Scientists Freeze Multiple Sclerosis Progression

A new multiple sclerosis treatment seems to stop the progression of the disease in nearly half of patients. A study found that 46% of patients who underwent the treatment did not suffer a worsening of their condition for 5 years. The treatment could give hope to the estimated 100,000 people in the UK affected by MS, for which there is currently no cure. The treatment – autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (AHSCT) – was given to patients with advanced MS who failed to respond to other medications. Similar approaches have been trialed on people with certain cancers, with encouraging early results. The treatment, however, involving aggressive chemotherapy, still carries “significant risks.” The treatment worked for 1/3 of patients with severe, progressive MS. 

Life Expectancy to Rise Globally through 2030

Studies predict that in 2030 South Korean women will be the first in the world to have an average life expectancy above 90 and that the gap between men and women will start to close in most countries. Japan currently has the highest life expectancy for women, but researchers predict South Korea and France will soon do even better. Men have traditionally had unhealthier lifestyles and therefore shorter life expectancies, but as lifestyles become more similar, the gap closes. The study takes account of different factors like smoking rates, medical advances and obesity patterns. 

Scientists Crack A 50-Year-Old Mystery About The Measles Vaccine

Vaccines may be even  more beneficial than previously thought. When the measles vaccine came out, scientists noticed that childhood deaths from all infectious diseases plummeted – deaths from pneumonia and even diarrhea, for example, were cut by half. Scientists observed the same phenomenon when the vaccine reached developing countries. Previously, it was unknown why children cease dying at high rates from infections following introduction of the measles vaccine. Scientists may have  unraveled the mystery: they hypothesize that measles predisposes children to all other infectious diseases by suppressing the immune system for a number of years. Measles does this by causing the body to “forget” diseases it has already faced and formed antibodies to fight, forcing the body to build up those defenses again from scratch. Another reason to celebrate the spread of the measles vaccine!
February 23, 2017
By Chelsea Follett
A shocking statistic has come to light: Venezuelans lost 19 pounds on average over the past year because of food shortages.

There was a time when hunger was a near-universal experience. As Kevin D. Williamson put it, “Not long ago, the great dream and aspiration of most of the people walking this Earth was to have enough to eat, for themselves and for their children, and to be liberated from worrying about whether they would eat again tomorrow or the next day.”

Then, something changed. Exchange and specialization helped bring down food prices. A burst of innovations called the Green Revolution led to higher agricultural productivity and decreased food prices even further. Even as the world’s population grew, the market ensured that the supply of food rose to meet growing demand.

The global numbers are heartening. The share of the world’s population suffering from hunger is shrinking. Despite population growth, the total number of undernourished persons is lower as well. Even those who are food-deprived are less severely malnourished than in the past. Humanity now produces more than enough food to theoretically feed everyone on Earth the recommended 2,000 calories per day.

Hunger was declining in Venezuela too until recently. The percentage of Venezuela’s population suffering from undernourishment fell from 14% in 1991 to “5% or lower” in 2015, the latest year for which the United Nations has data. Since then, the situation has rapidly deteriorated. In a single year, the number of cases of severely undernourished children in Venezuela’s capital city, Caracas, doubled.

The reason? Venezuela’s socialist economic policies, briefly sustained by fleeting high oil prices, led to hyperinflation and a societal collapse. If Venezuela continues on its present course, hunger is likely to become more widespread.

We can all be thankful that undernourishment has become rarer globally. But the case of Venezuela demonstrates that progress is not inevitable—suicidal economic policies, like socialism, can rapidly extinguish the prosperity we enjoy.

February 22, 2017
By Grace Carr
Computers and Phones Solve Skin Cancer Cases

Early detection of melanoma can be a matter of life and death. Skin cancer afflicts 1 in 5 Americans and is also a widespread global problem. But many people around the world lack ready access to a dermatologist. There may be a solution however, for researchers at Stanford University have discovered a way to get a computer to identify skin cancer, and the hope is that soon smartphones will be able to do the same. The researchers started out with a Google-supplied algorithm specially designed to learn from experience. The scientists fed 127,463 images of skin lesions, from 2,032 different diseases to the algorithm, which learned which patterns were associated with certain disorders. It can now distinguishbetween  harmless moles and the most common and curable cancers to the deadliest skin cancers. As the number of smartphones grows, this project could have a huge impact.

Virtual Reality Headset Eyes For the Blind

The company eSight has developed a visor, weighing less than a quarter pound and operated by hand-held remote, that captures the world through a camera system and displays it on OLED screens that sit close to the eyes. The visor dramatically amplifies sight for legally blind persons and those with impaired vision caused by ailments like Stargardt disease. ESight is taking advantage of tech that is cheaper, smaller, and faster than before and has been used to create smartphones and virtual-reality headsets. The eSight visor has been in development for 10 years but has now reached a level of functional maturity.  Using a hand-held controller, users can zoom and pan. The device can also be useful for the people with low vision who benefit from magnification. Persons using eSight report immediately seeing a boost in quality of life. The biggest remaining hurdle is lowering the cost of production so that the visors can be sold at an affordable price.

Smartphones Repurposed as Pocket Doctors

Smartphones will soon be able to monitor bone density, calculate red blood cell levels, and even predict asthma attacks. Scientists are repurposing technology to develop an app that can detect red blood cell levels and therefore quickly spot anemia. Researchers also believe future users will be able to tap phones over their bones to check for osteoporosis and use the microphone to test lung function. Researchers have also been working on using smartphones and computers to help support patients who are dealing with chronic conditions like diabetes or cancer, reminding them of which symptoms to expect on specific days and how to prepare. It seems highly likely that remote disease management via smartphone is in our near future.

