatisfaction?

Two Mercatus scholars reflect on how the times have changed

When your names are “Chuck” and “Bob,” you’re likely old enough to offer curmudgeonly observations. In a recent email conversation (edited below), we mused on how life has improved since our youths. Paradoxically, those improvements may shed some light on the extreme dissatisfaction roiling through today’s political and social discourse.

Chuck: A conversation earlier today got me to thinking about how life has changed for the better since we were young, despite today’s rampant pessimism and dissatisfaction. I thought I’d try to start a list of ways we think life is distinctly better now than it was a few decades ago. I’d like to avoid obvious ones like iPhones and such—I consider the march of technology basically a given. Rather, I’m thinking of things that could have gone either way: for example, American cities became more habitable in the early 20th century. Then they sank into decline and really struggled in the mid-late 20th century. Then in recent decades, many became much more attractive again. Nothing inevitable about those swings.  

Bob: Things like iPhones have made life remarkably better but weren’t inevitable. Without some miraculous early-90s congressional actions, the internet and cellular revolutions might never have happened. Near-universal access to IT worldwide played an outsized role in the massive decrease in world poverty over the past 25 to 30 years. When I did work in Africa in the 1980s, communications were often impossible. Today, people in the smallest, most impoverished villages have smartphones warning them of crop-killing storms or helping them find the best prices for their produce. . . . But, returning to your main point, my son Jeremy, amateur observer of urban evolution, speaks of three stages of 20th century urbanity: places rife with concrete and smoke where people had to live to be near work and shopping; hollowed-out relics from which those who could flee to suburbs by automobile did so; and overpriced theme parks for affluent recreation. (He hopes for a more balanced future as we undo a century of urban planning mistakes.)

Chuck: Crime is lower. Many parts of cities that had been written off as hopeless have revived. There’s much more public order, especially in certain urban settings. In the 1970s, if you went to a major league baseball game, let alone a rock concert, you’d be around countless drunks and fights. People would swarm the field in an uncontrolled, often violent way after the game was over. We still have urban unrest now from time to time, but it’s nowhere near as pervasive as it was in the 1960s and 1970s. During the 1970s blackouts, whole sections of NYC were ransacked and looted, and no one could stop it. It’s amazing how well we have reclaimed urban public spaces for family-friendly community experiences. In the 1960s and 1970s a lot of those urban areas were hollowed out, and we thought they’d never recover.

Bob: Alanna [my wife] and I quit two wonderful jobs simultaneously in 1988 to get away from the threat of crime and other urban unpleasantness in NYC. We had a small child and knew exactly one other family who hadn’t fled the city around the birth of their first child. Now, that neighborhood is a kid-clogged Disneyland.

Chuck: Kids are much better protected. We’ve probably swung too far with the coddling, but it’s definitely a net improvement. 1970s schools were anarchic environments; there’s so much less tolerance now of bullying and fighting, and adults generally do a better, more thorough job of supervising and guiding. You can see the results: among teenagers, there is less violence, drinking, pregnancy, substance abuse, smoking, etc., than when we were young.

Bob: Bullying was awful. The prevailing response was "boys will be boys."

Chuck: Attitudes towards LGBT have especially changed. I’m not quite sure where we are on race. There’s probably less racism than when we were young, yet at the same time it feels as though current national discussions of race breed as much division as unity. But when it comes to LGBT, I’m much more confident that we’re miles ahead of where we were. I shudder to think what life would have been like for a gay kid in my high school. The concept of beating up gay Americans was even routinely joked about, by private citizens and police alike. It was an environment of unstated terror that would be horrifying to revisit from today.  There has been a sea change for the better.

Bob: I had gay friends in high school and college. Tragically, none ever admitted it until years later. Adults warned, "be careful about getting too close to them. It could damage your reputation." (I didn't take that advice.) The yearbook photo of the Lambda Legal Society [an LGBT rights organization] at my university showed a blurry photo of the club members’ backs. Awful.

Chuck: In the horror story department, I knew someone a few years older who was found dead under suspicious circumstances. His death was never officially explained, but we always suspected he was the victim of a hate crime. The police were cagey on whether it was homicide or suicide. He was a really nice guy, and we suspected that his sexuality was somehow revealed and made him a target for brutalization. But it was simply brushed away and talked about only in whispers.  As kids, we didn’t see public demands that his death be properly investigated or that possible purveyors of a hate crime be brought to justice.  Instead, his family was left to grieve alone without answers.

Bob: I grew up in a small southern city during Jim Crow. I was aware of and appalled by the obscenity of segregation even when I was still in kindergarten. A hatred of that system was a central focus of my early years.

Chuck: In the 1970s, we had an endless stream of skyjackings, serial killers, hostage-takings, etc. Also, while we still have our enemies and dangers, we face far less constant and imminent danger of nuclear incineration. Getting through the Cold War wasn’t a given, but we made it.

Bob: In the early 1960s, our elementary school regularly made us practice duck-and-cover. Though less than ten years old, we already knew, "if there’s a nuclear attack, this won’t help."

Chuck: Regarding duck-and-cover, it’s always fascinated me how kids are wise to the idiocies of adult-world. I often reflect on how, even as young kids, we could tell that certain things on TV were nonsense or ridiculously contrived. People assume that when others lack formal educations, they are more easily fooled, but for goodness’ sake, even when we had less than an elementary school education, we could still tell what’s what in a lot of areas.

