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Some facts, to begin with: The gross domestic product is up about 4%. Inflation is at 2.6%. Unemployment is at 4.1%. Our budget surplus stands at $124 billion; the deficit in our balance of international payments is about $300 billion. A three-bedroom apartment in the most fashionable neighborhoods of Manhattan rents for about $12,000 a month. The median price for a house nationwide is $133,000. People pay as much as $350,000 to rent a summer house to be near partygoing writers, editors and agents, whose principal ambition in life is to be able to rent a $350,000 summer house. One person is paid $10 million a year for hitting a baseball. Another person is paid $7 million a year for talking to other people on television. Another is paid $35,000 for teaching math in high school. The hit movie of the past few years was about a sinking ship. The most memorable quotation of the past few years was "I did not have sexual relations with that woman." The most exciting product was a pill called Viagra (I won't tell you how exciting). The most overused word of the times: synergy (see "mischief").
As long as I am on the subject of language, do the following have any meaning for you: "like"; "you know"; "what's up with that?"; "like, you know, what's up with that?"? You have no idea what I am talking about? Good. How about "yada yada yada"; "fuhgeddaboutit"; "pumped"; "zine"; "you're history"? (We're history.)
We are generally content, generally at peace, generally optimistic, and with good reason. As a people, we are simply a lot more interesting and various. Our latest immigrants come from everywhere, with more Latino immigration than European, and new Americans popping up from places like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Korea, the South Pacific and Ghana. If I had been writing to you a hundred years ago, in 1900, my age group (55 to 64) would have represented 5% of the population. Today it accounts for 9%. In 1900 only 4% of the population was 65 and older. Now that number is 13%. Geographically, we are more spread out. America's 10 most populous cities in 1900 were the industrial centers of San Francisco, Chicago, St. Louis and points east. Today Americans range over the breadth of the continent in cities such as Phoenix, Houston and San Antonio, where they have settled in the path of the sun.
We are generally rich; more people have homes of their own. We are generally healthy, thanks largely to remarkable advances in medicine. People who died of certain diseases even 30 years ago are routinely saved today. A colonoscopy will detect and lead to the removal of a cancer that shows no external symptoms. Lifesaving operations on hearts and brains occur every day. Not only has medicine advanced; it has allowed people to act on their more selfless impulses. In September a middle-school teacher in Fayetteville, N.C., learned that one of her students suffered from kidney disease and needed a transplant. So the 42-year-old woman offered the 14-year-old boy one of her kidneys. Two miracles are at work in the story. The teacher wanted to sacrifice herself, and medicine would enable her to do it.