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It's Better Than It Looks
Reasons for Optimism in an Age of Fear
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Most people who read the news would tell you that 2017 is one of the worst years in recent memory. We’re facing a series of deeply troubling, even existential problems: fascism, terrorism, environmental collapse, racial and economic inequality, and more.
Yet this narrative misses something important: by almost every meaningful measure, the modern world is better than it ever has been. In the United States, disease, crime, discrimination, and most forms of pollution are in long-term decline, while longevity and education keep rising and economic indicators are better than in any past generation. Worldwide, malnutrition and extreme poverty are at historic lows, and the risk of dying by war or violence is the lowest in human history.
It’s not a coincidence that we’re confused — our perspectives on the world are blurred by the rise of social media, the machinations of politicians, and our own biases. Meanwhile, political reforms like the Clean Air Act and technological innovations like the hybridization of wheat have saved huge numbers of lives. In that optimistic spirit, Easterbrook offers specific policy reforms to address climate change, inequality, and other problems, and reminds us that there is real hope in conquering such challenges. In an age of discord and fear-mongering, It’s Better Than It Looks will profoundly change your perspective on who we are, where we’re headed, and what we’re capable of.
Optimism Goes Out of Style
ON THE NOVEMBER 2016 DAY Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, unemployment was 4.6 percent, a number that would have caused economists of the 1970s to fall to their knees and kiss the ground. In real-dollar terms, gasoline prices were the same as when teenagers rushed to record stores to buy the latest 45-rpm monaural singles. Natural resources and foodstuffs were plentiful. Middle-class wages and household income were rising. The economy had expanded for eighty-nine consecutive months. Private-sector jobs had grown for eighty consecutive months, nearly doubling the previous record of forty-eight months; a net of eight million jobs had been added in less than a decade. US industrial output was at an all-time record. Inflation had been low for a decade, while mortgage rates and other borrowing costs were at historic lows. Crime, especially homicide, was in long-term decline. All forms of pollution except greenhouse gases were in long-term decline; all forms of discrimination were in long-term decline; most disease rates were in long-term decline. Education levels and longevity were the highest ever. Two-thirds of the globe’s reserve currency was held in the USD, which meant the rest of the world judged America’s prospects to be excellent. The United States military not only was the strongest—it was stronger than all other militaries of the world combined. Objectively, America was in the best condition it had ever been in.
Yet Trump convinced voters that “our country is going to hell.” Despite the industrial output record, Trump convinced voters that “we don’t make things anymore.” Despite the glittering numbers, Trump convinced voters that the economy “is always bad, down, down, down.” Despite the urban comebacks of Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington, DC, Trump convinced voters that “American cities have no education, they have no jobs.” Despite the United States being viewed by other nations as the eight-hundred-pound gorilla, Trump convinced voters that in America’s interactions with the world, “we’re losing all the time, we lose with everything.” Addressing a rally in Colorado a few days before the election, Trump told voters they were living through “the lowest point in the history of our country.”
In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, there was a scramble to attach culpability to the pollsters, the pundits, the Russians, the FBI, WikiLeaks, sexism, and Hillary Clinton’s egregious campaign. What mattered is that when Trump told voters things were awful, they believed him.
Trump hardly was alone in being all negative all the time. In the same year, Bernie Sanders came out of left field and nearly upset heavily favored insider Hillary Clinton for the nomination of the Democratic Party via a campaign that relentlessly described contemporary America as foundering on the rocks. The United States, Sanders contended, has been “destroyed” except for the wealthiest few. Sanders’s backers shouted approval at his flamboyantly downbeat assertions, some every bit as kooky as any by Trump. Sanders proclaimed that Americans are being “poisoned” by pollutants caused by corporate greed. If our bodies are being poisoned, living longer is a funny way of showing it.
Believing things much worse than they are hardly was confined to the United States. Objectively, in 2016, the United Kingdom was in the best condition it has ever been in—judged by strong economic growth, by the lowest unemployment rate of any European Union member, by high levels of personal freedom and public health, by inflation-adjusted per capita income, by almost any other leading indicator. During current generations, no Britons have died in great-power European wars, versus the two million dead and five million severely wounded in European wars among recent prior generations. Yet, in 2016, British voters angrily demanded separation from the European Union, seeming to believe their tranquil, prosperous polity was “down, down, down.”