Miracle Face Transplants Now Possible

The first full face transplant was just performed, giving a man a nose, cheeks, mouth, lips, jaw, chin, and teeth from a donor. The man had attempted suicide, putting a rifle beneath his chin and pulling the trigger. He survived but suffered a shattered mouth and nose, and had only two remaining teeth as well as little vision. A medical team reconstructed his upper and lower jaw with bone, muscle, and skin from the hip and a leg. They reconnected facial bones with titanium plates and screws. But that was not enough, and so he was added to the face transplant list. A medical team that had rehearsed the procedure for three and a half years successfully performed the surgery in 56-hours. It took about 24 hours to procure the donor’s face – which involved taking bone, muscle, skin, and nerves – and roughly 32 hours to rebuild the patient’s face. Today, his face looks and functions normally: the man has been given a second chance at life. 

February 16, 2017
By Grace Carr
Human Gene Editing Receives Science Panel’s Support  

The National Science and Medical Academies has given approval to clinical efforts to prevent horrific diseases through gene editing. Procedures include altering human eggs, sperm, and embryos to prevent babies from inheriting genes known to cause serious diseases and disability. To ease the fears of those who are worried that these gene editing techniques could be used to select desirable traits and create designer children, there are strict limitations on who would qualify for gene modification – e.g., individuals carrying two copies of the genetic mutation that causes Huntington’s disease. Crispr-Cas9, the gene-editing tool that allows researchers to snip, insert, and delete genetic material, is extremely precise, but it will be several years before the technology can be perfected and shown to work on humans. Scientists are currently testing the technology on mice.

Possibilities for Bionic Bodies Keep Expanding 

Bionic technology is transforming lives. Robotic exoskeletons now allow paraplegics to walk again. A bionic eye, Argus II, partially restores vision: the detection of light, shapes, obstacles, and movement. A brain implant called the Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) reads brainwaves to let wheelchair-bound patients move bionic hands. Mobile prosthetic arms that connect electrodes to nerves and muscles are now possible, restoring not only hand use but sensory experience. Bionic legs free patients from wheelchairs, helping them stand, walk slowly and exercise. An artificial pancreas that can monitor blood sugar and accurately pump insulin now provides an alternative to insulin injections for people with diabetes. The possibilities continue expanding.  

Uber Hires Veteran NASA Engineer to Develop Flying Cars  

In 2010, NASA aircraft engineer Mark Moore outlined the possibility of creating small electric aircraft that would provide a quicker and more interesting way to get to work than most commuters currently enjoy. Moore has left NASA to join Uber as the Director of Engineering for “Uber Elevate.” Uber isn’t constructing a flying car yet though, and many obstacles (not all technical) stand in the way. Uber Elevate must negotiate with suppliers to get prices down as well as lobby regulators to certify the new aircraft and reduce air-traffic restrictions. Uber envisions pairing conventional Ubers with “vertiports” that will fly commuters to work. Moore predicts that we will see several flying cars in the next few years and enthusiastically turns to the private industry to most efficiently develop promising new aviation markets.  

Biologists help deaf mice hear again by inserting healthy genes into their ears  

Deafness affects millions of people, and genetics cause roughly half of these cases. Now, medical researchers have been able to restore hearing in mice by inserting mutated genes into their bodies. In their experiments, scientists administered Usher syndrome type IC (which causes deafness, balance dysfunction, and blindness in human children) into mice. To improve and eliminate hearing loss, the research team injected a synthetic virus with a curative gene into the mice’s ears. It was the first time scientists have been able to identify a virus that can enter the inner ear and deliver genes to the inner and outer hair cells required for normal hearing ability. They can now effectively restore hearing by gene transfer. Researchers tested the gene transfer method with human tissue with promising results.   
February 15, 2017
By Maximilian Wirth
As the BBC recently pointed out, our prehistoric ancestors needed to gather and chop “wood 10 hours a day for six days… [in order to] produce 1,000 lumen hours of light… That is the equivalent of one modern light bulb shining for just 54 minutes, although what you would actually get is many more hours of dim, flickering light instead.”

Even when better alternatives, such as candles, became available, it was still prohibitively expensive to light the house for the common person. Further, the first candles were produced from animal fat and not from the clean burning paraffin wax we use today, producing a flickering smelly flame.

It wasn’t until the 18th century that spermaceti candles, which were made from a waxy substance found in the head cavities of sperm whales, and were much less time-consuming to produce, became more readily available. But even then, reading light remained very expensive (not to mention terminal for the whales). George Washington calculated that five hours of reading per night cost him £8 yearly - well over $1,000 in today's dollars.

The light bulb changed everything.

By 1900, 60 hours of work could provide 10 days of light. The light bulbs would burn 100 times as bright as a candle, steadily, and inodorously. By 1920, 60 hours of work could already pay for 5 months of stable light. By 1990, that increased to 10 years of light. Today? 52 years.

And progress has not stopped yet. LED lights continue to become cheaper and cheaper.

The amount of labor that once bought 54 minutes of light now buys 52 years of light. The cost has fallen by a factor of 500,000 and the quality of that light has transformed from unstable and risky to clean, safe, and controllable.

