Giving thanks for the world we live in

This week, people across Maine and across the country will come together and celebrate Thanksgiving. There will be turkey, there will be gravy, there will be stuffing, and there will be endless debates about which side dish or dessert really belongs on the table.

There will also, undoubtedly, be some ridiculous squabbles over the state of politics in our country. These things are simply inevitable.

But as Thanksgiving is a day for, well, giving thanks, perhaps now is a good opportunity to talk about all the things we have to actually be thankful for.

In many homes, including mine, a tradition exists whereby the Thanksgiving dinner attendees take turns describing all the things they have to be thankful for. The answers are usually the same. Thankful for family. Thankful for good health, a good job, or good friends.

Piscataquis County Sheriff Bob Young chats with Piscataquis Community Elementary School kindergarteners as students at the Guilford school enjoyed a Thanksgiving meal last week and shared with teachers and staff what they are thankful for. Observer photo/Stuart Hedstrom

We recognize the good things in our own life and the lives of those closest to us, and easily give thanks for them.

But have you ever stopped to think about expressing gratitude for things beyond your personal experience? Because this year, I am thankful that I am living in — without question — the greatest time to be alive for a human being in the history of this planet.

Take life expectancy, just as an example. In the year 1900, global life expectancy was a pathetic 31 years. As a matter of fact, 100 years before that, there wasn’t a single country that had a life expectancy above 40 years.

By the middle of our current decade, global life expectancy has climbed to more than 71 years old. Here in the United States, the average life expectancy is 78.8 years, 76.8 years for men and 81 years for women.

Speaking of the year 1800, if you were to go back in time and visit that era, you would be shocked to find how systemic poverty was across the globe. Roughly 94 percent of the 1 billion people living in that time lived in abject poverty.

Flash forward to the 20 years between 1990 and 2010, and the world saw the number of people living in abject poverty — $2 per day or less — decline by a billion people. Today, only a little more than 10 percent of the world population lives in that kind of miserable existence, and the number is continuing to drop.

But it isn’t just poor people being less poor in poor countries. Here in America, where we have been constantly told that “the middle class is disappearing” and that it has never been harder to make ends meet, the reality is actually quite different.

Oh, it is true that there are fewer people, as a percentage of total population, in the so-called “middle income” bracket than there used to be. A study performed by the American Enterprise Institute in 2015, for instance, found that the share of American households earning between $50,000 and $100,000 a year (in constant 2014 dollars) had dropped from 33.7 percent in 1967, to 28.5 percent in 2014.

But it wasn’t because people were getting poorer. In fact, there was also a big drop — by more than 11 percentage points, from 58.2 percent to 46.8 percent — in the share of Americans making below $50,000 a year.

It turns out that the reality is that Americans are actually moving to higher income brackets The share of American households who were making $100,000 a year or more went from a paltry 8.1 percent in 1967 to 24.7 percent in 2014.

But we all feel more squeezed than ever. We are all told our parents were more prosperous than we are.

Maybe. Or maybe it has more to do with the things we choose to purchase with all our extra money that our parents didn’t. People living in the 1960s didn’t have iPhones, Netflix, Disney Plus, laptops, travel baseball, Amazon one-click shopping or clothes in a box subscriptions.

If we only paid for what our predecessors did, I think we’d be shocked by how much disposable income we would all have.

And speaking of all those things, by the way, please try to keep in mind that if you have a smartphone — and 81 percent of you do — you have in your pocket a machine that has access to what amounts to the total collection of all human knowledge ever collected. In a device the size of a wallet. That you keep in your pocket.

Perspective, please.

It isn’t just these metrics, of course, that tell us that this is the best time in history to be alive. Our water is cleaner, our environment better protected, our cars and planes safer, accidental deaths are lower, and horrible diseases are being cured every day.

The merchants of misery, pessimism and division want you to be afraid. They want you to think things have never been worse.

But they’ve never been better, and we should all be thankful for that.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.