Bob: Gleem toothpaste commercials boasted that, “Only Gleem contains GL-70!” I always suspected that GL-70 was just “stuff that’s in Gleem toothpaste.” (A recent internet search confirmed that suspicion.)

Chuck: Gear is so much better and more innovative, and not solely because of technology, but also because we seem to care more and definitely pay more attention. Whether it’s gear for travelers, campers, students, or new parents, there is so much cool stuff. These areas of activity are accordingly safer and more accessible. We make it easy now for travelers to move their stuff through airports, and for kids to transport their materials at school without spilling them all over the hallway or developing back injuries.  While material science is part of this progress, part of it is also just greater attention to what’s good for children.  When small, I actually used to sit on my mother’s lap while she drove the car.  While we may have over-regulated safety requirements in some respects, at least now we actually do something about the risks to children when they’re left unrestrained to clamber around a speeding automobile.  That has saved a lot of lives.  

Bob: I used to lie in the rear window of our car which, of course, had no seat belts. Anyway, I'm constantly amazed at the engineering that goes into gear. Alanna has a 10x10x10 tent for her art exhibitions. Pull the frame out and BANG! It's up in a few minutes. As Boy Scouts, we slaved to get our little pup tents set up.

Chuck: Then there’s the dispersion of cool life experiences into less-urban areas. I remember a time when my eyes were wide as saucers seeing the diversity of restaurants in NYC’s Greenwich Village, or in Berkeley, CA. Now that stuff is EVERYWHERE. You may not have quite as many eating options in a small town as you do in a big city, but people in big cities are fooling themselves if they think you have to live in urban areas today to have distinctive, diverse, innovative food. One of the things that stuns me now when I move around the country is how even in relatively small cities, there are really cool places to eat, and funky, offbeat cafes just about anywhere. When we were young, if you lived in a small town you had to eat the same stuff, over and over.

Bob: When I lived in Southwest Virginia, the only ethnic food was a place called something like “Dick’s Mexican Foods”—frozen burritos and a toaster oven. When I lived in New York City, I brought bread and coffee beans to my parents whenever I came home to Petersburg, Virginia.

Chuck: The diversity of food available in grocery stores—it really is astonishing how many more ways we can eat now than when we were young, even at home.

Bob: Grocery stores today typically carry 40–50,000 items versus a few thousand when I was young. My father's favorite food was strawberry shortcake, and one reason was that there was a narrow window of time each year when fresh strawberries were available. For nine months or so, he’d wait for their arrival—a brief heaven. Then the strawberries were gone till next year.

Chuck: Your mention of your father’s love of strawberry shortcake reminds me of a thought I sometimes have about the problems of excess—how in a sense, we enjoy life less when we constantly and simultaneously have access to everything. I absolutely loved baseball cards when I was young, and I suspect part of the reason was that I could only collect a dime every so often to buy a new pack. So, I repeatedly reviewed the contents of those ten cards all the long walk home, loving them all individually much more than I would have had I been able to buy the complete set all at once. I own some complete sets now, bought in adulthood, and none is as precious to me as the isolated packs of ten cards I bought as a kid.

Bob: I had relatives in another state who would bring us a rare and dazzling confection from their hometown—Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

Chuck: In a similar vein, we had an ice cream stand where I grew up that had a Krunch Kote topping, which I loved—kind of a sweet, toffee-esque peanut brittle concoction. It was my favorite, but it largely vanished from ice cream stands decades ago. But on a recent family trip, I ran into Krunch Kote again at an ice cream stand—and I was in my own personal heaven. Afterwards I discovered I could order it on Amazon. I did, and I’ve been eating ice cream with Krunch Kote for several months now. Each time I do, I wonder whether I am diminishing the special place Krunch Kote has in my heart by rendering it common.

Bob: Americans have never enjoyed better health than today. Yet, we despair over health and complain endlessly about healthcare that would have seemed miraculous 40 or 50 years ago. We are the “worried well.”

Chuck: None of this is to suggest that it’s not better to have more things available to us. It creates an interesting conundrum: how to balance our pleasures so that we don’t destroy them from overindulgence. There is a happy medium somewhere, between enjoying things more rarely than one would like to, and indulging oneself too often. We now have greater freedom to try to find that point ourselves, rather than having it imposed on us. I suspect that we err far too often on the side of overindulgence and would probably enjoy life more with more frequent self-deprivation. We enjoy things most when we can really focus on them, whereas we can’t when we have too much stuff in our field of vision. Abundance paradoxically breeds dissatisfaction.  Our Wi-Fi goes out or our phones lose power, and we’re beside ourselves with annoyance. The more we have, it seems, the more we demand in order to be content.

Bob: That dissatisfaction bends our public discourse toward angry rhetoric on both sides, and we obsess over microaggressions. Across the aisles, people distrust markets, perhaps, as you suggest, because markets have worked so well that we no longer notice how well. My parents knew true deprivation and utterly terrifying political forces, yet they were deeply satisfied with their lot.

Chuck: I’m optimistic that most of these changes are more or less permanently for the better. I’m worried about a lot of things in this country, but I think a lot of this progress is here to stay.

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