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01 / 05
Dead Wrong: Were the 2010s the Best Decade Yet?

Blog Post | Economic Growth

The Human Meaning of Economic Growth

Misunderstandings of the relationship between wealth and flourishing have obscured the anti-​human implications of slowing growth rates.

Summary: Economic growth has been a driving force behind the dramatic improvements in human wellbeing over the past few centuries. This growth has resulted from the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and capitalism. Criticisms of growth stem in large part from misunderstandings of the relationship between economics and human values.


Why is the world as prosperous a place as it is? And why isn’t it much more prosperous? These questions are broad enough to admit countless answers, but as good an answer as any is the economic growth rate.

You might have heard that economic growth is overrated, that it’s a fine idea, but unsustainable, or even that it’s entirely counterproductive because it puts profits above people and the economy above the planet. These narratives have been widespread in recent years. They’re also based on a fundamental misconception of the nature of wealth and what a growing economy means for humanity.

Properly conceived, wealth is the actualization of human values in the real world. Economic growth is the upward trajectory of human achievement. The forms of prosperity that most of humanity strives for, such as health, knowledge, pleasure, safety, professional and personal freedom, and so many others, were vastly scarcer throughout most of human history—and would be orders of magnitude more abundant today if economic policies had been slightly different. That is the power of economic growth, and it is within our power to influence the world of future generations for better or worse.

The History of Economic Growth

Virtually everywhere and always throughout human history, economic growth was nonexistent. While pockets of momentary economic progress took place in certain instances, the overall trend was one of perpetual stagnation. But just a few hundred years ago, with the advent of the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and capitalism, that all began to change.

When the conceptual tools of science became widely applied to create the technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution, they brought an unprecedented optimism about the capacity for investment in new discoveries and inventions to reliably uncover useful knowledge of the natural world. This change inspired the broad transformation of mere wealth (resources hidden away in vaults and treasure chests) into capital (resources invested in new inventions and discoveries).

By the time Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx wrote their Communist Manifesto in 1848, the optimism of investment had already transformed Western Europe. As Engels and Marx saw it, “The bourgeoisie [capitalist class], during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-​navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground — what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?”

Marx and Engels misunderstand the complex reasons for increased productivity (attributing it to untapped “social labour”) but the quotation is significant because, despite their sympathy for state centralization of the economy, they could not ignore the success of capitalism.

While no year before 1700 saw a gross world product of more than $643 billion (in international inflation-​adjusted 2011 dollars), by 1820 global GDP reached 1 trillion. By 1940 the number had passed 7 trillion, and by 2015 it had passed 108 trillion.

Contrary to the popular misconception that capitalism has made the rich richer and the poor poorer, this new wealth contributed to growing the economies of every world region while outpacing population growth. While the world’s extreme poor have become wealthier so too have all other economic classes.

What’s So Great about Growth?

A growing economy isn’t about stacks of paper money getting taller, or digits being added to the spreadsheets of bank ledgers. These things may be indicators of growth, but the growth itself is composed of goods and services becoming more abundant. Farms and factories producing more and better consumption goods; engineers creating better machines and materials; clean water reaching more communities; sick people receiving better healthcare; scientists running more experiments, poets writing more poems, education becoming more broadly accessible; and for whatever other forms of value people choose to exchange their savings and labor.

Gross domestic product or GDP (called gross world product or world GDP when applied at the global level) is an imperfect but useful and widely employed measure of economic growth, and its reflection in the real world takes such forms as rising life expectancy, nutrition, literacy, safety from natural disaster, and virtually every other measure of human flourishing. This is because, at the most fundamental level, “economic growth” means the transformation and rearrangement of the physical environment into more useful forms that people value more.