Like a myriad of other products we take for granted today, light has turned from something too precious to use into something everyone can afford.

It’s been a busy time for nuclear weapons-related news—between President Trump’s alleged confusion about and denouncement of the New START arms reduction treaty with Russia on Friday, the White House’s subsequent assurances that the president understands the treaty, and North Korea’s missile launch test over the weekend.

The people behind the “Doomsday Clock,” have declared that the world is “two and a half minutes to midnight.” That’s the closest we’ve allegedly been to Armageddon since 1953, when both the U.S. and Soviet Union first possessed thermonuclear weapons.

A graph from might help put the current fearful commotion in perspective.

The U.S. has 4,000 nuclear warheads stockpiled and Russia has 4,490, according to the Federation of American Scientists, a group devoted to arms reduction, as of their latest data update on January 31st of this year. 
How dangerous is a single warhead? That varies. The most powerful one ever made, the Soviet Tsar Bomba, detonated in a remote area in 1961, created a fireball with a radius of nearly two miles, and a thermal radiation blast able to cause third-degree burns within a radius of almost 50 miles. North Korea’s most powerful warhead tested to date, in contrast, would cause third-degree burns within a radius of less than 2 miles. (If you’re curious about exactly how much of your hometown a warhead would destroy, there’s an app for that).

The graph shows that the U.S. and Russia still have enough warheads to wage a deadly nuclear conflict, but the situation is a far cry from how things stood during the Cold War. The U.S.S.R.’s number of warheads peaked at 40,149 in 1986; the U.S.’s peaked earlier, at 31,255 warheads in 1967. In other words, Russia’s stockpile of warheads today is 11% of what the U.S.S.R.’s was at its peak. The U.S.’s stockpile is 13% of what it was at its peak.

The tension between the two great nuclear powers is also far lower today than it was in the days of constant nuclear drills for schoolchildren accompanied by inane videos. As my colleague Ted Galen Carpenter put it, President Trump has repeatedly “angered advocates of a new Cold War against Russia,” through his eagerness to cooperate with Moscow.
(However, he has also pointed out that the recent spat over New START might signal a change in Trump’s attitude towards Russia).

No one can predict the future, but a little historical perspective suggests that the threat of a nuclear apocalypse is farther than the Doomsday Clock’s hands claim.

You can explore data on the other nuclear powers’ stockpiles (excluding secretive North Korea) here.

February 10, 2017
By Marian L. Tupy
On June 23, 2016, the British people voted in a referendum to leave the European Union. The shock on both sides of the English Channel was palpable and two schools of thought on the impending divorce between the U.K. and the EU have emerged.

The proponents of Brexit emphasize the benefits of free trade and continued (albeit inter-governmental and no longer supra-national) cooperation between the U.K. and the EU. They argue that an acrimonious divorce between the two would help neither party. Britain, they say, imports much more from the EU than the EU does from Britain, and a tariff war between the U.K. and the EU would not be in Europe's interest. They also argue that Britain, being a part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is needed to counterbalance Russia. Britain's European partners within NATO, therefore, have an incentive to keep the U.K. more-or-less happy.

The opponents of Brexit have warned that a vote in favor of the U.K.'s withdrawal from the EU would result in economic meltdown on the British Isles. Mercifully that has (so far) not come to pass, but that does not mean that Brexit negotiations will be plain sailing. The Eurocrats in Brussels, who will negotiate the terms of the British withdrawal from the EU, face their own set of incentives. Make the divorce between the EU and the U.K. too pleasant, they contend, and other EU countries may decide to follow the British example and leave the EU as well.

In the months that have followed the Brexit referendum, the two sides have been maneuvering to occupy the high ground once the actual negotiations on Brexit commence. (That should happen by the end of March 2017, when the British Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which deals with a member country's withdrawal from the EU.)

The British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Phillip Hammond, for example, let it be known that "Britain could transform its economic model into that of a corporate tax haven if the EU fails to provide it with an agreement on market access after Brexit."

"I personally hope we will be able to remain in the mainstream of European economic and social thinking," Hammond said, "but if we are forced to be something different, then we will have to become something different… We could be forced to change our economic model, and we will have to change our model to regain competitiveness. And you [Europeans] can be sure we will do whatever we have to do."

The U.K. ministers, hope to "force EU leaders to give them a good Brexit deal by drafting legislation proving their threat to slash taxes is real. Ready-to-go Budgets will be drawn up cutting corporation tax and scrapping regulations if the negotiations are stalling... The move is designed to show those on the other side of the negotiating table that Britain is serious about becoming 'the new Singapore' unless trade barriers are kept low." Why Singapore? Let's look at a couple of statistics.

In 1950, GDP per capita adjusted for inflation and purchasing power parity was $5,689.91 in Singapore. It was $11,920.58 in the U.K. Average income in Singapore, in other words, amounted to 48 percent of that in the U.K. In 2016, income in Singapore was $82,168.33 and $42,287.17 in the U.K. Put differently, Singaporeans earned 94 percent more than the British. During the intervening years, Singaporean incomes rose by 1,344 percent, while British incomes rose by 256 percent. (A similar story could be told about life expectancy.)

Based on these two telling statistics alone, the "threat" of Singaporean tax rates and regulatory framework ought not to be a mere negotiating strategy for the British government vis-a-vis the EU. It ought to be a goal of the British decision makers—regardless of what the EU decides!

