Should we all be optimists or pessimists?

Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist and author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progresszooms back and examines the “big picture of human progress” since the late 18th century, right around the time the Enlightenment Age kicked off. Pinker highlights the data on education, literacy, wealth, and longevity to make the broader case that life, is good and getting better.  He’s sort of the anti-Lester Thurow (circa 1983).

Global economic prosperity proves his thesis that science and reason have saved the day, but what if that prosperity is an illusion?

Pinker suffers from what I’ll call the jealous neighbor fallacy.  You are living on a street where all the houses are of similar value and design. Everyone has 1.5 children and a minivan. One day you notice your neighbor (Joe Blow) has a new Mercedes S550. You finally decide to confront him. You ask whether he got a new job or a huge raise. He tells you that nothing has changed, he simply leased the car with no money down. The dealer seemed more than happy to make the deal.

Then it gets worse – your other neighbor gets a new Tesla S, again all financed through the dealer. From that point on your wife and you wince a little as both your neighbors cruise around in high-class cars so everyone can see them. You feel like the poor people on the block. One day you go out to pick up your paper from the street and Steven Pinker is outside congratulating Joe on his financial good fortune.

The error that Thurow made was to never imagine we would borrow our way to faster growth. Ronald Reagan got us going and George Bush Jr. took it to a new level. Pinker doesn’t pay attention to the balance sheet – all he sees are the near-term benefits.

These numbers are extraordinary. This debt has allowed us to both stimulate our local economy but also those of our trading partners. They lend to us and we voraciously buy all their crud. We have lifted all boats which is why Pinker’s global averages look so marvelous. But that’s not all. Other countries have followed our lead just like neighbors copy neighbors when it comes to borrowing to buy new cars. Here’s what China has done:

Every time you hear Larry Kudlow brag about GDP growth you must balance it against the giant annual deficits we are currently running – 10 years after a recession, precisely when we should be running huge surpluses. Do we feel richer? Yes. Crime is lower, longevity is rising (sort of) and global poverty has fallen (mainly due to Chinese growth). If this were being achieved by virtue of rising productivity then we truly would have much to celebrate. (It’s not)

Unfortunately, if we look into the future using Pinker’s time frame this doesn’t end well.

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