You can watch the video podcast interview here.
Jordan Peterson: Hello, everyone. I’m pleased to have with me today, Dr. Marian L. Tupy, who is the editor of humanprogress.org. A Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, and co-author of The Simon Project. He specializes in globalization and the study of global well-being, as well as the politics and economics of Europe and Southern Africa. His work has been published or featured in major print and non-print media outlets all throughout the English-speaking world. Dr. Tupy received his BA in International Relations and Classics, from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and his PhD in international relations from the University of St. Andrews in Great Britain. He is the co-author of a recent book, Ten Global Trends Every Smart Person Should Know: And Many Others You Will Find Interesting. It’s a beautiful book. And so that’s an accomplishment in and of itself. It’s also an extremely interesting book, wide-ranging and necessary, in my estimation. Partly because most of what we consume in relationship to global occurrences, economic and otherwise is negative. And that’s part of the reason that I wanted to talk to Dr. Tupy today, because his work is in the same vein as Bjorn Lomborg’s work and Matt Ridley’s work, among other people. Putting forward Steven Pinker, putting forward a narrative of continued and rapid progress that seems at odds in terms of content and psychologically with virtually everything that seems to make up the major media trend, story, Zeitgeist. So, welcome, Dr. Tupy. Marian, it’s really good to see you. Thanks for agreeing to talk to me today.
Marian Tupy: I’m delighted to be with you and welcome back. It’s great to have you back in the fight, so to speak.
JP: Thank you. I was really struck, to begin with, by your introduction, you talked about why you and Ronald Bailey wrote this book. And so let’s start with that, what were you motivate… What did you want to accomplish with this book? And what do you think it does accomplish?
MT: Well, fundamentally, the reality of the world, the reality of human existence is much better than people understand, let alone appreciate. Most people assume that the world is in a much worse shape than it really is, but the data points in a different direction, it points in the opposite direction. When you look at long-term trends, and we will talk about some of them, most of them are pointing to gradual incremental long-term improvement. Now, on top of that, we live in a world where a lot of people find meaning and excitement in embracing a lot of movements to “improve the world,” but you cannot improve the world if you don’t know what the reality of the world is. And so if you think the reality of human existence is different from what it really is, then your “improvement” can actually detract from human flourishing rather than contribute to it.
MT: So, the idea behind the book was to inform, and it is not really an attempt to produce a pollyannaish all-optimistic view on the world. Clearly, there are problems that remain and there will be new problems that will arise, but we believe there is some value in people knowing the facts, Factfullness, that Hans Rosling used to talk about. And the book is largely free of theory, it is only facts that we have gotten from third parties, with one exception of a trend on natural resources, that we will discuss. Everything else comes from third sources, which are the World Bank, the IMF, EUROSTAT, OECD or well-established independent and creditable academics.
MT: And of course, there are footnotes so that people can check that we are not trying to deceive them into anything. And the reason why we structured the book we did, the reason why we introduced a lot of nice illustrations is because we wanted to be a coffee table book of facts. So, in addition to all the architecture books and books about dogs and cooking that people put on their dining room tables or living room tables, we are hoping that they will include this book. And so whilst people are fixing food or drinks, maybe their guests are going to open the book and look at something interesting or counter-intuitive and maybe that will lead to a conversation.
JP: Well, it’s a book you can sit and read, which is what I did, but it’s also clearly a book that you can leaf through, and it is, as I mentioned earlier, beautiful. So…
MT: Thank you.
JP: That’s an additional advantage, it’s a very high quality book, and that’s a nice accompaniment to its essentially optimistic message. I found it interesting overall, and also bit by bit. You said 10… It’s laid out in sort of increasing resolution. So, you start with the narrative that there are reasons to be radically optimistic about the future, especially when you compare that future to the past rather than some hypothetical ideal. At the lowest possible level of resolution, the most general level of resolution, there’s reasons to be optimistic, you lay out 10 reasons that are really profound, but then you differentiate into a more detailed analysis. And I found the details as interesting as the global trends. And it’s really something to be confronted by, something like an unending stream of positive information.
JP: And one thing that… I guess two questions sort of naturally arise out of that is, why should people believe this positive narrative that you’re putting forward, given the undeniable negativity that seems to be part of our current view of the world or speaking broadly, and it also seems to be something that’s constantly pushed in front of us or consumed by us or demanded by us, why should we believe that that’s wrong?
MT: Well, partly because I think that the most obvious reason is that people shouldn’t believe lies and they shouldn’t believe wrong stuff. People should be well informed about all sorts of things, they should be aware of risks and benefits of individual actions, of what different politicians are offering. In other words, people should seek facts regardless of the negativity biases which we have in our brains. So, as you well know, being a psychologist, a lot of research has been done on these negativity biases, why do people prefer to believe the bad news? And one of the reasons is that the bad is stronger than good.
JP: It has more emotional impact. It’s more memorable as well.
MT: Precisely. The way I like to think about it is that when I have my annual review with my boss, he can spend 90% of the time telling me about the things that I’ve done right, which is always appreciated. And then also mention some of the things that I have done wrong, and there are always some, and when I walk out of the interview or the review, the only thing that’s in my mind is always the criticism and never the praise. And I think that this is sort of… This applies to a lot of people, is that they focus on the slights, the criticisms, rather than the praise.
JP: I think you see that with people’s use of social media too. If I scan comments on any given YouTube discussion like this one, it’s definitely the case that the negative comments stick out and are memorable compared to the positive comments. I mean, I think there is an impact of proportion. So, if I see that the vast majority are positive and a small minority are negative, I can discount the negative to some degree, but it still has a disproportionate impact. I’ve thought often, that’s because you can be in extreme pain and dead, which is pretty damn final. And so negative news carries this walloping potential impact given our susceptibility to threat, but you can only be so happy. It’s not like there’s an infinite amount of happiness that you can be, but there’s certainly a final amount of death and pain that you can experience. And so, is there any other reasons you think that that… Is it easy rationale for cynicism, nihilism, for throwing your hands up in the air and giving up? Are there other reasons that we seem so hungry to believe the worst?
MT: Yes. Before going there, let me just confirm what you said about social media. People who like something that you have posted, tend to simply click on the love button or the heart button. It’s people who disagree with you that usually leave the comments saying what a horrible person you are and how bad your ideas are. So, that exacerbates the feeling that the feedback is negative.
JP: Yeah, it could be on places like Twitter too, and we don’t know this, is that people are having a bad day and who are angry are much more likely to actually leave a comment or use Twitter for that matter than the same person even who’s having a good day. We just don’t know anything about how these communication technologies… How our emotions affect our use of these communication technologies.
MT: And how that’s going to play out in the future. We usually have a certain time that we need in order to acclimatize to new technologies, and again we’ll see how this one plays out. But we certainly discovered in use of other technologies that it took some time before we got mastery of them. Cars are a typical example. People used to have many more accidents, used to speed much more, they used to drink before driving, and it took a while before the safety culture set in. And who knows? Maybe over time people will leave Facebook or Twitter and switch to something else. I’m proud to be Facebook-free since 2012, and I don’t have a personal Twitter for precisely that reason.
JP: Well, you do see that the emotional tenor of different social media platforms does differ. I found that Instagram seems to be a much more positive place, all things considered, than Twitter. It’s a little more complex to use, but it seems to be less corrosive. I’m not exactly sure why, maybe it’s because it’s more image-heavy. I don’t know exactly.
MT: Possibly. The other negativity bias is that psychologists have identified is, for example, the availability heuristic that, as you well know, more dramatic and traumatic events tend to be revisited in our memory with greater frequency than the positive memories. And so we get a sense that they are much more numerous and much more frequent than they really are. Also positive things happen over much longer periods of time than negative things. It takes years to build a skyscraper, but it takes hours to pull it down in a terrorist attack. It takes years to acquire a lot of human capital through education, but it takes only a second for you to die in a car crash.
MT: So, a typical example when it comes to global well-being would be something like poverty reduction, or as Max Roser from Oxford University pointed out, every day over the last goodness knows how many decades, 175,000 people have been raised out of poverty, every day out of absolute poverty. But those are not the kinds of headlines that will make it into the newspapers.
JP: Yeah, well, right? That’s actually… It’s a threshold issue, too. I think they defined absolute poverty as $1.90 a day in $2011. Is that correct?
