A Meditation on How Lucky We Are to Live in the 21st Century

One overarching sign that life today is better than ever is that — for those living in America, at least — to a greater extent than ever before in human history, today you have to volunteer for bad things to happen to you.

Throughout the long march of human history, you only had to do one thing to flirt with disaster: be born. In fact, even managing to be born in the first place meant that you had already overcome dozens of potential dangers that struck a great number of your fetal peers. If you managed to enter the world without you or your mother dying in the process, you were looking at a crucial first five or seven years during which the odds of surviving were against you.

Global life expectancy of 30-some years didn’t happen because lots of 35 year olds were dying, but because those who made it into their 60s were more than counterbalanced by all of the dead children littering the landscape.

But say you make it out of adolescence. Now you’re cool, right? You’re eating organic, pesticide-free foods, working out in the fresh air with docile, non-internal- combustion-engine-equipped animals, blissfully unaffected by polluting industries and micro-aggressions and Kardashians.

Actually, no. You faced an everyday existence fraught with peril.

Plague struck randomly. You got diseases from your animals, or floods washed your animals into your house, and then your animals and your house away. When floods weren’t drowning you, fires were roasting you alive. If you read the average big city newspaper from the 19th or early 20th century, you read about fire after fire, with only an epidemic or two to break the monotony.

And the fires weren’t modern little, “By the time firefighters got the blaze under control Joe lost his garage and part of the living room” mini-blazes; they were entire-block conflagrations, as rows of wooden buildings went up together, stopped only by a wide street at the end of the block. Today in the aftermath of a routine fire, one family has smoke and water damage to the kitchen and an adjoining bedroom.

In the 19th century, we lost Chicago.

The worst thing about all of this was our helplessness in the face of calamity. Say plague strikes your village. Do you pray and try to make a deal with God to spare your family? Move to the next village over? Cover yourself with leeches and hope for the best? It was all a big crap shoot, and everyone had similar lousy chances at surviving.

The contrast with our modern life is nowhere clearer than in statistics surrounding mortality. Look at what killed people a hundred years ago: fever, small pox, polio, the flu. Today you treat fevers with something over the counter. Small pox is gone, and so is polio. Unless you are very, very old, or have an already seriously compromised immune system, the flu just means a missed week of work.

Today’s big killers are all signs of our civilization’s extraordinary success. The leading causes of death are related to either very old age (in which case you already beat the odds and had a full run) or voluntarily stupid and/or self-destructive behavior (smoking, alcohol or drug abuse, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle or horrible diet).

Look at the list again. If you smoke in the 21st century, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself. The dominant motif on the packaging is a skull and bones, and by the time most of us hit puberty we’ve seen more anti-smoking PSAs than we have witless sitcoms. Ditto for alcohol and drugs. And obesity? It’s epidemic, we’re told.

C’mon. The Black Death – THAT was an epidemic. Ebola, okay. Hemorragic fever, malaria, I’m with you.

But obesity? I remind you of an old Sam Kinison bit, when he heard someone mourning Karen Carpenter’s death from anorexia and saying that there’s no cure: “No cure? No cure! Karen, have a sandwich!! You’re cured.”

We’ve got it so good that we could prevent thousands of deaths by a simple first graders’ lunch swap: the anorexics trade their bag lunches (two carrots and a celery stick) for the richly laden trays of the obese folks, and we’ve cured two birds with one dietary stone, as it were.

It’s not just deaths from health problems, either.  Read a week’s worth of stories recounting traffic fatalities in your local paper and add up the death toll.

Now subtract the deaths of those who were drunk or high at the time. Next subtract those who were speeding at least 20 miles over posted limits. Check off the motorcyclist who decided to ride without a helmet. Note the 4’6” 94 year old peering from underneath the steering wheel with 20/1000 vision who never saw what hit her. Finally, look for that “the deceased was not wearing a seatbelt” tag line.

In the final analysis, about the only non-voluntary way you die in a traffic accident today is by having the bad luck to be hit by a speeding drunk driver, or by a flying, unbelted passenger ejected from that jackass’ car.

Of course I’m not saying that someone who rides without a seat belt deserves to die, or that a speeder’s death isn’t tragic. But they are essentially voluntary. If you can’t take 30 seconds to buckle up, or you choose to ride a motorcycle with only your eggshell-fragile skull to protect your brain, you can’t be shocked at the unfairness of the universe when the entirely predictable happens.

