The folks over at Wired invited President Barack Obama to guest edit the November issue of the magazine. The theme is Frontiers. I finally got around to reading the president’s introduction to the issue, “Now Is the Greatest Time to Be Alive.” I entirely agree with the president. In his essay, the president writes:
Let’s start with the big picture. By almost every measure, this country is better, and the world is better, than it was 50 years ago, 30 years ago, or even eight years ago. Leave aside the sepia tones of the 1950s, a time when women, minorities, and people with disabilities were shut out of huge parts of American life. Just since 1983, when I finished college, things like crime rates, teen pregnancy rates, and poverty rates are all down. Life expectancy is up. The share of Americans with a college education is up too. Tens of millions of Americans recently gained the security of health insurance. Blacks and Latinos have risen up the ranks to lead our businesses and communities. Women are a larger part of our workforce and are earning more money. Once-quiet factories are alive again, with assembly lines churning out the components of a clean-energy age.
And just as America has gotten better, so has the world. More countries know democracy. More kids are going to school. A smaller share of humans know chronic hunger or live in extreme poverty. In nearly two dozen countries—including our own—people now have the freedom to marry whomever they love. And last year the nations of the world joined together to forge the most comprehensive agreement to battle climate change in human history.
I reported on all of those positive trends and more in my book, The End of Doom. As a politician, President Obama will naturally hype policies like climate change regulation as part of his legacy. But setting that aside, all of his other claims about improvements in the human prospects are true. But where the president disappoints is when he tries to explain how all of this truly marvelous progress occurred. Consider:
This kind of progress hasn’t happened on its own. It happened because people organized and voted for better prospects; because leaders enacted smart, forward-looking policies; because people’s perspectives opened up, and with them, societies did too. But this progress also happened because we scienced the heck out of our challenges. Science is how we were able to combat acid rain and the AIDS epidemic. Technology is what allowed us to communicate across oceans and empathize with one another when a wall came down in Berlin or a TV personality came out. Without Norman Borlaug’s wheat, we could not feed the world’s hungry. Without Grace Hopper’s code, we might still be analyzing data with pencil and paper….
Because the truth is, while we’ve made great progress, there’s no shortage of challenges ahead: Climate change. Economic inequality. Cybersecurity. Terrorism and gun violence. Cancer, Alzheimer’s, and antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Just as in the past, to clear these hurdles we’re going to need everyone—policy makers and community leaders, teachers and workers and grassroots activists, presidents and soon-to-be-former presidents. And to accelerate that change, we need science. We need researchers and academics and engineers; programmers, surgeons, and botanists. And most important, we need not only the folks at MIT or Stanford or the NIH but also the mom in West Virginia tinkering with a 3-D printer, the girl on the South Side of Chicago learning to code, the dreamer in San Antonio seeking investors for his new app, the dad in North Dakota learning new skills so he can help lead the green revolution.
That’s how we will overcome the challenges we face: by unleashing the power of all of us for all of us. Not just for those of us who are fortunate, but for everybody.
All of these sentiments are surely worthy, but the President has entirely missed the main motive forces behind rising global prosperity and health. They are the advance and expansion of the institutions of free markets, property rights, and the rule of law. Without the globe spanning networks of cooperation enabled by markets, almost none of the progress cited by the president would have occurred.
The only time he comes close to alluding to any economic actors at all is when he mentions a dreamer in San Antonio seeking “investors” for his new app. He offers no acknowledgement or understanding of the vital role played by entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and inventors using markets to create and supply new products and services. Finally, look at the list of sorts of people whose help the president says is needed to clear hurdles. They nearly all work for government or nonprofits. Surely they will contribute to future progress. But the absolutely essential role of private business and industry is wholly overlooked.
I agree totally with President Obama that today is the greatest time ever to be alive. I just wish he had a deeper understanding of why that is the case and what is needed to insure that human progress will continue.