This article was written with an American audience in mind, but it does apply to somewhat to Singapore too.
7 Reasons the World Looks Worse Than It Really Is
By David Wong August 19, 2013
A billion people have been lifted out of poverty in just the last 20 years. Did you know that? Do you know how it happened? Do you sit around thinking about how wonderful that is?
But I suppose that in the course of complaining about the state of the economy, politics, and shitty broadband Internet we should take a moment to notice that we're living in the glorious golden age of civilization and that life is improving for the species at a dizzying rate not even hippies could have hoped for in their smelliest dreams.
Why do we find it so hard to do that? Well ...
#7. We Are Only Happy if Other People Aren't
Wow, that's a glum headline. Let me put it this way: Most guys wish their wives or girlfriends were as beautiful as Jennifer Lawrence or Emily Ratajkowski (aka the brunette in the "Blurred Lines" video).
But "beautiful" literally means "attractive on a level that very few women achieve." She is special because she is rare. The moment all women look like her, they would no longer be considered beautiful.
In other words, what everybody wants is to have the thing that most people don't have. The fact that most people don't have it is the reason they want it. So by nature it is impossible for everyone to have it, because the moment everyone has it, the reason for wanting it vanishes. And that paradox can be applied to absolutely everything that makes you angry about the economy, government, and society as a whole. It's all a Catch-22 that you use to torture yourself.
"Not true," you say, your other browser tabs already open to a Google Image search of Emily Ratajkowski photos. "The system sucks because there is a basic quality of life that every person should have, but lots of people don't have it due to the evil politicians, greedy bankers, and other sociopaths who have gamed the system." I understand.
Now grab a pen and write down a list of the things you think every human should have in a good and just world. Obviously everybody should have basic safety, freedom, a roof over their head. Access to clean water, food, basic health care, transportation. Electricity. A phone. These days they need Internet access, and if they live somewhere hot they need air conditioning. Freedom to choose their own mate ... all that. Even if you've never made such a list, you still have the general idea in your head -- otherwise you wouldn't know what to be mad about.
Now ask yourself the question nobody asks: How did you decide everyone should have those things?
The answer is that your list is Emily Ratajkowski. Your idea of what everyone "should" have is nothing more than a list of what most people on earth don't have, and have never had. Then you decided that this is what everyone "should" have in a world that wasn't a corrupt shithole.
But it's completely arbitrary -- if you had been born in Nigeria, your idea of what everyone "should" have would be quite different (for instance, it would not include broadband Internet access or air conditioning). And in fact, the Nigerian's ideal standard might look a lot like what everyone around you has right now.
It's so simple, but now listen to anybody discuss some current political subject and watch them fall into this trap. Are you mad about your student loans and that college cost you more than a house? Do you make yourself even angrier when you see that college is free in Sweden? But most countries are not Sweden. Sweden has the Emily Ratajkowski of educational systems.
So we pick out the best of the best and declare that this is the norm that every other place is failing to conform to due to some act of corruption or evil. We scream when someone is denied a life-saving new medical treatment because health care should be a human right. But how can something be a natural human right when A) it didn't even exist a year ago and B) it only now exists in limited, expensive quantities?
"What, so it's wrong to want things to improve? And you say there's a topless version of this video?" Not at all, and yes there is. In fact, things are improving -- people are living longer and better than at any point in human history, and the trend keeps going up. Some people will just always be ahead of the curve, and you can't automatically treat what they have as something you're being deprived of, whether we're talking about money, looks, health, or anything else.
All you're doing is murdering your own happiness, sitting in a world full of astonishing feats of goodness and genius and thinking only about how we haven't gotten rid of something (inequality) that is fundamentally impossible to get rid of. But that just leads to my next point ...
#6. We Insist on Comparing Our World to an Imaginary One That Exists Only in Our Heads
You can get annoyed because your car gets worse gas mileage than your last one, but only a crazy person would get angry that their car can't instantly teleport them anywhere in the world, for free, and doesn't have its own Five Guys franchise in the back seat.