Before the year 1820, human life expectancy had always been approximately 30-35 years. But with the great decline in poverty and rise of capital investment in technology and medicine, global life expectancy has roughly doubled in every geographic region in the last century. Similar trends have occurred in global nourishmentinfant survivalliteracy, access to clean water, and countless other crucial indicators of wellbeing. While these trends are bound to take the occasional momentary downturn because of life’s uncertainties and hardships, the unidirectional accumulation of technological and scientific knowledge since the Age of Enlightenment gives the forward march of progress an asymmetric advantage. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns resulted in a brief and tragic decline in life expectancy, but the number has since risen to an all-​time high of 73.36 years as of 2023.

What is the direct causal connection between economic growth and these improvements to human wellbeing? Consider the example of deaths by natural disaster, which have fallen in the last century from about 26.5 per 100,000 people to 0.51 per 100,000 people. More wealth means buildings can be constructed from stronger materials and better climate controls. And when those protections aren’t enough, a wealthier community can afford better infrastructure such as roads and vehicles to efficiently get sick or injured people to the hospital. When those injured end up in the hospital, a wealthier society’s medical facilities will be equipped with more advanced equipment, cleaner sanitation, and better-​trained doctors that will provide higher quality medical attention. These are just a few examples of how wealth allows humans to transform their world into a more hospitable place to live and face the inevitable challenges of life.

The benefits of economic growth go far beyond the maximization of health and safety for their own sake. If what you value in life is the contemplation of great art, the exaltation of your favorite deity, or time spent with your loved ones, wealth is what awards you the freedom to sustainably pursue those values rather than tilling the fields for 16 hours per day and dying in your 30s. Wealth is what provides you access to an ever-​improving share of the world’s culture by increasing the abundance and accessibility of printed, recorded, and digital materials. Wealth is what provides you with the leisure time and transportation technology to travel the world and experience distant wonders, remote holy sites, and people whose personal or professional significance to you would otherwise dwell beyond your reach.

As the Harvard University cognitive scientist Steven Pinker demonstrates in his popular book Enlightenment Now, “Though it’s easy to sneer at national income as a shallow and materialistic measure, it correlates with every indicator of human flourishing, as we will repeatedly see in the chapters to come.”

The Long-​Term Future of Growth

Human psychology is ill-​equipped to comprehend large numbers, especially as they relate to the profound numerical implications of exponentiation. If it sounds insignificant when politicians and journalists refer to a 1 percent or 2 percent increase or decrease in the annual growth rate, then like most people, you’re being deceived by a quirk of human intuition. While small changes to the economic growth rate may not have noticeable effects in the short term, their long- term implications are absolutely astonishing.

Economist Tyler Cowen has pointed out in a Foreign Affairs article, “In the medium to long term, even small changes in growth rates have significant consequences for living standards. An economy that grows at one percent doubles its average income approximately every 70 years, whereas an economy that grows at three percent doubles its average income about every 23 years—which, over time, makes a big difference in people’s lives.” In his book Stubborn Attachments, Cowen offers a thought experiment to illustrate the real-​world implications of such “small changes” to the growth rate: “Redo U.S. history, but assume the country’s economy had grown one percentage point less each year between 1870 and 1990. In that scenario, the United States of 1990 would be no richer than the Mexico of 1990.”

Cowen gave the negative scenario in which the growth rate was 1 percent slower. US Citizens would have drastically shorter lifespans, less education, less healthcare, less safety from violence, more susceptibility to disease and natural disaster, fewer career choices, and so on. Now imagine the opposite scenario, in which US economic policy had just 1 additional percentage point of growth each year. The average American today would in all probability be living much longer, having much nicer housing, choosing from far more career opportunities, and enjoying more advanced technology.

Just imagine your income doubling, and what you could do for yourself, your family, or the charity of your choice with all that extra wealth. Something along those lines could have happened to most Americans. But instead, growth has been significantly slowed in the United States because taxes and regulations have constantly disincentivized and disallowed new innovations.

At the margins, many dying of preventable diseases could have been cured, many who spiraled into homelessness could have accessed the employment opportunities or mental health treatment they needed, and so on. While economic fortune seems like a luxury to those who already enjoy material comfort, there are always many at the margin for whom the health of the economy is the difference between life and death.

