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From Poverty to Progress

Blog Post | Energy & Environment

From Poverty to Progress

How division will stifle US prosperity.

Why isn’t everyone in dire poverty, hungry, diseased, illiterate, missing teeth, eking out a subsistence existence in the wilderness, and making do with Stone Age technology? After all, that’s how we started. Penury is the default state of humanity, as is a lack of technology. In fact, advanced technology and widespread prosperity are relatively recent innovations.

What has allowed all the progress we’ve experienced to date to take place? And what stands in the way of further advancement? In his valuable bookFrom Poverty to Progress: Understanding Humanity’s Greatest Achievement, Michael Magoon seeks to explain progress’s origins and enemies.

First, Magoon offers a sweeping overview of how the world has changed into a place where an increasing number of people enjoy prosperity, peace, advanced medicine, and other wonders of modern life. With graphs and data, Magoon demonstrates the historical and ongoing transformation of the human experience “from poverty to progress.” Magoon provides a valuable service in painstakingly recording the many ways in which our ancestors would envy modern life.

Magoon then explains the origins of the metamorphosis. He dispels popular but mistaken ideas about the roots of progress, such as the fallacy that progress comes from the government — he writes, “Throughout history governments have done far more to hinder progress than they have done to promote it” — or from politicians or top-down policies by brilliant planners. “Rather than flowing down from politics and government, progress bubbles up from society,” he notes.

Magoon then shows how that occurs. His theorized five keys of progress are food, trade, decentralization, industry, and energy.

A “highly efficient food production and distribution” system is a prerequisite for progress, he claims. The next two keys are the ability to engage in trade, mutually beneficial exchange, and decentralization of power, freeing humanity from the restrictions that come with a controlling central authority and fostering nonviolent competition.

Another key to societal advancement is developing at least one high-value-added industry that exports, he claims. As he notes, plentiful energy promotes progress. Historically, obtaining such energy has involved the use of fossil fuels.

With these five keys in hand, humans unlock new solutions and copy solutions others have achieved.

To unlock further progress, I would add an economic liberty key ensuring all of a society’s people can participate in the market processes of innovation and exchange. I might also add a communications technology key involving written language, without which transmitting ideas over time or across distances is difficult. Still, Magoon’s list holds considerable explanatory power.

The preconditions for progress that he names are relatively recent and rare in the grand sweep of history. Moreover, transitions toward attaining the keys to progress have not occurred everywhere at once and have only been achieved unevenly. Magoon thus recognizes that societies across history and the globe often differed dramatically in their tendency to stifle or foster innovation. He discusses many types of societies, such as hunter-gatherer societies, agrarian societies, herding societies, industrial societies, and commercial societies. He sees each society type as a logical adaptation to a particular environment.

The book concludes with an examination of the current constraints on progress, including geography, extractive institutions, geographic and cultural distance separating poor countries from rich ones and discouraging the former from copying the latter, monopolies stifling competition, historical legacies inhibiting change, and identity-based rationales for stagnation. (“We have our own ways.”) But he says the biggest threat to progress, which could unravel the conditions for innovation in the rich countries, is divisive ideologies.

Because society primarily comes from self-organizing, experimenting with solutions, and then copying the solutions that work, a centralized government driven by ideology inherently attacks the very foundations of progress.

Divisive ideologies split people into groups of good and evil, often along class, racial, religious, or urban/rural divides. Magoon notes that the ideology called “critical theory” (also often known as “wokeness”) may be a particular threat to progress because of its current spread in the United States, a major innovation center.

A thought-provoking and extraordinarily wide-ranging book, From Poverty to Progress is a must-read for anyone interested in the history, and future, of progress.

This article originally appeared in the Washington Examiner on August 10, 2023.

Blog Post | Leisure

When the Surgeon General Warned About Pac-Man

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy published an op-ed in the New York Times advocating for a “Warning Label on Social Media Platforms” to address possible risks to adolescent mental health. Despite the nation’s top doctor suggesting harm, the causative effects of social media on teen mental health is still uncertain, the science is not in.

This isn’t the first time a Surgeon General jumped the gun in response to concerns about technology and children.

In 1982 then Surgeon General Dr. Everett Koop would sound a warning about the risks of video-games to youth and resulting “aberrations in childhood behavior.” He would note the risks weren’t proven, but ensured scientific proof would inevitably emerge:

Koop said he had no scientific evidence on the effect of video games on children, but he predicted statistical evidence will be forthcoming soon.

