Thursday, November 30, 2006

Better or Worse?

This morning I began reading the latest collection of essays by Freeman Dyson called The Scientist as Rebel. Dyson is a favorite author of Rhoads who owns, I think, all but one of Dyson's books. I enjoy reading what Dyson has to say, too, though the second essay in this book struck me as being at odds with my impression of the state of the world.

In that essay Dyson bemoans the growing inequality in the world. Dyson says that earlier technological innovations like the motorcycle were cheap enough to be liberators of the poor while modern technological innovations, roughly those of the second half of the twentieth century, were "toys" of the wealthy, unnaffordable to the world's poor. This essay was originally written in the early 1990s, so Dyson included cell phones among those toys for the wealthy. In an addendum written in 2006 Dyson claims that things have gotten even worse, meaning more unequal, in the years since he wrote his essay, but that the cell phone, it turns out, is now ubiquitous and cheap enough to be a liberator of the poor.

I think the cell phone example is not isolated, but provides a window into where Dyson gets this story wrong. I suspect that had Dyson been writing in 1893 instead of 1993, he might have viewed the motorcycle as a plaything of the rich, too, when it first came out. I think the predominant pattern of innovation is that the wealthy are the early adaptors of new technology and that the rest of us follow as the prices fall.

The result of this process is one where we all are made better off over time and inequality may be not just a result of this process, but a cause of it.

Of course, I wonder to what extent inequality is growing. I suspect that the gap between the poorest and the wealthiest must inevitably grow. The lowest situation that man can find himself in, complete destitution barely above starvation and death, cannot get any lower. Since it is always possible for people to be destitute in particular times in particular places (poverty being the default position in nature) any increase in the wealth of the wealthiest will necessarily mean a larger gap between the poorest and the richest.

But there must be better measures of the gap between rich and poor than the wealth of the richest people and the destitution of people on death's door. And how many people find themselves utterly destitute now compared to past times? I don't know the answers to these questions, but Dyson seems to assume that inequality is getting worse without providing any evidence.

Luckily there is some evidence that we can examine in the form of a soon-to-be-published book called The Improving State of the World, by Indur Goklany. Below is an exerpt of that book's review in The Spectator:
We should be especially proud of the fact that humanity has never been better fed: the daily food intake in poor countries has increased by 38 per cent since the 1960s to 2,666 calories per person per day on average. The population of those countries has soared by 83 per cent during that time, so this is a stupendous achievement which puts the final nail in the coffin of Malthusianism.

Together with a 75 per cent decline in global food prices in real terms in the second half of the 20th century, caused by improved agricultural productivity and freer trade, fewer people than ever before are going hungry. The rate of chronic undernourishment in poor countries has halved to 17 per cent, compared with a little over a third 45 years ago. In wealthy countries, the cost of essential foods has collapsed, with the price of flour, bacon and potatoes relative to incomes dropping by between 82 and 92 per cent over the past century; similar trends are now visible in developing countries too.

There is still a long way to go; but never before in human history have so many people been liberated from extreme poverty so quickly. The number of people subsisting on $1 a day has declined from 16 per cent of the world population in the late 1970s to 6 per cent today, while those living on $2 a day dropped from 39 per cent to 18 per cent. In 1820, 84 per cent of the world’s population lived in absolute poverty; today this is down to about a fifth.

That sounds like progress. Here's more:
To see how far we have come, consider that anyone born in Britain during the Middle Ages would have been exceptionally lucky to live to see their 30th birthday. The average person could expect to live only to the age of 22, before succumbing to disease, injury or famine. By 1800, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, life expectancy in Britain had climbed to 36 years, then the highest ever seen but less than the life expectancy enjoyed today in even the most war-torn and deprived countries. By the 1950s the average Briton could expect to live to the age of 69; today this has increased to almost 78 years.

Life expectancy in poorer countries has improved even faster. In China it has surged from 41 years in the 1950s to 71 years today; in India it is up from 39 years to 63 years, almost doubling the average lifespan of 2 billion people. In 1900 average life expectancy around the world was a mere 31 years; today it is 67 years and rising.

While Dyson asserts, without evidence, that things are getting worse, this examination of the evidence comes to the opposite conclusion. What about the gap between rich and poor?
Just as remarkably, the gap between poor and rich countries has been shrinking fast. By the early 1950s a child born in a wealthy country such as Britain could expect to live 25 years longer than a child born in a poor country such as Algeria; today accidents of birth matter far less. The gap has closed to 12.2 years, thanks to diffusion and transfer of public health practices and medical advances pioneered in the West.

The whole review is worth a read (free registration required, click here to start the process and access the article).

My own sense of human progress is that human life is getting better all the time, just as the above evidence suggests. We tend to gripe a lot and focus on the negatives. That harping on the negatives clouds the immense progress we've seen in the last couple of hundred years, progress that apparently is shared by people the world over.