MT: $1.90, $2, $2.05, people have different… Yeah, but around $2 per person per day.
JP: People slide by that threshold, it’s also not a dramatic decrease in their poverty per person because they just move over that threshold. Nonetheless, the numbers are very impressive, and actually the speed is also really impressive. We’ve decreased… Poverty has decreased, absolute poverty has decreased in the world at an ever-increasing rate that’s accelerated dramatically over the last 15 years. And so it also might be that we just don’t know this yet, it’s slow compared to how fast things can go bad, but it’s still really quite rapid on the historical scale.
MT: Yeah, I know that you want to talk about the different trends, and one of them is absolute poverty, so maybe we can return to it in a moment.
JP: Sure. Well, let’s do this then, let’s… Tell me just one thing before we get into the specific 10 trends. Tell me about humanprogress.org, and how it is that you come to specialize in global well-being. I can’t imagine that there are many people in the world who have that as a specialization. So, tell me about humanprogress.org, and about your specialization and how that came about.
MT: Well, I’m much more interested in Westerners who have lived a life of relative abundance, good education, safety, that they are interested in recognizing these strengths. But in my personal case, the path to being interested in well-being is much more straightforward. I was born behind the Iron Curtain, in what used to be Communist Czechoslovakia, and whilst life wasn’t horrible, it was pretty dreadful. We can talk about it some other time. Then, because my parents are medical doctors, so we moved to South Africa in the early 1990s where they started practicing. And so I got to travel through a lot of Africa, and there I saw much worse poverty and deprivation.
MT: And I was educated in Britain and I’ve worked in the United States. So, obviously, when you live in four different cultures, if you are at all curious, you have to start asking yourself, how come some countries are prosperous and some countries are poor? What are the institutional settings for the production of riches? After all, at some point in time, everybody was, everybody was dirt poor, but now we have large sections of the world which are escaping from poverty at a very fast click, whilst others are not doing so well. So, that is obviously something that I was wondering about as I was moving from one culture to another, from one country to another. And then in 2010, I read a wonderful book, which is still worth reading by one of your previous guests, Matt Ridley. It’s called The Rational Optimist.
MT: And Matt Ridley’s book was filled with some very interesting statistics that I didn’t know about, I should have known about, but I didn’t. And I thought to myself, “Well, if I don’t know about them, and it is my job to know them, what about the larger public?” The general public is surely to be as ignorant, if not more, than I am. And so I thought let him put it up on the website, and since then we have grown to about 1200 different data sets, and that’s really the story.
JP: So that’s humanprogress.org.
MT: That’s humanprogress.org, yes.
JP: And so that’s something you started yourself.
MT: Yes. I am an employee of a think tank called the Cato Institute, but Human Progress is an autonomous part of Cato, it runs pretty much autonomously. I have a lot of freedom to do with it what I want and… But most crucially the information that we provide, the data itself comes from third parties. We write exclusive articles, where we try to frame the data in the historical context. We try to get into the reasons why some countries are rich and why some countries are poor. We can talk about it as well. So, while we do have an editorial position when writing articles and studies, we do not play around with the data. And anyone who comes to the website will see the original data taken from third sources, footnoted, sourced, and so on.
JP: Okay. So, let me hassle you for a couple of minutes because I’ve talked to Matt Ridley and to Bjorn. And so there’s a group of people that are… And Steven Pinker, for that matter, who are Rational Optimists let’s say, or intelligent optimists, or informed optimists. I got interested in this, I worked for the UN, for a UN committee for a couple of years, and I was reviewing books by the dozen on ecology and economics.
JP: And I was shocked, and what shocked me was things were way better than I thought they were, and they were getting better at a rate that was stunning, and I didn’t know any of that. And it was overwhelming pouring through the data because I had been so wrong in my implicit presumptions. And so that’s what got me interested in all of this. And of course, I was also extremely happy about it to see what was actually happening, how many good things were happening. But here’s the criticism that… So, I posted these talks with Bjorn, for example, and people have responded often young people and they say, well, that’s… They say something like this, “That’s all very well and good for you, Dr. Peterson, or Bjorn, you’re 50 years old, you have a secure position, you grew up when the job market was stellar, it’s much, much harder for young people to make their way in the Western world now than it was 20 years ago, that sort of security, long-term security isn’t there.”
JP: And so you can look at these global trends and extract out some positive information from them, but that just gives you license to ignore the on-the ground problems that so many people… So many young people are either facing or feel that they’re facing in the West. And so what do you think about that? What’s the right response to that?
MT: I think that young people have had terrible 20 years in western countries, we have gone through the 9/11 crisis, then followed by the financial meltdown, we had the Iraq war, then we had the COVID pandemic. And the data shows that young people specifically seem to be disproportionately affected and very unhappy and anxious and so forth. So, I would divide it, my answer, into two parts. There’s an economist, Richard Lineman, I think his name is, who said, “Always compare yourself downwards, not upwards.” Or rather let’s say, the way to happiness is to compare yourself downwards rather than upwards. By that what I gather he meant, is that even though things are very tough for young people, young people still have access to the best healthcare in the history of the world, they have access to more security than any other people who have come before them. They have access to education that, in many cases, is free and plentiful. And so it’s important to realize that while some things have not been doing well, there is a lot in terms of life in Western advanced societies, which is still worth appreciating and being aware of. The second part…
JP: Oh, sorry, please continue.
MT: And the second part of my answer would be to say that it is all the more important for young people to understand the economic and political reasons why the West grew at faster rates before, why it had more political and social stability before than it has today. Young people are very blase on average about politics, they don’t generally vote. They tend to embrace all sorts of causes which are inimical to progress and to growth, such as, for example, socialism. They tend to be much more open to it than people who are older and turn more conservative. And so delving deeper into why the 1980s and the 1990s had higher rates of economic growth is not a bad idea from the perspective of young people.
JP: Well, it’s also not exactly clear what baseline is being used when the claim is made that things aren’t as good or as easy as they once were, they’re certainly a lot better now than they were in 1820. They’re certainly a lot better than they were in 1930 or 1940, probably 1950. Then there was a period of incredible growth in the ’60s, in particular, the postwar period, where employment was a relatively straightforward matter for many people, well and there was plentiful, long-term secure jobs. Now, how difficult it was in the ’60s to obtain one of those is still an open question, many people were much less educated than they are now. It isn’t clear, it isn’t absolutely clear to me that things were any easier any time in the past, and it’s certainly the case that for most of the past things were immeasurably worse.
MT: When I said that they had terrible 20 years, what I meant is that the last 20 years almost seemed like a state of constant crisis, but let’s disaggregate this experience that young people have. If you are a black person in the United States, for example, you have never lived in a safer, more tolerant and more accepting society. If you are a gay person in the world… Again, sorry, in Western societies, you have never lived in a more tolerant or a more accepting society. If you are a woman, the same goes for you, so that’s already well over 50% of the population. Also, let’s not forget that whilst the wages of certain people in the United States, certain sections of the labor force have been stagnating, overall, the median household income in the United States prior to COVID was at a record high, which is to say that compared to the earnings of a median household in the 1970s or 1980s, American earning power prior to COVID was at an all-time high. So, it’s not true that people are poorer.
MT: Now, let me make one last point about this, when it comes to cost of living in America, which is what a lot of people are talking about, very much depends on what you’re looking at. Cars are cheaper by 70%, relative to wages, than what they were 20 years ago. Toys, TVs, food, all of those are much cheaper than what they were 20 years ago relative to wages, even housing… Most people don’t know this, but it happens to be true. Housing in the United States is 10% cheaper than it was 20 years ago, relative to wages.
JP: Now that would exclude high demand cities, I would imagine, right?
MT: This is in every…
JP: Because, well, more and more people want to go to more and more exclusive and wealthy places, or fewer and fewer exclusive and wealthy places, so that’s a complicated… Like in Toronto, the real estate market, housing prices are just skyrocketing constantly, and my sense of… And a lot. And my sense of that is that there’s 20 cities in the world that are optimal places to live, so they’re scarce, and this is one of them. And people are quite mobile and there’s quite a lot of money, and so that drives real estate prices here continually upward and you see that in New York, you see that in the major European cities that are highly desirable. You see that in San Francisco. But there aren’t many places like that. So that’s part of the reason for that.