These are among the reasons that Harvard University economist Gregory Mankiw concludes in his commonly used college textbookMacroeconomics, that, “Long-​run economic growth is the single most important determinant of the economic well-​being of a nation’s citizens. Everything else that macroeconomists study — unemployment, inflation, trade deficits, and so on — pales in comparison.”

When we think of the future our children or grandchildren will live in, depending on our choices between even slightly more or less restrictive economic policies today, we could be plausibly looking at a future of widespread and affordable space travel, life-​changing education and remote work opportunities in the metaverse, new sustainable energy innovations, a biotechnological revolution in the human capacity for medical and psychological flourishing, genome projects and conservation investments to revive extinct and protect endangered species, and countless other improvements to the human condition. Or we could be looking at a drawn-​out stagnation in poverty alleviation, technological advancement, and environmental progress. The difference may well hinge on what looks today like a tiny change in the rate of compounding growth.

At the broadest level, more wealth in the hands of the human species represents a greater capacity of humans to chart their course through life and into the future in accordance with their values. Like all profound and far-​reaching forms of change, economic growth has a wide range of consequences, some intended and others unintended, many desirable and many others undesirable. But it is not a random process. It is directed by the choices of individuals, and allocated by their drive to devote more resources and more investment into those things they view as worthwhile. Ever since the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution, the investment in human values has been on balance a positive sum game, in which one group’s gains do not have to come in the form of another group’s losses. This is demonstrated by the upward trends in human flourishing since the global rise in exponential economic growth. Indeed, it is intrinsic to the fundamental difference between a growing and a shrinking or stagnant economy: In a growing economy, everyone can win.

This article was published at Libertarianism.org on 11/17/2023.

Blog Post | Human Development

1,000 Bits of Good News You May Have Missed in 2023

A necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.

Reading the news can leave you depressed and misinformed. It’s partisan, shallow, and, above all, hopelessly negative. As Steven Pinker from Harvard University quipped, “The news is a nonrandom sample of the worst events happening on the planet on a given day.”

So, why does Human Progress feature so many news items? And why did I compile them in this giant list? Here are a few reasons:

  • Negative headlines get more clicks. Promoting positive stories provides a necessary balance to the torrent of negativity.
  • Statistics are vital to a proper understanding of the world, but many find anecdotes more compelling.
  • Many people acknowledge humanity’s progress compared to the past but remain unreasonably pessimistic about the present—not to mention the future. Positive news can help improve their state of mind.
  • We have agency to make the world better. It is appropriate to recognize and be grateful for those who do.

Below is a nonrandom sample (n = ~1000) of positive news we collected this year, separated by topic area. Please scroll, skim, and click. Or—to be even more enlightened—read this blog post and then look through our collection of long-term trends and datasets.

