7 bad signs for 2015
4. Wealth inequality is on the rise
With the publication of Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century,” more and more attention has been focused on the spectacular increase of wealth inequality. Here, courtesy of economists Emmanual Saez and Gabriel Zucman, is a famous graph of the wealth share of the top 1%, 0.1% and 0.01% of U.S. households:
Why do we care about wealth inequality? Many economists and writers have come up with reasons to fear the trend, but I can’t help feeling that University of Chicago finance professor and blogger John Cochrane is right when he says that it’s all about political power:
[M]ost inequality warriors get down to the real problem they see: money and politics. They think money is corrupting politics, and they want to take away the money to purify the politics. As Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez wrote for his 2013 Arrow lecture at Stanford University: “top income shares matter” because the “surge in top incomes gives top earners more ability to influence [the] political process.”A critique of rent-seeking and political cronyism is well taken, and echoes from the left to libertarians.
[M]ost inequality warriors get down to the real problem they see: money and politics. They think money is corrupting politics, and they want to take away the money to purify the politics. As Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez wrote for his 2013 Arrow lecture at Stanford University: “top income shares matter” because the “surge in top incomes gives top earners more ability to influence [the] political process.”
A critique of rent-seeking and political cronyism is well taken, and echoes from the left to libertarians.
Whether this is the reason to fear wealth inequality, the trend to most people is simply flat-out disquieting. It seems to signal that something isn't working in our economy, even if we don’t know what that something is.
5. Obesity is still rising
The epidemic of obesity has gone global. Rates continue to rise in rich and poor countries alike, and by 2030 there are projected to be more than a billion obese people on the planet. Obesity causes huge medical costs, but beyond that, the popularity of diet and exercise products shows that most people dislike being obese. It isn't yet clear who or what has the power to stop the relentless rise of excess fatness.
6. Measles and whooping cough are back
In the U.S., the antivaccination movement continues to spread its dubious pseudoscience, and it’s winning. Vaccination rates have fallen, and as a predictable result, preventable disease is mounting a comeback. As Sarah Mimms of National Journal reports, measles, which had all but vanished as of the year 2000, is now at a 20-year high, with 15 separate outbreaks in the first five months of 2014 alone, and whooping cough is up by 24%. This is a case of a rich, complacent culture shooting itself in the foot—except it’s children who are suffering as a result of adult foolishness.
7. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are on the rise
I saved the most worrying trend for last. The invention of antibiotics freed humanity from much of the scourge of communicable disease. It also made widespread surgery possible. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that our entire medical system depends on this one miracle technology.
And that technology is losing its effect. Due to overuse of antibiotics by doctors and by agribusiness, antibiotic resistance is rising. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are on the case, but so far little has been done about overprescription in humans. On the agribusiness front there has been a bit of progress – a few firms have heeded the call to voluntarily stop dousing their animals in antibiotics, and hopefully new Food and Drug Administration regulations will help.
Again, let me reiterate that these negative trends are not reasons to think that the world is going to the dogs, or that modern civilization has failed. Overall, most of the global trends are positive, and modern civilization continues to be a smashing success. But at any point in time, there will be both negative and positive trends in the world, and we need to focus attention and effort on stopping the negative ones as they inevitably pop up. The world doesn’t get better automatically—it requires constant effort by all of us.