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01 / 05
Ridley: Why Is It so Cool to Be Gloomy?

Blog Post | Adoption of Technology

Ridley: Why Is It so Cool to Be Gloomy?

The world is in better shape than most people think, but we're more inclined to focus on bad news than good.

The Scream painted by artist Edvard Munch in 1893

Has the percentage of the world population that lives in extreme poverty almost doubled, almost halved or stayed the same over the past 20 years? When the Swedish statistician and public health expert Hans Rosling began asking people that question in 2013, he was astounded by their responses. Only 5% of 1,005 Americans got the right answer: Extreme poverty has been cut almost in half. A chimpanzee would do much better, he pointed out mischievously, by picking an answer at random. So people are worse than ignorant: They believe they know many dire things about the world that are, in fact, untrue.

Before his untimely death last year, Rosling (with his son and daughter-in-law as co-authors) published a magnificent book arguing against such reflexive pessimism. Its title says it all: “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.” As the author of a book called “The Rational Optimist,” I’m happy to include myself in their platoon, which also includes writers such as Steven Pinker, Bjorn Lomborg, Michael Shermer and Gregg Easterbrook.

For us New Optimists, however, it’s an uphill battle. No matter how persuasive our evidence, we routinely encounter disbelief and even hostility, as if accentuating the positive was callous. People cling to pessimism about the state of the world. John Stuart Mill neatly summarized this tendency as far back as 1828: “I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” It’s cool to be gloomy.

Studies consistently find that people in developed societies tend to be pessimistic about their country and the world but optimistic about their own lives. They expect to earn more and to stay married longer than they generally do. The Eurobarometer survey finds that Europeans are almost twice as likely to expect their own economic prospects to get better in the coming year as to get worse, while at the same time being more likely to expect their countries’ prospects to get worse than to improve. The psychologist Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania suggests a reason for this: We think we are in control of our own fortunes but not those of the wider society.

There are certainly many causes for concern in the world today, from terrorism to obesity to environmental problems, but the persistence of pessimism about the planet requires some explanation beyond the facts themselves. Herewith a few suggestions:

Bad news is more sudden than good news, which is usually gradual.

Therefore bad news is more newsworthy. Battles, bombings, accidents, murders, storms, floods, scandals and disasters of all kinds tend to dominate the news. “If it bleeds, it leads,” as they used to say in the newspaper business. By contrast, the gradual reduction in poverty in the world rarely makes a sudden splash. As Rosling put it, “In the media the ‘newsworthy’ events exaggerate the unusual and put the focus on swift changes.”

This is part of what psychologists call the “availability bias,” a quirk of human cognition first noticed by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in the 1970s. People vastly overestimate the frequency of crime, because crime disproportionately dominates the news. But random violence makes the news because it is rare, whereas routine kindness doesn’t make the news because it is so common.

Bad news usually matters; good news may not.

In the prehistoric past, it made more sense to worry about risks—it might help you avoid getting killed by a lion—than to celebrate success. Perhaps this is why people have a “negativity bias.” In a 2014 paper, researchers at McGill University examined which news stories their subjects chose to read for what they thought was an eye-tracking experiment. It turns out that even when people say they want more good news, they are more interested in bad news: “Regardless of what participants say, they exhibit a preference for negative news content,” concluded the authors Mark Trussler and Stuart Soroka.

People think in relative not absolute terms.

What matters is how well you are doing relative to other people, because that’s what determined success in the competition for resources (and mates) in the stone age. Being told that others are doing well is therefore a form of bad news. When circumstances get better, people take those improvements for granted and reset their expectations.

Such relativizing behavior affects even our most intimate relationships. An ingenious 2016 study by David Buss and colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin found that “participants lower in mate value than their partners were generally satisfied regardless of the pool of potential mates; participants higher in mate value than their partners became increasingly dissatisfied with their relationships as better alternative partners became available.” Ouch.

As the world improves, people expand their definition of bad news.

This recent finding by the Harvard psychologists David Levari and Daniel Gilbert, known as “prevalence-induced concept change,” suggests that the rarer something gets, the more broadly we redefine the concept. They found in an experiment that the rarer they made blue dots, the more likely people were to call purple dots “blue,” and the rarer they made threatening faces, the more likely people were to describe a face as threatening. “From low-level perception of color to higher-level judgments of ethics,” they write, “there is a robust tendency for perceptual and judgmental standards to ‘creep’ when they ought not to.”

Consider air travel: Plane crashes have been getting steadily scarcer—2017 was the first year with no commercial passenger plane crashes at all, despite four billion people in the air—but each one now receives vastly more coverage. Many people still consider planes a risky mode of transport.