The feelings of irate voters are not just some lapse. Voters in the United States and Europe have been barraged with rapid-fire reports of bad news, causing a deep sense that today’s society has broken yesterday’s promises. It is easy to feel this way, but feeling this way also is a choice. Too often we try to force the world to match our feelings, when we’d be on a more even keel—and experience life more fully—if instead our feelings matched the world.
There are four basic types of knowing. One is certainty: we can be certain the sun is ninety-three million miles from Earth. Another is faith or doubt: we can neither prove nor disprove beliefs about God. A third is opinion: there’s no right or wrong on questions such as which beer tastes best or whether baseball should have the designated hitter rule.
Then there is what we want to believe. What we want to believe can upend any degree of evidence, provability, or subjectivity. Trump, Sanders, and the Brexit movement struck a chord because people wanted to believe the worst about society. They wanted to believe the worst though the United States at the time was in the best condition it had ever been in, the same could be said of the United Kingdom, and the world overall had never been better.
Of course there are many individuals and families experiencing personal, physical, or financial hardship: there never will be a moment when no one is sick, distressed, or brokenhearted. On the whole, though, at no juncture in American history were people better off than they were in 2016: living standards, per-capita income, buying power, health, safety, liberty, and longevity were at their highest, while women, minorities, and gays were free in ways they’d never been before. There had been no juncture in history at which the typical member of the global population was better off either.
Consider a metric. During the same period when Trump and Sanders were cheered for saying carnage was everywhere, the Misery Index—unemployment plus inflation—was at its lowest in half a century (and the lower the better with this metric). Average people get hammered when unemployment and inflation are high at the same time; in 2016, both were unusually low at the same time. Union leaders speak of the 1960s as a golden age for the working man, but the Misery Index was higher then. Republicans speak of the Reagan presidency as a golden age for families, but the Misery Index was higher then. Democrats speak of the Bill Clinton presidency as a golden age for prosperity, but the Misery Index was higher then. If the Misery Index is the best indicator of conditions for average Americans—and arguably it is—then 2016 was a golden year. Yet voters did not respond to indices, however favorable: they responded to the negativity with which they were assaulted by the forces of the moment.
My 2003 book The Progress Paradox proposed that people in the United States and other developed nations suffer “collapse anxiety”—a concern that their way of life soon will be no more. Many fear that the formula of free-market economies, resource consumption, personal freedom, and democratic government by laws not men will not last. This book will show a range of reasons why the Western way of life is more robust than meets the eye—and why a better world is closer than it looks.
But the primary causes of a mostly-improving life—progress, both social and technical—entail a lot of change, at a pace that in recent generations has quickened. Change may benefit some more than others; even universally desirable change may be greeted with trepidation. As changes occur more frequently, these negative feelings rise, regardless of whether, on balance, changes serve the common good.
Consequent is the conundrum I’ve studied since the publication of The Progress Paradox: as life gets better, people feel worse. By “life gets better” I surely do not mean all aspects of life are better, nor that life is better for every individual. By “life gets better” I mean that in the contemporary world most people are better off in most ways when compared to any prior generation.
This seems close to an inarguable proposition—yet runs against conventional wisdom, because optimism has gone out of style. Reflecting on this, I decided to research and write the book you now hold, which has three goals.
The first goal is to show that for all the apprehension, digitized clamor, and grating superficiality of the present day, conditions in the United States and European Union, as well as in most though of course not all of the larger world, are more auspicious than generally understood.
The second goal is to ask why this is so. What influences—especially, what types of reform—have prevented decline? Why do so many think the world is getting worse when by almost every objective measure the reverse is true? Why are we in this predicament of general gloom–a sense that preceded Trump—even as most indicators point toward the better world we all want?
Third, this book seeks to take the lessons learned from successful reforms of the past and apply them to the dilemmas of the twenty-first century, such as inequality and climate change.