This article first appeared in Reason.
February 09, 2017
By Grace Carr
We all know that travel can be exhausting and time consuming. The hours spent driving to the airport, standing in security lines, sitting on the tarmac, and traversing the skies can add up to a large chunk of our lives… and take a large chunk out of our wallets. But despite our complaints about the TSA and the price of tickets, the cost of travel has decreased and continues to decrease. If we look at a history of average domestic U.S. airfares (excluding taxes and other government-imposed charges) as well as the average amounts collected by airlines related to reservation changes and the transportation of luggage, we see that it is much cheaper to fly today than it was 30 or 40 years ago – and safer, I might add.

In 1979 (the first year of deregulated domestic air service), domestic passengers flew an average of 1,947 miles per round trip and paid a fare of $186.22. In 2015, domestic passengers flew an average of 2,384 miles per round trip and paid a fare of $363.23. Adjusted for inflation, however, the cost of a ticket in 1979 was $441.77. In 2015, it was $263.91. That’s a reduction of over 40 percent. So the next time we complain about airlines and the high costs of air travel, we should thank our lucky stars that we aren’t flying in the 1970s!

Speaking of the 1970s, have a look at one of our previous posts concerning the improving safety of air travel between the 1970s and today.

February 08, 2017
By Human Progress Team
Hans Rosling, the Swedish doctor and statistician who made it his life’s goal to challenge misconceptions about human development with data, died yesterday at the age of 68.

A professor of global health in Stockholm, Rosling discovered that his students and even colleagues were widely ignorant of the improvements the world has seen in the last few decades. He was baffled by how many people thought that the developing world would remain mired in extreme poverty and decided to educate them by spreading data-based evidence of human betterment.

In 2006, Rosling set up Gapminder, a charity that promotes international development by increasing the use of statistics and raising awareness of human progress.

Rosling was immensely successful with his project and he became a world famous educator about the state of the world. Almost 8 million people have watched his BBC video explaining how countries have become richer and how the world’s population has gotten healthier. He gave 10 TED talksmore than any other person – giving lectures on how the world is constantly getting better.

Over the course of his life, Rosling has thereby demonstrated to millions of people evidence of advancements in human well-being. Furthermore, he has influenced people like Mark Zuckerberg and Al Gore and was listed himself among the 100 most influential people by Time and Foreign Policy.

The team would like to thank Hans Rosling for his work, which so closely resembles our mission to decrease misconceptions about the state of humanity and point to the many improvements that our world has seen. Rosling’s family announced today that “Hans is no longer alive, but he will always be with us and his dream of a fact-based worldview, we will never let die!” We couldn’t agree more.
February 07, 2017
By Marian L. Tupy
Between 1960 and 2015, world population increased by 142 per cent, rising from 3.035 billion to 7.35 billion. During that time, average income per capita adjusted for inflation increased by 177 per cent, rising from $3,680 to $10,194. Moreover, after 56 years of human use and exploration, the vast majority of the commodities tracked by the World Bank are cheaper than they used to be – either absolutely or relative to income. That was not supposed to have happened.

According to conventional wisdom, population growth was to be a harbinger of poverty and famine. Yet, human beings, unlike other animals, innovate their way out of scarcity by increasing the supply of natural resources or developing substitutes for overused resources. Human ingenuity, in other words, is “the ultimate resource” that makes all other resources more plentiful.

Earlier this year, the World Bank updated its Pink Sheet, which tracks the prices of 72 commodities going back (in most cases) to 1960. I have eliminated some repetitive datasets and some datasets that contained data for only very short periods of time. I was left with 42 commodity prices, which are included in the chart below.

As can be seen, out of the 42 distinct commodity prices measured by the World Bank, 19 have declined in absolute terms. In other words, adjusted for inflation, they were cheaper in 2016 than in 1960. Twenty-three commodities have increased in price over the last 56 years. However, of those 23 commodities, only three (crude oil, gold and silver) appreciated more than income. In a vast majority of cases, therefore, commodities became cheaper either absolutely or relatively.

Figure 1: Worldwide Commodity Prices, Population and Income, 1960-2016   It is often assumed that population growth must inevitably result in the exhaustion of natural resources, environmental destruction and even mass starvation. Take, for example, The Limits to Growth report, which was published by the Club of Rome in 1972.  Based on MIT computer projections, the report looked at the interplay between industrial development, population growth, malnutrition, the availability of nonrenewable resources and the quality of the environment. It concluded:
 “If present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next 100 years… The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity… Given present resource consumption rates and the projected increase in these rates, the great majority of currently nonrenewable resources will be extremely expensive 100 years from now.”
It has been 45 years since the publication of The Limits to Growth. So far, the dire predictions of the Club of Rome have not come to pass. On the contrary, we have seen an overall decline of commodity prices relative to income – in spite of a growing global population.

Can this happy trend continue for another 55 years and beyond? To get a glimpse of the future, we must first understand the concept of scarcity.

Scarcity or “the gap between limited – that is, scarce – resources and theoretically limitless wants”, is best ascertained by looking at prices. A scarce commodity goes up in price, while a plentiful commodity becomes cheaper. That was the premise of a famous bet between Stanford University Professor Paul Ehrlich and University of Maryland Professor Julian Simon. Ehrlich shared the gloomy predictions of the Club of Rome.