But this is what we do, every day -- we create angst for ourselves over the failure of the real world to conform to some impossible, nonsensical standard that exists only in our crazy brains. If you open a newspaper at the breakfast table (you're a dad in a 1960s sitcom, right?) and bemoan how people are greedy, politicians are corrupt, and good jobs are too scarce, that only makes sense if you can answer the question "Compared to what?" Because no real society is or ever has been without greed, corruption, and shitty, low-paying jobs.
But of course, we don't compare our country to some other country, we compare it to an imaginary perfect one that we just made up and/or gleaned from pop culture. For instance, probably the most famous fictional utopia is Star Trek. In that universe, Earth is at peace, goods are plentiful, and money is a forgotten concept, as is racism. You subconsciously look at that and say, "What's wrong with the world that we can't just get along and leave our greed and anger behind?"
But the positive societal changes that occurred in Star Trek were pulled entirely out of Gene Roddenberry's asshole -- he didn't have to work out the logistics of how, say, you keep a population happy when everyone wants to be starship captains and nobody wants to be janitors in a world that needs far more of the latter. Imaginary worlds don't have to worry about logistics -- I'm writing a book about a fictional technology that allows anyone to do kung fu or shoot lightning from their genitalia, but I didn't have to overcome the many technical challenges that in the real world are keeping lightning penises at least 20 years away.
Your imagination ignores those same contradictions -- you wonder why we can't have a world where all politicians work for the public good, smoothing over the fact that to some politicians, "the public good" means outlawing abortion, and to others it means legalizing it.
"Sure, but that doesn't mean every possible improvement to the world is a pointless flight of fancy! Is it too much to ask for a world where, say, the rich give up some of their wealth so the rest of us can have the basics?" Nope! But you'd still be angry if they did. Because ...
#5. We Focus on the Negative Byproducts of Wonderful Trends
This can't be argued: In the last 30 years, wages have stagnated, the middle class has been dying, good-paying jobs that anyone can get have been vanishing. You know the story. If not, go tour Detroit.
Just imagine a world where instead the rich fat cats gave up some of their wealth and, as a result, the average person's disposable income went up a thousand percent in just 30 years. It'd be like the goddamned debauched apex of the Roman Empire in this shit, everybody with a supermodel feeding them grapes in the middle of an orgy.
Well, guess what: That thousand-percent climb is absolutely true. In China. In India, incomes have tripled in just the last 10 years. Ah, but who cares about those, um, 2.5 billion people? You do! Weren't we just wishing for a Star Trek-style utopia where all of humanity is one? So we should be celebrating the golden wave that is lifting China and India out of poverty the same as if it happened to us, right? We're all members of the human family.
And make no mistake, the economic slump us Americans and Europeans are grinding through is, ultimately, due to the fact that the rest of the world has finally been invited to the party. Fuel gets expensive because demand goes up, because people on the other side of the world are able to own their first cars, air conditioners, and computers. Good unskilled jobs are hard to come by because people in developing countries are competing for what are to them the first good jobs of their lives.
In other words, the rich man did give up his fortune to help the poor. It's just that we're all that rich man. If you have a home with a computer, a refrigerator, and air conditioning, then you're in the top, upper crust of the world's living standards. You're living the Emily Ratajkowski life -- the one everybody else wants. So does that give you a warm feeling in your heart knowing that your loss is their gain?
If not, why not?
Because if we put it that way, our outrage and ennui at the supposed "state of the world" kind of makes us look like oblivious, spoiled dicks, doesn't it? And if we're going down that path ...
#4. The Things We Hate and the Things We Aspire to Are the Same Things
Now surely this can't be argued: The world governments and economies are full of exploitative, corrupt practices that somebody could stop if they just had the balls.