Similarly, my heart breaks for people who are stricken with leukemia, or multiple sclerosis, or mysterious tumors. But 30-year smokers with lung cancer, or 40-year drinkers with cirrhosis of the liver? Still sad, and a great loss to their loved ones. But an unfair tragedy? Not so much.

Finally, it’s not just health-related problems or mortality that we can usually voluntarily avoid. We can also avoid the vast majority of economic hardships. (Okay, there is one huge caveat here: the assumption that you’ve got the great good fortune to be living in a semi-free market, capitalist economy.) Leaving aside the fact that living in “poverty” in America is still living in relative luxury by world and/or historical standards, many people are firmly convinced that poverty is a real possibility — almost a default trajectory — for much if not most of the population.

To the contrary, lots of demographic research suggests that voluntary behaviors are far and away the biggest factors in determining economic destiny. In fact, if you manage to do three things in your life, you have only a tiny chance of ever living below the poverty line as an adult: 1. Graduate high school, 2. Don’t get married or have kids until you are 21 years old, 3. Get a full-time job. (See this piece from Brookings Institution for one among many sources on this issue: https://www.brookings.edu/…/three-simple-rules-poor-teens-…/)

These are not exactly accomplishments that come along with extra points for high difficulty.

Yes, I know, many readers are probably objecting right now, because they know that poverty is convincingly correlated with non-voluntary factors such as geographic location (there is more poverty in the south), race (minorities are harder hit) and gender (so are women), etc. But let’s consider these objections one at a time.

It’s true that geographic location is a factor, which I well know, having come from the Midwestern rust belt, where many good-paying manufacturing jobs were lost between my parent’s generation and mine. But location is finally voluntary, too. People leave depressed areas for jobs in thriving areas all the time, and it is no longer a Joad-like tramp from one economic dust bowl to another.

It’s true that some individuals have urgent reasons to stay in a depressed area – usually family ties or emotional connections – but those motivations are not coercion. Such people are choosing to pay an economic price to satisfy an emotional need, and who’s to say that they are wrong?

But race and gender are clearly not voluntary, and a mountain of studies demonstrate statistical connections between race, gender and poverty, right?

Well, no. Look at such studies carefully, and you always find faulty (and often intentionally misleading) use of statistics. For example, we all “know” that “women earn 75% (or 63% or 82%) of what men do,” or that “minorities are much more likely to be poor than are whites.” In fact, these kind of claims can be easily disproven by correcting for other causal factors.

The gender claims are meant to give the impression that equally experienced and qualified men and women working side-by-side in identical jobs are being differently paid because of their gender. But once you correct for voluntary factors – women choose lower paying fields, and are much more likely to take long sabbaticals from work for child-raising, etc. – pay differentials disappear.

Of course, I just skipped over some huge political arguments that deal with the biological differences and societal pressures that “push” women toward leaving the workplace to raise children, and toward certain “helping” professions fields that pay less well. And for the sake of argument I’ll grant that: biology imposes different child care imperatives on the sexes, and for centuries and more, society has added to such disparities by gender-coding much lower-paying work as “feminine.”

But the fact remains that for the last 40 years and more, huge numbers of women have resisted such societal pressures, and carved out places for themselves in every profession and at all levels of prestige and income. It’s relatively unusual for women to pursue engineering, or accounting or computer science. But when they do, they earn the same money as their equally experienced, qualified and experienced male counterparts. When you control for such obviously relevant factors, gender-based salary disparities disappear, in socially coded “female” and “male” work fields alike.

The same principle applies to racial and ethnic differences. When we control for the voluntary choices that individuals make (to drop out of high school, to bear children out of wedlock, to commit crimes), racial differences in economic outcome virtually disappear.

That’s not to say that historical racism didn’t exist, or that many people don’t hold ethnic prejudices today. But those ugly factors don’t determine your destiny, and the evidence for that is everywhere: blacks and Hispanics who graduate high school, get married at 25 and postpone having children until they are married are as economically successful as their white counterparts, just as whites who drop out and have out of wedlock children are as economically unsuccessful as their minority counterparts. Regardless of the admitted disparities attached to racial and gender discrimination, the determinative factor isn’t race or gender, but behavior.

And therein lies an uncomfortable but ultimately liberating truth.

While it may be psychologically comforting in the short run to see yourself as a victim of forces beyond your control, you are deceiving yourself, and selling yourself short. Even if you’ve gotten yourself into a jam now, the glass is still half full. If you want to avoid most health-related and economic problems, the answer is deceptively simple: do your best to avoid volunteering for them.

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