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mdz2y20

I tend to be fairly quantitative, and skeptical of any and all "ism's" and aware that the problem with most frameworks is in the construction not their application.

So what does that mean in the context of progress, humanism and agency.  Well it means you throw out the humanism.  Progress collapses into the expansion of human agency.  The expansion of human agency is actually enabled by women's rights, public health and nutrition.  Tough to have agency without first giving half the population rights and some power over their bodies, and then tough to have agency without clean drinking water and basic health care and food.  

Turns out that despite the wonderful inflection in wealth in the 1850's -- by 1970 1 out of every 2 people in the world still lived in extreme poverty which meant they were malnourished and physically stunted.  So in terms of progress there are 2 great inflections - the 1850's and then the inflection in the 1970's when we started the march from 50 pct of humanity being in abject poverty to the current roughly 10 pct.

This is all a simple redux of Hans Rosling / Factfulness / Gapminder.  

In terms of human progress, the process of eliminating abject poverty, such that humans can develop in a fashion that they have not been abused and are able to exercise agency -- well that's the base condition we are trying to get more and more of the world to.  And as humans are able to exercise constructive agency, it seems they tend to cooperate and do amazing things.  (This positive assumption of the nature of humanity is an interesting one because a lot of people who seem good because they want to do good things for other are actually impelled to do good because they think their fellow man is basically bad and they need to offset that - which is really weird).

But back to progress and agency - which are really just different sides of the same coin.  I would say that progress is always and everywhere the result of expanded human agency.  That is all it is and where it comes from.  It's just that enabling agency requires trust and historically trust has been hard because most people have been malnourished and living in awful circumstances and they had the capacity to lash our.  This is the old scarcity model of economics and allocating resources and the sort of prisoner's dilemma basis of game theory and philosophy.  Note that this simple framework for agency also offers another possible simple metric for progress as counting when and where people are playing win-win games or designing win-win growth oriented systems versus win-lose or redistributive or punishment based systems.  The cultural evolution is from playing win-lose games to win-win games and this is actually much easier to survey than it is to even begin to define enlightment and humanism which are hopeful concepts but logically leaky as all hell.

Getting back to Rosling, the problem of human progress is now moved from how do we get the population out of abject poverty so that constructive agency can even be discussed to how to we expand their capacity for agency by increasing their effective wealth.  This is where I really think Gapminder's Dollar Street is a great resource.  Gapminder categorizes extreme poverty as income level 1, and those who are just above that as income level 2.  Folks in level 2 income level live in a structure with a door and may have shoes and a bicycle and some basic appliances - but no motor vehicles or other fancy stuff.  This is where the 40% of the global population that escaped level one in the last 50 years sits now.  So the issue of progress isn't "humanistic" - but the work to enable these billions of people to live better and pursue their goals.

And this is where we go back to what happened between 1970 and 2020 that got so many out of extreme poverty.  Yasheng Huang in Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics basically captured it -- the Chinese government innovated by governing less.  The key innovation the Chinese government introduced which may have created more wealth than any other was something no one really talks about.  Huang expressed it as ensuring the corporal security of the entrepreneur -- or, they stopped executing people for entrepreneurship.  This shift accompanied the liftoff in Chinese growth, and preceded any sort of real property rights -- and note that property rights in china remain contingent to this day, so the whole idea of needing property rights or other things we are taught matter in the western economics is a little questionable.

So the Chinese experience of addressing extreme poverty, or going from China having produced the most poverty in the world to it being able to reduce poverty by an unprecedented amount, may be seen as having been achieved by the government choosing to stop aggressively and deliberately limiting human agency.  I think most people have missed this important but fundamental lesson about progress, agency and governance from the Chinese development process.

So Rosling, Gapminder and the basic income and health stats as documented in Factfulness clearly address that despite the human psychological biases to see problems, we are making amazing progress.  That progress can be measured in many ways but the best simple way may be by looking at where the global population is across Gapminder's four income tiers, which are illustrated in Dollar Street.  The key to our amazing progress in recent history was strangely enough the decision of the government of the world's most populous nation to allow a small degree of human agency, and that government still has the capacity to enable further advances in human progress by making further steps in allowing the agency of its people.  Most people in government's actually don't believe that their fellow citizens are good, and that is why they go into government and seek to limit the agency of their peers -- this instinct which is rooted in the same psychology which fails to see human progress is also the key limit to human agency and human progress.

Human progress first saw an inflection point in the accumulation of wealth and knowledge that began in the 1850's and I would argue another inflection point has been the liftoff of getting 9/10ths of the human population out of abject poverty.  The next key step in human progress will be how we get the majority of humanity to the point of having the wealth and resources for effective agency?  

Economically, the best proxy we have for effective agency is involvement and participation in a consumer economy.  So we currently have about 3 billion people on the planet with enough money to be consumers and really only 1 billion with most of those resources (income tiers 3 and 4 in the gapminder framework).  But you've got another 3 billion who have lift off and are on their way.  Their governments will try to stop them in different ways - so the traditional development of domestic institutions, etc. "narrow path" described by Acemoglu is unlikely to accomodate these folks.  And then there is a fundamental capacity problem for everything if we try to imagine doubling number of consumers in the world from 3 billion to 6 billion in the next 20 years.

Solving this problem will require creativity and the application of human agency on a scale we haven't seen before.  The alternative is human misery.  And that is all in the numbers and doesn't require any "isms"....