Through these three contentions, I hope to show that the arrow of history points up. I do not suppose that history is deterministic, wrought by forces external to our choices. Nor do I suppose that history is teleological, guided toward some end. I do not suggest history is cyclical, or bound to do that which can be predicted from previous events. (Cycles-of-history contentions hinge on pretending there are “secrets” that “control” history; for this reason, it is disturbing that some top advisers to Donald Trump endorse cycles-of-history mumbo jumbo.) I do assert that as time passes, in the main the human condition improves and this can be expected to continue.
THE MID-NINETEENTH-CENTURY FRENCH PHILOSOPHER FRÉDÉRIC Bastiat maintained that when assessing any situation, it is vital to consider what might have occurred instead. His essay on this topic, That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Not Seen, became the foundation of what economists now call “opportunity-cost analysis.” Don’t think solely about what happened; think as well about what did not happen, and thereby is unseen. In our great spinning world, what do we not see? As a prelude to the book’s three goals, ponder for a moment the tribulations our world does not have.
Granaries are not empty. It has been two centuries since Thomas Malthus said rising population would lead to mass starvation—unavoidably, as an iron law. During the 1960s, it was predicted that hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, soon would die of hunger. Instead, by 2015, the United Nations reported global malnutrition had declined to the lowest level in history. Nearly all malnutrition that persists is caused by distribution failures or by government corruption, not by lack of supply. Hunger could be eliminated in our lifetimes.
Resources are not exhausted. In the 1970s, it was commonly forecast that petroleum and natural gas would be gone by around the year 2000, leaving society desperate for fuel. Instead, oil and gas are in worldwide oversupply, so readily obtained and so inexpensive that the greenhouse gases they release are causing climate change. Minerals and ores, also expected to run out, instead are abundant. Resources have not been depleted despite the incredible proliferation of people, vehicles, aircraft, and construction.
There are no runaway plagues. Unstoppable outbreaks of super-viruses and mutations were said to menace a growing world; instead, nearly all disease rates are in decline, including the rates of most cancers. In 2000, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that infectious diseases have declined so much that obesity is killing far more Americans than germs. Death rates from infectious disease have fallen in nearly all nations, including the poorest.
With each passing year, global longevity improves, and not just in the United States and European Union. In almost all nations, the human family is living longer, while suffering fewer heart attacks and strokes. And even in the poorest nations, there is no sign that longevity increases have peaked.
The Western nations are not choking on pollution. A generation ago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, and San Diego were becoming uninhabitable owing to smog, while air pollution in many areas of the United States and Europe did widespread respiratory damage. Today Los Angeles air quality has improved so much that the LA basin goes years between serious air quality alerts, while in 2014 San Diego had its lowest smog levels since record-keeping began. Nationally, since 1990, winter smog is down 77 percent and summer smog down 22 percent—improvements achieved as the US population grew rapidly. As recently as the 1980s, acid rain was expected to destroy forests in the eastern United States and central Europe. Since 1990, sulfur dioxide, the main cause of acid rain, has decreased by 81 percent in the United States and is down sharply in Europe. Appalachian forests in the United States and the Black Forest in Germany are in the best condition they have been in since the eighteenth century.
Cities in Africa, Asia, and India remain afflicted by smog and also by smoke, the latter long since eliminated from Western air except around wildfires. But in most developing nations the trend lines are toward less air and water pollution, even as ever more people are alive, engaging in ever more economic activity. There is one global exception to these trend lines: greenhouse gases. And don’t believe talk radio—artificial climate change is scientifically proven.
The economy drives everyone crazy but keeps functioning. Many have gotten airsick from economic turbulence, but there hasn’t been a global crash since the Great Depression eight decades ago. Living standards keep rising for almost everyone, especially for those to whom that trend is most important—the poor. Goods and services are in ample supply; in almost every year, global per capita GDP sets a record. Middle-class income growth is soft throughout the Western nations, but middle-class buying power, which matters more than pretax income, keeps rising. That “shrinking middle class” you’ve heard so much about? In the United States, the main reason the middle is shrinking is large numbers of people moving up, not down.
The global economy is hitting on all cylinders in one respect that cannot be observed within the United States or European Union—developing-world indigence rapidly being reduced. In 1990, 37 percent of humanity lived in what the World Bank defines as extreme poverty; today that number is 10 percent. It may be small consolation to anyone in the American upper Midwest or the northern part of England who lost a manufacturing job because of global trade, but the same forces that caused a relatively small share in the United States and United Kingdom to experience economic distress also caused a gigantic reduction of suffering in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The decline of developing-world poverty should be viewed as the focal story of the last quarter-century. Since that story cannot be observed from the United States and Europe, Westerners largely are unaware.
