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Alex Beam

The good bad times

A panhandler’s bag in Manhattan on Dec. 14, 2017. According to a new report released by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, New York City’s homeless population expanded by about 4 percent in 2017, as the number of homeless people nationwide grew to about 553,000.Spencer Platt/Getty Images

HOW ARE YOU FEELING about things in general? Pretty crummy, right? Well, you are wrong, wrong, wrong, and here are three new books to prove it.

Item A: Promoting his new book, “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress,” Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker says: “Don’t listen to the gloom-sayers. The world has improved by every measure of human flourishing over the past two centuries, and the progress continues.”

How so? Let him count the ways: World literacy, up; homicides, down. Life expectancy, up; poverty, down. Pollution, down; female suffrage, almost universally coexistent with male suffrage except in one country — Vatican City. Well, nobody’s perfect.


“Even Americans,” Pinker writes, “call themselves ‘pretty happy’ or happier.” Sounds like Pinker has been sharing a hookah with Harvard’s ubiquitous happiness guru/life insurance shill, fellow psychology professor Daniel Gilbert.

Item B: Now comes Atlantic contributing editor Gregg Easterbrook, with “It’s Better Than It Looks: Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear,” also published this month. Easterbrook has spent decades analyzing the proposition that “as life gets better, people feel worse.”

The Pied Piper of latter-day declinism, Easterbrook points out, is Donald Trump, who rode hyperbolic statements such as “our country is going to hell” and the economy “is always bad, down down down” straight to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Where on earth did Trump stumble across notions like these? He need have looked no further than the nation’s op-ed pages, locked in the death grip of Krugmanitis.

A recent Paul Krugman column in The New York Times, “The Bad News in the Good News,” pretty much says it all.

Item C: Charles C. Mann — whose website helpfully explains that he is not the former star defensive linebacker for the soon-to-be-renamed Washington Redskins — has just published “The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World.”


One of Mann’s remarkable scientists is Norman Borlaug, widely hailed as the author of the agri-botanical “Green Revolution” that has delivered the Third World from Malthusian starvation. (Easterbrook devotes a chapter to Borlaug, a self-effacing Iowa native who won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.) Like Pinker, Mann also cites the near-eradication of the slave trade, the upsurge in women’s political and economic rights, and a decline in violence around the world, by way of echoing the John Lennon-Paul McCartney assertion that “it’s getting better all the time.”

Why these three books simultaneously? “Easterbrook, Pinker, and I are in our different ways simply saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute . . . ’ to the exaggerated feeling of gloom by liberals who are dismayed by the somewhat different way that Trump is being an undesirable Republican president,” Mann tells me. “It is notable to me that when I travel to Asia, where most people live, the level of ambient Weltschmerz is way lower than it is in, say, Cambridge.”

Heaven knows these men can write. And yet these books have an alpine view-from-Davos feel to me, composed in the airy world of United Nations statistics and foundation-supported thinking, a world where Pinker and Bill Gates airily discuss spending a billion dollars in grant money on toilets that don’t need water.

I’m a dreadful pessimist, it’s true. I’ve never seen a whit of evidence that the arc of the moral universe is bending toward justice, and I wish I could unsee the Netflix documentary “Heroin(e),” about opiod deaths ravaging Huntington, W.Va., but I can’t.


The morning that I am writing this, every major newspaper has front-page coverage of schoolchildren murdered in Florida, and I am thinking: Things sure look different down here on the ground.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @iamalexbeamyrnot.