Agriculture

Aquaculture

Farming robots and drones

Food abundance

Genetic modification

Indoor farming

Lab-grown produce

Pollination

Other innovations

Conservation and Biodiversity

Big cats

Birds

Turtles

Whales

Other comebacks

Forests

Reefs

Rivers and lakes

Surveillance and discovery

Rewilding and conservation

De-extinction

Culture and tolerance

Gender equality

General wellbeing

LGBT

Treatment of animals

Energy and natural Resources

Fission

Fusion

Fossil fuels

Other energy

Recycling and resource efficiency

Resource abundance

Environment and pollution

Climate change

Disaster resilience

Air pollution

Water pollution

Growth and development

Education

Economic growth

Housing and urbanization

Labor and employment

Health

Cancer

Disability and assistive technology

Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Diabetes

Heart disease and stroke

Other non-communicable diseases

HIV/AIDS

Malaria

Other communicable diseases

Maternal care

Fertility and birth control

Mental health and addiction

Weight and nutrition

Longevity and mortality 

Surgery and emergency medicine

Measurement and imaging

Health systems

Other innovations

Freedom

    Technology 

    Artificial intelligence

    Communications

    Computing

    Construction and manufacturing

    Drones

    Robotics and automation

    Autonomous vehicles

    Transportation

    Other innovations

    Science

    AI in science

    Biology

    Chemistry and materials

      Physics

      Space

      Violence

      Crime

      War

      Wired | Communications

      Google’s NotebookLM Aims to Be the Ultimate Writing Assistant

      “NotebookLM, originally called Project Tailwind, starts by creating a data set of your source material, which you drag into the tool from Google Docs or the clipboard. After the app has digested it all, you can then ask NotebookLM questions about your material, thanks to Google’s large language model technology—partly powered by its just-released upgrade Gemini. The answers reflect not only what’s in your source material but also the wider general understanding of the world that Gemini has. A critical feature is that every answer to your queries comes with a set of citations reporting where exactly the information came from, so users can check the accuracy of its output.”

      From Wired.

      Blog Post | Wellbeing

      Is This the Best Time to Be Alive?

      Overwhelming evidence shows that we are richer, healthier, better fed, better educated, and even more humane than ever before.

      Imagine, if you will, the following scenario. It is 1723, and you are invited to dinner in a bucolic New England countryside, unspoiled by the ravages of the Industrial Revolution. There, you encounter a family of English settlers who left the Old World to start a new life in North America. The father, muscles bulging after a vigorous day of work on the farm, sits at the head of the table, reading from the Bible. His beautiful wife, dressed in rustic finery, is putting finishing touches on a pot of hearty stew. The son, a strapping lad of 17, has just returned from an invigorating horse ride, while the daughter, aged 12, is playing with her dolls. Aside from the antiquated gender roles, what’s there not to like?

      As an idealized depiction of pre-industrial life, the setting is easily recognizable to anyone familiar with Romantic writing or films such as Gone with the Wind or the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As a description of reality, however, it is rubbish; balderdash; nonsense and humbug. More likely than not, the father is in agonizing and chronic pain from decades of hard labor. His wife’s lungs, destroyed by years of indoor pollution, make her cough blood. Soon, she will be dead. The daughter, the family being too poor to afford a dowry, will spend her life as a spinster, shunned by her peers. And the son, having recently visited a prostitute, is suffering from a mysterious ailment that will make him blind in five years and kill him before he is 30.

      For most of human history, life was very difficult for most people. They lacked basic medicines and died relatively young. They had no painkillers, and people with ailments spent much of their lives in agonizing pain. Entire families lived in bug-infested dwellings that offered neither comfort nor privacy. They worked in the fields from sunrise to sunset, yet hunger and famines were common. Transportation was primitive, and most people never traveled beyond their native villages or nearest towns. Ignorance and illiteracy were rife. The “good old days” were, by and large, very bad for the great majority of humankind. Since then, humanity has made enormous progress—especially over the course of the last two centuries.

      How much progress?

      Life expectancy before the modern era, which is to say, the last 200 years or so, was between ages 25 and 30. Today, the global average is 73 years old. It is 78 in the United States and 85 in Hong Kong.

      In the mid-18th century, 40 percent of children died before their 15th birthday in Sweden and 50 percent in Bavaria. That was not unusual. The average child mortality among hunter-gatherers was 49 percent. Today, global child mortality is 4 percent. It is 0.3 percent in the Nordic nations and Japan.

      Most of the people who survived into adulthood lived on the equivalent of $2 per day—a permanent state of penury that lasted from the start of the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago until the 1800s. Today, the global average is $35—adjusted for inflation. Put differently, the average inhabitant of the world is 18 times better off.

      With rising incomes came a massive reduction in absolute poverty, which fell from 90 percent in the early 19th century to 40 percent in 1980 to less than 10 percent today. As scholars from the Brookings Institution put it, “Poverty reduction of this magnitude is unparalleled in history.”

