The media have been all over today's census celebration: we are now a country of 300 million people (with most of them, it seems, trying to get a reservation for dinner on Saturday night at 8:00.)
With obesity as our biggest public health crisis, and with portions fast approaching the size of small nations petitioning for EU admittance, we need to remember the bleating warnings of the alarmists who predicted that the "population explosion" -- remember that? -- would outstrip our ability to feed ourselves. (Hence the bagel battle reference in my headline.)
Mr. Malthus was wrong, of course. Our food supply is more than adequate to feed all our hungry mouths; poverty is a function of distribution and economics not quantity, thanks to the agricultural revolution.
Alarmists were also wrong about "automation" resulting in millions of vanishing jobs. It turned out that technology, unleashed, created the microchip and the processing revolution that has created new industries and millions of new jobs.
And those who, in the 70s and 80s, maintained that escalating crime rates would make New York City unliveable -- and that it was "ungovernable" in the parlance of the time -- were proved wrong, as the Freakonomics crowd has told us.
This brings joy, no doubt, to contrarians everywhere. It might also give some heart to those who argue that contemporary anxiety-mongers, say Al Gore, fall into a long tradition of short-sighted scaredy cats.
That would be disasterous. Global warming is clearly real, which doesn't mean that a disruptive scientific advance, or some other world-shifting surprise can't appear. But it serves to focus attention, and if that attention proves the alarmists wrong, that's a good thing.
Malthus and the automation Chicken Littles weren't wrong based on their current reality. Their mistake was to extrapolate from what they knew, and to assume that life is linear. You know, each generation is taller than its parents', so there'll be twelve-foot human beings wandering the earth before you know it.
Finding a path that balances non-linearity -- and the impossibility of predicting a game-changing development -- with a sober and clear-headed analysis of inarguable trends is a difficult challenge in a hyper-polarized time.
But it's imperative. And as a member of the blogosphere -- where the description of journalism as "history in a hurry" becomes "history on ephedra" -- I know the impulse to seize on a few, or even a pattern, of nuggets and construct a narrative skein from it.
So when confronted with a powerful urge to cerebrate, masticate and prognosticate, I'll adjourn to the towers of gluten at H&H bagel and do my best to recognize the arrogance of temporary clarity.