Last year, Matt Yglesias did a post suggesting that all news is bad news. Allowing for hyperbole, I think that’s roughly true. But I recall a time when it was not true, when much of the news was good. To be fair, Yglesias is mostly considering a certain type of popular headline news, which has always been dominated by bad events. There have always been many more stories of houses that burned down than houses that did not burn down. But today, even the more intellectual news sources are dominated by bad news. That was not true in the 1980s and 1990s.
In the last part of the 20th century, I greatly enjoyed reading news outlets such as The Economist, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Far Eastern Economic Review. These news sources focused on public policy issues, especially economic and political issues.
Those decades were dominated by good news, as one country after another abandoned authoritarianism and moved toward democracy. Almost every developed country did major tax reform. Many developed countries privatized state-owned enterprises and deregulated prices and production. Free trade agreements were announced. Immigration was liberalized. There was one economic reform after another. Inflation was brought down. Democracy was on the march in Latin America, Eastern Europe and elsewhere.
Now I pick up these news outlets with weary apprehension. I know there is unlikely to be a single piece of good news, just endless stories about the rise of nationalism, authoritarianism, militarism, statism, xenophobia, etc. One counterproductive economic policy after another. The world still progresses in terms of technology, with nifty inventions like the iPhone. But on political and economic issues it seems like the news is unrelentingly bad.
In the rare cases where I see a positive headline, even the good news turns out to be bad.
Even economics is going rapidly downhill. I consider myself a late 20th century economist, and have little in common with today’s economists.
Back in the 1960s, I used to watch Star Trek in TV. The future looked bright. I never imagined the 21st century would be a dark irrational place, regressing from the reform era of the 1980s and 1990s.
Younger people might live long enough to see the cycle swing back to good news. (It happened after 1914-45.) I don’t expect to live that long.
Or am I just getting old and grouchy? Please tell me if I’m missing all the wonderful policy news.
PS. Back before the Great Recession, when it was still possible to be optimistic about the world, I did a long paper on neoliberalism. I discussed three model countries: Denmark, Switzerland and Singapore. They differed in numerous ways, but all had one thing in common—they are number one in the world in one important category (values, politics, and technocratic policy, respectively). Tim Peach sent me to a Bloomberg article that shows that 15 years later these three have emerged as the world’s three most competitive economies. Hmmm, maybe I was on to something. If the world descends to a new dark age, perhaps these three will be the countries that hold out the longest.