A billion people have been lifted out of poverty in just the last 20 years. Did you know that? Do you know how it happened? Do you sit around thinking about how wonderful that is?
I don't. I'm too angry that Comcast tried to charge me for a service call when the reason for the call was a defective Comcast modem. But I suppose that in the course of complaining about the state of the economy, politics, and shitty broadband Internet we should take a moment to notice that we're living in the glorious golden age of civilization and that life is improving for the species at a dizzying rate not even hippies could have hoped for in their smelliest dreams.
Why do we find it so hard to do that? Well ...
#7. We Are Only Happy if Other People Aren't
Wow, that's a glum headline. Let me put it this way: Most guys wish their wives or girlfriends were as beautiful as Jennifer Lawrence or Emily Ratajkowski (aka the brunette in the "Blurred Lines" video).
But "beautiful" literally means "attractive on a level that very few women achieve." She is special because she is rare. The moment all women look like her, they would no longer be considered beautiful.
In other words, what everybody wants is to have the thing that most people don't have. The fact that most people don't have it is the reason they want it. So by nature it is impossible for everyone to have it, because the moment everyone has it, the reason for wanting it vanishes. And that paradox can be applied to absolutely everything that makes you angry about the economy, government, and society as a whole. It's all a Catch-22 that you use to torture yourself.
"Not true," you say, your other browser tabs already open to a Google Image search of Emily Ratajkowski photos. "The system sucks because there is a basic quality of life that every person should have, but lots of people don't have it due to the evil politicians, greedy bankers, and other sociopaths who have gamed the system." I understand. First, watch this video, if you can:
That wasn't related to the subject, I just wanted you to watch it. Now grab a pen and write down a list of the things you think every human should have in a good and just world. Obviously everybody should have basic safety, freedom, a roof over their head. Access to clean water, food, basic health care, transportation. Electricity. A phone. These days they need Internet access, and if they live somewhere hot they need air conditioning. Freedom to choose their own mate ... all that. Even if you've never made such a list, you still have the general idea in your head -- otherwise you wouldn't know what to be mad about.
Now ask yourself the question nobody asks: How did you decide everyone should have those things?
The answer is that your list is Emily Ratajkowski. Your idea of what everyone "should" have is nothing more than a list of what most people on earth don't have, and have never had. Then you decided that this is what everyone "should" have in a world that wasn't a corrupt shithole.
"I don't care, as long as I have more than Steve."
But it's completely arbitrary -- if you had been born in Nigeria, your idea of what everyone "should" have would be quite different (for instance, it would not include broadband Internet access or air conditioning). And in fact, the Nigerian's ideal standard might look a lot like what everyone around you has right now.
It's so simple, but now listen to anybody discuss some current political subject and watch them fall into this trap. Are you mad about your student loans and that college cost you more than a house? Do you make yourself even angrier when you see that college is free in Sweden? But most countries are not Sweden. Sweden has the Emily Ratajkowski of educational systems.
So we pick out the best of the best and declare that this is the norm that every other place is failing to conform to due to some act of corruption or evil. We scream when someone is denied a life-saving new medical treatment because health care should be a human right. But how can something be a natural human right when A) it didn't even exist a year ago and B) it only now exists in limited, expensive quantities?
"What, so it's wrong to want things to improve? And you say there's a topless version of this video?" Not at all, and yes there is. In fact, things are improving -- people are living longer and better than at any point in human history, and the trend keeps going up. Some people will just always be ahead of the curve, and you can't automatically treat what they have as something you're being deprived of, whether we're talking about money, looks, health, or anything else.
Ryan McVay/Digital Vision/Getty Images
Adequate crotch protection.
All you're doing is murdering your own happiness, sitting in a world full of astonishing feats of goodness and genius and thinking only about how we haven't gotten rid of something (inequality) that is fundamentally impossible to get rid of. But that just leads to my next point ...
#6. We Insist on Comparing Our World to an Imaginary One That Exists Only in Our Heads
You can get annoyed because your car gets worse gas mileage than your last one, but only a crazy person would get angry that their car can't instantly teleport them anywhere in the world, for free, and doesn't have its own Five Guys franchise in the back seat.
But this is what we do, every day -- we create angst for ourselves over the failure of the real world to conform to some impossible, nonsensical standard that exists only in our crazy brains. If you open a newspaper at the breakfast table (you're a dad in a 1960s sitcom, right?) and bemoan how people are greedy, politicians are corrupt, and good jobs are too scarce, that only makes sense if you can answer the question "Compared to what?" Because no real society is or ever has been without greed, corruption, and shitty, low-paying jobs.
All rich people keep their money in dollar-sign bags like cartoon characters.
But of course, we don't compare our country to some other country, we compare it to an imaginary perfect one that we just made up and/or gleaned from pop culture. For instance, probably the most famous fictional utopia is Star Trek. In that universe, Earth is at peace, goods are plentiful, and money is a forgotten concept, as is racism. You subconsciously look at that and say, "What's wrong with the world that we can't just get along and leave our greed and anger behind?"
But the positive societal changes that occurred in Star Trek were pulled entirely out of Gene Roddenberry's asshole -- he didn't have to work out the logistics of how, say, you keep a population happy when everyone wants to be starship captains and nobody wants to be janitors in a world that needs far more of the latter. Imaginary worlds don't have to worry about logistics -- I'm writing a book about a fictional technology that allows anyone to do kung fu or shoot lightning from their genitalia, but I didn't have to overcome the many technical challenges that in the real world are keeping lightning penises at least 20 years away.
Far away, on the deep Midwest horizon ... a hero is born.