MT: Both things happen to be true at the same time. The 10% decline in the prices of housing is average across the United States, whereas in the high-demand areas, it has also skyrocketed. Now in some places, like for example, Manhattan, where a lot of young people want to live, there is only so much that you can do in order to provide additional housing because it’s an island. However, in many other places in the United States, housing is artificially restricted, the building of new housing is artificially restricted through nimbyism, through zoning rules and so forth.
JP: Yeah. We don’t allow you to be poor here, you can’t afford it, it’s against the law because of the zoning laws, and that’s a real problem in places like San Francisco.
MT: And the two areas which have seen a massive appreciation in price well above inflation, well above… Well above wages is healthcare and education…
JP: And education is a particular burden for young people.
MT: Right. And now, would it be crazy of me to suggest that young people, instead of blaming the market or asking for free education, looked at the reasons why education is so expensive? Could it be that because governments push so much money out of the door through Pell grants and other heavily subsidized loans, the universities know they can charge much more money than would otherwise be the case? Could that be the reason why education is increasing the price? Could it be the reason for…
JP: Well, I also think the universities, in some sense, have conspired to rob their students of their future income.
MT: Well, look, imagine that you come to a car dealership and there’s just one car left and you say to the salesman, “I really, really, really have to have this particular car,” this would be Yale, Harvard. Whatever. And by the way, I have a million dollars in my pocket.” How much is the car salesman going to ask you? The million dollars. And it’s a very similar situation when it comes to higher education. The Universities know exactly how much the parents are making, they know exactly how much money you can get out of government in loans, so of course, they’re going to jack up the prices. And in healthcare what’s happening, of course, is that only 10 out of every 100 cents spent on healthcare in the United States is spent by people themselves, by the patients themselves, the rest is spent by governments at different levels of governance, it’s spent by third parties, by insurance companies. So when you walk into a doctor’s office and he asks you, “Do you want to have 10 or 20 blood tests?” “You said 20, I’m not paying for it any way.” And that’s part of the reason, again, why healthcare has exploded in…
MT: But between those two, I can see why Americans would be quite dissatisfied with their standards of living, and I’m afraid that a third reason why Americans are going to be dissatisfied with their standards of living is coming down the pipeline. And I think that is going to be a massive increase in energy costs in the United States, just as it happened in Europe. In Europe now, they have a term called energy poverty, so even in places which are the height of economic development, like Britain and Germany, people are not heating their homes in the middle of winter, people are washing themselves in lukewarm water because prices of energy have been artificially jacked up by governments, where even the richest people in the world, I mean as a population, not as a share of population, cannot afford things which are the essence of what life should be like in a Western civilization. And what worries me is that some of those proposals that have taken on in Europe and which are making Europeans so miserable are going to come down to the United States and perhaps even to Canada.
JP: Okay. So, let’s draw some quick conclusions and then we’ll go talk about the 10 major trends. And so correct me if I’ve got any of this wrong. It’s very difficult to make an informed case that things are worse now in almost every way than they were at any other time in the past, at any time in the past, including the last two decades, but certainly going back before that, things are better on almost every possible measure. People don’t know that partly because we have a negativity bias, we’re attracted by negative information, and that’s what put… That’s what is put forth by a media hellbent on attracting our attention at any cost.
JP: We’re also deluded to some degree by our historical ignorance and also by anomalies in the economic scheme, exceptionally high prices of housing in high, high demand, high quality areas, high and the same thing happening, say with university education, despite the fact that maybe state university education is still quite cheap or community college, that kind of thing. And then there’s also this, because of this pervasive negative message that’s being put forward constantly, that also encourages us to exaggerate the degree to which the current condition is bad and getting worse. We don’t know, and we assume that, and that makes us more miserable than we have any reason to be. The danger in that is that we’re going to fail to appreciate and work to undermine all sorts of things that are actually working very well, if we only could see the facts on the ground.
MT: If there’s one message that I would like to pass on to your young followers who are having a tougher time than would be expected for young people to have. Things could get much worse if the basic underpinnings of what made Western society rich and prosperous, which is to say the liberal democracy and some form of free market capitals and free enterprise, if those two are eroded or destroyed, we are in for a much tougher time. If you want to see how young people live … How a society can deteriorate, go to Venezuela. It’s not that far away, it’s a couple of hours from Miami. And see how young people live there.
MT: Now, Venezuela was a country where in the early 1950s, GDP per capita was higher than in the United States. Today people are eating cats and dogs and slaughtering animals in zoo for meat. Young women have no other option but to prostitute themselves. Men have gone into crime, it is basically a failed society. Not long ago, some of the leading lights of American progressivism, such as AOC…
JP: Naomi Klein in Canada.
0:36:42.1 MT: Had been singing the praises of 21st century Venezuela socialism. So, things could get much worse and they will, if we forget the lessons of history. And if we don’t understand that the political stability to the effect, to the extent we still have it is a result of liberal democracy, limited government, and the outcome… And the reason for economic growth, and the reason why we have all the nice things that people in Venezuela don’t is because we have free markets, free enterprise and free trade.
JP: Okay, okay. Well, you’d also think it’s kind of strange that given our proclivity, let’s say to devour bad news, you’d think that the story of Venezuela would get a lot more coverage than it actually gets, so that’s kind of… Maybe we can return to that. Let’s go through the trends here, so the first one… So the book is structured so that on the right hand page, there’s a graphic, a graph showing progress across time or change across time, a variety of different trends, let’s say. The first one, the first trend is the Great Enrichment, and tell us what that means, and what it signifies.
MT: So the chart, which you may be able to show at some point in the future, looks like a hockey stick, which is to say that for all of our recorded history, let’s say going back 4000 BC, but we can estimate even further back in time. There it is, the hockey stick of human prosperity. The line has flatlined. It is estimated that prior to the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s and early 1800s, global economy grew by about 0.01% per year, which is to say that to double your prosperity would have taken thousands of years.
MT: As late as 1900, which is to say the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, Queen Victoria was on the throne, the globe produced roughly $3 trillion in output. This is all inflation-adjusted. So $3 trillion in output, the entire globe. In 2018, it was $121 trillion. So from $3 trillion to $121 trillion in the scope of 100 years adjusted for inflation. And if the growth that we have experienced, the growth rate that we have experienced over the last 100 years continues into 2100, the world will produce $600 trillion in output, real inflation-adjusted output. Over the next 80 years, the globe could produce six times more value than it is currently producing if we maintain the current economic growth rate.
JP: And do you think that’s an optimistic projection or a conservative projection?
MT: That’s what leads us back to the original point that we discussed, it very much depends on economic policies and political stability. If you don’t have civil wars around the world and governments change hands in a peaceful and predictable way, then we should be okay when it comes to political stability. When it comes to economics, we are seeing a surprising and to be quite frank surprising and almost inexplicable renewed interest in more restrictive economic policies from socialism on the left to hardcore protectionism on the right. And if our economic growth rate falls from 1.82%, that we have experienced over the last year, to 0.01%, which we had experienced over the previous 10,000 years, then it will take us 6000 years to get from $100 trillion to $200 trillion.
JP: So the most remarkable thing about this is exactly the hockey stick shape. As you pointed out, nothing at all happened until the mid-1800s essentially, and then all of a sudden things improved so rapidly that it’s virtually incomprehensible. It’s a miracle.
MT: It is the most important question in economics, what happens in the late 1700s, early 1800s, that produces that hockey stick effect? And just to clarify, there have been in human history, periods of economic efflorescence, flourishing, but they were usually restricted to small parts of the world and they usually petered out. So for example, Song China has produced some remarkable technological discoveries and it appeared to be a time of relative plenty compared to other countries in the world, but that petered out when Song dynasty was replaced by the Ming dynasty. Similarly, the Roman Empire appears to have been a place that was largely at peace internally and quite prosperous, but that came to an end in 467 or whenever that happened, when Rome fell.
MT: So there are these periods that you can have prosperity. Also, let’s stay with Europe. I mean, Europe has experienced the greatest century of peace and prosperity between 1814, the end of Napoleonic Wars, and 1914, the breakout of the First World War, which slaughtered tens of millions and destroyed a lot of wealth. So economic progress can certainly take a knock and it can take a time to recover, but in order for it to recover, you have to rediscover the reasons why you had high economic growth rates in the first place.