We’re even capable of fretting about the bounty of prosperity, as “Weird Al” Yankovic highlights in his clever song, “First World Problems”: “The thread count on these cotton sheets has got me itching/My house is so big, I can’t get Wi-Fi in the kitchen.” Sheena Iyengar of Columbia Business School became a TED star for her research on the debilitating modern illness known as the “choice overload problem”—that is, being paralyzed by having to choose from among, say, the dozens of types of olive oil or jam on offer at the grocery store. North Koreans, Syrians, Congolese and Haitians generally have more important things to worry about.

Other psychological effects apply as well. There is a tendency to remember the good things about the past and to forget the bad, a phenomenon known as the “reminiscence bump”: People have rosy nostalgia about the days of their youth, whatever it was actually like. There is also the vested interest that pressure groups have in selling bad news in exchange for donations.

Finally, there is what I call “turning-point-itis.” This is the tendency to think that things may have improved in the past but will no longer do so in the future, because we stand at a turning point in history. It’s true, as brokers like to say, that past performance is no guide to future performance. But as the historian Lord Macaulay wrote almost two centuries ago, “On what principle is it that with nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”

So cheer up. The world’s doing better than you think.

This first appeared in the Wall Street Journal.

Blog Post | Economic Growth

Measuring Freedom and Flourishing | Podcast Highlights

Chelsea Follett interviews Leandro Prados de la Escosura about the long term trends in wellbeing, inequality, and freedom.

Listen to the podcast or read the full transcript here.

Let’s discuss your latest book, Human Development and the Path to Freedom.

I have spent many years working on economic performance in the long run, and while I don’t have anything against GDP, I was always uneasy with the idea of using GDP per head as a shortcut for wellbeing. GDP is a good indicator of output but a very deficient indicator of wellbeing.

Most economists say, “This is true, but it’s highly correlated with non-economic dimensions of wellbeing.” There is also a tendency to produce a dashboard of indicators, basically GDP and some additional measures that create a more nuanced picture.

I was unhappy with that. Then I realized that, since the beginning of modern national accounts in the 1950s, there have been attempts to produce alternative measures. More than 30 years ago, the United Nations Development Programme produced the Human Development Index. I was very interested, but at the same time, I was frustrated when I saw that countries with no freedom at all ranked very highly in the index.

For example, in the first report in 1990, they had a retrospect going back to 1975, and I found that Spain, under Franco’s dictatorship, ranked very highly in human development. How come? It wasn’t satisfactory to rank a nasty dictatorship so highly. And then I read the literature accompanying the report and found this very candid assertion: “The purpose of human development is to increase people’s range of choices. If they are not free to make those choices, the entire process becomes a mockery.”

This is an important philosophical point: Human development is not just about living longer or having a higher material standard of living. You can get that in a high-security prison in Norway. Choosing between alternative ways of life is what makes the difference.

To make a long story short, they have tried time and again to introduce freedom, but they never managed to do so because of strong political opposition from country members of the program. So, as an independent scholar, I thought, “Look, nobody is going to read it, but I have the freedom to introduce the freedom dimension.”

Tell me about what you found.

Perhaps what makes sense is to compare what I found to what you would get on the basis of per capita income. If you look at the average increase from 1870 to 2020, the growth in income and wellbeing is very similar.

But if you look closer, you realize there are large differences across different periods. During first globalization before 1913 and between 1970 and 2000, they are relatively close. During the last two decades, the difference is huge in favor of material living standards measured by per capita income. The first part of the 20th century is just the opposite.

What next? Well, try to provide an explanation.

I went in two steps. One was asking, “Why has this growth in human wellbeing happened? What is the intuition?” The intuition is that if you get richer, you’re going to become better fed, healthier, better educated, and freer. But you can also have different levels of wellbeing at the same income level, and the most important finding from a historical perspective is that at any point of income, you have higher wellbeing today than in the past.

If you compare 1870 to 1913, you see that for most of the income levels, you get the same association between health and income, but at high levels of income, you get higher levels of health. Improvements in health techniques and medical knowledge were restricted to the most advanced countries. But if you look at the 1950s, at any income level, you get higher levels of health than in 1913 or 1870. You also find this for education and freedom. If you move to 2000, there is another upward shift.

Of course, there are reversals. There have been four moments in time in which the progression, the positive progression of human development stopped or declined. One was the Great Depression. The second one was during Mao’s Great Leap Forward. Then there were the oil shocks in the early ’70s, but the most damaging one has been COVID. COVID is the first period in which wellbeing measured in terms of augmented human development has declined

However, over the long run, for any income level, whether you are rich or poor, nowadays you have higher wellbeing than in the past.

