Are we making progress as a nation?

Progress is our most important product.  I remember this line from the GE exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York.   I took myself there for my high school graduation trip.  I went by myself and stayed with my Uncle Paul and Aunt Lola in Long  Island.  I remember my Uncle Paul saying “See the exhibits that don’t cost anything, they are the best ones.”  I followed his advice and had a wonderful time for three days before going home.  I was by myself and could see and go and do anything I wanted to each day.  My only concern was money.  Now it is 48 years later and I still remember the saying “Progress is our most important product.”  The questions I would like to explore today is what is progress and are we as a nation making progress?  
The On-line Merriam Webster dictionary has the following definitions for progress:
Definition of PROGRESS
1 : a (1): a royal journey marked by pomp and pageant (2): a state procession b: a tour or circuit made by an official (as a judge) c: an expedition, journey, or march through a region
2 : a forward or onward movement (as to an objective or to a goal) : advance
3 :gradual betterment; especially: the progressivedevelopment of humankind 
Progress involves time since it implies by any of the above definitions that time is moving and things are changing as time moves.  Things change either for the better or the worse over time.   Thus progress and time cannot be separated.  However, what if things are going backwards in terms of progress?   I often ask people I know if they are happier today than they were 20 years ago and by and large most people say yes.  I think that is interesting since most of the people I know are getting older but they still say they are happier. Nevertheless, my survey would not be a very accurate measure of progress.  Not only because of the small sample size but obviously it is not very representative of the entire population.  But what if we had a measure that was more accurate?  One potential model that comes to my mind is based on the Consumer Price index.   This metric is a composite of items that we often buy (called a bread basket).  Their average value or prices are used to calculate the Consumer Price index.  Generally things get more expensive from year to year. However, overall well-being can be somewhat determined by looking at prices versus wages. If wages go up faster than prices, we are better off.  On the other hand, if prices go up faster than wages we are worse off.  This latter situation leaves most of us very unhappy.  I hate to think that the upcoming presidential election will be based on the price of gasoline, but it is a distinct possibility.  
So what if we had a composite measure of progress?   I suggest that such a metric could be used and it would indicate whether or not we are making progress as a nation.   I would call this index “The National Progress” index and I would include the following.  I will give a brief explanation of each metric and the latest data on it for over the past 10 – 100 years or so.  If the metric is green then we are making progress.   If it red, then we are going backwards.  One problem that still remains is a good way to combine the data from each measure into an overall metric.  Perhaps some of you can suggest a way that this could be done.  I am going to cite results for the USA but this could also be used in other countries.  I am going to base my basket of measures on six indices that I think should be used to measure progress.  
Infant Birth Mortality:  This measures the mortality rate for newborn children and is one measure of the health and well-being of a nation.  This level has steadily decreased until the average for the USA is 6.8.  Minorities are higher and as a nation we have slipped in the overall country rankings to 40 in the world. However rates for all groups in the USA have decreased and many would argue that decrease is the most important factor. We are dropping in world standings but there is little doubt that we have improved dramatically in this area.   I give this metric a green.  
Homicides Per Capita:  This is a measure of the violence and respective fear in a society from personal harm.  The Homicide rate in 1950 for the USA was 4.6, it has fluctuated from a low of 4.0 (1957) to a high of 10.2 (1980).  The rate for 2010 was 4.7.  State by state and city by city these rates vary from a low of 1.2 to a high of 52.  Rates also vary by ethnic group.  Longer term trends going back to the 16th century suggest a continuing decline but looking rates since 1950 the outlook is not as positive.  Furthermore, one can argue that overall crime statistics are more important then any single statistic but again the question arises as how do you combine these to create one overall crime index.  Another problem is the rate of incarceration in the USA.  We have one of the highest rates in the world for prison inmates, not to mention our rate for capital punishment.  Overall, I have to rate us in the red for this statistic due to the variability of the data and the problem we have with prisons and capital punishment.  By the way, I am not against capital punishment but it has not solved the problem or made our neighborhoods any safer.  It also costs us a great deal of money with little apparent results.  
Longevity:  This is the length of time we live.  I will not even bother going into historical data on this statistic.  We all know that longevity has increased dramatically over the past hundred years due to increases in medicines, sanitation, education, research and hospital procedures.  Average life span in 2009 is 78.2 and the death rates for 10 of the 15 leading causes of death decreased significantly between 2008 and 2009, including for heart disease, cancer and stroke.  While there is a difference by ethnicity for life spans as well as by gender, all groups in the USA have improved dramatically since 1900.  I give this one a strong green. 
Real Disposable Income Per Capita:  This metric measures the money we have left after subtracting the principal, interest, taxes and insurance and all other obligations from a workers monthly net income. It is sometimes called discretionary income or net disposable income.  In a way, you could say that this metric determines how much fun you can have in life or at least how much you can spend on nonessentials such as movies, vacations, casinos, concerts, golf, fishing etc.   The data here ( shows that for the past 20 months there has been no growth in disposable income. Looking back to 2000, the data shows an overall 14. 6 percent increase in disposable income.  I would have to give us a red in this metric.  Bear in mind, this metric does not show income growth by wage levels or any other socio-economic divisions. I would suggest that the strong growth in upper 1percent income levels over the past twenty years may seriously skew this metric.  I find it very difficult to hear anyone who has more disposable income now than they had ten years ago. On the other hand, concerts, casinos and restaurants still seem to be doing a flourishing business. 
Average National Intelligence:  A book (IQ and the Wealth of Nations) by Robert Lynn and Tau Vanhanen argues that differences in national income (in the form of per capita gross domestic product) correlatewith differences in the average national intelligence quotient (IQ). The authors further argue that differences in average national IQs is one important factor, but not the only one, contributing to differences in national wealth and rates of economic growth.  The USA ranks 19thout of 82 nations.  There is considerable controversy over the concept of IQ as a measure for anything since it is very problematic in terms of providing a valid metric for intelligence. Many would argue that IQ measures nothing but cultural differences in terms of what the test makers think is valuable to know.  
The Flynn Effect deals with the issue of how the general IQ scores of a population change over time.  In his study of IQ tests scores for different populations over the past sixty years, James R. Flynn discovered that IQ scores increased from one generation to the next for all of the countries for which data existed (Flynn, 1994). This interesting phenomenon has been called “the Flynn Effect.”  The reasons for these increases in IQ are still being debated.  As it stands, these increases in IQ would indicate that each generation in the USA and elsewhere is smarter than the preceding generation.  Without a firm explanation of the Flynn Effect, we are shaky grounds trying to answer the key question here “Are people getting smarter are dumber.”   My own bias as a teacher for the past 40 years is that students are indeed much smarter than they were when I was in school.  They have much more of a sense of politics, economics and street sense than my generation ever had.  On the other hand, tests show the USA to be falling behind in science and math scores compared to other nations.  I would have to give a green here to the metric for Average National Intelligence.  I would give a red score to our schools though if I had a way to give them a report card.  
Human Respect:  How do we measure respect for each other as people?  Do we measure hate crimes or the rise in hate organizations over the past twenty years.  (See the Southern Poverty Law Center for data here (  Do we measure the increased role of women and minorities in government and the labor force?  Do we measure the rise in lawsuits for workforce discrimination or the increase in women and minority CEOs?  Depending on where you look and your perspective, you might see less respect for people or more. I will use for a metric here the number of women and minorities that now hold government jobs in the US and the number of women and minority CEOs in the Fortune 500.   I think these might be the best indicators of how much progress we have made as a nation in respecting people.  I could also add Gay people here but I suspect that the numbers would not really reflect the total number of Gay people.  Religious preference might also be an indicator of respect but I will forego this for now since the data is not as readily available.  An interesting resource for those of you who want to make world comparisons on this issue is the following by Karen Bird (The Political Representation of Women and Ethnic Minorities in Established Democracies)
The most recent data for women and minorities in government shows the number of women and minorities in senior-level jobs increased in fiscal 2010, according to a new report from the Office of Personnel Management. Women represented 31.2 percent of senior-level positions in fiscal 2010, up from 30.4 percent in fiscal 2009; blacks made up 6.7 percent of the top government jobs in 2010, an increase from 6.4 percent in 2009. The proportion of women and minorities in General Schedule grades 13 through 15 increased by 7.9 percent and 9.4 percent, respectively.
Currently, 12 FORTUNE 500 companies are run by women, down from 15 last year, as three left their posts and were succeeded by men. In 1995, not one Fortune 500 CEO was a person of color. Today, 19 Fortune 500 companies are run by people of color. Seven are Latinos, five are African American and seven are Asian American. I think the data shows that although the Fortune 500 does not reflect anywhere near a gender or ethnic profile of the general USA population; there have been increases for both women and minorities in this rarified atmosphere of corporate America.  I would have to put a weak green in this metric for human respect. We still have a long way to go.  
So there you have it, my six metrics of progress.  I am going to be criticized for not including technology and science metrics.  There is little doubt that we have made great strides in technology and scientific explanations of the world.  I would include a metric for these if I could find a good one and I am open to suggestions.  What metrics do you think I am missing? What metrics would you add to my basket?  Do you think we are making progress as a nation?  Why or why not? What do you think it would take to make progress?  How could you help?