JP: Okay, so the first lesson is that something happened in the last 150 years that propelled human productive capacity and distribution globally into the stratosphere, and there’s no sign that that’s slowing, although we could disrupt it and we could just disrupt it…
MT: You could disrupt it…
JP: Because we don’t exactly understand why it happened and we’re not appreciative enough of its miraculous nature and the perhaps fragile pre-conditions for its continued existence.
MT: Well, when I said that it’s the biggest question in economics, I’m not suggesting that there aren’t theories of why it happened. The theory that I espouse, and the theory that has convinced me is that over hundreds of years in Western Europe and in North America, and then later in other parts of the world, our economic and political institutions have grown more inclusive, open or to use a political word, liberal. Now, I’m using liberal in its European sense, not liberal in the current American sense. And what that meant was that you no longer needed permission from the king in order to open a shop or import a bag of wool from another country.
JP: So there’s an autonomy. There’s an element of autonomy, but there’s also an element of generosity, that autonomy leads to increased productivity, but the product… The consequences of the production are also being shared and rather than hoarded, they’re being distributed reasonably well.
MT: The key here was I think that governments have become more responsible to their people, more accountable to their people, and they started allowing a much greater level of economic freedom. Now, the reason why that happened is a very interesting one. Once again, I’m going to tell you a theory that I espouse and theory that convinced me, other people may have other ideas, but basically what has happened is that unlike in other parts of the world, such as the Ottoman Empire and such as China, Europe never had an internal empire. One dynasty was never able to conquer different European states into the creation of one European mega empire, and because governing elites of different states, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Holland, Belgium, whatever… Because they wanted to survive, because they didn’t want to be vassals of another monarch, because they wanted to remain independent, they realized that they needed to generate a lot of economic growth internally, and they realized that the only way that they could generate economic growth was through technological innovation, and technological innovation, you can only get in societies which allow people a greater degree, a relatively great degree of intellectual freedom.
MT: And so countries which felt at most threatened, such as Holland, because the French were always trying to take them over, would welcome into their cities and into the country, thinkers from all over the world, free thinkers from all over Europe who established themselves there, produced new ideas, produced new technologies, and Holland could defend itself against the predation of other countries. England was another example of how this happened. So it is through geopolitical competition, in other words, the dismemberment of European countries, that you get greater appreciation of the need for freedom, which then leads to innovation, which then leads to generation of more money, which then can keep your country independent and from being swallowed by a foreign conqueror. But if you want to reduce it to one sentence, it would be: Political and economic institutions became more open, inclusive and liberal. Whether you were a Jew or whether you were a Muslim, a Protestant or a Catholic, you could function within the Amsterdam Stock Exchange and nobody bothered you … And you were free from persecution.
JP: Alright, let’s go to the next trend: The end of poverty, and that’s this graph.
MT: Before the Industrial Revolution, or rather let’s start 12,000 years ago when humanity discovers agriculture. Between 12,000 years ago and roughly 200 years ago, pretty much everybody in the world was a farmer or a farm laborer. As late as 1800, roughly nine out of 10 people around the world were involved in agriculture. They were farmers and they were very poor, and then the other 10% were basically the nobility, the clergy and the military, but 90% of humanity either remained hunter-gatherers or they were farmers or farm laborers. And then with the Industrial Revolution, you start factories opening up all over the Western world, and people realize that they can make more money in the cities working in factories, so they start leaving the rural areas and moving into urban areas, earning more money, and eventually the agricultural population in the United States, for example, declines well, from 90% in 1800 to 40% in 1900 to 2% today. Today, only 2% of American workers work in agriculture. The rest of them works in services industry, tourism, computing and whatever. But this is a process through which Americans stopped being very poor and became very rich, and this process is repeating all around the world. The world is industrializing, the world is becoming more service-oriented and fewer and fewer people around the world work in agriculture, even though our agricultural output is higher than ever before, and we’ll get to that trend too.
JP: Just to highlight the meaning of this graph, so in 1830, 95% of the global population was in absolute poverty, and that was a much smaller number of people as well, and by the year 2015, roughly speaking, we’re down to 10%. That’s stunning, and the change from 1990 to 2010 is approximately 40% to approximately 10.
MT: That’s right.
JP: And you see partly I think what happened, and you tell me if you think this is right or wrong, but there’s been a real acceleration in the decline of absolute poverty, let’s say since 1990, and not coincidentally, it was at approximately that time that the Soviet Union collapsed, and so one of the major competitive systems, whose advantages were touted in the developing countries, for example, was no longer a major player, and it was a little bit after that that China started to liberalize at least economically, even though it really hasn’t done it politically, and so I think that’s at least partly responsible for the acceleration in the reduction of absolute poverty.
MT: The decline in socialism, communism, basically the disappearance of socialism, at least for a little bit of time, as an alternative and widely accepted way to riches meant that developing countries changed their developing strategies, beginning in the 1980s. They started opening up more. Instead of seeing multinational corporations as parasites and enemies, they started welcoming them into their own countries. Instead of rejecting foreign direct investment, they started opening up to foreign direct investment. So at a time when globalization starts really in 1980 or so, at the time of when Ronald Reagan becomes president of the United States, 40% of the world live in absolute poverty. That declines to about 30% by the new millennium, and from the new millennium to today, 20 years, it declines from 30% to less than 10%. The decline in poverty has accelerated over the last 20 years, from 30% to less than 10%.
JP: It’s stunning. It’s absolutely stunning. It’s absolutely unbelievable that that can be the case.
MT: It is the fastest reduction in global poverty, primarily because many poor and previously socialist countries have changed their understanding of economics and way to prosperity.
JP: I wanna harass you again about something. So you were talking about socialism and its decline, so Canada has many democratic socialist policies, Norway, which in your book, ranks highest in terms of the human development index, I believe that’s the case, the Scandinavian countries, of course, are famous for functional democratic socialism, and so what do you have to say about that? Forget about communism and the hardcore communists, Soviet-pushed Maoist doctrines that anyone with any sense is going to regard, in the light of what happened historically, as absolutely counter-productive. Anyone who supports Maoist doctrines or Soviet doctrines is reprehensible in my… They’re so ignorant or malevolent in some sense that it’s reprehensible. It gets more complicated, I would say, when you’re talking about the range of redistributive policies that characterize Northern Europe and Central Europe and Canada and the United States. There’s a wide range of theories, preferences for government intervention and for democratic socialist policies, and so how much of a range do you think there is where the left and the right are equally functional, but emphasize different things? That might be the way of thinking about it.
MT: Right. You’re certainly correct on China, which has abandoned hardcore communism in the late 1970s, but India was never communist, but even they reformed in the early 1990s and embraced a much freer economic model, and that’s 1.2 billion people, so that also explains why the global poverty rate has declined. Now, you’re raising a very important point, and that there is a difference between socialism, which is government ownership of the means of production, factories and whatever, and social democracy in Europe in places like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and even perhaps Canada. But here’s the interesting thing, some of these countries come at the very top of the Economic Freedom of the World Report, which is published by the Fraser Institute in Canada. You may be familiar with them. So it is actually possible to measure economic freedom in different countries, and Fraser has been doing so since the early 1970s, and all of these countries, all these social democratic countries actually score very well. Here is the reason why. First of all, they have very flexible labor markets. Second…
JP: Define that, define that so everyone understands.
MT: Meaning the ability of firing and hiring people is likely regulated so that people can move from industries and occupations which are maybe unproductive into wherever there is a new company that’s opening. You don’t suffer consequences…
JP: So things are allowed to die and be born.
MT: Precisely. The second reason why they are scoring very high on the Economic Freedom of the World Report is because they are open to foreign trade. They are actually more open to foreign trade than the United States, which is supposed to be a paragon of capitalism, although obviously United States isn’t, but they are very free trade-oriented. And also, if you look at their tax structure, what you realize that they actually have very low corporate tax rates so as opposed to, say the United States, which has one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world. So what the Scandinavians and the social democrats have discovered is roughly speaking, the following: Let’s keep the economy free, let’s try to generate as much revenue through economic growth, and then tax that. Do not tax the productivity of the worker and of the company in terms of corporate tax rates. Or rather, let’s try to have an open economy and generate economic growth by producing and by being a welcoming area for new businesses to open.