      Along with absolute poverty came hunger. Famines were once common, and the average food consumption in France did not reach 2,000 calories per person per day until the 1820s. Today, the global average is approaching 3,000 calories, and obesity is an increasing problem—even in sub-Saharan Africa.

      Almost 90 percent of people worldwide in 1820 were illiterate. Today, over 90 percent of humanity is literate. As late as 1870, the total length of schooling at all levels of education for people between the ages of 24 and 65 was 0.5 years. Today, it is nine years.

      These are the basics, but don’t forget other conveniences of modern life, such as antibiotics. President Calvin Coolidge’s son died from an infected blister, which he developed while playing tennis at the White House in 1924. Four years later, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. Or think of air conditioning, the arrival of which increased productivity and, therefore, standards of living in the American South and ensured that New Yorkers didn’t have to sleep on outside staircases during the summer to keep cool.

      So far, I have chiefly focused only on material improvements. Technological change, which drives material progress forward, is cumulative. But the unprecedented prosperity that most people enjoy today isn’t the most remarkable aspect of modern life. That must be the gradual improvement in our treatment of one another and of the natural world around us—a fact that’s even more remarkable given that human nature is largely unchanging.

      Let’s start with the most obvious. Slavery can be traced back to Sumer, a Middle Eastern civilization that flourished between 4,500 BC and 1,900 BC. Over the succeeding 4,000 years, every civilization at one point or another practiced chattel slavery. Today, it is banned in every country on Earth.

      In ancient Greece and many other cultures, women were the property of men. They were deliberately kept confined and ignorant. And while it is true that the status of women ranged widely throughout history, it was only in 1893 New Zealand that women obtained the right to vote. Today, the only place where women have no vote is the Papal Election at the Vatican.

      A similar story can be told about gays and lesbians. It is a myth that the equality, which gays and lesbians enjoy in the West today, is merely a return to a happy ancient past. The Greeks tolerated (and highly regulated) sexual encounters among men, but lesbianism (women being the property of men) was unacceptable. The same was true about relationships between adult males. In the end, all men were expected to marry and produce children for the military.

      Similarly, it is a mistake to create a dichotomy between males and the rest. Most men in history never had political power. The United States was the first country on Earth where most free men could vote in the early 1800s. Prior to that, men formed the backbone of oppressed peasantry, whose job was to feed the aristocrats and die in their wars.

      Strange though it may sound, given the Russian barbarism in Ukraine and Hamas’s in Israel, data suggests that humans are more peaceful than they used to be. Five hundred years ago, great powers were at war 100 percent of the time. Every springtime, armies moved, invaded the neighbor’s territory, and fought until wintertime. War was the norm. Today, it is peace. In fact, this year marks 70 years since the last war between great powers. No comparable period of peace exists in the historical record.

      Homicides are also down. At the time of Leonardo Da Vinci, some 73 out of every 100,000 Italians could expect to be murdered in their lifetimes. Today, it is less than one. Something similar has happened in Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Germany, Scandinavia, and many other places on Earth.

      Human sacrifice, cannibalism, eunuchs, harems, dueling, foot-binding, heretic and witch burning, public torture and executions, infanticide, freak shows and laughing at the insane, as Harvard University’s Steven Pinker has documented, are all gone or linger only in the worst of the planet’s backwaters.

      Finally, we are also more mindful of nonhumans. Lowering cats into a fire to make them scream was a popular spectacle in 16th century Paris. Ditto bearbaiting, a blood sport in which a chained bear and one or more dogs were forced to fight. Speaking of dogs, some were used as foot warmers while others were bred to run on a wheel, called a turnspit or dog wheel, to turn the meat in the kitchen. Whaling was also common.

      Overwhelming evidence from across the academic disciplines clearly shows that we are richer, live longer, are better fed, and are better educated. Most of all, evidence shows that we are more humane. My point, therefore, is a simple one: this is the best time to be alive.