For instance, you may have heard that there was recently a nationwide strike by fast food workers demanding a doubling of the minimum wage. That's a perfect example -- if the minimum wage is leaving people impoverished, why not just raise it? Because politicians won't stand up to the evil corporations, that's why! It's the same reason they won't just ban the big-money special interests and lobbyists that are corrupting democracy. In a perfect world, if oil prices are too high, the government would stand up to the greedy oil executives and force them down! The fact that they could do it and choose not to is a perfect reason to get enraged, damn it!
And I agree -- nothing curls my fist tighter than finding out that somebody is screwing the rest of us by gaming the system. Like the recent news that hospitals conspire to mark up dirt-cheap aspirin by 1,000 percent, or that banks secretly jack up the prices of commodities like aluminum. Can't somebody just put a stop to this kind of price fixing? If there is plenty of something, it's immoral to jack up the price. It's like the evil tycoon in Total Recall forcing people to pay for oxygen. Shove that asshole out onto the surface of Mars and make his eyes explode!
But, well, here's the thing ...
Unskilled workers are also plentiful. If your only skills are in customer service jobs that anyone can do with one day's training, then you, as a worker, are as plentiful as oxygen. Because this resource (unskilled, mildly motivated workers) is plentiful, the people who pay for it (employers) expect it to be cheap (low wages).
Of course, if your resource is more rare (say, if you are a top-notch software developer), then they expect it to be more expensive and will pay accordingly. So the only way for people with unremarkable "plentiful as oxygen" skills to get paid significant money is, you guessed it, by engaging in the same price fixing you just hated the greedy bastards for -- either by having the government intervene and artificially set the price higher (i.e., a minimum wage) or by the sellers of the resource grouping together to set the price higher against the buyer's will (labor unions). And that practice suddenly becomes OK when it's done to our benefit.
And no, please don't bombard me with links advocating a higher minimum wage or tell me I've lost touch with the working man due to my hundreds of dollars of fart monster money. I totally want a higher minimum wage. A certain amount of price fixing is a good thing, whether you're talking about the price of labor or aluminum, and capitalism only works when everybody is strongly advocating for their own benefit. My point is that you can apply this to anything. Want to ban the big-money special interests and lobbyists from government? Fine, just know that environmental and gay rights groups are among those lobbyists who'll be banned. If we prevent the evil oil millionaires from buying political ads to advance their agenda (i.e., getting "big money" out of elections), we also have to prevent the weed legalization groups from buying theirs. Wait, you didn't mean the practice should just be banned for people who disagree with you, right?
So once again, what looks like inexcusable corruption in the system turns out to be the side effect of other people having access to the same awesome stuff you do, only they're using it to advance an agenda you don't like. Trayvon Martin's killer walked because the standard for convicting someone is intentionally set high -- something you will be thankful for if you're ever accused of a crime. Which brings us to ...
#3. We Don't Recognize That Flaws Are Just Alternatives to Much Worse Flaws
I went through the same phase in high school and college as everybody else. You read a book that blows your mind and you can't stop talking about it for like two months. Then you read another book and find out that a long time ago somebody tried to implement the radical changes demanded by that first book and like 100 million people died as a result. Then you just kind of quietly drop it and grow up a little.
This is why adults get that smug look when they hear 20-year-olds with fire in their eyes saying, "It's ridiculous that we haven't given communism a try! Why can't we all just share?" or "I know this is going to be unpopular, but I don't see why we can't just stop the bad people from breeding!" or "Damn, Atlas Shrugged just blew my mind!" or "Have you watched Zeitgeist?" Hey, I did it, too -- it's totally natural to look at the inexcusable failings of human society and assume that not only is there a better alternative, but that the better alternative is obvious. It always brings to mind one of my favorite quotes, from H.L. Mencken: "For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."
He also could have said, "If the solution to the world's problems occurred to you in high school, the odds are that other people have probably tried it already." And the current way of doing things, no matter how ridiculous and shitty, is almost always the alternative to some much worse way we tried in the past (or as Churchill put it, "... democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried ...").