JP: Okay, okay. Well, we’ll return to that. Are we running out of resources? Trend three. That’s this graph.
MT: So just remember that green, orange and blue line, because I will describe them one by one. So this is the only datum or set of data which I produced myself together with a co-author, Gale Pooley from Hawaii, and what it shows is the average price of 50 most important natural resources between 1980 and 2018, and what we found, as you would expect, is they increased in nominal price. Nominal price is unadjusted for inflation. As everybody knows or should know, currency becomes less valuable every year because more of it is printed. So in terms of nominal dollars, the 50 commodities have become more expensive over the last 40 years. Once you adjust the cost of commodities… And I’m talking about oil, gas, chicken, beef, lumber, shrimp, oranges, whatever… Once you account for inflation, that was the orange line, what you see is actually that natural resources are much cheaper today than they were in 1980.
MT: The final line is the blue line. The blue line is what I call the time price. Time price is really… It’s a better price than real or inflation-adjusted price, because it also takes into account wages. As you know, wages tend to increase above inflation, because people become more productive. So if inflation in the United States is 2%, a typical increase will be maybe about 3% because people have become more productive over the course of the year. So once you start comparing prices of resources relative to… Relative to wages, what you see, that they have fallen even more. And why is this counter-intuitive? They fell by about 70% in terms of time prices. All the while, the…
JP: And that’s from 1980-2016?
MT: ’16 or ’18, one of…
JP: ’18. Okay. So despite more people, despite more urbanization, despite the hypothetically decreasing prevalence of resources, despite all of those hypothetical problems, there’s been a 70% decline in basic global commodity prices adjusted for wages from 1980 till 2018. Stunning, right? Not what anyone was predicting in the 1960s, by any stretch of the imagination.
MT: Yes. So even though the population of the world has increased by something like 70%, the prices of natural resources have declined by 70%, which means that every additional 1 percent of people born on the planet, things got cheaper for us by about 1%. And nobody saw that coming.
JP: Right. That should be said 50 times. Right. Because it’s so… It’s so not what anyone thinks. More people means more wealth.
MT: And that’s because…
JP: I’ve also seen that more people means more ecological preservation, and so does more wealth, because richer people care more about the environment. And so you see that perverse occurrence too, that as… Once GDP gets to the point where people aren’t scrabbling around trying to stay alive, so maybe $5000 per capita, all of a sudden environmental concerns start to manifest themselves. And so it looks like we could have more people and make them richer faster, and that would be better for the planet.
MT: The cleanest environment in the world is in advanced countries, in Western capital societies. When you see tremendous attack on the environment is in poor countries. When the Venezuelan economy collapsed, they started eating animals in zoo. In Zimbabwe, when their economy collapsed, they started slaughtering the wildlife. If it’s a choice between killing a giraffe or having my baby die, I know what I have to do. But so for the longest time, people thought that if population grows, we are going to run out of resources. And this is not what has happened. We have more resources, resources are cheaper, but that in itself is an indication that they are more abundant than before, because of course, human beings are not just consumers of resources, we’re not just destroyers of resources, we’re also creators of resources. Human beings are producers of ideas…
JP: Yes. And on average, we produce more than we consume, otherwise we would die.
MT: And that’s what people like Thomas Malthus or Paul Ehrlich at Stanford University were worried about. They freaked out two generations of people. Ehrlich’s Population Bomb…
JP: And we still haven’t… We still haven’t recovered from that.
MT: No. We still haven’t recovered from that.
JP: It’s still part of that basic apocalyptic narrative. No one believes, if I tell my students, “We’re gonna peak at 9 billion and we can handle that and then the population is gonna decline,” no one believes that. If you say that, “Well, we’ve got richer as more people have been born rather than poorer, because brain power exceeds consumption essentially, especially as people have got healthier and their IQ has increased,” which is something we can talk about as well, none of this is part of the general apocalyptic narrative.
MT: No. Not only can we get access to new resources, but also we can replace resources which are becoming scarce. So for example, humans used to make candles out of spermaceti, which is this weird sort of stuff in the brains of the whales.
MT: Oil or fat in the brains of the whales. So we used to murder them by the thousands, and we used to scrape out that spermaceti, and build it into nice candles. And then we realized that we didn’t have to do that, that it was actually quite expensive and quite stupid because we could produce electricity by burning coal. And then we decided that we can switch from coal to gas and maybe eventually to nuclear and whatever. And so that’s how humanity manages to constantly produce more. It’s through innovation. And in fact, in Western countries today, we have reached peak stuff. This is a book, very important book, which I recommend to your readers by Andrew McAfee … More From Less. Now, what it means, really, is that even though the American economy and the British economy continue to grow and produce more GDP per capita in absolute terms, the amount of resources that go into it, be it aluminum or whatever, that has actually peaked off about 10 or 20 years ago, and it’s now declining. So we have become so incredibly productive that we can now use much less resources in order to produce more wealth, more GDP.
JP: Trend four, peak population.
MT: Peak population. So right now, there are 7.8 billion people in the world. It looks like we are going to peak at 9.8 in the 2060s or the ’80s, and then it will decline to about 8.8 by the end of this century. Lancet had a study a couple of months ago which showed… Again, remember, 7.8 billion people in the world today… Lancet thinks that there will be either 6.8 or 8.8 billion people in the world in 2100. But every demographer that I know of expects that human population will peak and then it will start declining. That’s because total fertility rate, which is to say the number of babies born to a woman, have been on a downward trajectory. Currently in the United States, in much of Western Europe, women are having fewer than two babies per woman per lifetime, and in order to have a replacement rate, you need 2.1 babies because some of them die. So population without immigration in Western Europe will continue to decline. Our numbers are still going up because obviously we have huge immigration, but women are not having that many babies.
MT: Now, is this going to be a blessing, or is it going to be a potential problem? Well, it could be a potential problem, because human beings are the producers of ideas and ideas lead to innovation, and if a genius is one out of a billion or one out of a million, then the fewer millions of people you have born, the fewer geniuses are going to be born. And that in itself… And that to me is a major concern, but of course in Western countries, we have promised so much to the future generations that are supposed to be paid for by children who are born in the future, that if those children are not being born, who is going to pay off that debt in the future? Who’s going to pay for all those retirees? Those questions should also be answered.
JP: Yes, it’s quite surprising to note that one of the more pressing social problems in 100 years might be that there aren’t enough people rather than too many. Could easily be the case.
MT: Right. So by then perhaps we’ll have robotics to help us a lot, taking care of…
JP: Yes, and who knows, right? We can’t even think about problems 100 years in the future, because it’s going to be so different 100 years from now that nothing we could possibly talk about right now is going to be relevant. God only knows. We don’t have a five-year horizon or a 10-year horizon, given the rate of technological change, let alone 100 years, but the moral of this story is it doesn’t look like we’re going to overpopulate the planet to the point where we’re going to destroy all our natural resources, the planet, and everyone’s going to starve. That doesn’t seem to be in the cards, so unless we make catastrophic and likely avoidable errors.
MT: That’s correct.
JP: Alright, next. This is a great headline: “The end of famine.” So I think it was in Ridley’s book, I found… His last one or maybe in The Rational Optimist… Famine was quite widespread in Europe in the 20th century, far more than people generally remember or realize. Holland went through terrible famines, the Scandinavian countries, and of course, in Great Britain in the late 1800s, the Irish Famine was a specter that haunted the entire world’s population until extraordinarily recently, and the news on that front is astoundingly positive. No one starves anymore, except for political reasons essentially. So forced starvation, planned starvation, but not accidental.
MT: So in the late 1800s, we started understanding agriculture and agricultural productivity much more than before. Not only did we introduce new technologies, better plows and so forth, but we also discovered that guano, which is just bird poop [chuckle] from South America contained so many nutrients that when it was sprinkled all over the late 19th century agricultural land, it could actually increase yields tremendously, and then when we started running out of guano, yet another example of human ingenuity, we started producing synthetic fertilizers full of I believe it’s nitrogen and phosphorus and so forth. Now, that wasn’t the last when it came to human ingenuity. We started also toying with the genes of different plants, which led to a new, sturdier and more productive wheat varieties in the ’70s by a man called Norman Borlaug…
JP: Right, who saved more people than any other person who ever lived, in all likelihood.
