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A Thorn With Every Rose

by Alexander Green

Saturday, August 23, 2008


Dear Reader,

This week I'm attending an Oxford Club chapter meeting at the Grove Park Inn, a historic hotel on the western slope of Sunset Mountain near Asheville, NC.


Passing the enormous stone hearth in the lobby this morning, I noticed an engraving on one of the stones. It was a quatrain by Frank L. Stanton, a columnist for The Atlanta Constitution in the 1890s:


This old world we're livin' in

Is mighty hard to beat

We get a thorn with every rose

But ain't the roses sweet


This was once the most quoted poem in the country. But the mood has changed.


According to a recent CBS News/New York Times poll, Americans' views on the general state of the country have hit an all-time low, with 81% saying the prospects for the United States are declining the worst-ever number for this barometer.


Some will argue this just reflects the current economic slowdown or the monumental unpopularity of President Bush. But pollsters report that, for decades now, large percentages have said the country is going downhill, life is getting tougher, our children face a declining future, and the world, in general, is going to hell in a hand basket.


Clearly, we do have serious problems. There is the threat of nuclear proliferation, the specter of terrorism, and the unpleasant fact that our troops are bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan.


From an economic perspective, the federal deficit keeps growing, home prices are falling, the currency is weak, food and fuel prices have jumped, credit is tight, and the stock market recently entered bear market territory.


No wonder Americans are in a foul mood. Especially if this perspective one that is repeated endlessly by the national media accurately represents the big picture.


But it doesn't.


The media delivers the world through a highly distorted lens. It doesn't report buildings that don't burn, planes that don't crash, or companies that are hiring instead of laying off.


You wouldn't know it by listening to the pundits, but our general lot is getting better, not worse.


As Greg Easterbrook of the Brookings Institution recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "Living standards are the highest they have ever been, including the living standards for the middle class and the poor. All forms of pollution other than greenhouse gases are in decline; cancer, heart disease and stroke incidence are declining; crime is in a long-term cycle of significant decline, and education levels are at all-time highs."


Despite the gloomy headlines, most of us have it pretty darn good.


Consider that in the first half of the 20th century, most people earned a subsistence living through long hours of backbreaking work on farms or in factories.


In 1850, the average workweek was 64 hours. In 1900, it was 53. Today it is 42 hours. On the whole, Americans work less, have more purchasing power, enjoy goods and services in almost unlimited supply, and have much more leisure.


In the first half of our nation's history, most Americans lived and died within a few miles of where they were born. Nothing traveled faster than a horse and, as far as they knew, nothing ever would. Today we have instantaneous global communication, 24-hour broadband Internet access, and same-day travel to distant cities.


Formal discrimination against women and minorities has ended. There is mass home ownership, with central heat and air-conditioning and endless labor saving devices: stoves, ovens, refrigerators, dishwashers, microwaves and computers.


Medicine was almost non-existent 80 years ago. In 1927, for example, President Calvin Coolidge's 16year-old son Calvin Jr. developed a blister playing tennis without socks at the White House. It became infected. Five days later, he died. Before the advent of antibiotics, tragedies like these were routine.


Advances in medicine and technology have eliminated most of history's plagues. There has been a stunning reduction in infectious diseases.


We complain about the rising cost of health care. But that's only because we routinely live long enough to depend on it. The average American lifespan has almost doubled over the past century.


In short, we enjoy economic and political freedoms denied to billions throughout history. We live long lives, in good health and in comfortable circumstances. By almost any measure, we are living better than 99.9% of those who have inhabited this planet.

Yet we routinely tell pollsters that life is hard and things are getting steadily worse.


I think it's time to take the larger view. If we don't, we risk becoming the mopey character Steve Martin portrays when he mumbles, "The only joy I know is a dishwashing liquid."


As Easterbrooke writes in "The Progress Paradox":


"Perhaps Western society has lost its way, producing material goods in impressive superfluity but also generating so much stress and pressure that people cannot enjoy what they attain. Perhaps men and women must reexamine their priorities demanding less, caring more about each other, appreciating what they have rather than grousing about what they do not have, giving more than lip service to the wisdom that money cannot buy happiness."


How do we do this? We can re-order our lives so that they are less hectic, less stressful.


We all have problems. But as author Robert Ringer used to say, whatever your troubles, the odds are small that anyone is going to throw you up against the wall and pull out a machine gun. We can start improving the quality of our lives simply by changing our perspective.


And we can accept that if something is missing in our lives, it is probably a sense of gratitude, not material possessions.


It's worth taking a moment to appreciate your incredible good fortune just to be alive.


As Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins writes in "Unweaving the Rainbow":


"We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here."


True, it's not a perfect world, but it's the only one we've got. And we're only here once.


But, as my Dad used to say, "If you work it right, once is enough."


Carpe Diem,



Alexander Green is the Investment Director of The Oxford Club and Chairman of Investment U, a free, internet-based research service with over 300,000 readers. (The Oxford Club's Communique, whose portfolio he directs, is ranked third in the nation for risk-adjusted returns over the past five years by the independent Hulbert Financial Digest.) Alex has been featured on "The O'Reilly Factor," and has been profiled by Forbes, Kiplinger's Personal Finance, CNBC, and, among others. He lives in central Florida with his wife Karen and their children Hannah and David.


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