In his best-selling 1968 book The Population Bomb, Ehrlich reasoned that over-population would lead to exhaustion of natural resources and mega-famines. “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate,” he wrote.

Simon, in contrast, was much more optimistic. In his 1981 book The Ultimate Resource, Simon used empirical data to show that humanity has always gotten around the problem of scarcity by increasing the supply of natural resources or developing substitutes for overused resources. Human ingenuity, he argued, was “the ultimate resource” that would make all other resources more plentiful.

In 1980, the two thinkers agreed to put their ideas to a test. As Ronald Bailey wrote in his 2015 book The End of Doom: Environmental Renewal in the 2lst Century:
 “In October 1980, Ehrlich and Simon drew up a futures contract obligating Simon to sell Ehrlich the same quantities that could be purchased for $1,000 of five metals (copper, chromium, nickel, tin, and tungsten) ten years later at inflation-adjusted 1980 prices. If the combined prices rose above $1,000, Simon would pay the difference. If they fell below $1,000, Ehrlich would pay Simon the difference. Ehrlich mailed Simon a check for $576.07 in October 1990. There was no note in the letter. The price of the basket of metals chosen by Ehrlich and his cohorts had fallen by more than 50 percent. The cornucopian Simon won.”
Simon’s critics, Ehrlich included, have since argued that Simon got lucky. Had his bet with Ehrlich taken place over a different decade, the outcome might have been different. Between 2001 and 2008, for example, the world had experienced an unprecedented economic expansion that dramatically increased the price of commodities.

True, but Simon’s thesis does not have to account for price fluctuations that are heavily influenced by the ups and downs of the global economy as well as disruptive government policies (e.g., oil crises in 1973 and 1979). Rather, Simon posited that as a particular resource becomes scarcer, its price will increase and that will incentivize people to discover more of the resource, ration it, recycle it, or develop a substitute.

Commodity prices, academic research suggests, move in so-called “super-cycles,” lasting between 30 and 40 years. During periods of high economic growth, demand for commodities increases. When that happens, commodities go up in price. It is during this period that high commodity prices encourage the discovery of new supplies and the invention of new technologies. Once economic growth slows down, prices of “now copiously supplied commodities fall”.

Accordingly, the current commodity cycle seems to have peaked in 2008. In June 2008, for example, the price of West Texas Intermediate crude oil peaked at $154 per barrel. By January 2016 it stood at $29 (both figures are in inflation adjusted 2016 US dollars). The once-high price of oil has led to hydraulic fracturing, which has revolutionized the oil industry. Today, “fracking” continues to enable us to access previously inaccessible oil reserves in record volumes. In fact, humanity is yet to run out of a single “non-renewable” resource.

Unfortunately, many people, including Paul Ehrlich, and many organizations, including the Club of Rome, believe that the answer to scarcity is to limit consumption of natural resources. In reality, consumption limits are unpopular and difficult to enforce. More often than not, their effects fall hardest on the most vulnerable. A switch from fossil fuels to “renewable” sources of energy, for example, has increased the price of gas and electricity in many European countries to such extent that a new term – energy poverty – had to be coined.

According to the German magazine Der Spiegel, “Germany’s aggressive and reckless expansion of wind and solar power has come with a hefty price tag for consumers, and the costs often fall disproportionately on the poor.”  In democracies, such policies are, in the long run, unsustainable. More important is the fact that they are unnecessary, because real solutions to future scarcity are more likely to come from innovation and technological change.

I do not mean to trivialize the challenges that humanity faces or imply that we will be able to solve all of the problems ahead. Instead, I want to suggest that human brain, the ultimate resource, is capable of solving complex challenges. We have done so with disease, hunger and extreme poverty, which have all fallen to historical lows, and we can do so with respect to the use of natural resources as well.
February 06, 2017
By Maximilian Wirth
More than a hundred million people watched the historic comeback of the Patriots in the Super Bowl on their TVs last night.

Virtually every American can do so, as 96% of households own a television. In fact, having a TV has become so normal that hardly anyone thinks about the amazing development this technology has undergone in the last century.

The first commercially available TVs are almost 90 years old. Yet, they were hardly useful in their early days because broadcasting companies were few. For example, the first televised football game in 1939 was captured by a single camera and reached only about 1,000 television sets.

It wasn’t until the late 1940s that TV channels started to transmit shows on a regular basis. In the 1950s colored television slowly became available. However, high prices for electronic color TVs prevented large scale sales until the 1960s. Video tapes too were unheard of until the 1970s, thus everything had to be watched live.

Nevertheless, the number of TVs in the United States grew steadily from 6,000 sets in 1946 to 12 million televisions in 1951. By 1955, half of American households had a television, inspiring broadcasting channels to pop up all around the country. However, a television was still a precious luxury good and the average American in 1976 had to work 60 hours to afford a new TV .Today, only 6 hours of working time is needed to afford a new television. As with many consumer goods, affording a TV has become more feasible over time.

As a consequence, the average worker today works 300 hours less per year than his counterpart did in 1950. He can now allocate his time elsewhere to read a book, play with his kids, or watch the Super Bowl.

As the Economist notes, 120,000 organs –  mostly kidneys – are transplanted each year around the world. Sometimes the organs come from living donors. More often, though, they come from individuals who passed away in an accident. This supply is limited however, and many patients die waiting for transplants.

Fortunately, printed organs are about to become available. “Bioprinting” sprays living cells into patterns without damaging them. Thereby organic tissues are created, which could then get transplanted into human beings.