MT: That’s exactly right. So instead… It’s quite interesting that just as people were starting to be really worried about this population growth, especially in China and India, people immediately started working on the ways to…
JP: To solve it.
MT: To solve the problem. And so the population bomb comes out in 1968, and right about that time, into the early ’70s, you have Borlaug introducing these new varieties, wheat varieties into Bangladesh, and India and China and elsewhere, and of course, food production rockets, skyrockets. India today is a major exporter of food. Now, these were people who were going to be starving by tens of millions. When I was growing up in the 1980s, I remember being terrified by the images of starving people, starving children in East Africa, in the Horn of Africa…
JP: And now, you see, this is so unbelievable. The world’s poorest region, sub-Saharan Africa, now enjoys access to food in volumes that are equivalent to Portugal in the 1960s…
MT: That’s right.
JP: And that’s a very, very small amount of time from the 1960s to now, well within living memory of many people. One of the richest countries in the world had the same amount of food per capita as the poorest part of the world does now. Stunning. Stunning. Absolutely remarkable.
MT: That’s right.
JP: And so positive. So good.
MT: Yeah, so today, access to calories in Africa is roughly 2400 calories per person per day. Now, obviously, not everybody gets it. There are serious problems in Africa still. You do still have conflict and so forth, and people do get to starve, but the widespread starvation because you couldn’t produce enough food, that doesn’t happen anymore, and that’s obviously a tremendously positive step forward. In fact, many African problems are beginning to experience the problem of obesity, especially in urban centers. Now, if somebody told you that 50 years ago, you would have said, “You’re high.”
JP: Right, and so the problem in 100 years is that we’re going to have nothing but fat people and there’ll be far too few of them. [chuckle]
JP: Okay, next one. This is also stunning, shocking, completely unexpected: More land for nature. Who would have possibly guessed that? I read something the other day too, and we could comment on this, the Sahara Desert has shrunk by 8% since the turn of the millennium. We’ve greened an additional 10% of the Earth’s surface as a consequence. That’s part of the same development, and that’s only over the last 20 years, and it looks like it’s a consequence of increased carbon dioxide, perversely enough, the Sahara’s actually shrunk. So I don’t wanna get into the carbon dioxide argument, but this is… And this is a whole different issue here… Tree cover, loss gain from 1982 to 2016. So comment on that.
MT: Yes. One of the benefits of getting a little bit older, perhaps the only benefit of getting a little bit older, is that one gets wiser and one remembers all the stuff that we used to believe and take for granted, which have never happened and which are false. One of them was the expansion of Sahara in the 1980s. I remember being absolutely terrified that Sahara was going to expand and swallow the globe. As kids, we were taught that as gospel, but the Sahara is shrinking. It is also true that there is more foliage, which is more greenery. Plants are producing more foliage because of the CO2 in the atmosphere. CO2 is for another discussion.
MT: But it’s the basic fact of living on Earth that plants like more CO2 in the atmosphere. It’s their food, which is why Norway grows tomatoes in hothouses that are filled with CO2, precisely because they want them to grow. And so plants like CO2 and foliage is increasing, but also the tree coverage of the world is increasing. Between 1982 and 2016, we have added trees, tree area, the size of Alaska and Montana combined to the world. Now, that’s a pretty big chunk of the world. The United States has 35% more trees than when Ronald Reagan became president of the United States. China is 15%.
JP: Okay, so now I’ve read critiques of this too. When I’ve tweeted this, for example, people say, “Yes, but we’ve lost a tremendous amount of biodiversity, that much of the new growth is monoculture in contrast to the previous growth.” And I suspect that’s not true in some situations, and is true in others. I don’t think that’s true of the reforestation of the United States, but I don’t know. Do you know?
MT: Well, first of all, compared to what? At the time when Industrial Revolution started in Great Britain, which was responsible for many of the great things that happened since then, one of the reasons why they had to switch to coal is because there was no tree left in Britain. I’m exaggerating, but I am not far off. The tree coverage in Britain was just completely denuded of forests over millennia of forest destruction. Remember, trees were not only needed to keep you warm, but to cook your food, to make your furniture, to make your carriages, to make your weaponry. Everything prior to the modern era was based on trees. I’m exaggerating, but not too much…
MT: We have destroyed a lot of the natural forest with its original biomass a long time before the Industrial Revolution, which by the way used up coal not trees, but today, most of our tree usage comes from the new forests, the forest that are planted for the specific purpose of being cut down for lumber, which then builds American and Canadian houses. It is very rare that the sort of wood that you see in the shops or that goes into productive activity actually has originated in the Brazilian rainforest.
JP: Right, so I guess the objection would be those aren’t forests, they’re crops. They just happen to be crops of trees.
MT: Fair point.
JP: And biodiversity loss is obviously problematic and even potentially catastrophic. But I don’t think that means that you can’t take heart about the fact that much more of the planet is green, and there’s a certain amount of reversion to a more natural habitat, certainly indicated that we’re much more efficient users of resources, we don’t have to take up so much space. And the Agricultural Revolution also contributed to that to a great degree, that’s human ingenuity again, because we can grow more on less land. And I don’t see that stopping. I think we’re gonna get more and more and more efficient at food production. Why would that stop? The market certainly drives us in that direction, and there’s no indication of that slowing, as far as I can tell.
MT: So three points, I hope I can remember them. One is, yes, because of increased agricultural productivity, we are already returning land to nature and we can do so in the future at an increased pace, which means that we are returning land not just to the animals, but we are returning it to nature, where the biomass can grow again and where it can reconstitute itself. The second point is that we are also living in a world that has record acreage and mileage and square mileage of globe’s territory, which is protected from any kind of interference from human kind. So we have record square mileage of oceans which are now protected and which cannot be fished in, and we have record square mileage of land which is protected in national parks or is otherwise excluded from economic activity. The third point that I… And that comes with wealth. The wealthier countries they are…
JP: Right, right. And stability. And political stability, because you don’t need much catastrophe and social breakdown before those national parks and all their animals are gonna have everything eaten out of them.
MT: Typical example would be Zimbabwe, yes. And the last point I want to make is that we have a problem in Brazil. Brazil has, obviously, vast rainforests and very ancient forests, which are filled with all sorts of things that we may discover are helpful to us in the future … As well as dangerous. But nonetheless, very few people would say that it’s a good thing to get rid of the Brazilian rainforest. My understanding is, and I’m willing to be proven wrong on this, is that most of it has to do with farming, especially of poor people in Brazil, who burn forests in order to clear the land for agricultural activity. Now, I realize that this point will… May not necessarily be appreciated by wealthy people in the West, but poverty in developing countries can be very, very bad. In Brazil, there are some pockets of real wealth, but there are also pockets of tremendous poverty. And the more inland you get and the more into the Amazon you get, the poorer the people become. These people, from their perspective and the perspective of their government, should be allowed to earn a living. The way you protect Amazon is to have higher rates of economic growth in Brazil, so that those people start moving away from the Amazon, they start moving to cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro and others, and they start working there in the factories, in the service industry, and they no longer have to burn forests in order to plant foods so they don’t starve.
JP: Number seven. Trend seven. Planet city. Urbanization, which you also regard and describe as a net positive. Well, you certainly get the synergistic effect of bringing people together, [chuckle] right? I mean, look at San Francisco, the Silicon Valley. The urbanization of a genius population produces an incredible amount of innovation. So urbanization. Everyone’s moving to the cities.
MT: Yeah. I think that right now we have about 55% of humanity living in the cities already. So again, all of those people are basically not living on land, which is a good thing.
JP: You remember Pol Pot, right? Cities are parasites on the countryside and should be eradicated. Well, that turned out to be spectacularly wrong in every possible way, as well as murderous. So it’s a good thing for people to leave their rural environments and move to the city, a good thing, all things concerned. So, sorry. Continue.
MT: Didn’t he also shoot all people with spectacles because they ware intellectuals?
JP: Oh, yeah, yeah. Well, he was trained at the Sorbonne.
JP: Mm-hmm. [chuckle]
JP: Right. Mm-hmm.
