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The Rational Optimist, by Matt Ridley: A book excerpt

Ode Magazine    Yobo Member
July 1st, 2010



When I set out to write a book about the material progress of the human race, now published at The Rational Optimist, I was only dimly aware of how much better my life is now than it would have been if I had been born 50 years before. I knew that I have novel technologies at my disposal from synthetic fleeces and discount airlines to Facebook and satellite navigation. I knew that I could rely on advances in vaccines, transplants and sleeping pills. I knew that I could experience cleaner air and cleaner water at least in my own country. I knew that for Chinese and Japanese people life had grown much more wealthy. But I did not know the numbers.

Do you know the numbers? In 2005, compared with 1955, the average human being on Planet Earth earned nearly three times as much money (corrected for inflation), ate one-third more calories of food, buried one-third as many of her children and could expect to live one-third longer. All this during a half-century when the world population has more than doubled, so that far from being rationed by population pressure, the goods and services available to the people of the world have expanded. It is, by any standard, an astonishing human achievement.

During my lifetime there has only been one year in which the global economy shrank — it was 2009 — and that only by just 1.1%. It is forecast to grow by more than 4% in 2010. After fifty years real income per head has fallen (slightly) in only six countries (Afghanistan, Haiti, Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Somalia), life expectancy in three (Russia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe), and infant survival in none. In the rest they have rocketed upward. Many southern African countries saw life expectancy plunge in the 1990s as the AIDS epidemic spread, but even that trend has now reversed in most countries. For all the wars, recessions and disasters, the last fifty years have been remarkably, astonishingly, dramatically positive. The average South Korean lives 26 more years and earns 15 times as much income each year as he did in 1955 (and 15 times as much as his North Korean counterpart). The average Mexican lives longer now than the average Briton did in 1955. The average Botswanan earns more than the average Finn did in 1955. Infant mortality is lower today in Nepal than it was in Italy in 1951. The proportion of Vietnamese living on less than $2 a day has dropped from 90 per cent to 30 per cent in 20 years.

The rich have got richer, but the poor have done even better. The poor in the developing world grew their consumption twice as fast as the world as a whole between 1980 and 2000. The Chinese are ten times as rich, one-third as fecund and 28 years longer-lived than they were 50 years ago. Even Nigerians are twice as rich, 25 per cent less fecund and nine years longer-lived than they were in 1955. Despite a doubling of the world population, even the raw number of people living in absolute poverty (defined as less than a 1985 dollar a day) has fallen since the 1950s, let alone the percentage living in such absolute poverty. That number is, of course, still all too horribly high, but the trend is hardly a cause for despair. The United Nations estimates that poverty was reduced more in the last 50 years than in the previous 500.

Nor was 1955 a time of deprivation. It was in itself a record — a moment when the world was richer, more populous and more comfortable than it had ever been, a time of extraordinary abundance and luxury compared with any preceding age. Yet looking back now, another fifty years later, the middle class of 1955, luxuriating in their cars, comforts and gadgets, would today be described as ‘below the poverty line’. The poorest 25% of Britons today are richer — have higher incomes, after taking inflation into account — than the richest 25% of Britons in 1961. Today, of Americans officially designated as ‘poor’, 99 per cent have electricity, running water, flush toilets, and a refrigerator; 95 per cent have a television, 88 per cent a telephone, 71 per cent a car and 70 per cent air conditioning. Cornelius Vanderbilt had none of these. Even in 1970 only 36 per cent of all Americans had air conditioning: in 1995 66 per cent of poor households did.

Going back further, everybody knows that the first half of the twentieth century, which opened with such hope, was disfigured by decades of war, depression and dictatorship. Yet despite that the global standard of living just kept on inching upwards, so that by 1950 the average citizen of the world was not only much wealthier and healthier than he his counterpart in 1900, but had all sorts of new materials, tools and services at his or her disposal.

