The Case for Optimism

Prof. Kevin Sharer

This may seem a strange time to make a case for optimism. There are so many serious issues in the United States and the wider world. It is hard to know where to start. Here is a partial list of the challenges: endless wars in the Middle East; an increasingly totalitarian China; climate change; racism; inequality in all its forms from wealth to opportunity; the excesses of capitalism; the increasing political polarization and its attendant gridlock; social media’s dark side; so many people living in the shadows of a failed American immigration system. The list goes on.

In the face of all these issues, let’s do a thought experiment. First, turn off the noise. The cacophony in the press, on the internet, and in our daily discourse is deafening more often than illuminating or constructive. Next, rise above today and see history as a movie and not so much only a picture of today. Take a 60-year or even 20-year perspective.

First, the 60-year perspective. We have made so, so much progress. It does not mean that everything on all fronts is better, but so much is better. Broad-gauge measures of people lifted out of poverty, the number of people living in free societies, life expectancies, number of people annually killed in wars, diseases understood or brought under more control, and number of people with access to technology are just some measures of progress on a macro scale.

In the United States, 60 years ago virtually every societal measure was worse, with the notable exceptions of today’s immigration system’s profound dysfunction and the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. Equal opportunity, diversity and inclusion, individual rights, communication, access to healthcare, average wealth, the percentage of people going to college, unemployment, widespread and violent social unrest, lack of energy independence, the number of Americans drafted and lost in Vietnam to no real purpose—all these indicators suggest that things were worse than they are now. Would anyone argue that 60 years ago we were better off or that you would like to return to those times? No thanks.

Let’s go back 20 years. Every measure of individual rights, diversity, and inclusion was worse. The Middle East problems were about to erupt on our shores. The stock market had just crashed, and the seeds of the 2008 Great Recession were firmly being planted. The internet and the wonder of wireless communication did not exist to any meaningful degree. The great benefits of biotechnology in medicine were in their infancy. The economy was dramatically smaller than now. Perhaps some people would like to return to 2000, but my hunch is not many.

Another reason for optimism is the basic framework and health of America in its democratic and free-enterprise system. Some might argue that capitalism has excesses that must be curbed, and they make good points. But does anyone really think the American innovation ecosystem has a match anywhere? Our virtuous cycle of people who want to be entrepreneurs, risk capital, market size, technology transport, IP, and rewards to winners is the envy of the world.

Who is pounding on the door to emigrate elsewhere to participate in their innovation ecosystem and become citizens at great personal risk? China has achieved amazing things in the past 50 years, but their system seems uniquely to fit their circumstances, not one that attracts outside individuals to join. No other country has the scale or system to match the innovation record or dynamism of the American example.

Our democracy at its fundamental core still works. It is imperfect, but it works. We are a big, noisy country, but checks and balances work, we transfer power peacefully, and no leader changes the Constitution to attain lifetime rule. Our military is firmly under the control of elected officials. We fight ferociously about issues of policy, governance, and priorities, but the foundation is strong. The press is as noisy and aggressive as ever. We have separation of powers.

Perhaps the arguments are fiercer now than ever as they are amplified by the web, Twitter, and the 24/7 news cycle. But no serious effort or force has any traction to change the fundamentals. The Bill of Rights stands. Separation of powers endures. We hold elections and transfer power peacefully. The best and brightest want to be educated here and often become citizens.

The last reason I am optimistic is your generation. You are every bit as smart, ambitious, brave, and impatient as your forebears. If anything, you are better. You care even more about the environment, individual rights, equality, innovation, access to healthcare, global harmony, and more.

On one of my first days at HBS, a team of reporters from a leading business periodical came into my office. They were trying to advance a decline-and-doom story. They were surprised that I did not agree. I just pointed out the RC section seating chart on my wall and talked about who my students were as individuals and what they had already done. The reporters became quiet and had no rejoinder. I could do it again today. I remain a profound optimist.

Professor Kevin W. Sharer joined the HBS Strategy unit in the fall of 2012. Before HBS, he was CEO of Amgen for 12 years and, before that, Amgen’s president for eight. He has served on the boards of directors of Chevron and Northrop Grumman and is currently on the board of Allied Minds. For a decade he was chairman of the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Professor Sharer is a Naval Academy graduate and has master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering and business.