Saturday, January 26, 2013


Say what? You can't be serious. Don't you read the papers or watch TV? Isn’t Washington still dysfunctional? Aren’t the two parties still miles apart on the big ticket issues? Aren't 13 million Americans still unemployed? Isn't there war or mayhem wherever you look?

 Yes, all of the above is still true in whole or in part. But I'd like to suggest that if you look at the facts a little more closely, you might conclude that some important things are in fact changing for the better.

Persistent unemployment is still at the top of the worry list. But in late January 2013 the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment fell to its lowest point in five years.

In the same month, housing starts – the same sector that brought the economy to its knees in 2008 –  were up 8.1%, 36.9% over December 2011, according to the Census Bureau and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  

The Dow Jones Industrial Average, another trend indicator, is at a six-year high. What makes this particularly interesting is that the stock market’s performance reflects investor confidence in future prospects, rather like the Las Vegas crap tables, more than it reflects factual events.

For the all-important energy sector, the International Energy Agency projects that the US will replace Saudi Arabia as the world's premier oil and gas producer within the next four years.

At least temporarily reducing government gridlock, the Republican Party has postponed the threat of a second fiscal cliff by kicking the debt ceiling down the road until May, in a retreat from the earlier threat to shut down the government if necessary to have their way. A price will still be demanded by conservatives in the form of drastic tax reductions and program cuts. What is new is the sound of at least some ice braking in the protracted political freeze.  Ironically, the US budget deficit has actually been shrinking at the fastest pace than at any time since World War II, according to

After a decade of handwringing and breast-beating about the so-called “decline” in strength, influence, and relevance of the US in world affairs, accompanied by numerous public opinion polls showing a majority fearing a worse future for their children, a USA Today/Gallup poll in late fall 2012 shows that a majority of Americans – 54% – now believes that they will be better off four years from now.

The above collection of data focuses on America’s economy and society. But a footnote has to ask: what about foreign wars, revolutions, Islamist militants, and the daunting but inescapable task of running down the jihadis who, led by Al Qaeda, have targeted the US? This is the primary agenda for the CIA and US Special Forces operations, backed by remote drone and other technology, including invisible but essential cyber defense. China will be a competitor and Russia a troublemaker, and Iran and North Korea potential nuclear outlaws. But what else is new? The threat remains as before, as does the commitment to prevail over terrorists.

Without minimizing the very real human and other costs of conflict, consider a little-noticed but larger reality:casualties from warfare are at a historic low.  Small wars, insurgencies, and barbaric behavior by tyrants are permanent feature of the global landscape, typically in regions in early stages of development, literacy, and peaceful democratic change.  In an earlier age such local explosions would never have made even the back page of Western newspapers. Today, competitive news outlets and deadline-driven journalists, commentators and pundits convey the impression of a planet aflame with war, when the opposite is true for the bigtime conflicts that used to routinely slaughter thousands.

Indeed, the scale of warfare has actually declined dramatically. Far fewer human beings are being killed today by military weaponry than in the past.  In his latest book, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker makes the point dramatically: "The decline in violence may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species."

Bad things are still happening and the future has a habit of being unpredictable. But the evidence seems to show an uneven but nevertheless  welcome and widespread trend:  things are looking up.