Reflections on 2016 consistently emphasize a slew of celebrity deaths and a miserable election cycle. However, beneath the headlines it was a pretty good year. It will probably look even better in hindsight.
Optimism powers ambition. In moments of dire threat, we often experience our greatest opportunities for change, both on a personal and collective level. No one achieves great things hiding in the safety of their parents’ basement. American political culture teeters on the brink of an enormous transformation. This is no time to be shy. Looking back on 2016 with a more careful eye we find ample fuel for hope. Recognizing what went right will be key to fixing what went wrong and blunting the wrongs to come.
Early in 2016 we hit a new record, experiencing our longest stretch of private sector job growth in history. That streak has continued and accelerated with no end in sight. Real median incomes have been rising at a steadily increasing rate since 2010. They had been flat over the previous decade. In 2016 we discovered that last year’s rate marked the largest jump in median incomes ever.
Stocks are up more than 250% under the Obama Administration. That makes the Obama Era the second friendliest time for stock market growth in our history, behind only the Clinton years. Despite living through the second longest economic expansion in our history, gasoline, energy, and other commodity prices remain near record lows and inflation is negligible.
Explosion in Automation
A convoy of driverless trucks made their way across Europe for the first time ever in April, marking the arrival of a new era in labor automation. Case Equipment unveiled its driverless tractor at an Ag show in September.
This year Uber put its first self-driving cars into production. Launching that program in Pittsburgh is highly symbolic. That city was a center of the last wave of industrial innovation. Thanks to decades of reinvention, the city is on the cutting edge of the next era of development. While bureaucracies struggle to keep up, tech companies are busy turning transportation into a cheap, rented utility, driving down costs while simultaneously reducing the demand for fossil fuels.
Life Keeps Getting Better for Ordinary People
High school graduation rates keep setting new records every year. An aggressive federal crackdown on corrupt for-profit colleges has finally begun to protect low income students from abuse. Life’s essentials have never been cheaper or more abundant. Food prices hit another record low this year while wages have been rising.
Lower income service jobs have seen a big hike in salaries. Companies like Costco and IKEA have instituted new company-wide minimum incomes at $12/hour. Wal-Mart’s new minimum income is $10/hour. Starbucks and Chipotle have instituted new time-off and health insurance programs. A big, controversial minimum wage hike in Seattle has so far had no impact on the city’s overall economic expansion while boosting incomes. State and local governments are leading the charge toward higher minimum wages and better conditions for workers.
Teen pregnancy rates hit new lows, led by huge declines among Hispanic and black women. Abortion rates continued their long, steep decline, approaching lows not seen since the procedure was made generally available. Divorce rates also hit a 40-year low.
We live in one of the most peaceful eras in human existence. That streak continued in 2016 as global combat deaths continued their long decline. Conflicts in Syria and Libya grabbed lurid headlines, but the impact and reach of those conflicts is remarkably limited. Just forty years ago the Khmer Rouge killed off a quarter of the population of Cambodia. Twenty years ago, fighting in Rwanda killed perhaps as many as a million people in just three months. Modern conflicts pale in comparison to the past, even the near past.
A Flight to Cleaner Fuels
Despite the availability of ever-cheaper oil and coal, the rapid expansion of the renewable energy market continues. Over the past few years, economic growth has uncoupled from growth rates in energy consumption. We passed a very important milestone just last month, as the price of new solar installations fell below the price of wind power, a development no one expected this quickly.
Even with bargain-basement prices for coal and oil, solar energy is now selling at cheaper rates. The cost of solar is declining on an exponential scale, putting the future of carbon fuels in doubt. Coal production hit record lows this year not seen since a major industry strike in 1981. Despite low prices, demand for oil remains soft, sparking concerns that we may reach peak demand within a few years.
Marijuana and the Liberty Revolution
Bad as this election cycle was, we passed a remarkable milestone in November. California just dropped marijuana prohibition. Eight states now allow marijuana use, but California marks a vital tipping point. One in ten Americans lives in the Golden State. Its market impact is even larger than its population. This trend toward greater personal independence and individual decision-making may mark our path out of the present political crisis.
Low Crime Rates and High Police Safety
Crime rates continue to bump along near record lows after steep declines in recent decades. New York City in 2016 is on track to set a new record low for murders. Apart from Chicago, other major cities are approaching record lows for murders and other serious crimes.
As one would expect under these conditions, police have never been safer than they are today. In the Reagan years, we averaged more than a hundred police line-of-duty deaths annually. Today that figure has dropped more than 40%. The most dangerous decade for police officers was the 1920’s. Police safety has been improving pretty steadily ever since. Popular fantasies about a current crime wave are a fake news phenomenon. We are safer than we have ever been, including those who protect us.
To top things off, Sturgill Simpson was nominated for a Grammy, and we got new albums from Lucinda Williams, Drive by Truckers, and the Jayhawks.
In short, 2016 was a pretty amazing year. In the years to come a Trump Administration is dedicated to undoing much of the progress we achieved. With a hearty resistance and a little luck, they might fail. Enjoy the holidays.