Is the World Getting Better? A brief summary of recent debate

Link post

  • The linked post is a re­sponse by Oliver Wise­man of CapX to Ja­son Hickel’s re­cent piece in The Guardian, which claimed that Bill Gates’ and Steven Pinker’s op­ti­mistic view of rapid progress on global poverty is mis­lead­ing.

  • Hickel’s two points are

    • 1. Draw the poverty line at $7.40/​day in­stead of $1.90/​day, and the ab­solute num­ber of peo­ple in poverty hasn’t de­creased.

      • And out­side of China, even the pro­por­tion in poverty has stayed con­stant.

    • 2. Much of the “eco­nomic growth” in­volves peo­ple con­vert­ing from a non-money econ­omy to a money econ­omy.

      • This one sounds right to me. No­body re­ally “lives on” $1.90/​day in a world where they must meet all their needs by spend­ing money. Ex­treme poverty means that most of their con­sump­tion is not mea­sured mon­e­tar­ily—they have ac­cess to com­mons (land/​re­sources) and they do a lot of stuff them­selves, and share and barter. {see foot­note}

  • Oliver Wise­man coun­ters:

    • 1. Go­ing from ex­tremely poor to very poor is still progress. Also, at $7.40 or $10.00, the pro­por­tion in poverty has still de­creased. The ab­solute num­ber doesn’t mat­ter as much given how much pop­u­la­tion has in­creased.

      • I ba­si­cally agree with this, but it paints a much more nu­anced pic­ture of grad­ual and per­haps frag­ile progress.

    • 2. Mea­sures of qual­ity of life have im­proved dra­mat­i­cally along with gross world product. (i.e. be­ing a me­dieval peas­ant sucked)

      • This is ba­si­cally true post-in­dus­trial-rev­olu­tion, as far as I can tell, at least in Europe. The data seems to be mixed on whether most peo­ple were bet­ter off be­fore the ad­vent of agri­cul­ture than they were in 1700. Mea­sures of GDP in places and times with­out money economies are always ques­tion­able, so the com­par­i­sons get tricky.

      • But, it doesn’t re­ally ad­dress Hinckel’s point re­gard­ing the cur­rent trend. If the peo­ple go­ing from ex­treme poverty in 1970 to mod­er­ate poverty in 2015 have also gone from mainly sub­sis­tence farm­ing and barter to mainly sub­sis­tence wages, then in­creased mon­e­tary con­sump­tion doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily cor­re­spond to in­creased qual­ity of life. I don’t have the data on this, but it seems like a key ques­tion.

{Foot­note: I some­times try to imag­ine my­self sur­viv­ing for a year on $700, and it looks like a world where in­come is not a good mea­sure of con­sump­tion. That money would all ba­si­cally have to go to food just to keep me al­ive… I’d have nowhere to cook, so it’s mostly bread and peanut but­ter; maybe I’d splurge for a can of beans now and then. I’d live in a card­board box I got from the trash (ac­cess to com­mons, no money in­volved) and cov­ered over with plas­tic (also trash, plus I’m not mea­sur­ing the value of my own la­bor). It would go in a pub­lic park or on pri­vate prop­erty (effec­tively steal­ing use of land) and prob­a­bly in a warm lo­ca­tion, be­cause I can’t af­ford a sleep­ing bag. Any med­i­cal care I needed, I would have to do my­self. Even use of a bath­room would be from some sort of com­mons, ei­ther pub­lic re­strooms (sub­si­dized by cus­tomers or gov­ern­ment) or in na­ture. All in all, the non-mon­e­tary value I’m get­ting is prob­a­bly quite a bit greater than the value I’d get from my paltry sup­ply of money.}