Links and Comments: Progress; San Francisco Values; Value of Literature

From earlier this month.

New York Times, Nicholas Kristoff: Why 2018 Was the Best Year in Human History!: Once again, the world’s population was living longer and living better than ever before.

Kristof does a version of this column every year.

One reason for this column is that journalism is supposed to inform people about the world, and it turns out that most Americans (and citizens of other countries, too) are spectacularly misinformed.

For example, nine out of 10 Americans say in polls that global poverty is worsening or staying the same, when in fact the most important trend in the world is arguably a huge reduction in poverty. Until about the 1950s, a majority of humans had always lived in “extreme poverty,” defined as less than about $2 a person per day. When I was a university student in the early 1980s, 44 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty.

Now, fewer than 10 percent of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty, as adjusted for inflation.

Likewise, Americans estimate that 35 percent of the world’s children have been vaccinated. In fact, 86 percent of all 1-year-olds have been vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis.

I suspect that this misperception reflects in part how we in journalism cover news. We cover wars, massacres and famines but are less focused on progress.

Again – this is partly about how journalism works, but also how human nature works, attentive to exceptions and anecdotes and not to statistical trends. As I’ve said, no matter what paradise or utopia you can imagine, there will always be disputes, conflicts, and outrage (by those easily outraged) led by authoritarian leaders who play on the fear of the proportion of the population (given the range of traits in human nature) given to such fears, which are always relative.


San Francisco Chronicle: S.F. a leader in family values. Online headline: “What are much maligned ‘San Francisco values’? Prioritizing the welfare of families and children.”

Despite conservative rhetoric, cities like San Francisco exemplify family values over the red states – lower divorce rates, lowest teen birth rates (because “red regions of the country have higher teen pregnancy rates, more shotgun marriages and lower averages ages of marriage and first birth”).

Nationwide, there are about 20.3 births per 1,000 adolescents, versus only 7.4 per 1,000 in San Francisco.

Many more examples.

Family values are core Democratic values, and in no major American city are they more cherished, and not just preached but actually practiced, than in San Francisco.


This was the final article in the Dec 24/31 issue of Time Magazine, by novelist Jennifer Egan: We Need Writers Now More Than Ever. Our Democracy Depends On It (the print title was “Facts Still Exist”). It concerns fake news, of course, but also the role literature can play.

Literature is an antidote to the blunt distortions—good vs. evil, us vs. them—that are so easily exploited by those who would manipulate us. … Writers tend to fare badly under autocrats. Dictators understand very well that the strength of thought and analysis that literature embodies is a threat to the mind control that is an essential feature of tyranny. In countries like China, Russia, Turkey, Myanmar and Bangladesh, writers are routinely jailed or killed for creating work their governments find threatening. For American writers, the reality of such scrutiny and peril can be hard to fathom. We need to write now, write well—tell the truth in all its messy complexity. It’s our best shot at helping to preserve a democracy in which facts still exist and all of us can speak freely.

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