Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What should we be worried about?

Happiest countries (darkest red is happy, pink less happy).
Yesterday I went to edge.org to read all the smart people's essays in answer to the prompt: "What Should We Be Worried About?"

The posters are all bright people ("thought leaders," you might say) and I expected to read a lot of great essays. I ended up reading a lot of essays; not a one of them "great." Most were incredibly detached, academic-sounding, and had to do with rich intellectuals' concerns. I felt like I was reading ancient theologians arguing about how many angels might fit on the head of a pin.

Not every essay was a total letdown, of course. (I learned a lot about Chinese culture from Geoffrey Miller's "Chinese Eugenics.") But overall, the professorial ramblings of the educated elite were disappointing. We're supposed to be worrying about "The Teenage Brain"? "Augmented Reality"? "The Demise of the Scholar"? How about we worry about something important, like why I'm completely out of coffee creamer?

So, but. How would you answer the question "What Should We Be Worried About"?

To me, the question is a bit silly in the sense that worry is not a good strategy (for anything). It makes much more sense to ask "What Problems Should We Assign the Highest Priority To?" or "What Should We Be Doing Now, That We're Not Doing?" Something action- or solution-oriented, rather than worry-oriented. As much as I believe most of us will live to see a major part of Greenland detach and float off into the sea (from global warming), I don't spend much time every day worrying about it.

Many of the problems that concern me the most are parochial in the sense that they concern America rather than the world at large. Most of America's peers on the world stage have already figured out, for example, how to provide universal health care to their citizens without bankrupting their economies. The U.S. has yet to figure this out. I am concerned about the fact that the U.S. now ranks beneath 50 other countries in life expectancy. Why is the American way of life so deadly? What can we do to fix it? I'm concerned that the U.S. ranks worse than 49 other countries for infant mortality. Why is the U.S. such a hazardous place to be born? What do we need to do to fix that?

I worry that the United States, with only 4% of the world's population, has 25% of the world's prison population. We have more people in jail than Stalin did at the height of the Gulag days, not only in percentage terms but in absolute terms. We jail a higher percentage of our population that any country on earth; higher than China, well over twice the rate of Iran, four times the rate in Saudi Arabia.  And yet somehow we call ourselves the land of the free.

What are we doing to fix that?

The U.S. also leads the Western world in drug use and is 37th out of 192 countries for illicit-drug death rate (in other words 155 countries have a lower drug-related death rate than we do). Why? What's so horrible about life in America that we have so many people trying to escape it with drugs?

The U.S. has either the highest divorce rate in the world or the third highest, depending on where you get the stats. (India, a country in which roughly 90% of marriages are "arranged," has the lowest divorce rate of major countries that report divorce rates.) The high divorce rate in the U.S. concerns me greatly and it should concern others. Why? Divorce shows up in higher suicide, mental illness, and physical illness rates for children. (See stats here.) The next generation is imperiled. If every generation keeps imperiling the next, where will it lead?

For the benefit of people outside the U.S. who are reading this, I'd like to explain what it's like to debate some of the above topics in the U.S. Quite a few people in America are aware of the foregoing stats and believe, as I do, that America's problems should be acknowledged and addressed head-on, not ducked. But I fear I'm not in the majority. It's unfortunately quite common to run into U.S. citizens who proudly and unthinkingly cling to the dogma that "the United States is the greatest country in the world." I hear that chant constantly. "America is the best country in the world." I always feel like asking such people: "By what metric, exactly, is America the best country in the world?" When you confront a flag-waver with some of the uglier facts about this country, that person will typically try to end the conversation with: "Well why don't you go live somewhere else, if you think somewhere else is better?" My response is, I don't want to live in a foreign country; this is my country. I want to live in it and fix its problems so that it truly is the best country in the world. To my way of thinking, the dogmatic flag-wavers who defend the status quo by saying "Why don't you go live elsewhere" are precisely the ones who should go live elsewhere.

But enough about the United States. As a citizen of the world, what problems do I "worry about"?

In a nutshell: War, hunger, political oppression, and unnecessary death by disease. Somewhere behind those, global warming, income disparity (and thus power disparity), access to education.

That's my take on "What Should We Be Worried About?" What's yours?