To pull a random example out of my ass, we have the controversial practice of aerial drone strikes. Every week there is some new outrage where these remote-control murder bots have blown up a bad guy plus two dozen random people in the vicinity, and there'll be talk of how these killer machines are the terrifying forefront of "a faceless global war."
But drone strikes weren't invented as an alternative to negotiations and dinner parties, they were an alternative to either putting boots on the ground (thus risking the lives of the soldiers) or just bombing the shit out of everything in the vicinity (killing far more bystanders than drones). The sight of a robot plane taking out a terror suspect with a missile is horrifying, unless you compare it to Black Hawk Down.
"But why can't we wish for a world where governments don't kill people at all?" We totally can! Just as we can work toward a system that gives people a better standard of living than capitalism, or a breed of cats that aren't assholes. But to be clear, in each case we're working toward something that does not exist and has never existed, anywhere. Humans fight wars, just as animals kill each other over territory and resources. As do plants, and microbes, and cells.
Real change happens incrementally as we find little ways to lessen the horror over decades and centuries. Yes, 4,700 people have been killed in drone strikes, and in the war in Afghanistan as a whole, up to 20,000 civilians have been killed (most at the hands of insurgents and sectarian infighting as a result of the war). But in Vietnam that number was between 250,000 and 500,000, with another 200,000 killed in post-war bullshit.
Think I'm cherry-picking my examples? Fine, add up all of the wars and you find that worldwide deaths from combat have been plummeting. During the Cold War era, about 180,000 people a year died from war-related violence. Over the last decade we've slashed that number down to about 55,000 a year. It's still 55,000 too many, of course. But my point is, the horrors you see now are the better, more humane alternatives to greater horrors. You have to compare the world to the world, not to your imagination.
And if you do that, it's actually very rare that you find a system in place now that isn't a superior version of an older, shittier system, no matter how flawed it might be. You can hate the greed and cutthroat competition of capitalism, but before that it was the much-worse feudalism. You can say that communism was never given a chance because countries like Russia and China were taken over by crazy assholes, but you have to understand that susceptibility to crazy assholes will always be one of the fundamental weaknesses of that system. You have to give credit to the people who worked hard to make things less bad today, but we don't do that because ...
#2. With People More Powerful Than Us, We Only Count the Bad Things They Do
Even those of you who don't believe in any particular religion have to think the concept of Judgment Day is pretty awesome. Every human is put on trial for every terrible thing they did in life, the sum total of their good and bad deeds put on a scale. Think about it -- all of the rich shitheads who got away with greed and corruption in life are finally called to task before some greater power. No lawyers, no loopholes, no bribes -- just justice. Enjoy your eternal hellfire, Mr. Comcast!
So, here's a weird question: If the people who run Exxon (or Walmart, or Goldman Sachs) wound up standing before God on Judgment Day, surely they'd have to answer for the pollution, tax evasion, wage theft, and whatever backroom deals were made to keep politicians on their side. But in their "positive" column, would the Exxon guys get credit for all of the oil? You know, the fuel that ran the ambulances that took sick people to the hospital, and the farm equipment that grew food for hungry people, and the cars that let people travel to visit lonely relatives?
The rich venture capitalist who screwed his employees and owned two sweatshops, but who also invested money in a new life-saving treatment for heart disease -- does he get credit for all of the sick people the invention healed? The Internet loves viral stories about corrupt cops -- do the corrupt cops, upon judgment, get credit for all of the lives they saved and crimes they stopped or prevented? Does Steve Jobs only hear about the dead workers at Foxconn, or does he also get credit for all of the happiness his gadgets have brought people? Does Monsanto get credit for all that corn?
Why not? Why would all of the things productive people produce be taken for granted?
