If there is a more stylistically sound liberal-moderate writer in the United States right now than Gregg Easterbrook, his name eludes me. Reading his forthcoming book The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse is, as a purely literary experience, a tremendous pleasure. Yet Easterbrook’s name doesn’t come up much when people are talking about writer’s writers — the people who have the art of the sentence down cold. The reason is obvious: It’s because he’s so frightfully square and earnest. He radiates cheerful good sense the way more lauded writers do anger or passion. When all around you is cultural war, there he is, scribbling serenely about space policy or acid rain in the New Republic or the Atlantic. His articles read as though they were meant to begin with a congenial, half-apologetic “I say, fellows, I noticed something terribly interesting…”
One might almost describe the non-aggressive tone of his writing as “Canadian,” even without knowing that his parents were from Canada. His politics are pretty Canadian, too. Universal state health insurance? Mass immigration? Big aid projects for the foreign poor? Bring ’em on! It’s just a shame that he allowed his new book to veer off into the North Woods. The Progress Paradox (Random House, 400 pages, $24.95) begins as a fascinating look at the economic position of the contemporary American citizen. It plows on into the realms of neurobiology, psychology, and theology, the footing ever less sure, and we finally end up in a forest of liberal platitudes, unsure of how exactly we arrived.
The premise of The Progress Paradox is that life in the West, and particularly in the United States, is getting better by any conceivable quantitative or anecdotal measure. Easterbrook serves a ghostly Virgil guiding the reader through a familiar yet surprising paradiso. The American middle class makes its merry way, heedlessly buying second homes, third cars, and individual entertainment systems for its children. Even the poor may now consider indoor plumbing, central heating, and cable television a matter of divine entitlement. I don’t want to spoil Easterbrook’s revelations about the lifestyles of the moderately rich, in their ever-growing numbers, but I will say I hadn’t heard of “fly-in restaurants” before.
The truth about our well-being goes beyond simple questions of national income. Liberal democracy may be at its historic high in the stock market of social systems, and while one must acknowledge the threats to Western civilization from without, they are, at least, without; communism and fascism are dimming memories. Rates of violent death and violent crime are low — at least, notably lower than they were 30 years ago. The natural environment in Western countries improves steadily along with prosperity and technology. Social indicators of virtue are on an upswing; public education, for all our hand-wringing, is, he insists, in decent shape; fewer of us perform hard menial labor every decade; women and minorities enjoy high levels of social and legal protection. The United States is even a less litigious place than it was in the nineteenth century, believe it or not.
Easterbrook’s casual treatment of these individual questions can be infuriating. He breezes past real problems with a sunny “research shows” attitude that lies halfway between optimism and gullibility. But the weight of his argument has a certain force. On the whole, the vast majority of us are better off than our forebears in ways too numerous to count. We rarely stop to consider that however wealthy a man of 1905 was, he could not buy antibiotics.
Easterbrook’s key question is this: Given that we are so well off, why are we so unhappy? — not only habitually blind to our good fortune, and politically quarrelsome, but, by some measures, emotionally messed up? (And a related question: Why is it that the more Americans earn per hour, the more hours of the week they seem to work?) He is not convinced that electronic civilization subjects us to significant new biological stress, and while he recognizes that affluence creates problems of its own (pause for patented Easterbrook rant against SUVs), he refuses to let go of his basic thesis that people ought to be cheerful in a world that mimics Utopia fairly convincingly.
But being affluent doesn’t have much to do with happiness, nor does having outlived the Cold War or the days of fatal metropolitan smog and manure-covered streets. Having “high self-esteem” doesn’t seem to help. Being healthy doesn’t even seem to have much to do with it. Psychological studies, Easterbrook notes, show that quadriplegics are on the whole no less well-adjusted, and are perhaps more so, than people who can walk to the 7-Eleven for a Super Big Gulp. (Of course, none of them do: They take the damned SUV.)
At this point The Progress Paradox begins to resemble a self-help book, and the author himself a politicized Dr. Phil. (He will sell many, many copies if the thing is marketed wisely and he is capable of giving good Oprah.) Easterbrook combines his Christian belief with some findings cherry-picked from cognitive psychology to formulate a tao of cultivated happiness. American materialism, he suggests, is an inappropriate reaction to the modern crisis of meaning. We will not be happy if we don’t insist upon somehow imparting or ascribing meaning to our lives. Having a nice CD collection or one’s own Piper Cub is not an acceptable substitute. Those who can make the leap to religion benefit from doing so, but the necessity exists even for those who can’t.
It is in the concluding chapters that Easterbrook allows himself to become a prophet of Canadianism, suggesting that the West can find mass spiritual redemption by devoting itself to projects it has neglected in the quest for higher and higher GDPs. He seems to believe that nationalized health insurance, for instance, would be a soothing balm unto the American soul. A particularly bad moment comes when he yawps on about the urgent need to torque up the minimum wage in the United States. Easterbrook is hardly a master of fine detail, as his notoriously naive recent critique of quantum physics revealed, but I did expect that an important political writer might think to mention unemployment while discussing minimum wages.
Easterbrook may lose the reader who doesn’t share his positive feelings for foreign aid, or his wholesale approval of post-Freudian psychotherapy, or his confidence in the Darwinian account of human evolution, or his skepticism about attention-deficit disorder diagnoses, or his environmental optimism. The man’s idiosyncratic collection of views makes him endlessly interesting as a commentator, but it also makes it hard for him to sell an ambitious argument like the one pursued here.
Yet one hates to discourage an old-fashioned generalist, and there are kernels of wisdom which arguably redeem the weaknesses of The Progress Paradox. I do suspect that Easterbrook is on to something when he proposes that happiness is, in some degree, a learned talent. If you are like me, you learn to commingle stoicism with optimism a little less clumsily with every year of your life. Anything that hastens the process even slightly may be a great good, and might even persuade us to overlook a certain amount of nonsense.