Crime and war are not getting worse. A generation ago, as murder rates rose and the superpowers stocked their arsenals, a horrific future of violence-ravaged cities and constant warfare seemed in store. Instead, since 1990 crime rates have declined sharply in the United States and many other nations—Central Park after dark now is as safe as Yellowstone Park at noon. The crime decline led to an urban revival that benefits almost everyone, including African Americans, who today are much less likely to be homicide victims than a generation ago and also less likely, despite horrific exceptions to this rule, to be harmed by police than in decades past.
Although there are poignant exceptions, including the Syrian civil war, since about 1990 the frequency and intensity of combat have gone down worldwide, while global per-capita arms spending has entered a cycle of decline. Rather than add nuclear bombs, the United States and the Russian Federation have disassembled tens of thousands of these nightmare devices, then destroyed the parts in the presence of witnesses.
Since about 1990, a person’s chance of dying because of violence has dropped to the lowest it has ever been, stretching back to the mists of prehistory. That statement holds even considering the 2016 wave of Islamist terror attacks in Europe and the mass shootings in America. Other than in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, and Syria, in 2016 the chance of anyone in any nation dying by violence was at a historic low. Even under population pressure, the world grows steadily safer.
The dictators aren’t winning. During World War II, when darkness spread across both hemispheres, only a handful of free societies held the line against tyranny. After the war, communism brought police-state poverty to China and the Soviet Union, seemingly to finish the job fascism started. Far-sighted thinkers, such as George Orwell, predicted the coming of global absolute dictatorship that would crush freedom out of existence.
Instead, it’s been victory after victory for the ballot box, human rights, and public opinion. Some nations are relapsing (Russia, Turkey), and others are in disarray owing to what the democracy theorist Larry Diamond calls “predatory government” (Nigeria, Venezuela). But during the current generation, no nation has gone from freedom to dictatorship, while the largest nation (China) is dipping its toes into liberty and the second-largest (India) holds on, however tenuously, to free expression and free elections. The technological developments that Orwell feared would allow dictators to oversee every minute of life instead have given average people broad access to information their governments cannot control.
* * *
THERE ARE MANY OTHER ARENAS in which it’s easy to overlook the problems we do not have. Despite video games and a short-attention-span culture, ignorance has not flourished: education levels keep rising, while in the developing world, schooling for girls has stopped being rare. Not only is there justice in having well-educated girls and women take positions of responsibility in business, government, and science, this doubles the world’s supply of ideas. Technology has not run amok: cars, aircraft, medicine, and even many weapons have grown less dangerous. Tremendous attention has been paid to the decline of factory jobs, which began long before trade with China and which, driven by automation, was always inevitable, globalization or no. Scant attention has been paid to the fact that more than 60 percent of Americans now hold some form of white-collar employment. White-collar work involves stress and boredom, but no backbreaking manual labor or inhalation of factory fumes.
Detailed support for all the above points will be provided in coming chapters.
That the US, European, and global situations are better than commonly perceived should not lead to complacency. On the contrary, awareness of progress should inspire greater reform. The challenges of the present day are daunting: inequality, racial tension, climate change, illegal immigration, refugees forced to flee war zones or failed states, never-ending conflagration in the Middle East, tyrants and warlords in parts of Africa, low-achieving public schools, a shallow and corporate-driven culture that makes the task of public schools Sisyphean, public discourse contaminated by rage—and these are just for starters.
Plus surely there’s a huge problem barreling down the tracks directly toward us. Pick any year of the past: some major problem arrived unexpectedly. A law of nature seems to dictate that for each problem solved, another is created. So this book will not say, don’t worry, be happy. There is a great deal to worry about. But while worrying, be optimistic. Optimism does not make us blind to the many faults of the world. Rather, optimism is the conviction that problems can be solved if we roll up our sleeves and get to work.