Your imagination ignores those same contradictions -- you wonder why we can't have a world where all politicians work for the public good, smoothing over the fact that to some politicians, "the public good" means outlawing abortion, and to others it means legalizing it.
"Sure, but that doesn't mean every possible improvement to the world is a pointless flight of fancy! Is it too much to ask for a world where, say, the rich give up some of their wealth so the rest of us can have the basics?" Nope! But you'd still be angry if they did. Because ...
#5. We Focus on the Negative Byproducts of Wonderful Trends
Aidon/Digital Vision/Getty Images
This can't be argued: In the last 30 years, wages have stagnated, the middle class has been dying, good-paying jobs that anyone can get have been vanishing. You know the story. If not, go tour Detroit.
Just imagine a world where instead the rich fat cats gave up some of their wealth and, as a result, the average person's disposable income went up a thousand percent in just 30 years. It'd be like the goddamned debauched apex of the Roman Empire in this shit, everybody with a supermodel feeding them grapes in the middle of an orgy.
"You are horrible at this, Linda."
Well, guess what: That thousand-percent climb is absolutely true. In China. In India, incomes have tripled in just the last 10 years. Ah, but who cares about those, um, 2.5 billion people? You do! Weren't we just wishing for a Star Trek-style utopia where all of humanity is one? So we should be celebrating the golden wave that is lifting China and India out of poverty the same as if it happened to us, right? We're all members of the human family.
And make no mistake, the economic slump us Americans and Europeans are grinding through is, ultimately, due to the fact that the rest of the world has finally been invited to the party. Fuel gets expensive because demand goes up, because people on the other side of the world are able to own their first cars, air conditioners, and computers. Good unskilled jobs are hard to come by because people in developing countries are competing for what are to them the first good jobs of their lives.
Jupiterimages, Brand X Pictures/Brand X
Dude, you can't make that face right in front of him. At least pretend to be happy for him.
In other words, the rich man did give up his fortune to help the poor. It's just that we're all that rich man. If you have a home with a computer, a refrigerator, and air conditioning, then you're in the top, upper crust of the world's living standards. You're living the Emily Ratajkowski life -- the one everybody else wants. So does that give you a warm feeling in your heart knowing that your loss is their gain?
If not, why not?
You don't count, Mom. You hate everything.
Because if we put it that way, our outrage and ennui at the supposed "state of the world" kind of makes us look like oblivious, spoiled dicks, doesn't it? And if we're going down that path ...
#4. The Things We Hate and the Things We Aspire to Are the Same Things
Now surely this can't be argued: The world governments and economies are full of exploitative, corrupt practices that somebody could stop if they just had the balls.
For instance, you may have heard that there was recently a nationwide strike by fast food workers demanding a doubling of the minimum wage. That's a perfect example -- if the minimum wage is leaving people impoverished, why not just raise it? Because politicians won't stand up to the evil corporations, that's why! It's the same reason they won't just ban the big-money special interests and lobbyists that are corrupting democracy. In a perfect world, if oil prices are too high, the government would stand up to the greedy oil executives and force them down! The fact that they could do it and choose not to is a perfect reason to get enraged, damn it!
"FUCK THE POOR!"
And I agree -- nothing curls my fist tighter than finding out that somebody is screwing the rest of us by gaming the system. Like the recent news that hospitals conspire to mark up dirt-cheap aspirin by 1,000 percent, or that banks secretly jack up the prices of commodities like aluminum. Can't somebody just put a stop to this kind of price fixing? If there is plenty of something, it's immoral to jack up the price. It's like the evil tycoon in Total Recall forcing people to pay for oxygen. Shove that asshole out onto the surface of Mars and make his eyes explode!
But, well, here's the thing ...
Unskilled workers are also plentiful. If your only skills are in customer service jobs that anyone can do with one day's training, then you, as a worker, are as plentiful as oxygen. Because this resource (unskilled, mildly motivated workers) is plentiful, the people who pay for it (employers) expect it to be cheap (low wages).
Jason Florio/Digital Vision/Getty Images
"Great job with those dishes! You keep at it and you'll soon be able to afford cable television!"
Of course, if your resource is more rare (say, if you are a top-notch software developer), then they expect it to be more expensive and will pay accordingly. So the only way for people with unremarkable "plentiful as oxygen" skills to get paid significant money is, you guessed it, by engaging in the same price fixing you just hated the greedy bastards for -- either by having the government intervene and artificially set the price higher (i.e., a minimum wage) or by the sellers of the resource grouping together to set the price higher against the buyer's will (labor unions). And that practice suddenly becomes OK when it's done to our benefit.
And no, please don't bombard me with links advocating a higher minimum wage or tell me I've lost touch with the working man due to my hundreds of dollars of fart monster money. I totally want a higher minimum wage. A certain amount of price fixing is a good thing, whether you're talking about the price of labor or aluminum, and capitalism only works when everybody is strongly advocating for their own benefit. My point is that you can apply this to anything. Want to ban the big-money special interests and lobbyists from government? Fine, just know that environmental and gay rights groups are among those lobbyists who'll be banned. If we prevent the evil oil millionaires from buying political ads to advance their agenda (i.e., getting "big money" out of elections), we also have to prevent the weed legalization groups from buying theirs. Wait, you didn't mean the practice should just be banned for people who disagree with you, right?
"It's a go. Destroy Oregon."
So once again, what looks like inexcusable corruption in the system turns out to be the side effect of other people having access to the same awesome stuff you do, only they're using it to advance an agenda you don't like. Trayvon Martin's killer walked because the standard for convicting someone is intentionally set high -- something you will be thankful for if you're ever accused of a crime. Which brings us to ...