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  • It’s Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years
  • Roy Rosenzweig
It’s Getting Better All the Time: 100 Greatest Trends of the Last 100 Years. By Stephen Moore and Julian Simon (Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 2000. xviii plus 294 pp. $29.95/cloth $14.95/paper).

Mark Twain attributed to Benjamin Disraeli the remark, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

This is a book of statistics. It consists of brief discussions of one hundred trends of the past century, each accompanied by full color charts, which purport to show “that there has been more improvement in the human condition in the past 100 years than in all of the previous centuries combined.” Each “trend” is summarized with a headline; a random selection gives the flavor of the book:

Fewer Mothers Die Giving Birth Better Dental Care, More Teeth The Declining Cost of Food Declining Rates of Teen Pregnancy Better Work for Better Pay The Modern Home Has Every Convenience Safer Highways and Airways The Age of Cheap and Abundant Energy Economic Equality in the Workplace Huge Economic Gains for Black Americans The Relentless March Toward Freedom

The book provides a useful compilation of statistics. Although much of the data come from readily available sources like Historical Statistics of the United States, Moore and Simon have pulled together some interesting and less readily accessible numbers—-the dramatic, almost thousand-fold, drop in the cost of a three-minute phone call from New York to San Francisco between 1915 and 2000, for example. Few would deny, moreover, that the past century has seen some remarkable gains in such areas as health and nutrition.

Still, the book’s broader claim that progress is relentless, inevitable, and everywhere is not sustained by the selection of charts and tables that fill its pages. “Selection” is the key word since showing that some things have gotten better for some people in some places at some times is not the same as proving that everything is getting better for everyone all the time and will continue to do so.

Moore and Simon repeatedly make selective use of evidence. For example, they prefer certain “trends.” They carefully chart an increase in the numbers of televisions, VCRs, and remote controls. But they don’t provide similar graphs showing the thinning of the ozone layer, increases in global mean surface temperatures due to global warming, the horrifying growth in AIDS around the world, or growing wealth or income inequality since the 1980s.

They also prefer certain data sets to others. Although the book begins by describing today as “the greatest moment on earth,” the data are overwhelmingly about the United States. Repeatedly, Moore and Simon engage in a “bait and switch” strategy between the headlines and the actual data. Thus, one headline celebrates “Lengthening Human Life,” but the two charts and most of the prose talk about American life expectancies. Their brief mention of poorer nations [End Page 179] simply observes cheerfully: “as recently as 1950, the life expectancy of a citizen of a less developed country like China or India was about 40 years. Today it is 63 years.” Yes, but life expectancy is still about 40 years in a number of less developed countries (38 in Zambia) and life expectancies in Sub-Saharan Africa have actually dropped in the past two decades.

Moore and Simon are also selective in their choice of sources. To show that “Americans Have More Leisure Time,” they cite the work of sociologist John Robinson but don’t seriously consider the data assembled by economist Juliet Schor for her book, The Overworked American. They use questionable poll data showing an increase in volunteerism as evidence of an increasing “sense of community and altruism,” but ignore the massive data assembled by Robert Putnam on the decline in “social capital.” Such examples do not necessarily mean that Moore and Simon are always wrong, but experts in particular areas would dispute many of their numbers and conclusions. Unfortunately, the existence of those disputes is not indicated in the book’s references, which do not stand up to serious scholarly scrutiny.

Moore and Simon...

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pp. 179-181
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