The myth of progress.
the human race is getting rid of
whiskers, the veriform appendix,
--H. L. Mencken
Throughout much of 1995 we were bombarded with a hailstorm of news reports clueing us in to what a wonderful thing progress is. High technology, most notably in the form of the Internet, is poised to usher us into a brave new twenty-first-century world of wondrous global interconnectedness. Or at least that's the impression given by all of the breathless accounts touting it as the greatest thing since sliced bread.
Most of us living in this brave new world would just flat out laugh at anyone who even hinted that the good old days were better. That kind of nostalgia is dismissed as nothing more than the rose-colored visions of doddering oldsters prone to starting off too many sentences with "When I was a kid. . . "
After all, Americans have it all nowadays. We have all-night minimarts and clean, brightly lit supermarkets stocked to the rafters with the best and the freshest. We have a video store on every corner. We have a vast network of well-kept highways and sleek, luxurious cars which allow us to navigate that grid in the utmost comfort.
We've got more leisure time than any previous generation. And so that time isn't wasted, we've designed a mind-boggling array of gadgets, gizmos, and whirligigs to help us whittle away at it. This barrage has gotten so out of hand that at least one car audio manufacturer is offering a car television, complete with VCR and video game hookup.
Yes, we've got it all. These are the best of times. Or are they? The perception of our modern era is that of a time of great progress. Unfortunately, many of the facts seem to put the he to that theory.
In spite of the phenomenal upward spiral of our alleged progress, we've been killing ourselves a lot more these days. The suicide rate has increased from 11.4 percent in 1950 to 12.1 percent in 1993. That's not necessarily a significant increase; what is significant is the increase in teen suicide over the last four decades.
In the same time period, the suicide rate among people aged 25 to 34 jumped from 9.1 percent to 14.9 percent. 15 to 24 age group, the suicide rate tripled. Even the suicide rate for the 5 to 14 age group tripled, from 0.2 percent to 0.6 percent. Though that's a relatively small percentage of the overall tally, it still represents a total of 310 kids under the age of 14 who took their own lives in 1993.
We may think we've got it all these days. But those men among us who do have anything are more likely than ever to have to give up a chunk of it for an alimony settlement. Since 1920, the total number of marriages has declined in the United States, while the divorce rate has nearly tripled.
As far as health is concerned, we're not much better off. To be fair, the overall death rate has declined since 1970, though that is often attributed to a continuing drop in infant mortality. On the downside, incidents of cancer have increased and health-care costs, as most of us are well aware, continue to rocket off into the stratosphere.
The United States currently spends more on health care than any other developed nation--over $1 trillion per year! $119, 1993, we spent $3,300 per capita, up from $2,685 only three years earlier. These are frightening figures, with special significance for the 41 percent of the populace that has no health insurance.
Financially, things are not much better. The United States has always appeared to be a prosperous nation. Most of us would agree that it still is. But there's a dark underbelly to that seeming prosperity--a distinct clash between reality and perception. We're currently laboring under a heavier tax burden than any other generation of A-mericans. Tax Freedom Day, as computed by the Washington, D.C.-based Tax Foundation, is defined as the day on which you stop working to pay taxes and start working for yourself. In 1929, Tax Freedom Day landed on February 9. In 1994 and 1995, our tax burdens weren't paid off until May 6.
The Tax Foundation estimates that the present generation of Americans spends two hours and 46 minutes of every eight-hour working day paying taxes, compared to only 52 minutes in 1929. Personal income taxes represented 34.9 percent of the average American's income in 1992. In all, Americans spend more to pay off their tax burden than they do for food, shelter, and clothing combined.
As far as wages go, we've regressed rather than progressed. The 1994 average hourly wage of $11.12 per hour looks pretty good stacked up against $3.23 per hour in 1970; the average weekly wage jumped from $120 to $385 in that same period. But when you factor in the inflation rate, that bright picture fades. The average hourly wage, adjusted for inflation, has actually dropped from $8.03 in 1970 to $7.40 in 1994. Likewise, the adjusted average weekly take fell from $296 to $256.
Not only are real wages on the downswing but so is the amount of goods that those deflated dollars can bring home. In 1950, a 1982 dollar would have bought $4.15 worth of consumer goods. By 1994, the same 1982 dollar would only get you 68 cents worth of stuff.
From 1970 to 1993, the number of Americans who had to rely on food stamps jumped from 4.3 million to 27 million. This is in a country that was able to shell out $150 billion for advertising and $249 billion for national defense in 1994.
Education costs have soared, too. From 1980 to 1994, the average cost of a year's schooling at a four-year public college tripled. The cost of learning at a private college nearly quadrupled during that time, from $3,617 to $11,709.
But it's probably the statistics on crime and violence that are the truest indicator of how dissatisfied we've become with modern life. The United States is the most violent industrialized democracy in the world. As an added (rather dubious) distinction, we have more people in jail over all and more people in jail per capita than any other industrialized nation. In 1994, our federal and state prisons overflowed with 1.5 million prisoners--a staggering increase of 219.5 percent since 1980.
Rapes and robberies increased significantly over the last decade. Aggravated assault is the fastest growing form of violent crime in the United States, having jumped 65.6 percent in the last decade. From 1975 to 1993, violent crimes nearly doubled. Since 1989, they increased 16.9 percent. In 1993, an American was killed about every 21 minutes. The total death toll from homicide was 24,530, though the murder rate has actually held steady over the last decade.
Over 70 percent of the murders in 1993 were committed with guns. Handguns accounted for more than half of the total. If you need a gun, for whatever reason, there is probably no better place to live than America. In 1991, an estimated 3.5 million guns were manufactured or imported into the United States. Over 2.1 million of them were handguns. From 1981 to 1991, almost 53 million guns were manufactured or imported into the United States, an average of nearly 5 million per year.
It seems safe to surmise from this rather unscientific overview that progress is not all it's cracked up to be. While the quality of life may seem better, maybe the truth is that our powers of perception have been dulled from too many hours plopped in front of cable television, VGRs, and state-of-the-art video games or jacked into the Internet. Maybe we just can't see how badly things have deteriorated or are too absorbed in "Friends" or "Street Fighters" to care.
Maybe that's what the ballyhoo about the Internet is really about. May, be it's just another way for us to be distracted from what's going on around us, roughly analogous to the discovery, in the early 1800s, that nitrous oxide could block out the awful pain of surgery. After all, virtual reality's a handy thing to have around when you don't want to confront the fact that real reality sucks.
William I. Lengeman III is a freelance journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in a variety of magazines.
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|Title Annotation:||The Popular Condition|
|Author:||Lengeman, William I., III|
|Date:||May 1, 1996|
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