MT: Say no more, but…
MT: I think he still holds the record for most people killed as a share of the population. I think he managed to kill, what, one-third or one quarter of the population in four years? I don’t think anybody has done that, not even Mao.
JP: It’s a hell of a record to hold. And it’s quite appalling that he was trained in the West. It’s stunningly appalling. So, okay. Back to… Back to urbanization.
MT: I feel that we have bashed the French enough here. [chuckle] Maybe not enough. But anyway … So, yes, there are the network and synergetic effects that people living close together and exchanging ideas and similar companies existing next to each other, communicating and so forth, generates more economic growth. And, look, the historical record is absolutely clear. Cities have been the drivers of progress, whether it is Amsterdam in the 18th century or London in 19th century, New York in the 20th century, that’s where stuff happened, not just in terms of economic growth, but also in terms of culture. And things like that. And the final point, cities also consume less energy than urban areas per capita, because we have public transport, people don’t have to drive their jeeps and four by fours wherever they go over long distances, so people consume less energy in cities per capita, and that’s again a good thing, I think.
JP: And is that controlling for agricultural productivity even? Do you know?
MT: I don’t know. I think CO2 emissions and energy consumption is smaller in cities than it is in the rural areas, but that’s all I remember from that particular passage.
JP: Okay, okay. Trend eight: Democracy on the march. That’s a graph of autocracies versus democracies.
MT: So this particular chart is a controversial one, partly because it keeps on changing in directions which we may not necessarily appreciate. It is undeniable that the first decade of the 21st century has been the most democratic than at anytime before. In the last few years, we have seen weakening of democracy, and we have seen some countries which have turned away from democracy to dictatorship, such as, for example, Russia. There are some authoritarian tendencies, even in Europe, in places like Hungary. Nonetheless, greater share of humanity lives under a democratic regime than say in 30 years ago, 60 years ago, 100 years ago, and so forth. And the big wave of democratization really happens after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and of course the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
MT: After that, you see, basically before then, there were more autocracies than democracies in the world, and after the fall of Soviet Union, you had all of these newly independent countries turn democratic. There was some slide back in some of them, but by and large, democracy has held in Central Europe, in Eastern Europe, even in parts of Southern Europe. So there is more democracy around, and the future of democracy is by no means assured. We are seeing some very troubling signs on the horizon, but democracy is not in full flight just because Russia stopped being a moderate democracy.
JP: Well, I would say… And even the Russians know this, despite their autocratic system, there isn’t an intellectual or moral contender of any import. Democracies might degenerate into dictatorships, but there isn’t a ethos of authoritarianism. There isn’t an ethos that’s well-developed intellectually, philosophically or practically to compete with democracy. So the Chinese can claim that their system is more efficient. It’s like, well, maybe for short periods of time now and then, but it seems highly unlikely. As China became more free, economically, it became richer. They say, “Well, we can get away with not being free across the board,” but I suspect that that’s probably just wrong, is that we’re going to see that as a comparatively fatal flaw over the next 30 or 40 years, but what do you argue? If you’re not a liberal democrat in the whole broad sense, ranging from democratic socialist to ultra conservative, let’s say, but within the democratic spectrum, well, what’s outside of that that’s credible intellectually, an alternative system? I don’t see anything.
MT: Russia has a peculiar combination of nationalism and Russian orthodoxy. Now that cannot be obviously exported to other countries in the world. It has no purchase on Africa, for example, or Latin America. China is an interesting example. They certainly do argue that their system is superior, but I think that the shine has been coming off the Chinese model recently with the…
JP: It got a lot more superior when it got a lot more capitalist.
MT: It got a lot more superior. They obviously are able to generate a lot of wealth. They also have a lot more people, but they are still on average, an average Chinese is much poorer than an average American. It’s just that they are dealing with 1.4 billion people, but by letting them be freer, not perhaps politically, but economically, the Chinese economic institutions stopped being super extractive and they became more inclusive, and people could function within them and produce wealth and keep it and nobody was coming to take it away from them, at least not with the typical regularity of a totalitarian regime, they were able to build a very prosperous country. But the shine is coming off, not only because of the way that the Chinese have lied about Corona, but also because the Chinese are involved in tremendous human rights abuses against the Uighurs. It’s very difficult for any aspiring dictator in Africa, Latin America, or Europe for that measure to say China is the model if the immediate retort is, “Aside from those concentration camps. How about that? Explain that.”
JP: Well, there is their support for North Korea too, which we should never forget.
MT: And that.
JP: Which is a regime so rotten that it beggars the imagination, so appalling, inexcusable in every possible way.
MT: And the final point I wanna make about China is that really it is now that China will have to show the merits of its own system because it is one thing to replicate say, railways, the building of railways and bridges and things like that. It is one thing to…
JP: When you have the benefit of the technology that’s already developed, and what you’re doing is picking low-hanging fruit.
MT: That’s exactly right. Whereas now China has to prove that it cannot only mimic, but it can actually produce new ideas, that it can innovate, and you don’t have innovation in country which doesn’t have freedom of speech, which doesn’t have free exchange of ideas and the ability to criticize. Now, there are specific sectors where freedom of speech can be allowed. So for example, the Soviet nuclear and rocket sciences were allowed a great deal of experimentation and internal discussions because obviously the Soviet Union was trying to build as many nuclear rockets as it possibly could, but if you want to produce better products, better production processes, new innovations on a mass societal scale, you have to have freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of communication, and China doesn’t have it, because of course, the corollary of the freedom of innovation is that people would be talking about ideas that the Chinese government doesn’t want them to talk about.
JP: Yeah, well, and if you’re gonna have a bunch of people who are talking about ideas and they’re gonna be really good at it, pretty much nothing can be off-limits. If you get a bunch of creative people together, and they’re really being creative, they have to be able to talk about anything. Otherwise, their creativity gets squelched, and it’s easy to squelch the creativity in some sense.
MT: And also I think that creative types are usually people who are on a broad spectrum of autism and disagreeability, and you very often see it in Silicon Valley, but some research seems to be showing that, and these are the sorts of people who are going to not hold back, these are the sorts of people who are going to tell whatever springs to their mind. Now, if you’re going to put people who are disagreeable and who speak their minds because of the particular traits of their psychology, if you’re going to put all of them to jail because they call Chairman Xi an idiot, then you’re going to run out of innovative people very soon.
JP: Yeah, I’m not so much sure that the disagreeable element there is useful for creativity. There’s not a lot of evidence for that, but it might be useful for implementation of creative ideas.
MT: When I mentioned… This is very interesting, I would like to hear your view on that… When I mean disagreeability, isn’t it the ability to say, “Screw you all. I know I’m right in my ideas and I’m going to pursue my research, wherever it’s going to lead me?” Isn’t that important?
JP: Well, that’s what I mean by implementation. Now, if you look at it from a personality perspective, openness, the trait, is the one that governs creativity and it isn’t associated with agreeableness to any great degree. They’re pretty orthogonal, but the issue of to what degree you need to be disagreeable to implement effectively, that’s a different story, and I don’t think that data are in on that yet. Anyways, let’s go on. Let’s go on to the next one. Let’s go on to the long peace because that’s also extraordinarily important.
MT: So long peace basically means is that there are fewer conflicts since the end of the Second World War. The long-term trends seems to be towards greater peace. We certainly no longer have countries declaring war on each other, sending armies across borders to slaughter…
JP: Yeah, that seems to have almost disappeared completely, that idea.
MT: If I remember correctly, the last country to declare war was the United States on North Korea. I can be wrong on that, but I think I would love for that to be checked, and maybe you can put a disclaimer [chuckle] on your video that I got it completely wrong, but I actually think that happened. Anyway, so that no longer happens. Now countries still invade other countries, like for example, Russia invaded Ukraine, the little green men who took Crimea. But I think it says something that even governments that still do these sorts of things, do not declare war publicly because they are afraid of how humanity would react to that kind of activity. And so most of the conflicts today, in fact, all conflicts usually tend to be ethnic and civil wars, but they are not really conflicts between countries. Wars have become less deadly. They are smaller and less deadly, but please remember, this doesn’t mean that the past performance suggests future success. The world is still filled with nuclear weapons, and so…
JP: But it also seems even on that front, it seems like certainly people are much less convinced that nuclear weapons will be used purposefully, especially in a mass annihilation than throughout the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. So the nuclear weapons are still there. There’s far fewer of them. But imminent war between Russia and the United States certainly doesn’t seem probable in the same manner that it did for that entire Cold War period up till the demise of the Soviet Union.
