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John Hoffmire: The best of times and the worst of times

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This is an undated photo of novelist Charles Dickens at an unknown location.  Among his books are, "Oliver Twist," 1837-9,  "A Tale of Two Cities," 1859, and "Great Expectations,"

This is an undated photo of novelist Charles Dickens at an unknown location. Among his books are, “Oliver Twist,” 1837-9, “A Tale of Two Cities,” 1859, and “Great Expectations,”

Associated Press

In 1859, Charles Dickens penned the words, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” "The Tale of Two Cities" was a story of clashing realities. Today, over 150 years later, the population of the U.S. questions if the teenage generation will live as well as its parents. In many ways, it appears that the country is both at its peak and at the same time in great trouble.

In recent months alone, bizarre American behavior has disrupted the 2016 Olympics; the Affordable Care Act seems to be running out of steam and almost every other day either an unarmed African-American or a police officer is killed. Use of technology has soared, yet most applications seem to be more about entertainment and hailing Uber than about really making the world a better place.

Sometimes it seems to me that our country has not progressed at all in this decade. Have we given up on each other? Taken steps backwards?

If we look closer, the view changes. For example, U.S. companies like Apple and Google own 40 and 67 percent of their respective markets, and Amazon brought in net sales of $107 billion last year, making it one of the largest e-commerce companies on the planet. Nine of Forbes’ 10 most valuable brands are American (including Apple and Google), and the U.S. is the leading energy producer. It isn’t hard to notice the business success that America has experienced and will continue to see. That said, there is more to a society than business, and we can discover good news in other areas, as well.

Happily there is much to be learned in other parts of our world and so much to applaud. Since 1976, 600 million people have come out of poverty in China, a country that has almost wiped out urban poverty. Rates were reduced by 74 percent in the last 30 years. Worldwide, more men and women are getting a formal education, leading to quality, mind-stretching jobs that were unavailable even a generation ago.

Perhaps this worldwide view is the one we should take if we want to feel optimistic.

Wonderful things happen in the U.S., too. Scientists have identified genetic variations that are the key to understanding and addressing terminal illnesses. The average life expectancy in the United States has increased nearly 71 percent in the last century. The survival rate for all cancers is in the 70 percent range. This is up from the 2000s when rates were around 60 percent. We now see survival rates approaching 80 percent for malignant melanoma cancer, prostate cancer and breast cancer. Just this last March, technologists found a non-invasive way to test for skin cancer, and have found certain genes that can be examined years before the skin shows visible signs. Earlier this year, scientists also developed a new lab test that has identified a way to cure a cancer earlier, but also a way to prevent it. Some cancers that once were a death sentence now can be survived.

Even with all these improvements at home, I still feel even more positive when I look internationally. Democracy, while tattered, is still preferred in over two-thirds of the world. Low-income nations are growing at historically faster rates. Fairly open markets are driving prosperity in so many parts of the world. These are reasons to be optimistic. There never has been a more exciting, innovative, and fascinating time to be alive. It is indeed the best of times for some but still a scary time for others.

John Hoffmire is director of the Impact Bond Fund at Saïd Business School at Oxford University and directs the Center on Business and Poverty at the Wisconsin School of Business at UW-Madison. He runs Progress Through Business, a nonprofit group promoting economic development. Sidney Draughon, Hoffmire’s colleague at Progress Through Business, did the research for this article.