Recency bias and polycrisis

I first became a history autodidact in my 20s, trying to understand the difference between my worldview and those of my parents and in-laws. >100 histories and biographies later, I have a great appreciation of just how awful the 20th century was. In my lifetime, I remember political assassinations, race riots, the Vietnam war, recessions, 9/11, the anthrax scare and the US invasion and military occupation of Iraq. Not to mention COVID-19, which is still with us and mutating.

It’s easy to be swept up in the present polycrisis and to believe things have never been worse. But over at, Kevin Drum provides a valuable antidote to recency bias:

“The Great Recession peaked at 10% unemployment and stayed above 5% for seven years—compared to 11% and 27 years between 1970 and 1997. Wages for blue-collar workers went up during the Great Recession compared to a 7% decline during the Volcker Recession and a 40% decline during the Great Depression. The combination of 9/11 and both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars killed about 10,000 Americans over a decade—the toll from a single year of Vietnam or a single month of WWII. COVID was half as deadly as the Spanish Flu in the US and a thirtieth as deadly worldwide. There are ten times as many democracies in the world as there were 80 years ago—and fears to the contrary notwithstanding, they’re in pretty good shape. Racism may still be our original sin, but it’s plummeted compared to the days of Jim Crow, redlining, literacy tests, and Bull Connor. Our standard of living is triple what it was at the start of the postwar era. Inflation recently rose above 5% for two years, but that compares to nine consecutive years from 1973-82. The murder rate spiked to 6.8 per 100,000 a couple of years ago but is still a third less than it was three decades ago.”

This isn’t to say we shouldn’t strive to make things even better. And Kevin doesn’t mention climate change, which is only now making itself felt in resource wars in the Middle East and Central America. We can honor the previous generation by investing in the future.

How bad are things, really?