I just finished reading an absorbing book, The Progress Paradox, by Gregg Easterbrook, senior editor of the New Republic. The subtitle explains the theme of the book: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.
Many Christians today are entering into discussions of how much is too much.
The Progress Paradox meets this question head on. The author’s central question is why Americans (and also some Europeans) aren’t happier today since most of them, including the poor, are exceptionally better off than even in the 1950’s. My interest in this [secular] book is to answer this question for Christians since many of them are also experiencing this same malaise. Is perhaps the goal of the seeker churches to try to seek to relieve this malaise by gearing their message and organizaiton toward the materialism-minded society, thinking this surely will "draw" them? Or will just plain old-fashioned gospel preaching do the same? Some good questions to ponder.
To begin this discussion let’s look at some of the statistics Easterbrook presents.
Average People Are Better Off Today
*Almost 23% of US households have an income of at least $75,000.
Contrast: In 1890 less than 1% of American households earned the then-equivalent of $75,000
*A cheeseburger at McDonalds in the 1950’s cost a half-hour of a typical worker’s wages.
Contrast: today the same cheeseburger at McDonalds costs 3 minutes of work.
*Of all important goods and services, only education and health care costs more in terms of work-hours than in the 1950’s.
*Compared to the 1950’s we have reduced mortality as advanced medical procedures exit today that did not exist then; less air pollution, the ability to fly anywhere at anytime at an affordable price, and the ability to talk to anyone at anytime affordably.
*In the 1950’s the average home had 2 bedrooms and one bath and had 1,100 sq. ft.. Contrast: Today the average home has 3 bedrooms and 2 ½ baths and has an average of 2,250 sq. ft. Houses today also have air conditioning and heat which was unthinkable just a generation ago.
*In 1900 21% of men and 20% of women were engaged in white collar work.
Contrast: Today 58% of men and 52% of women work in white-collar occupations.
*In 1850 the typical work week was 66 hours. In 1900 it was 53 hours.
Contrast: Today it's 40 hours.
*The typical man today has 29 more hours per week than their 1880 counterparts. Women today have 30 more per week than her 1880 counterpart.
"A century ago the rich lived in heated homes, rode in carriages, traveled the world, enjoyed unlimited food and wine, had a college education, had access to physicians, attended the theater and worked in a comfortable office. The typical person lived in a tenement, an unheated farmhouse, or a crowded brownstone with no indoor plumbing, worried about the next meal, walked or rode unreliable streetcars, rarely traveled further than their place of birth and if they did travel , did so in the steerage compartment of ships. They received minimal health care, ate heavily salted poor quality food, never completed high school, went to carnivals as entertainment that they could afford and either farmed or did factory work., mining or sweatshop sewing. There was no medical insurance until after WWI.
In the first decade of the 20th century air in the cities was thick with factory smoke and sparks from overhead steam trains. Pigs roamed the streets of New York and Philadelphia eating garbage thrown out of windows. The common mode of transportation was horse drawn wagons meaning there was horse manure everywhere. Only 2% of dwellings had running water. Most people died before age 45."
Without enumerating pages and pages of statistics, let me summarize the thesis that Easterbrook is provin. He lists stats that shows practically everything is getting better. Areas of improvement include crime, the environment, smog, oil reserves, health, traffic deaths, illegal drugs use, cigarette smoking , the divorce rate, alcohol consumption, children born out of welock, equal rights for minorities and women, global politics (for example, during the WWII era there were only about 12 democracies. Today there are about 80).
Men and women in the middle class or above in the United States live better today than 99.4% of human beings who ever existed. In fact they live better than past royalty.
Portable Carpeted Dog Steps
Easterbrook writes that the problem today is the blurring of needs and wants.
For example, here are some of the gizmos in a 2001 Christmas catalog he received:
Heated bubble-bath massager-$129.95
Electric cigar-tip cutter-449.95
Microwave flower press-$29.95
“High Performance” earmuffs-$24.95
He then quotes George Will:
“A need is in contemporary America a 48-hour-old want.”
Easterbrook says that this becomes the tyranny of the unnecessary. Once focused on our wants, our thoughts can never be at peace, because wants can never be satisfied. It isn’t keeping up with the Joneses anymore. Now it is superceding them in a frantic race for more things. This is causing major health problems since we super size food, super size cars that take more gasoline, and super size everything else which makes us work longer to pay for these things.
More of Everything Except Happiness
As the gaining of things became more and more of a frantic race, charts of people considering themselves to be happy showed a falling line since the 1940’s.
Here is the problem in Easterbrook's words:
“In the 1950’s most American families lived in small houses, owned one car, and few attended college. But they were in good spirits because they had expectations for earning and possessing more . But today as those expectations have been met, there are not too many things look forward to. That is what is making the society unhappy. People have more time to be anxious over the smaller things now."
And that is the problem of our society today. Put in nutshell, I would summarize Easterbrook’s conclusions like this:
People have everything they need and want so there is no where else to go. Since Americans are competitive and always wish to progress further in every aspect of their life, this condition leads to frustration and eventually unhappiness.
So what is the implication of this for the church? I see many people, both Christians and those in the secular society, wishing once again to get back to the simple life. Many are leaving cities and suburbs for smaller cities and rural areas. Many are leaving high stress jobs in order to work for less at home or at smaller companies or different more non-power occupations.
But beyond this is the elephant in the room. And Easterbrook tackles this one in the last few chapters of the book.
Should we have more and more of a luxurious lifestyle while the poor suffer, both in our own country (and the poor members of our churches too), as well as in the world?
In the book of Acts, people sold their lands and other properties and brought them to the feet of the Apostles who then distributed them to the poorer ones in the Christian community. The BIG issue today would be trust in our churches to really distribute the funds appropriately. There are also sub-issues emanating from this larger one, like churches supporting their own widows instead of the government, what about capitalism--is it really God's gift to the economic world? I will be tackling these issues over the next few days.