Optimism was once the frame of the forward-thinking. The Progressives of a century ago were optimists through and through: they sought for all men and women freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from fear, and freedom from want, believing these were not slogans but advances that could be achieved on a practical basis. They saw a future when, in the wonderful final verse of “America the Beautiful,” “alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears.”
Then pessimism became fashionable, starting in academia and expanding to the public square, brought there by politicians, social media, and our apprehension regarding change. Today the conventional wisdom is that any informed person should feel the world is falling apart. If you don’t think everything is awful, you must not understand the situation!
Campaigning for the White House, Trump mixed pounding pessimism about the present with woolly longing for the past, saying, “I love the old days.” When exactly were those “Good Ole Days”? And where did they happen? At every stage in the past, life spans were shorter, disease was more common, living standards were lower, discrimination and pollution were worse, and liberty was more imperiled.
The conservative intellectual Yuval Levin has written that Americans are engaged in “a politics of competitive nostalgia” that demands return to an idealized past that can never be reached because it never existed in the first place. A better future, on the other hand, can be reached. Optimism needs to become intellectually respectable again. Optimism is the best argument for reform—and the bow that propels the arrow of history.
A Few Notes to the Reader
• All money references in this book are converted to constant dollars or other constant currency; thus, past money values are stated in current terms.
• Modern names of nations are employed.
• Where the text reads that a person “said” or “has said,” the quotation comes from the public record. Where the text reads that a person “says,” the quotation comes from an interview with me.
Why the World Refuses to End
Why Don’t We Starve?
ON A CHILLY WINTER MORNING in 1914, on a farm in tiny Cresco, Iowa, the most important person of the twentieth century was born. He learned his three Rs in a one-room schoolhouse, hurrying home each day to tend animals. Winning a scholarship to college, he studied agronomy and pondered an idea about how to make crops produce more food using less soil. Then he went out into the world and saved a billion people.
At a time of creepy politicians and cringe-worthy cultural figures, it is said the young lack heroes. A shame, then, that hardly any young people recognize the name Norman Borlaug, despite his entirely admirable life, including the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. Borlaug lived most of his years far from the land of his birth, assisting African, Asian, and Mexican researchers and extension officials in what would come to be called the Green Revolution.
The movement Borlaug started is the reason most of the seven billion people on our planet have plenty to eat—and all would have plenty if food distribution were improved. In 2015, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that malnutrition had declined to the lowest level in history, with just 13 percent of the human family going to bed hungry. Because the human family has become so large, “just 13 percent” means about 900 million souls. In a world of excess, this is a tragically large number, but a half-century ago, 50 percent of humanity was malnourished.
Even as the global population has soared, the proportion who want for food has declined sharply, and malnutrition is on track to decline further as the global population continues to rise. “Because of the Green Revolution, the world can produce enough calories and protein for 10 billion or even 20 billion people,” says Rajiv Shah, who ran the US Agency for International Development (USAID) from 2010 to 2015. “There are questions about protecting the environment and agricultural equity. But the Malthusian fears are disproven. If there’s a collapse coming, food supply will not be the reason.”
NO MATTER WHERE YOU ARE in the world, the meals you will consume today trace in part to that Iowa farm boy and his gift for making plants grow. Actions taken by him and others in the Green Revolution bear on both the centrality of farming to our existence and the ways in which reform is the essential ingredient in human progress.
Because so many citizens of contemporary nations take food supply for granted, it is easy to forget that every successful society in history has been grounded, as it were, in agriculture. Farming has no sex appeal compared to miniature electronics or launching rockets, but if plants don’t grow, little else matters. A fundamental reason Argentina, Australia, Canada, the United States, and most of Europe are prosperous is that they mastered farming, producing a bounty of grain, fruits, vegetables, dairy, meat, fowl, wine, and fiber. Extending mastery of farming to the rest of the world will make other nations prosperous too.
The production of food is the first window to understanding why many expected calamities give way to mostly positive trends. The kinds of steps that prevented expected starvation can work against other challenges to come.
Historically, expectations of starvation have been keen. Two centuries ago, Thomas Malthus declared that population would increase faster than food production, leading to general ruin. This would happen inexorably, Malthus said, because nature uses scarcity to control species, and it would be physically impossible to cultivate enough land to feed all those being born.