MT: We are down from 40,000 nuclear warheads per superpower down to about 3000. I’m more worried about accidental bombs and that sort of thing.
JP: Yes, terrorism. Definitely.
MT: So that’s what really worries me much more.
JP: But that’s a better worry in some sense than all-out mass annihilation. [chuckle]
MT: Well, ideally, you have a lot of smart people who are watching your podcast, and ideally, it could be calculated how many nukes would have to go off, of what strength, in order for there not to be the end of humanity. In other words, what is the maximum. And if we could convince the international powers to bring the total maximum number of warheads and their strength below that level, while still being distributed amongst nuclear powers, then we could decrease that danger even more.
JP: I wonder if that would decrease the… One of the things I’ve thought reasonably frequently, although I’m not convinced of it, is that nuclear war is so terrifying that it’s actually made us more peaceful, like that terrible threat’s like the fist of God, there’s some places we just can’t go anymore. And people, so far, thank God, have been… Seemed unwilling to go there. So the terrible threat may have had benefits.
MT: Yeah. There’s a whole branch of international relations… Study of international relations which argues precisely for that. You’re not alone. [chuckle] There are other people supporting your view. But unfortunately, nuclear power, nuclear weapons cannot be unlearned. And so I’m afraid we are stuck with them, and the best that we can do is to bring the number down to a minimal level where superpowers will feel safe without destroying the world, but that’s just for another day.
JP: The last one. Trend 10. A safer world. And this is death from natural disasters.
MT: Right. So this particular subject can be looked at from a number of angles. So one is that we are in this time of panic about existential threat to humanity from climate change and from the environment. And yet, in the last 100 years, the number of people who have died due to natural disasters has shrunk by 99%. The two are incompatible. If we are moving to a world where millions of people are going to be destroyed by oceans rising or crop failure or whatever, or tsunamis, or earthquakes and whatever, why is it that due to natural disasters… That natural disasters have seen 99% decrease in human mortality? And the answer seems to be that, partly, we are richer, and therefore we are able to build more sturdy dwellings, but we are also more technologically savvy, so that we can predict where a hurricane going to strike and exactly when, so that people can escape from the path of destruction, and we can also detect earthquakes underneath the ocean floor, giving people on land more time to move to higher ground from a tsunami wave and things like that. So…
JP: And we’re going to get better and better at all of that.
MT: And we are going to get better and better at it. Yeah.
JP: So we’re richer by far in terms of productivity and quality of products, and absolute poverty has declined precipitously, commodity prices have fallen, we’re not going to over-populate the world in any cataclysmic sense, everyone has increasingly more than enough to eat, there’s more land for nature, and that trend seems upward, more people are moving to urban areas, and that’s advantageous rather than disadvantageous, there are more democracies, and so we’re better governed, we’re more peaceful and we’re less likely to die from catastrophes. And I should point out to everyone who’s listening, that really only scrapes the surface of the topics that are covered in this remarkable book. As I mentioned at the beginning of this podcast, the authors delve into comparatively micro-trends in detail, discussing such things which I would love to discuss, and perhaps we should continue this at some point in the not too distant future, such things as the precipitous decline in computational power, and that’s in its infancy, access to electricity…
MT: You mean computational price of computation. Yeah.
JP: Yes, yes. Well, and pure power and accessibility and mobile technology and lighting costs and decline in the cost of renewable resources and clean drinking water and better sanitation. And I’m just leafing through the book. Internet access, and so that’s education, and that will get better and better.
MT: But other than that… [chuckle]
JP: Yeah. So let’s close out with this. I’ve done three podcasts, I think, in the last couple of months that were aimed at bringing this information to a broader audience. There seems, to some degree, to be a saleability issue, or maybe it’s just too soon. And all this good news, in some sense, is relatively recent, and the word may just not have spread. Any ideas about what could be done to counter the pessimistic and apocalyptic narratives that seem to dominate the public landscape?
MT: Well, you are doing it right now by interviewing me. I am doing it by having this website, which is made all the more useful by the fact that we didn’t come up with this data, it’s freely available on many different platforms around the world. If you think that I’m full of it, go to Our World in Data, go to the World Bank, go to the IMF, go to Eurostat. If you are interested in the state of the world, there’s plenty of data out there that can show you that the state of the world is much better than it is. Secondly, and I’m wondering if this is even possible, but secondly, what if people start understanding more about their biases, about how they perceive the world? This is obviously done in colleges and universities, in psychology courses as well as in biology courses and things like that, but it’s not as though human beings are incapable of changing their world view based on evidence.
MT: We no longer believe that a sacrifice of a little child will produce better harvest. So we’ve learned that lesson. We no longer believe that throwing a virgin into a volcano is going to give us military success. We no longer believe in all sorts of things that we have taken for granted. In other words, we have shown that we are capable of learning, and learning from evidence. We have internalized that focusing on irrigation and fertilization is a better way to produce food than prayer, and that gives me hope that as we move forward, we’ll be able to learn more about the rest of the world, internalize not just that information, but also why we are being pessimistic and negative. What do you think about that?
JP: Well, I’m listening and I’m thinking it through. I’m also wondering, I would say that learning this material has made me… Has lifted some of the existential weight from me. Things aren’t as bad as they’re trumpeted to be. In fact, they’re quite a bit better, and they’re getting better, and so we’re doing a better job than we thought. There’s more to us than we thought. We’re adopting our responsibilities as stewards of the planet rapidly. We are moving towards improving everyone’s life. I lived under an apocalyptic shadow my whole life. I don’t wanna complain about that too much because I lived in a very rich place and I had all sorts of advantages and all of that, but the apocalyptic narrative was still extraordinarily powerful and demoralizing, and it looks to me that there are reasons to doubt its validity on all sorts of dimensions, and I’m not sure what that will do to people, but hopefully it’ll make us more optimistic and positive and less paranoid and afraid, and happier with who we are, but still willing to participate in improving the future, and to lift some of the weight off young people who are constantly being told that the planet is going to burn to a cinder in the next 20 years and…
MT: Well, that’s not happening. That’s not happening. And people who push that agenda in the newspapers and elsewhere are completely irresponsible and cruel, but that leads to perhaps the final point from my end. Like you, I have become much more optimistic… No, much more happy in my own personal life once I realized that so much around me, I didn’t have a right to complain about and I should be grateful for. I should be grateful that I’m not a peasant in 17th century or…
JP: And appreciative of what’s brought us here.
MT: And that’s the key is that people who do not understand the crucial role that political and economic liberalization, opening, inclusion has played in launching the Great Enrichment, showing us the path, the rest of the world, a path to prosperity, if they don’t understand that everything we have is underpinned by a certain economic and political system, both of them terribly imperfect, but look at the alternative. Look at the difference between Chile, the extraordinary success of that country after it embraced free markets, and the collapse of Venezuela. Look at the difference between Botswana, which is a relatively free economy and its neighbor Zimbabwe, where people have experienced hyper-inflation of 90 sextillion percent. Look at the difference between East and West Germany, between the United States and the USSR. Look at the difference between North and South Korea. If you really… You just called it the worst possible regime in the world. If you have a problem with liberal democracy and competitive enterprise, fix those problems incrementally one by one. Don’t burn down the system, because the alternatives, as you can see in the world, are much worse.
JP: That is a great place to end. Thank you very much, and there’s so many more things we could talk about and hopefully we’ll get an opportunity to do exactly that, some of the micro-analysis or comparative micro-analysis, because there’s so much data in this book that’s fascinating. It’s an endless source of optimistic revelation that’s also realistic, and so I hope many people buy it and put it on their coffee table and share it with their friends, and lift some of the unnecessary burden of human shame and guilt from their shoulders. 1:49:51.1 MT: Well, I am grateful for those kind words about my book, I’m deeply grateful to you for having me on your show, and I am delighted that you’re doing well, and hopefully will be doing even better in the future.
This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation between Marian L. Tupy and Dr. Jordan B. Peterson from May 3, 2021.