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McNellis: Seeing the Forest for the Trees

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By John McNellis

If you are an entrepreneur, you are an optimist. You have to be. And, Pollyanna aside, it is no simple trick remaining optimistic, and it grows harder by the day, particularly if you focus on the daily news instead of much longer-term events, if you focus on history’s weather rather than its climate.

When reading the New York Times, have you ever asked yourself: Shall I kill myself now or wait until I finish the editorials? A recent Sunday edition of the daily downer ran a front-page article on the perils of quitting antidepressants, failing to credit itself for its own role in creating the need for the drugs. The Review section was plastered with the death of democracy, the rise of fascism and the inequalities of our college admission system. And if those failed to ruin your day, the editors ran the usual hit-piece on how everything you love to consume—fat, salt, sugar, even Diet Coke—will kill you, this time by feeding the bad microbes within your digestive tract. 

In the American media’s production of the 100 Acre Wood, the Times has sewn up the role of Eeyore, but it has thousands of understudies. In fact, if there is a credible publication that consistently takes the longer view—a view decidedly more positive than the Armageddon of the day—your correspondent is unaware of it.    

This is why even recovering optimists should read Steven Pinker. While his latest book, Enlightenment Now may remind one of that old saw, “If I had more time, I could have made it shorter,” it is nevertheless important. The book is a corrugated tin roof against the daily jungle deluge of bad news; it is a clear and convincing reminder of all the good that is happening in the world, of the amazing progress mankind has made and is continuing to make in virtually every aspect of life.

If your attention-span runs more to postcards than tomes, you might consider instead a simple chart published by Our World in Data which shows 6 measures of life’s dramatic improvement over the last 200 years: Only 10 percent of the world is now living in extreme poverty compared with 90 percent two centuries ago; 86 percent of the global population is now literate and has basic education; 56 percent of the world lives in a democracy compared to 1 percent; despite Hollywood’s best efforts, 86 percent of the world is now vaccinated against diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus; and, finally, the child mortality rate has plummeted; instead of 43 percent children failing to survive their first 5 years of life, only 4 percent do.   

Pinker makes these points and more in Enlightenment. Instead of the 40-year life expectancy of 200 years ago, it is now 71.4 years globally. And death from famine has been all but eradicated in every part of the world save Africa, and even there it has been declining precipitously thanks to the Green Revolution—genetically modified crops and scientific, high-tech farming.

You already knew most of this stuff, if not as a result of study, then unconsciously, these facts tend to bubble to the surface like a 19th century Pennsylvania oil patch. What is less obvious, what bears closer inspection and what Pinker does an excellent job of explicating is the street reality of relative prosperity. A day rarely goes by without some pundit—usually in the Times—predicting the death of civilization as a result of income inequality. In his chapter on Inequality (worth the book’s price ), Pinker puts poverty into economic perspective, writing, “When poverty is defined in terms of what people consume rather than what they earn, we find that the American poverty rate has declined by ninety percent since 1960, from 30 percent of the population to just 3 percent…In 2011, more than 95 percent of American households below the poverty line had electricity, running water, flush toilets, a refrigerator, a stove and a color TV. (A century and a half before, the Rothschilds, Astors and Vanderbilts had none of these things.)”.

This overall rise in the standard of living is not unique to the United States. Pinker’s data shows that in 2008 the world’s entire population (then 6.7 billion) had an average income equal to that of Western Europe’s in 1964.

While conceding that the rich are becoming disproportionally richer, Pinker points out that the poor are getting richer, as well. In fact, their economic well-being has risen more dramatically than that of the rich (driving a worn-out Toyota is closer to driving a Ferrari than it is to walking). The mistake that nearly everyone makes is in thinking that wealth is finite, that if the rich get a dollar more, the poor get a dollar less. In fact, global wealth is effectively without limit and, according to Pinker, has “grown almost a hundredfold since the Industrial Revolution was in place in 1820.” As a result of near-continuous wealth creation, global Gross Domestic Product has risen from almost nothing to $15,600 per capita in 2015. The poor are still on the bottom rung (by definition someone has to be), but that lowest rung on the global ladder is considerably higher than it has ever been for 90 percent of mankind. 

Pinker’s central thesis, for which he supplies reams of documentation, is simple: While far from perfect and in need of vast improvement, the world is a better place today than it has ever been and is gradually, perhaps inevitably, getting better and better.   

If you need an optimism fix, read the book.

John E. McNellis is a Principal at McNellis Partners in Palo Alto, Calif.

Articles published in our Contributor section do not necessarily represent the views of The Registry or Mighty Dot Media, Inc. They represent a selection of topics chosen for the value of their editorial perspective. We welcome feedback and alternative positions on topics, and we will consider publishing those, as well.

mcnellis-book-coverTo read more from McNellis, please consider his book Making It in Real Estate: Starting Out as a Developer.