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Why the “Harper’s Index” drives me mad!

April 21, 2011

For those of you who don’t know, Harper’s Magazine is famous for its “Harper’s Index”, which is published monthly in its magazine.

The Index looks at statistics and social trends and how they impact on our lives.

For example (in the current issue (May)):

  • In 1970, the average difference in starting salary between a New York school teacher and a private lawyer was $2,000. Today, its $106,000.
  • Americans spent at least $25,000,000 last year dealing with their pet’s obesity problems. (25 million!)
  • The US government confirms that there were 10 organized muslim terrorist plots against it last year. The US government confirms that there were 25 organized non-muslim terrorist plots against it last year. (Guess which ones got more media coverage?)
  • 50% of all new jobs created in North America are in customer service.
  • London, England spent $341,000 to modify London ambulances so that they can now support obese patients.

“But Sherwood, why would this make you crazy?  Hasn’t the world always been a rather contradictory and confusing place?”

Absolutely. But what I think it is, is that the Index reveals the very real slippery slope North American (and Western) society is on at the moment – and this is revealed in very painful ways.

Like the fact that the American government’s revenue last year was 14.8% of GDP. (That of all wealth generated in America, the gov’t used 14.8% to operate itself and all the programs it creates.) The Index then notes that the last time the percentage was this low was 1950.


There were only 152 million Americans in 1950. Today there are more than 300 million.

How do you run a modern government with 1950s income expectations?

There are real reasons for the mess we are in. Its not just an invisible hand in the sky that is screwing things up. A modern society costs money. Healthcare costs money. Public education costs money. Public transportation costs money. Parks and Recreation cost money.

Just because we are all getting old (the average age in Canada is now over 40) doesn’t mean that we can have some knee-jerk nostalgia for the “good-ole” days of the 1950s.

Conservatives like to think that this may be true. That we can go back to a world before the waves of immigrants, when we were all started our school day with the Lord’s Prayer, when good girls waited until they were married, when there was a playground in every neighbourhood, blahblahblah.

And the Liberals may not want to go back to the 1950s, but they are – at heart – just as conservative in their approach. Straight down the middle, status quo for all, let’s discuss it some more…let’s not do anything rash.

But we can’t go back. We can never go back. And we cannot simply stand still. The Empire is at an end, and the new empires are emerging.

Its time we grew up, realized that the adolescent party is over, and that we had better start looking at the world and its problems like adults.

And come up with mature, adult solutions.

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