Economy & Budget

More Doughnut Than Hole

The toothless rate in the United States is now twice as good as it was in 1970. Overall, the percentage of Americans between 55 and 64 years of age with zero teeth has been cut in half–from 30% to 15% since 1970. Compared to when Ronald Reagan was elected president, the average 55 to 64-year-old American now has four more real teeth.

That’s the kind of good news I was reading about in “It’s Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years” when Thomas Friedman’s latest column in the New York Times landed on my sidewalk. In just one short column, Friedman managed to shine the grim spotlight on all of the following 14 multi-faceted problems: it’ll be “a miracle if there is no market-induced implosion in the economy or the housing market in the next three years”; the spending hikes and tax cuts by the Bush team are “ridiculously out of control”; the Arab dictators who support the killing of Americans in Iraq are the “biggest beneficiaries” of our rising gasoline prices; George Bush has no heir apparent in his administration and has therefore too little incentive to expand his political base; the “far right wing” of the GOP is setting the agenda in the second Bush term; Bush has no “new New Deal” to address “the insecurities of the age of globalization”; on Social Security, Bush has a “private accounts obsession”; the White House is out of touch with a nation “deeply concerned about education, competition, health care and pensions”; Bush has “head-in-the-sand positions” on “stem cell research, climate change, population control and evolution”; Bush is “catering to right wing fetishes”; Bush has “utterly failed” to come up with an energy policy; the second Bush term is “drifting aimlessly, disconnected from the problems” in the nation; Dick Cheney is “an overbearing, archconservative vice president imposing his will and ideas on a less-seasoned president”; and “you can bet the farm there will have to be a huge correction after 2008 to get taxes and spending back in line.”

Taken as a whole, concludes Friedman, the Bush agenda is a “dog’s breakfast of antiscience, head-in-the-sand policies.” If global warming won’t kill us, it’ll be gas-fired terrorism or a nose-diving economy, and all Bush is interested in doing is turning Terri Schiavo into a fetish. That’s a tough scenario to handle with the morning coffee.

More optimistic amidst all this gloom and doom is the avalanche of evidence presented by Stephen Moore and Julian Simon in “It’s Getting Better All the Time,” a report published in 2000 by the Cato Institute, regarding how much things have changed since 1900. “The evidence they present is irrefutable,” writes Lawrence Kudlow. “This book is so full chock full of good news that it’s virtually guaranteed to cheer up even the clinically depressed. Moore and Simon dismantle the doomsday pessimism that’s still so commonplace in academia and the media. Give people freedom and free enterprise and the potential for human progress is seemingly limitless.”

An excellent measure of a nation’s economic performance is the change in its output per capita. Today, per capita economic output in the United States, adjusted for inflation (measured in constant dollars), is more than six times higher than it was in 1900. Since 1950, the official numbers from the Census Bureau show that U.S. median family income, adjusted for inflation, has more than doubled.

All told, the American economy in the 20th century delivered a record of wealth and income growth never before equaled in history. “It is amazing but true,” write Moore and Simon, “that more financial wealth has been generated in the United States over the past 50 years than was created in all the rest of the world in all the centuries before 1950.”

This vast creation of wealth translated directly into more capital investment per worker and, consequently, higher productivity and higher incomes. Bottom line, that’s what produced more teeth per capita–and less poverty, less infant mortality, longer life spans, higher home ownership rates, more leisure, more education, more books, more music, bigger houses, better cars, and taller teenagers.

“In 1940, Californians paid 30 cents–nearly half an hour’s wage–for the first McDonald’s hamburger, one-eighth pound of ground beef,” report Moore and Simon. “Today’s one-fifth pound Big Mac costs $1.89, the equivalent of just 8.6 minutes of work.” 

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