Associated Press report, 1982

Pac-Man Panic

The Surgeon General’s comments came amidst a boom in arcade machines and the first of many panics about video-games. Children would swarm the machines, feeding them coins obtained from parents: sometimes covertly. Where comic books and television were blamed for corrupting the youth in prior decades, video-games were the new boogeyman. The Surgeon General’s comments only added fuel to the fire:

Age limit laws would be proposed, one police department blamed burglaries on the rapacious demand for quarters and one Massachusetts town even outlawed the commercialization of arcade machines. Dr. Everett Koop’s implication that his opinions would soon be proven scientific fact were quickly denounced by psychologists and the burgeoning video game industry.

One industry rep. wrote to the Surgeon General saying: Respectfully, we must remind you that your only official mandate and authority is to develop scientific evidence. Another said emphasis should be on proven harms to kids – like cigarettes – not speculative harms. Dr. Everett Koop would in turn issue a statement that made clear these were opinions only:

My off-the-cuff comment was not part of any prepared remarks. Nothing in my remarks should be interpreted as implying that videos are per se violent in natures, or harmful to children.

It turned out the scientific evidence didn’t emerge. In retrospect it seems clear Dr. Everett Koop – as a medical authority – had the opportunity to quell unsubstantiated panic that distracted from more empirical threats to kids – like smoking. A few years later Dr. Koop would wade into the TV violence debate, citing the 1972 Surgeon General’s Scientific Advisory Committee coming to a unanimous conclusion that violence and TV increased aggression.

That correlation is now long debunked.

This article was published at Pessimists Archive on 6/18/2024.


Thailand to Legalize Same-Sex Marriage

“Thailand will become the first nation in Southeast Asia to legalize same-sex marriage after the kingdom’s Senate approved a marriage equality bill on Tuesday, with supporters calling it a ‘monumental step forward for LGBTQ+ rights.’

The Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of passing the bill following a final reading, with 130 senators voting in favor. Only four members opposed the bill.

The bill still requires endorsement from the king before marriage equality can become reality in Thailand, but this process is considered a formality. The law will then come into effect 120 days after it is published in the royal gazette.

The result of the vote means that Thailand will become only the third place in Asia to allow for marriage equality after Taiwan legalized same-sex marriage in 2019 and Nepal in 2023.”

From CNN.

Blog Post | Leisure

The New York Times Banned Word Games Before Embracing Them

In April it was revealed subscribers to the New York Times played its selection of games more than they read its editorial content – in 2022 it acquired Wordle – leading people to joke it was now a gaming company.

The amusing irony? The Times once turned its nose up at word games.

When crossword puzzles first swept across North America in the mid-1920s, the New York Times sneered, calling them “a familiar form of madness” and the next fad after MahJong. Claims these puzzles were good mental exercise and a way to expand one’s personal lexicon, via a dictionary, were dismissed.

In another piece published the following year titled “See Harm Not Education,” the Times argued that learning obscure three-letter words was useless — but it didn’t stop there. “The indictment of the puzzles goes further and deeper,” it said, citing The New Republic, which posited that there wasn’t a worse exercise for writers and speakers due to it fixing “false definitions in the mind.” 

This piece prompted a letter to the editor by a reader who retorted, “I am afraid that a good many of your readers will disagree with the views expressed,” pointing out that it was generally agreed that crosswords were educational.

Crossword Puzzles: A National Menace

This animosity makes more sense when you understand the origins of crossword puzzles in America: They were popularized via the pages of the original tabloid, The New York World, the “new media” of the day. As far as the journalistic establishment was concerned, crosswords were another mindless fad used as a substitute for good editorial, to keep readers coming back. Tabloids were looked upon as trashy, childish, and plebeian. These publications were labeled the “yellow press” after one of the numerous comic strips contained within them – another childish novelty. The New York Times would refuse to publish crosswords for another two decades.

Across the Atlantic in the United Kingdom, the Times of London reported on the U.S. crossword craze with similar disdain, using an ironically tabloidesque headline “An Enslaved America.” Published in 1924, it read:

All America has succumbed to the allurements of the cross-word puzzle. In a few short weeks it has grown from the pastime of a few ingenious idlers into a national institution and almost a national menace: a menace because it is making devastating inroads on the working hours of every rank of society.

The omnipresence of crosswords in the U.S. was described in detail. This “fad” was “in trains and trams on omnibuses, in subways, in private offices and counting rooms, in factories and homes, and even — though as yet rarely — with hymnals for camouflage, in church.” Along with other modern trends, the crossword had supposedly “dealt the final blow to the art of conversations.”

Crossword Puzzles: An Invasive Weed

In its estimate, over ten million people spent half an hour each day working out the puzzles when they should be working, noting “this loss to productive activity of far more time than is lost by labor strikes.” It even compared them to an invasive weed, stating “The cross-word puzzle threatens to be the wild hyacinth of American industry.” 

