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Are things as bad as they seem?

A Soviet nuclear test in 1961

Back in the summer, says Niall Ferguson in Bloomberg, I asked former US treasury secretary Larry Summers just how bad the global economic and political situation was going to get. “Events are 75% bad,” he replied. “Trends are 75% good.” This echoes the view of Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker that things are never so bad as they seem in the papers. “Journalism by its very nature hides progress,” says Pinker, “because it presents sudden events rather than gradual trends.” “If it bleeds, it leads” is an old newsroom adage for good reason. But, says Pinker, “human progress is an empirical fact”.

I’m not so sure. The planet keeps getting warmer and the world’s population keeps growing, especially in Africa – a recipe for “famine, conflict and mass migration”. Geopolitically, we have entered a dangerous era of superpower rivalry, from the proxy war in Ukraine to the risk of “full-blown nuclear Armageddon” over Taiwan. Meanwhile 37 countries now have double-digit inflation, and the “energy-price shock” shows no sign of fading. The Summers-Pinker view might have been plausible in the relatively peaceful and prosperous period between Cold War I and Cold War II, but “that period is now clearly over”. The one consolation is that the world’s bad guys are having a tough time of it. Vladimir Putin’s war has “descended into farce”, the Chinese Communist Party faces “dire demographic trends” and a “latent financial crisis”, and Iran is “on the brink of revolt”. Even “with the life expectancy of a Glaswegian born in 1964”, I believe I shall live to see all three regimes collapse.