Those findings are fascinating. What would you say is the biggest implication of your work?

The first thing is that wellbeing, broadly defined, has expanded worldwide more steadily than per capita income.

Secondly, the phases in which we conventionally associate improvements in wellbeing are not necessarily the same as those in which actual wellbeing improved. For instance, there was an important improvement in the so-called interwar period, even though economic growth stagnated. In 20th-century India, before independence, there was a stagnation in real average income but a remarkable improvement in health. This was because of the discovery of the germ theory of disease, which brought simple hygienic practices like washing your hands before eating and not sleeping near animals.

We also tend to forget that the association between wellbeing and income is not fixed. There are movements along the function: if you are richer, other things being equal, you’re going to be healthier, more educated, and freer. But this is not the whole story. There are also upward and downward shifts.

For instance, you could say that in terms of freedom in 2020, we are worse off than we were 20 years ago. This doesn’t mean that people were richer 20 years ago—we’re richer now—but at the same income level, 20 years ago, people were freer than we are today.

So, it’s a nuanced picture. Overall, things are improving, but there are also worrying declines in freedom.

Exactly.

Can you talk about inequality?

In 1870, in the case of wellbeing, inequality was high, and it increased up to the end of the century, then went down. Then, because of World War I, it increased again. But from the late 1920s to the present, with the exception of a reversal because of World War II, there has been a steady decline in inequality of wellbeing.

In the case of per capita income, inequality increased until the end of the 20th century, around 1980, and only began declining after 1990.

Here, I’m referring to relative inequality. If we increase wealth by 10 percent everywhere, inequality in relative terms doesn’t change. Some people are a bit pickier and think, “If my income increases 10 percent and my income is 100, I get 110. If your income is 1000, you now get 1100.” This is absolute inequality.

Relative inequality in per capita income increased until 1980 and has declined since 1990. But absolute inequality in per capita income, the distance between rich and poor, continues growing.

Absolute inequality in wellbeing has declined since 1960. Today, it is similar to what you would find in 1938, 1913, or 1900, but higher than in 1870.

It’s also important to look at what happens to different parts of the distribution. Who are the winners and losers? Broadly speaking, the middle class of the world gained the most, and the lower classes and those at the top won relatively less. If you look at absolute gains, those who were at a higher level of wellbeing got more. But that changes for different dimensions. Those at the bottom, for example, were the main winners in terms of education, while those in the middle were the main winners in terms of health.

I know that your current focus is on freedom. Could you tell me a little bit about that?

I became interested in human development after reading Amartya Sen, who emphasizes what Isaiah Berlin would call positive freedom. Freedom to. But he also emphasizes negative freedom, the absence of coercion and interference. And I think this is interesting because many people think there is a trade-off between negative and positive freedom.

At the end of the day, everybody wants to have negative freedom, but there are those who think negative freedom has nothing to do with income, that would be Hayek, and those who think negative freedom can only be reached as a second stage once you provide for those who don’t have access. For some, positive freedom is a socialist lie to reduce negative freedom. For others, they are two faces of the same coin.

As an economic historian, I find this is an interesting topic for research. If you look at the world, and you can see this in the Human Freedom Index that Cato publishes, you see the countries at the top in terms of negative freedom are also at the top in terms of positive freedom. For instance, Denmark is at the top of the list in terms of economic freedom, but also in terms of education and health.

My question was, well, maybe this trade-off is only a short-run phenomenon. Maybe if you look at the long run, the trade-off doesn’t hold or only holds for a certain period. So why not construct two alternative sets of estimates, one for positive freedom and the other for negative freedom? And this is what I’m trying to do now.

My main discrepancy with the Fraser Institute economic freedom index is that I don’t take into account the size of government. I know this is a contentious issue. People say, “the larger the government, the less room for private initiative.” At a point in time, this is true. And if you look at similarly developed countries, this is true.

But if you take a cross-section at a point in time, you can see that there are countries in which the size of government is much, much smaller, that are not necessarily freer, in terms of absence of coercion and interference, than countries with larger governments. Look at, for instance, Latin American and Sub-Saharan African countries. Think of Somalia. Or think of my own country under Franco. It was a right-wing, but, in many aspects, very socialist dictatorship in which the government was everywhere. But the size of government was very small.

In 1980, do you know what percentage the income tax contributed to the revenues of the central government in Spain? Give me a figure. You would say 40 percent?

Sure, 40 percent.

2 percent.

Wow.