With that technology, researchers at Northwestern University have already printed functioning organs for mice. Organovo, a biotech company, even estimates that within the next 3 to 5 years printed human liver tissues could be used as a treatment for people with chronic liver failure. Companies all around the world have formed alliances to develop printable implants ranging from treatment for broken bones to kidney problems and to replace even complex organs like the heart in the more distant future.

Cosmetic and medical companies are especially interested in the potential for skin treatment. On the one hand, skin could be printed directly on the body – repairing burns and ulcers. On the other, products could be tested immediately on printed human skin. L’Oreal already grows five square meters a year with an older method, but with the new technological processes, much more and even different skin types could be printed in the near future. 

Bioprinting should also please animal-rights activists. The possibility of printing body parts could drastically cut down the number of animal trials for drug testing – a real win-win situation. Humans won’t depend anymore on the altruism or unfortunate death of another person to receive a transplant and animals won’t suffer anymore in testing laboratories.

January 31, 2017
By Marian L. Tupy
Of course, not all the news is positive!

Last week, I posted a typically upbeat note about the state of the world and some readers have criticized me for being too Panglossian. In fact, as I have explained in a Reason article some years ago, I do not see human progress as inevitable or irreversible. And while I am optimistic about the prospects of our species in the long run, I do not ignore short term reversals.

Take America, for example. After decades of decline, the homicide rate has risen in recent years. Similarly, life expectancy has fallen for the first time since 1993. Economically too, we are not doing particular well. It took our GDP per capita seven years (2008-2014) to recover from the Great Recession and our growth remains, by historical standards, anemic.

Relative economic decline is reversible and some of the reforms contemplated in Washington, D.C., including deregulation and tax reform, could lead to a more rapid economic expansion. A healthier job market could then help to relieve some of the desperation felt in Middle America, where mortality rates are on the rise. That would, in turn, improve overall life expectancy.

A healthy economy, however, depends on healthy institutions, and it is here that we should be very concerned. The Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index evaluates countries on five categories: electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation and political culture. Based on their scores, each country is then classified as one of four types of regime: full democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regime and authoritarian regime.

The 2016 report, which was released last week, degraded the United States from a "full democracy" to a "flawed democracy." On a scale from zero to 10, "the US score has declined significantly over the life of the Democracy Index, from 8.22 in 2006 to 7.98 in 2016, pushing the US into the 'flawed democracy' category," the authors of the index wrote.

Donald Trump, the authors repeatedly stress, has not caused the decline in America's rating. But Trump has benefited from the decline in the public's trust in government. As Pew Research Center noted in 2015, the "public's trust in the federal government continues to be at historically low levels. Only 19 percent of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right 'just about always' (3 percent) or 'most of the time' (16 percent)."

But, as the Pew data also shows, there have been two significant upticks in the people's trust in government. One followed the 9/11 attacks and quickly dissipated. The other coincided with the Reagan presidency. Paradoxically, by doing less, Reagan revived the government's flagging fortunes. If Trump succeeds in draining the swamp that is Washington, D.C., he could restore the good name of the federal government. If, as many of his opponents fear, Trump makes the swamp deeper, America's economic and institutional problems will accelerate.

Pew Research Center
This article first appeared in Reason.

January 25, 2017
By Maximilian Wirth
Today, most people see their dog as a companion and friend. Yet in the 1600s, the turnspit dog was solely bred to be a kitchen device. The poor creatures, described by historians as “long-bodied” with “short crooked legs,” had to run constantly in a giant hamster wheel to spin meat over an open fire.

Roasting large hunks of meat took anywhere between 40 and 80 minutes per kilo (2.2 lb). Thus, to cook the meat evenly, it had to be spiked on a long roasting spit and then rotated via hand crank for several hours.

The lowliest kitchen staff, usually children, performed this task. It was tough work. The boys would stand next to the fire place, protected from the heat only by a bale of wet hay—naturally, burns and blisters became commonplace. Hence when the turnspit came into use, households quickly adopted the new cooking tool.

The animals were treated appallingly. Forced to run in the enclosed wheels for hours, the dogs found no respite and could not escape. 

The cooks even put hot coals in the wheels to make the dogs move their paws faster, and left the dogs without water, regardless of the heat from the fire pits. It was such an arduous task that the dogs had to work in shifts to cook the meat thoroughly, trading places every few hours.
The cruel treatment of dogs motivated Henry Bergh to start the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), which fights animal abuse to this day. However, it was technological advancements that finally ended the work dogs’ terrible plight. The turnspits were replaced by steam-powered machines in the late 1700s. H.D. Richard wrote in 1847 that “Fortunately for humanity, mechanical contrivances have, in these countries at least, superseded the necessity of thus torturing a poor dog; and accordingly the Turnspit, his occupation being gone, is himself rapidly passing into oblivion.” 

Today, a post short on words, but full of good news. The World Bank has updated its famed "Pink Sheet," which tracks the prices of 72 commodities going back (in most cases) to 1960. I have eliminated some repetitive datasets (for example, there are four crude oil prices—West Texas Intermediate, Dubai, Brent and "average") and some datasets that contain data for only very short periods of time. As such, I was left with 42 commodity prices, which are included in the chart below.

