Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Oh, Those Lucky Poor People

It's true that living conditions on the Attawapiskat reserve are abysmal relative to living conditions throughout most of Canada. But before we go to all the expense and bother of trying to improve them, we should ask whether they are really so bad.

Yes, some people live in filthy, overcrowded plywood shacks. Yes, others hunker down in tents. But the ancestors of those people didn't have plywood shacks. Or plywood. And it wasn't only some of them living in tents. It was all of them. And those tents, need I remind you, were not made of the same superior materials enjoyed by residents of Attawapiskat in the present.

Now, imagine those ancestors were to take a look around today. Surely they would be impressed and amazed at the high standard of living achieved by their descendants. And imagine what they'd think when they were told that the child mortality rate in Attawapiskat today is a fraction of what it was.

Or that the life expectancy in Attawapiskat today is decades longer. They'd think they'd died and gone to paradise! And that's before someone showed them a television.

So what should we do for the people of Attawapiskat? We should tell those lucky duckies to stop whining.

OK. For the satire-impaired, let me say: That was satire. Please do not send me angry letters. I am not seriously making that argument. Nobody I know if is making that argument. But they are making similar arguments. And I am mocking them.

"Although the rich have got a whole lot richer, the poor have got richer, too," Margaret Wente wrote recently in the Globe and Mail. "In all the ways that count the most - nutrition, shelter, health, literacy, access to education, life span - the wealth gap between the rich and poor in Canada, and even the U.S., has shrunk dramatically."

All of that is true. Compare the present to a century ago and there's no question a poor person in Canada is much better off living today than in the past, and that, in important ways, the gap between John D. Rockefeller and the peons was greater than the gap between Bill Gates and the ordinary folks today.

I've written about this progress many times. It was a central theme of my first book. "Whatever challenges we face, it remains indisputably true that we are the safest, healthiest, and richest humans who ever lived." I wrote that four years ago. It's still true.

But whenever I've written about progress, I've been criticized for inviting complacency. I didn't intend to and I don't think I did, given the context in which I wrote. Quite the opposite. Those who focus on what's going wrong, and never mention what's gone right, may inadvertently convince people that nothing can go right, so why even try? A little historical perspective can be an excellent way to show people that progress is possible - which is the first step in getting them up and working toward a better world.

But still, I can understand why some take reminders of how lucky we are, in the grand scheme of things, as an invitation to complacency. Because sometimes they are an invitation to complacency.

What spurred Wente's column was growing evidence, including a major new OECD report, of rising wealth inequality. In that context, I can't help but think the column's message is "quit yer whining."

Or, if you prefer, "you've never had it so good." Lord Young, a former cabinet minister in the Thatcher government, said that to the people of Britain. Last year. After a horrid recession. Amid a sickly recovery. As budgets were being slashed. You can imagine what the people of Britain said to Lord Young.

But the fountainhead of historyas-complacency is surely Fox News.

For months, Fox has been blowing off concerns about poverty and inequality on the grounds that America's poor aren't really poor. They're "poor." Poor means holes in your socks, shrunken cheeks, and scrawny, malnourished limbs. Poor means swinging a pickaxe 18 hours a day in a coal mine and selling your kids to Fagin.

As Fox has helpfully noted at considerable length, America's "poor" own video games, microwaves, and refrigerators. And they're fat. John D. Rockefeller was skinny. And he didn't own video games, microwaves, and refrigerators. You might say the "poor" live better than Rockefeller.

Lucky people, the poor. Even the guy who loses his job, fails to make the rent, and lives in his 1995 Cutlass Supreme. A hundred years ago, only the rich owned a car. And that sun roof? Rockefeller never had a sun roof.

But it wouldn't be fair to say that Fox News and others on the American right only use historical comparisons to promote complacency. They do want some things to change.

For example, they find it unfair and unacceptable that half of Americans - the bottom half - pay no income tax. A Wall Street Journal editorial famously called them "lucky duckies." So it's important for viewers of Fox News to understand that the guy living in his 1995 Cutlass Supreme is doing great, historically speaking, both to defeat any foolish suggestion that he should receive help from the government and to gin up support for raising his taxes.

So when is historical perspective reasonable and when is it spin? It seems to me that intention matters. But what really settles it is the particular issue being discussed.

Consider Attawapiskat. The issue is living conditions and what we can or should do about them. The distant past isn't relevant to that question. What's relevant are living conditions elsewhere around the country. They're far superior - which shows we can easily do better for the people of Attawapiskat.

And that's the only perspective we need.