Famines that struck China, India, Ireland, and Japan about a generation after Malthus seemed to confirm his contention. The idea of looming general starvation was taken up by others. Publishing the Communist Manifesto in 1848, Marx and Engels made the “establishment of armies for agriculture” one of their ten planks. They believed that the sole hope for feeding humanity was diversion of the world’s soldiers from military duties to working the fields.
Terrible food shortages would come to China, Germany, Greece, India, Russia, and Vietnam in the first half of the twentieth century—man-made, to a certain extent, by war and by dictatorship—while the Dust Bowl of the 1930s caused Americans and Canadians to fear that their farm productivity was ending. By the 1960s, the notion of inexorable starvation had become cant. A best-selling book of 1967, Famine 1975!,
- "Besides providing new ammunition for optimists, Mr. Easterbrook's aim in this important book is to identify what we've been doing right and to consider what we can do about the still pressing problems we face... Mr. Easterbrook wants to make optimism intellectually respectable again, and he has done so with cogent arguments and bountiful evidence."—Michael Shermer, Wall Street Journal
- "'It's Better Than It Looks' makes many good arguments about inequality...Easterbrook is good on democracy and dictatorship (democracy is better at money and better at war). He is also good on climate change (the technical solutions are there, and all will be fine 'if society chooses reform,' though that choice is surely the crux of the problem)."—Angus Deaton, New York Times Book Review
- "Easterbrook sets out to disabuse readers of any casual pessimism and equip them with enough facts and arguments to silence dinner parties from now till kingdom come... rich in detail and observation."—Philip Delves Broughton, Weekly Standard
- "Countering the usual pessimism disseminated by the 'experts' and rebroadcast by the 'if it bleeds, it leads' media, 'It's Better Than It Looks' ably defends the view that the grand sweep of history has gone from generally bad to generally good for the vast majority of the world's populace. Whether the book surveys global food supply, infectious diseases, the natural system, the economy, violence, technology or governance, the overall outlook consistently comes up positive, according to Mr. Easterbrook. His impressive, rather objective, amply-referenced, perspicacious analysis supports his optimism."—Anthony Sadar, Washington Times
- "Terrific...Easterbrook's core conclusions are compelling, and he writes with a journalist's flair."—Foreign Affairs
- "An argument worth considering."—Kirkus Reviews
- "America, like most of the world, has fallen prey to a false and destructive narrative: the belief that everything is getting worse. In this important and compelling book, Gregg Easterbrook sets the record straight. His refreshing analysis can restore our optimism and help heal our poisoned politics."—Walter Isaacson, bestselling author of Leonardo da Vinci
- "It's Better Than It Looks is a welcome corrective to our fashionable pessimism that things are bad and getting worse, by providing a wealth of evidence that the reverse is true. Gregg Easterbrook is clear-eyed nonetheless in facing up to present challenges, and reminds us that there is always a way forward out of seemingly unsolvable problems."—Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University
- "Gregg Easterbrook regrets to inform you that the future is a lot rosier than you've heard. Not only are things Not So Terrible, they are actually Quite Good-and Getting Better. The world's citizens are living longer, economies are expanding, and we produce more food than we can eat. He even suggests that our most intractable problems, like economic equality and climate change, can be ameliorated in our lifetimes. It's Better Than It Looks is anything but Panglossian. It serves up persuasive arguments mustered by a trenchant, erudite and consummately un-boring writer. Start reading - you'll become a believer, too."—Alex Beam, Boston Globe columnist
- "I highly recommend that every college and university president purchase enough copies of It's Better Than It Looks to give to every one of their students...Understanding how the world has improved, and will improve in their lifetimes, may be amongst the most important things that we can teach them. It's Better Than It Looks is a good place to start."—Joshua Kim, Inside Higher Ed
- "Easterbrook marshals the extensive evidence that things are getting better for most people in most areas of life-even as politicians of the left and (especially) the right push a false narrative of decline and 'carnage.' Chapters on how the world is meeting the challenge of climate change and why nature can never collapse are particularly strong... a strong, teachable, empirical case for optimism about why, to use the title of the concluding chapter, 'it will never be too late.'"—CHOICE
- On Sale
- Feb 20, 2018
- Page Count
- 352 pages