Judging by reports at the time, this proverbial “wild hyacinth” had invaded the UK by the following year, when reports of Queen Mary — wife of King George V — taking up the pastime appeared. Headmasters scorned them as the “the laziest occupation” and an “unsociable habit.” One British wife took her husband to court for staying in bed until 11 am doing crosswords. Public libraries fought a “war on crosswords” by blotting out the games in their freely available newspapers and limiting access to dictionaries within reading rooms.

Credit: Newspapers.com

An essay from the UK titled “In Abuse of the Cross-Word Puzzle” exonerated radio and the BBC as the reason for a dip in book sales, pointing to crosswords as the real culprit. The writer pointed out that early adopters of golf and bridge were abused for their frivolity but now appeared intellectual giants “in this era of puzzles!” The piece also reminded readers that – “Incredible though it may seem” – novel reading was once scorned by parents. Crossword puzzles (and jigsaws) lacked the benefits of previous amusements according to the author: “Was any age ever given over to such stultifying pastimes or labeled with signs of such mental degradation?” 

Credit: New York Times Machine

Less than five years after it derided them, the Times of London would give in and print its first crossword puzzle.

A Mental Illness Called “Crossword Puzzleitis”

Back in the U.S., the crossword puzzle habit was being pathologized and medicalized, the term “crossword puzzleitis” was coined — likely in jest — but it would eventually get attention from medical authorities and physicians. One doctor concluded “crossword puzzleitis” “stole” the memories of his patient​. “Crossword insomnia” was another phenomenon reported, akin to late-night smartphone fiddling, some optometrists claimed the habit caused headaches and weakened eyesight.

Credit: Newspapers.com

Magistrates lambasted  court attendants, policemen, lawyers, and their clients for “clogging up the wheels of justice” by pondering over the puzzles. Academics made similar complaints about their students, and the University of Michigan instituted an outright ban in lecture halls.

Credit: Newspapers.com

Crosswords, the Cause of All Societal Problems

Crosswords were cited as a reason for divorce in more than one case, receiving widespread press attention, including from the New York Times, which ran the headline “Crossword Mania Breaks Up Homes.” Other papers published amusing cartoons featuring weeping grooms and puzzle-engrossed brides.

Credit: Newspapers.com

American libraries had the same complaints as British ones in regard to their effect on library habits, and when the U.S. district attorney was two hours late to a speaking engagement, he blamed a crossword puzzle that he started on the train ride. Physical assault and even murder-suicide were blamed on the crossword puzzle too.

Credit: Newspapers.com

Ironically, many of these sensationalist reports appeared in the very papers printing them, sometimes right next to the crosswords themselves.

Credit: Newspapers.com

Newspaper editors defended them, insisting they were beneficial, but it was unconvincing since they were financially benefiting from the craze. Eventually the New York Times relented, as the U.S. entered World War II — editors decided people needed a distraction and escape. The Gray Lady printed its first in February 1942, and it would become the most famous and coveted crossword in the world.

Welcome, Wordle

A century later, word game manias are still happening. Scrabble saw a renaissance on the web and then mobile via Words with Friends in the 2010s. 2022 saw the indomitable rise of Wordle — a familiar madness — first gaining mainstream coverage in the New York Times. It was praised as free from the pressures of the hyper-capitalist attention economy. Its constraint of one game per day was held up as enforced digital moderation, ignoring its Pavlovian-esque nature. It was supposedly fun for the sake of fun, not profit and attention. 

Then on January 31st 2022, the New York Times announced they had bought Wordle for a figure in the “low seven figures” from its creator, promising to keep it free “initially.” Regarding the acquisition, the Times called games an “essential part of its strategy” to increase subscriptions: fun and moreish brain teasers to make the New York Times a part of one’s daily routine, just like the New York World did almost a century ago.

The following article is syndicated from a 2022 BigThink.com article we wrote inspired by the New York Times acquisition of Wordle. It was republished at Pessimists Archive on 6/10/2024.

Axios | LGBT

Study: Same-Sex Marriage in 20 Years Had No Negative Effects on Marriage Rates

“A review of nearly 100 studies examining the consequences of same-sex marriage on multiple measures of family formation and well-being found no harm to different-sex unions, a report from RAND and UCLA found.

The analysis found that after states legalized marriage for same-sex couples, marriage numbers jumped in those states at rates greater than what could be accounted for by the new marriages of same-sex couples alone. Researchers found no consistent evidence of an increase in divorce as a consequence of legalizing marriage for same-sex couples. The analysis suggests that issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples had, if anything, led to a small positive impact on marriage attitudes among high school seniors.”

From Axios.