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A rational case for optimism

Matthew Trivett, Community Voices • Nov 24, 2019 at 6:00 AM

Life is good here in Johnson City. Do you remember just 20 years ago what this town looked like? I mean it was fine. But there was no Tweetsie Trail, craft breweries, splash pad, Children’s Hospital, a state-of-the-art senior center, or even a Starbucks. Heck, I remember the complete novelty of ordering sushi for the first time in 2001 when Sushi Blues arrived on the local scene. Sushi?! Up to that point I had thought sushi was a delicacy reserved for affluent big city dwellers or those living in the Eastern Hemisphere.

I’m struck — and admittedly a tad confused — by this prevailing attitude by some in our nation that we are in a rare and undesirable place historically. For instance, various editorials that I’ve recently observed seem to fixate on the inevitable coming economic collapse and the ensuing financial destruction of all Americans. Just google “stock market crash” and watch as your browser endlessly fills with whatever Armageddon du jour happens to be trending at the moment. Recently, a well-known politician said during an interview that “the American Dream is dying by the numbers. And Americans know it.” Are you kidding me?!

Perhaps it’s time for us to take a step back and honestly assess where on the continuum we find ourselves in the collective human experience. Here’s the deal: if you are alive today, you’ve won the chronological lottery. There is no better time to be alive than right here, right now. And as someone who provides guidance for folks’ long-term planning, I have to ask, how can this be anything but good for one’s long term financial prospects?

And yes, of course, we have problems. We always will. But consider the following:

• In 1900, the average life expectancy was a dismal 47 years. Today that figure is 79. This means that life expectancy has increased more over the last 100 years than all of recorded human history combined (source: National Vital Statistics Reports).

• In 1820, nearly 90% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty (defined as living on $1.25 per day or less). By 1980, that number had dropped to 40%. As of 2015, it is a mere 10%. For all intents and purposes and certainly by strict definition, extreme poverty in the U.S. is non-existent (www.ourworldindata.org).

• At the beginning of the 20th century, only one in four could read. Today, over 80% of the world’s population is literate. (www.ourworldindata.org).

• The iPhone that my 3.5-year-old watches his “educational” cartoons on has more technological power than was onboard Neil Armstrong’s lunar-bound vessel in 1969. Today, even the homeless have smartphones. Moore’s Law (the perception that speed and capability of computers will nearly double every two years) appears to be alive and well.

• More recently, initial unemployment claims dropped below 200,000. As a percentage of the total population, this is the lowest number ever recorded (U.S. Department of Labor).

Locally (Washington, Carter, and Unicoi counties) the stats are equally as impressive. According to the Northeast Tennessee Regional Economic Partnership, our unemployment numbers are at 3.6%, down from 5.3% in 2016. This translates to adding 4,918 workers to our labor market. But wait. It gets better. These additional jobs have added $227 million in wages to our area, which breaks down to $46,156 on average per job — well above the existing $27,619 average income of a Johnson City resident. And guess what? When people have jobs, they tend to buy stuff. To wit, a $569.5 million increase in our local GDP since 2016.

So yes, I think we live in a pretty darn good place, during a darn good time. And I’m not someone who strolls around with a blind sunny disposition.

And if you’re a corporation selling widgets — regional or national — you must be licking your chops. Because the better technology gets, and the longer people live, and the more educated we become, and the more of us that have jobs, the more widgets you’re going to sell. Now expand that to an entire global economic ecosystem, and the only rational conclusion is a syllogistic case for optimism. If you can’t find hope in that, God help you.

As Steven Pinkerton says in his book “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” “There can be no question of which was the greatest era for culture; the answer has to be today, until it is superseded by tomorrow.”

Matthew Trivett of Johnson City is an investment adviser.

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