And we do take them for granted. If I tell you that workers are better off today because the average 1970 worker couldn't afford a smartphone or Internet access regardless of their income, you'll roll your eyes and say, "Well duh, those things didn't exist back then!" OK, so we just take the continued invention of these marvels as if it's as inevitable as the rising of the sun, rather than the dedicated work of people taking risks and getting up early in the morning when they'd prefer to stay home and browse porn?
Why can't we acknowledge that those inventions happen because right now we have a system that encourages and rewards their invention? Or that the same system that gave you your iPhone also gave you job uncertainty and poor health benefits? Millions of the people who take to the Internet and scream about how Walmart treats its employees can, in fact, boast that they don't do the same to their employees, but only because they don't have any employees. Because they've never taken that risk or put in those 100-hour weeks to build something up from nothing. So in the process of hating the people who have, shouldn't we also appreciate that our homes are full of the stuff they gave us access to?
I know from experience that many of you reading that point not only disagree with it, but are actually made physically angry by it. But I think there is something else at play there ...
#1. We Want the World to Be Bad Because It Gives Us an Excuse to Withdraw from It
And here's the bottom line. The most common objection to "Things aren't so bad!" is "Oh, so I'm supposed to just sit back and smile while children are raped to death in Malaysia? You think Martin Luther King Jr. would have changed the world if he hadn't gotten angry at the state of things?" It's like people think that if they stop being cynical or stop interacting with the world through a layer of detached irony that they're selling out or giving consent to the world's evils. And I think this is another bullshit lie we tell ourselves.
Martin Luther King was able to do what he did because he was optimistic. Not optimistic in the sense that he thought if he just stayed home and played pool all day that things would work themselves out, but optimistic in the sense that he thought we could correct injustice if we pushed hard enough -- that people would come around. Just as Steve Jobs was confident that computing could change the world if enough geniuses put in enough 100-hour weeks. Optimism is believing that going out in the world and doing things is worthwhile. It's the cynics who stay home and do nothing. This is why the most cynical hipsters among us are also the most unemployed.
"Oh, great," you say, "look at you again mocking the young and poor from your lofty perch atop Dong Monster Mountain. Not everybody gets that kind of break." But I'm talking about myself here -- I spent the hiring boom of the Clinton years working a series of terrible office jobs because that hiring boom was going to people with certifications in Cisco networking, not journalism majors proficient in GoldenEye. And during those bad years I wanted very much to see headlines telling me how awful the job market was. What else could explain employers refusing to hire someone with no unique skills who would have performed the job with a combination of reluctance and detached irony? Cynicism became a blank check for failure.
The same young people who take to Reddit to scream about how corrupt the current leaders are also don't bother to vote for different ones. "What's the point of leaving the house on election day," they say, "the whole system is rigged!" Convenient, considering you didn't feel like leaving the house anyway. "What's the point of giving money to the homeless? They'll probably just spend it on crack!" Convenient, considering it also lets you keep the money. "Why bother starting a business, I'll just get crushed by the corporate giants!" Convenient, in that it also saves you a few decades of 16-hour work days and three ulcers. "Why try to make friends, all of the people my age are shallow, brainless jerks!" Convenient, in that this lets you just stay home and watch a Breaking Bad marathon instead, which just happens to be what you wanted to do anyway.
This is why I've grown to find cynicism so frustrating -- cynicism doesn't cause inaction. The desire for inaction causes cynicism. And so you fight to defend your cynicism tooth and nail.
That's right -- there's a reason many of you felt a gut-level negative reaction to talk of mankind's "golden age" earlier -- you have quite a bit invested in the idea that the world is rotten. So ask yourself: If the Star Trek utopia ever came to pass, would you be up there on that starship having adventures? Or would you be at home, thinking the whole Federation thing was bullshit?
Because to a kid living 200 years ago, this world is the Star Trek fantasy come to life. All of the information in the world is available to you via the same machine you're using to read this. Why aren't you a genius yet? What are you doing with this power?
You have a long list of reasons/excuses, and that's your business. But it's not because the world is in terrible shape. It isn't, no matter how much we may want it to be.