Monday, June 30, 2008

Study: World gets happier

Yes, overall the world is much happier than it used to be. 52 countries were studied (there are 193 total), and overall happiness increased in 40 of them between 1981 and 2007. Why? Some probable reasons include:

  1. Low-income countries (particularly India and China) have experienced unprecedented rates of economic growth, pulling millions of people out of poverty;
  2. Democracy has been introduced in many countries, and become stronger and more entrenched in countries that were partially democratic;
  3. Increasing gender equality;
  4. Increased tolerance of ethnic minorities and gays and lesbians in developed societies.

Rich countries tend to be happier than poor countries. And according to University of Michigan political scientist Ronald Inglehart, who headed up the survey, "The results clearly show that the happiest societies are those that allow people the freedom to choose how to live their lives."

Of the countries surveyed, Denmark is the happiest and Zimbabwe the most miserable. The US ranks 16th.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Turning a corner against terrorism

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve amassed a larger-than-usual pile of secret peace-ish articles here waiting to be blogged about. Sifting through them, three jump out as mirroring each other. What do they have in common? Surprisingly good news about the war on terror.
  1. Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria talks about the worldwide drop in terrorism over the last few years. Stats that show terrorism on the increase tend to count civilian casualties in Iraq, which doesn’t really make sense. Excluding Iraq and Afghanistan, terrorist attacks and casualties from terrorism are way down. In addition, Islamist terrorist groups stumbled in their recruiting PR by killing too many Muslim civilians; support for their tactics among Muslims has plummeted in recent years.

    (This brings up a conservative theory I’ve read which posits that by attracting potential terrorists to fight in Iraq, that country’s invasion has prevented attacks on the US. If true (and how would you prove it?), this is easily the most compelling justification for the war I’ve heard. Of course, it’s still a justification that was thought of long after the fact of deciding to invade.)

  2. Meanwhile, The Week summarizes a number of data sources about the sorry state of al Qaida. Al Qaida is on its last legs in Iraq and Afghanistan, having been backed into a corner in Pakistan, its one remaining stronghold. And we’re getting more effective at fighting them there; rather than just throwing money at Pakistan (and watching it arm itself against India instead), we’re training local Pakistani troops directly.

  3. Lastly, the Economist had a cover story about “The change in Iraq: Is it turning the corner?” Optimism is popping up in the country, thanks to more ceasefires, fewer casualties, more political cooperation, and a bit of restored infrastructure, including a surge in cell phones. The newspaper is quick to explain that it is not trumpeting good news in Iraq as a means to justify the war (it backed the decision to invade); indeed, the war remains a terrible, deadly blunder. However, progress is finally being made out of a bad situation.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Progress of Crowds

I read a business article last week by James Surowiecki about Toyota’s success. One interesting point runs parallel to the belief system of my book, The Secret Peace: “defining innovation as an incremental process, in which the goal is not to make huge, sudden leaps but, rather, to make things better on a daily basis. (The principle is often known by its Japanese name, kaizen – continuous improvement.)”

That’s a classic concept of progress that has fallen in and out of favor, but I wholeheartedly believe in it. Sure, there are sometimes dramatic events or inventions that pop up and make a huge change, but many of those that we learn about actually built on previous work that remained under the radar. There are also often missteps backwards, but the good outweighs the bad.

An important aspect of this is how spread out the improvements are among people: “And so it rejects the idea that innovation is the province of an elect few; instead, it’s taken to be an everyday task for which everyone is responsible. … Toyota implements a million new ideas a year, and most of them come from ordinary workers (Japanese companies get a hundred times as many suggestions from their workers as U.S. companies do.)”

Take the same principle and spread it out among the world’s people, and we see civilization improving daily. The vast majority of people are daily trying to make things better for themselves and their families. (Or, they can be lazy and do nothing; but the number of people actively trying to make things worse is very small.) Many mistakes are made, and big mistakes can push many people back at once (like, say, invading Iraq) but adding together all that effort means history practically has no choice but to improve.