Out of those 42 commodity prices, 19 have declined in absolute terms, which is to say that, adjusted for inflation, they were cheaper in 2016 than in 1960. Twenty-three commodities have increased in price over the last 56 years. However, of those 23 prices, 20 rose less than global per capita income (177 percent). Only three commodities (crude oil, gold and silver) rose more than income, which is to say that in a vast majority of cases commodities became cheaper—absolutely or relatively—in spite of population growth of 142 percent.

So, what's the moral of the story? Eighteen years after his untimely and much lamented passing, Julian Simon's wisdom continues to shine. As Simon argued in his 1981 book The Ultimate Resource, human beings, unlike other animals, innovate their way out of scarcity by increasing the supply of natural resources or developing substitutes for overused resources. Human ingenuity, in other words, is "the ultimate resource" that makes all other resources more plentiful.
This article first appeared in Reason.
Every year, Oxfam releases a report meant to shock the public about the extent of income and wealth inequality. This year’s report claims that the eight richest people on Earth have as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population (3.6 out of 7.2 billion people). That’s certainly shocking. It’s also profoundly misleading.

As others have pointed out, Oxfam reached that number with a questionable methodology, which also led them to several other absurd conclusions. According to their own graphs, more poor people live in North America and Europe than China (see the far left of the chart below). How can that be, given that traditional poverty measures show the opposite?

Oxfam isn’t using a traditional poverty measure (such as the number of people with a purchasing-power-adjusted income of less than, say, $2 per day). Instead, they focus on something called “net wealth.” This is the sum of an individual’s wealth minus any debts.

Of course, many people in rich countries carry debt due to university loans or a home mortgage, yet also enjoy high incomes and an enviable standard of living.

Here are some illustrations of just how absurd it is to use net wealth as a measure of poverty.

Consider this. Oxfam claims a penniless, starving man in rural Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa is far richer than an American university graduate with student debt but a high-paying office job, a $2,000 laptop and a penchant for drinking $8 designer coffees.

Let that sink in.

(I must credit Cato’s Adam Bates for that example).

Here is another example, courtesy of Johan Norberg. He points out that his daughter, a child with only about twenty dollars in her piggy bank, is richer than 2 billion people by Oxfam’s logic. If that were true, then the solution would surely not be to take away the humble savings of his daughter and redistribute them among those 2 billion souls, but rather to generate more total wealth, “enlarging the pie” so to speak.

That’s the core problem with obsessing over “inequality.” If the goal is to further human wellbeing, then instead of decreasing inequality through redistribution, we should focus on decreasing poverty by creating ever more wealth. Happily, thanks to the wealth-creating power of market exchange, we’re doing just that. The trend lines all show that poverty (by any reasonable measure)
is in retreat.

January 18, 2017
By Maximilian Wirth
While many people have the impression that the Sixties were the “golden age” of air travel, where everyone still got a first class treatment, the actual experience on the first flights was terrible:

Both the smokers' and non-smokers' cabins were filled with cigarette smog, so you would get off and all your clothes would smell like an ashtray.

It was also much scarier to fly. Planes had to gain as much altitude as quickly as possible, making them start almost like a rocket with terrible noise, vibrating your seat, and the smell of kerosene and tobacco everywhere.

And it was not just perceived to be scary, but it actually was 77 times more dangerous than nowadays to take an airplane. In 1972, one death occurred for every 139,486 fliers. Last year, it was only one per 10,769,230 travelers.

One could not even distract oneself with the entertainment system or the Wi-Fi offered on today’s flights. Even if they would show a movie, it was almost impossible to understand it over all the noise, so all you were left with was to look out of the window for the entire flight.

On top of that, this unpleasant experience was much more expensive than today, mostly because there was no competition to offer cheaper tickets. And it also took much longer as delays were still more frequent and even the check-in lines and customs were more time-consuming.
Forty-nine years ago, Professor Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University scared the bejesus out of much of the world when he predicted that overpopulation would lead to mass starvation. In his doomsday bestseller The Population Bomb, Ehrlich wrote, "The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate…"

Since Ehrlich wrote those words, the world's population has more then doubled. Yet, people consume more calories per capita, while living longer on a cleaner planet. Ehrlich's jeremiad did not come true for a number of reasons. The Green Revolution massively increased agricultural productivity, affordable contraceptives made family planning easier, plummeting infant mortality has reduced the need for "spare" children, and rising incomes increased the opportunity cost for women who opt to stay at home with their children rather than enter the labor market—hence massive fall in global fertility rate.

That said, Ehrlich's predictions were not without consequences. "In addition to China's one-child rule," Ehrlich must be held partially responsible for "abhorrent campaigns of forced sterilization in Indira Gandhi's India and Alberto Fujimori's Peru." Surely a man with that much to answer for has been relegated to the fringes of society? Not on your life! In fact, next month Ehrlich will be addressing a Vatican workshop on "Biological Extinction." Judging by the promotional material, he will feel right at home.

According to the Vatican, measures of human consumption have "calculated that in about 1970 we were using about 70 percent of the Earth's sustainable capacity, and now... we are using about 156 percent. Nevertheless there are 800 million people chronically malnourished and 100 million on the verge of starvation at any one time. How have such imbalances, both among contemporaries and between the present and future generations come about, and how are they sustained? The problems wouldn't go away if we had another 56 percent of the Earth to take care of our needs, but we could at least stop eating into the productive capacity of the Earth progressively as the years go by."