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. bgalbreath
    Mar 17, 2012 @ 22:02:49

    When we were young, men got the majority of college degrees. Now women get 2/3 of them. Does that mean women have progressed, or that men have regressed? Do we now need affirmative action for men in higher education?

    I like your progress metrics. However, I do not think progress is an objective matter. It depends crucially on expectations and one's relative position. If I had a net worth of $50K in 1980 and $500K in 2005 and $300K now, all in inflation adjusted dollars, have I made progress? I probably think I have lost ground, because my reference anchor is not the $50K but my $500K peak.
    My subjective perception is that levels of income/consumption have grown steadily since I was a child in the 1950's to now. Yet “objective” measures of inflation adjusted standards of living show no progress at all since the mid-1990's. Another factor is the decreasing marginal utility of income. Extra purchasing power has less and less effect on one's subjective well-being. My impression is that the world-wide average standard of living has grown rapidly over the past 20 years or so, lifting billions from dire deprivation to what we would still consider severe poverty, while incomes in the developed world have grown less, in percentage terms. Due to considerations of marginal utility, moving from $1/day to $3/day is huge, but since people in the 3rd world (due to improved access to communications) can see more clearly how the other half lives, I'm not sure if they have made subjective progress.

    Here's one guy's take on what things are like in a poor country:

    What we're really concerned about, I guess, is happiness. This lists “professional” jobs and how happy, on average people who have them are. to the extent that more people are winding up in the less happiness producing jobs, maybe we're regressing:



  2. John Persico
    Mar 20, 2012 @ 15:06:25

    Thanks Bruce, you raise many good points. I suggest that such an overall metric could be very useful if we could put it together with enough good metrics. I missed several which you note. I also would add income inequality which seems to have grown in the last 20 years. I often ask people “Are you happier today than you were 20 years ago?” How would you answer this question? Despite much lower income and lower expectations, my subjective feeling of well being and happiness is way up. This might change if health were not a factor but both Karen and I are still very healthy and enjoying life.



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