Survey questions routinely ask Americans how they perceive the past and the future, and one thing is clear: both are better than the present-at least when we evaluate our nation. A 2009 study asked Americans how things are going in the United States now compared to five years ago, and only 5% of Americans said things now are better. Eighty-three percent said worse, and 10% said about the same. When asked to give their impressions of recent decades, Americans have an unfavorable opinion about their current decade. Fifty-seven percent of respondents in another 2009 study had a favorable opinion of the 1990s, 56% did of the 1980s, 40% the 1970s, and 34% the 1960s. When asked about the year 2000, only 27% had a positive impression of it.

Likewise, Americans tend to be relatively optimistic about the future, though perceptions of the future vary from year to year. In a 2008 poll, 39% of Americans said that the United States would be better off in five years, compared to 34% who said it would be worse. Just one year later, in 2009, 61% said it would be better, versus 19% who said it would be worse. A 2010 Gallup poll asked Americans about different aspects of American life and whether these aspects would be better, worse, or about the same in twenty years. Respondents were most optimistic about the future regarding national security, Americans' hard work, race relations, health, and health care. They had mixed feelings about future standards of living and the functioning of democracy, and they reported pessimism about only one issue: the state of moral values.

Our good feelings about the future come with a hitch: The future never arrives. Surveys have asked questions about the present and the future for several decades now, allowing us to compare Americans' expectations for a specific year in the future versus their feelings about it once it arrives-but the future never seems to live up to its advanced billing. For example, a 1997 survey asked Americans to rate their current quality of life on a ladder scale of 1 to 10, and they averaged a rating of 7. The same survey asked what they expected for five years from then, and they rated their projected quality of life as 8.2. However, when the year 2002 actually rolled around five years later, another survey asked the same questions, and it found that Americans rated the quality of their current lives at just 6.9, but, again, respondents were optimistic about five years into the future, rating it at 8.3. As phrased by a Pew report, the "future ain't what it used to be."

Failed Prophecies of Doom

While rank-and-file Americans are modestly optimistic about the future, journalists, academics, and other experts seem to be more negative overall. In fact, forecasting doom is a viable career strategy, complete with strong book sales, frequent media appearances, and the occasional Nobel Prize. In this section I review a couple of the better-known prophecies of doom. It's kind of fun to see experts be so wrong, an intellectual schadenfreude-rejoicing in others' misfortune. Perhaps more important, realizing the errors of previous, widely accepted prophecies of doom should make us a little more skeptical about current ones, many of which could well turn out to be equally preposterous.

Perhaps the best known historical gloom-and-doomer was Thomas Malthus, an influential British scholar and Anglican clergyman born in 1766. Malthus predicted that the human population would continue to grow until it exceeded the availability of natural resources needed to keep humans alive, thus resulting in a "Malthusian" crisis of famine, poverty, and vice. According to Malthus, humanity could look forward to a continual cycle of population growth followed by social collapse. This prediction did not come about for two reasons: the human population hasn't grown as fast as Malthus expected, and agricultural productivity has increased even faster-making today's world the best fed in human history (as we'll discover in chapter 5).