Human settlement and agriculture have been the traditional enemy of nature and biodiversity. Thankfully, urbanization (over half of humanity lives in cities already) and falling fertility rates (there is a distinct possibility that earth's human population will start declining during the course of the 21st century) will return some of the world's surface back to nature. This trend will be greatly enhanced by improvements in agricultural yields. As Jesse H. Ausubel of Rockefeller University points out, "if the world farmer reaches the average yield of today's U.S. corn grower during the next 70 years, 10 billion people eating as people now on average do will need only half of today's cropland. The land spared exceeds Amazonia. This will happen if farmers sustain the yearly 2 percent worldwide yield growth of grains achieved since 1960, in other words if social learning continues as usual."

If the Vatican wanted to get a real sense of the future of biodiversity on earth, it should have invited Ausubel instead of Ehrlich.
This article first appeared in Reason.
Researchers at the Salk Institute, an independent non-profit organization, have successfully reversed signs of aging in mice by manipulating their genes. “Obviously, mice are not humans and we know it will be much more complex to rejuvenate a person,” said one of the scientists involved. “But this study shows that aging is a very dynamic and plastic process, and therefore will be more amenable to therapeutic interventions than what we previously thought.” They hope to test the technique on human subjects in about a decade.

Innovators at the company Hedgemon just published a study demonstrating the possibilities of a novel helmet design inspired by hedgehogs. “Hedgehog spines demonstrate impact absorption capabilities that confirm their role in the protection of hedgehogs during falls,” the researchers wrote. “This study demonstrates that in certain conditions, hedgehog spines can absorb as much, if not more, than industry standard impact-absorbing foam.” Designing a better helmet could help prevent fatal and damaging head injuries in people ranging from football players to bicyclists. 

A team of North Carolina scientists have created a synthetic version of a heart stem cell. They are comparable to natural stem cells in terms of their ability to promote cardiac muscle growth in patients suffering from heart problems, and even seem to reduce some of the risks associated with traditional stem cell therapies. The synthetic cells are also highly durable and able to withstand freezing and thawing, making them easier to preserve for longer periods of time than their natural counterparts. The same technique could also be used to create other kinds of stem cells.

An ultrafast imaging technique may have brought scientists a step closer to being able to produce fuel using photosynthesis just as plants do. By recording moving energy during photosynthesis, researchers at Imperial College London were able to determine the speed of crucial processes for the first time in history. “We can now see how nature has optimized the physics of converting light energy to fuel, and can probe this process using our new technique of ultrafast crystal measurements,” noted one author. The process of photosynthesis is able to turn light into energy within a matter of nanoseconds.

Producing a new cancer-fighting drug is an expensive and time-consuming process, but artificial intelligence may help to change that and accelerate the speed of medical innovation. Researchers for Insilico Medicine, Inc., presented a paper recently on using “generative adversarial autoencoders,” a type of artificial intelligence, to generate “new molecular fingerprints on demand” to be tested as medical drugs. Computers are able to process knowledge more accurately than humans in many areas, and so using artificial intelligence as a “drug discovery engine” could turn out promising new treatments significantly faster than the traditional pharmaceutical R&D process and even improve success rates in clinical trials.
January 12, 2017
By Marian L. Tupy
In recent months, much has been written about the dismal relations between the United States and Russia. The latter has carved up Ukraine and helped Bashar al-Assad to triumph in the Syrian civil war. More relevant to the United States was Russia's apparent attempt to influence the outcome of the U.S. presidential election by releasing thousands of hacked DNC emails (a charge that Russia denies). Whatever the case may be, Russia once again looms large in America's collective psyche and calls to get tough with America's old adversary abound.

It might be useful, therefore, to put the Russian bear in proper perspective. With some 5,000 nuclear warheads and close to 800,000 men under arms, Russia remains a potent adversary. But, as the Cold War showed, military might is, in the long run, dependent on economic performance. Considering Russia's economic problems, it is not a given that the country will be able to sustain its aggressive international posturing indefinitely.

After a long period of economic and social decline during the 1990s, Russia experienced something of a renaissance in the first decade of the 21st century. As its fortunes improved—driven, in large part, by global economic expansion and, consequently, hunger for Russia's natural resources—Russia re-engaged with the world in pursuit of national glory.

Following the outbreak of the Great Recession and subsequent slow-down in global growth, the price of natural resources, especially crude oil, hit the Russian economy very hard. Western sanctions that followed in the wake of Russia's misadventures in Georgia and Ukraine made matters worse. Today, Russia is once again in decline. The gap between the Russian and American economies that started to shrink during the last decade is widening again.

1. In terms of purchasing power parity, the Russian economy peaked in 2014 and has been shrinking since then. The United States, in contrast, is back in expansionary mode. (The situation is, presumably, even worse when comparing the two economies in terms of exchange rate. The ruble has much declined in value vis-à-vis the U.S. dollar in the last couple of years. Regrettably, I lack appropriate data for 2016.)
2. Income per capita tells a similar story, with Russian incomes falling from their peak in 2014. 3. Last, but not least, consider Russian life expectancy, which is an excellent measure of the overall health of the population and reflects the dismal state of Russian healthcare as well as very high rates of alcoholism. None of this is to deny that Russia is capable of causing international mischief. Plainly, it can do so. Under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, Russia has become more belligerent abroad and more repressive at home. If its current economic and social problems continue, however, Russia may, once again, be forced to reduce its global ambitions. A "wait and see" approach by the United States may, therefore, be a wise approach to follow.
This article first appeared in Reason.