Today, average life expectancy continues to march upwards at a steady rate of five hours a day. The number of years of retirement is rocketing upwards. Nor is this at the expense of quality of life in old age. Chronic illness before death is if anything shortening slightly, not lengthening, despite better diagnosis and more treatments — ‘the compression of morbidity’ is the technical term. People are not only spending a longer time living, but a shorter time dying.

Even inequality is declining worldwide. As poor Asians get richer faster than rich Americans, the global ‘Gini coefficient’, which measures inequality, has been falling rapidly. In another respect, too, inequality has been retreating. The spread of IQ scores has been shrinking steadily — because the low scores have been catching up with the high ones. It is a levelling-up caused by an equalisation of nutrition, stimulation or diversity of childhood experience. Even justice has improved thanks to new technology exposing false convictions and identifying true criminals. To date 234 innocent Americans have been freed as a result of DNA fingerprinting after serving an average of 12 years in prison; 17 of them were on death row.

The real cause of these improvements is that most of the things people need or want have been getting steadily cheaper. For example, in monetary terms, the same amount of artificial lighting cost 20,000 times as much in England in the year 1300 as it does today, and in labour terms the change is even more dramatic and the improvement is even more recent. To earn an hour of reading light on the average wage will have cost you less than half a second of work. In 1950, with a conventional filament lamp and the then wage, you would have had to work for eight seconds to get the same amount of light. Had you been using a kerosene lamp in the 1880s, you would have had to work for about 15 minutes to get the same amount of light. A tallow candle in the 1800s: over six hours’ work.

Much of this improvement is not included in the cost — of-living calculations, which struggle to compare like with unlike. The economist Don Boudreaux imagined the average American time-travelling back to 1967 with his modern income. He might be the richest person in town, but no amount of money could buy him the delights of eBay, Amazon, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Prozac, Google or BlackBerry. The lighting numbers cited above do not even take into account the greater convenience and cleanliness of modern electric light compared with candles or kerosene — its simple switching, its lack of smoke, smell and flicker, its lesser fire hazard. Nor is the improvement in lighting finished yet. LEDs with ten times the efficiency of incandescent bulbs have been demonstrated. Admittedly, LEDs are still far too expensive to replace most light bulbs, but that might change.

Time: that is the true measure of something’s worth. If you have to acquire it for yourself, it usually takes longer than if you get it ready-made by other people. And if you can get it made efficiently by others, then you can afford more of it. This is what prosperity is: the increase in the amount of goods or services you can earn with the same amount of work. As late as the mid-1800s, a stagecoach journey from Paris to Bordeaux cost the equivalent of a clerk’s monthly wages — today the journey costs a day or so of work and takes just a few hours. A half-gallon of milk cost the average American ten minutes of work in 1970, but only seven minutes in 1997. A three-minute phone call from New York to Los Angeles cost 90 hours of work at the average wage in 1910; today it costs less than two minutes. A kilowatt-hour of electricity cost an hour of work in 1900 and five minutes today. In the 1950s it took 30 minutes work to earn the price of a McDonald’s cheeseburger; today it takes three minutes.

We invent new technologies that decrease the amount of time that it takes to supply each other’s needs. The great theme of human history is that we increasingly work for each other. We exchange our own specialised and highly efficient fragments of production for everybody else’s. The ‘division of labour’ Adam Smith called it, and it is still spreading. When a self-sufficient peasant moves to town and gets a job, supplying his own needs by buying them from others with the wages from his job, he can raise his standard of living and those he supplies with what he produces.

So ask yourself this: with so much improvement behind us, why are we to expect only deterioration before us? I am quoting from an essay by Thomas Macaulay written in 1830, when pessimists were already promising doom. “They were wrong then, and I think they are wrong now.”

This text, provided by Matt Ridley, is loosely adapted from his book, The Rational Optimist. Buy the book here, and click here to check out his website.

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This story originally appeared at Ode Magazine

Visit Ode’s yobo profile here

Photo: Jesus Solana

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