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

by ErickBall1 min read6th Feb 20197 comments


Progress StudiesEconomicsWorld Modeling

  • 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.}