Nobody paid income tax. So, there was no redistribution.

My point is that the size of government matters less than the nature of government. Perhaps Denmark would have more economic freedom with a smaller government, but if you compare Denmark to other countries, you can see that even though the Danish government is larger, Denmark’s degree of economic freedom is higher. Why? Because the nature of government action is different. It doesn’t interfere as much as another government that is less intrusive in quantitative terms but more intrusive in qualitative terms.

So, if you are looking at a point in time, it makes sense to say, “mutatis mutandis, if a rich country nowadays has a smaller government, this country is going to be freer.” That is true. But the action of government varies from one case to another.

Get Leandro Prados de la Escosura’s book, Human Development and the Path to Freedom: 1870 to the Present, here.

The Human Progress Podcast | Ep. 48

Leandro Prados de la Escosura: Measuring Freedom and Flourishing

Leandro Prados de la Escosura, an emeritus professor of economic history at Carlos III University in Spain, joins Chelsea Follett to discuss long term trends in wellbeing, inequality, and freedom. To see the slides that accompany the interview, watch the video on YouTube.

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

      Blog Post | Food & Hunger

      Time Equality Is Increasing Dramatically

      Instead of comparing differences in income between people, we should compare how we spend our time today versus yesterday.

      Summary: A common way to measure inequality is by comparing differences in income between people or countries. However, this approach may overlook a more important dimension of human well-being: how we spend our time. Using data from the World Bank, this article shows that time inequality has dramatically declined over the past six decades.


      The Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson notes that you should “compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not who someone else is today.” Since we all get exactly 24 hours a day, and no one can really buy time (otherwise, rich people would never die), it might also be better to compare differences in how we spend our time. Instead of comparing differences in money income between people, we should compare differences in how we spend our time today versus yesterday.

      According to the World Bank, in 1960, nominal gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in China was $89.50. By 2021, it had increased by 13,929 percent to $12,556. Over the same period, nominal GDP in India increased by 2,671 percent from $82.19 to $2,277.43, and in the United States, it increased from $3,007 to $69,287, or by 2,204 percent.

      Chinese GDP per capita grew six times faster than the U.S. GDP per capita. The ratio of China to U.S. GDP per capita in 1960 was 33.6. By 2021, it had fallen to 5.52. The ratio of India to U.S. GDP per capita in 1960 was 36.6. By 2021, it had fallen to 30.4. China is making pretty good progress, but there is still a significant gap in GDP per capita.

      Perhaps a better way to compare inequality is with time. Let’s start with the time to earn the money to buy a basket of basic food. The World Bank tracks the nominal price of rice, wheat, and maize (corn). These three commodities represent the most common sources of calories around the planet. An index of the nominal prices indicates an increase of 418 percent from a base value of 1 in 1960 to 5.18 in 2021.

      Comparing the cost of this three-food index to GDP per capita in China over this period indicates a 96.3 percent decrease in the time price. Put differently, if the Chinese needed to work eight hours to earn the money to buy their food in 1960, they only needed to work around 18 minutes in 2021. For the time it took to buy one unit in the three-commodity basket in 1960, they would get 27 units in 2021. The Chinese gained 7 hours and 42 minutes a day to devote to other activities.

      The time price of a three-commodity basket fell by 81.3 percent in India. Indians who might have needed to work eight hours to buy their food in 1960, needed to work only around 90 minutes to do the same in 2021. For the time it took them to buy one unit in the three-commodity basket in 1960, they got 5.35 baskets in 2021. Thus, they gained 6 hours and 30 minutes a day.

      In contrast, using the three-commodity basket as an index, people in the United States, who may have had to work an hour a day to earn enough money to buy their food in 1960, only needed to work around 13.5 minutes to do the same in 2021. The time price of the three-commodity basket fell by 77.5 percent. For the time it took them to earn enough money to buy one unit in the three-commodity basket in 1960, they got 4.45 baskets in 2021. Americans gained 46.5 minutes a day to devote to other activities.

      From this perspective, the difference (or time gap) amounted to 420 minutes between Chinese and Indians on the one hand and Americans on the other hand in 1960. By 2021, the time gap dropped to 76.5 minutes for Indians and 4.5 minutes for Chinese. For every minute Americans gained, Chinese gained almost 10 and Indians gained 8.4. Time inequality has dramatically declined.

      As new knowledge and innovation decreases the time price of basic food items, people have much more time to devote to other activities, including leisure and learning. And when people have the time to get on learning curves and discover new knowledge, we all benefit.

      You can learn more about these economic facts and ideas in our new book, Superabundance, which is available at Amazon.