TCS Daily

Our Problems Are a Sign of Progress

By Dwight R. Lee - March 3, 2004 12:00 AM

For the last few weeks the big news in Athens, Georgia, the college town where I live, has been the killing of a reportedly rabid raccoon by a member of a local fraternity. The raccoon was shot with a pellet gun after being seen acting strangely in a residential area, and has received more press attention than several of the humans murdered here in recent months. Members of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have been in full cry demanding justice, and the raccoon murderer is now facing criminal charges and the possibility of one year in jail.

With due respect to the late, lamented raccoon, I cannot follow this story without considering how well off we are in this country. If killing a rabid raccoon is worthy of lasting press attention and criminal proceedings, we have put most of our serious problems behind us. To appreciate our good fortune, let's compare some of today's problems with those of the past.

Today a beached whale is often the object of an expensive rescue mission, with people and news crews rushing to the scene to "save the whale" and provide national up-to-the-minute coverage. In the 19th century, beached whales also attracted a crowd, but one with a different problem in mind -- putting a little more fat on the table.

A major health problem until well into the last century was obtaining a well-balanced, safe diet. A few generations ago Americans consumed far less fresh fruit and vegetables, animal protein and vitamins than today, and, believe it or not, getting enough fat was a problem for many. The food people ate was often dangerously contaminated. Before refrigeration and pasteurization became widespread in the 20th century, food poisoning was a major killer, and milk was a common source of tuberculosis and typhoid.

Our problem today is too much food. According to a Centers for Disease Control report, over 60 percent of Americans are overweight, and about $40 billion a year is spent on weight reduction. Some firms are so lacking in social responsibility by making tasty food available in large portions at low prices that they are being threatened with lawsuits.

But the problem is not just overweight people. The Associated Press newswire reported recently that a challenging nutritional problem today is obese pets. The story quoted a veterinarian warning that "our dogs and cats are eating themselves to death."

Not long ago a serious nutritional problem was keeping most of your teeth, and few people beyond middle age did. Today dull and discolored teeth are considered a problem. Teeth whitening has become common, and many older people now have teeth so dazzling white that sunglasses are advised when they smile in your direction.

And let's not forget about the teeth of our overweight pets. In case you missed it, February is Pet Dental Health Month according to a recent Knight Ridder wire report, with people urged to take their pets in for a dental health workup by a veterinarian. Instead of shooting the raccoon, the fraternity boy should have flossed its teeth.

My point is not to condone cruelty to animals, or to trivialize today's problems. We should recognize, however, that many problems today are a measure of our blessings, having become problems only because we have vanquished far worse problems that plagued us in the past. But have we really reached the point where protecting the welfare of raccoons has become a serious problem?

Ramsey is Professor of Economics at the Terry College of Business, University of Georgia. He last wrote for TCS about Martin Luther King.


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