Saturday, June 23, 2007

Better World Every Day

This is an excellent book review which examines the current state of our world in the context of the free market conception that leaving it all to the market is the way to go.

It isn’t, and the reviewer understands that we need a strong government to balance strong capitalism and social justice.

Better and Better: The Myth of Inevitable Progress
By James Surowiecki
From Foreign Affairs, July/August 2007
The Improving State of the World: Why We're Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet. . Indur M. Goklany. : Cato Institute, 2007, 516 pp.$29.95

"Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better." That mantra, invented by the self-taught psychologist Émile Coué in the nineteenth century, kept running through my head as I read Indur Goklany's new book on the relationship between economic growth and human and environmental progress, The Improving State of the World. Just as Coué told his patients that incessant repetition of his mantra would make it come true, Goklany seems to believe that saying often enough -- and in enough different ways -- that life today is better than ever will make it so.

Goklany depicts a global economy in which nearly all signs are positive -- and in which the problems that do exist, such as stagnation or setbacks in sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet Union, will be solved if economic growth and technological improvements are allowed to work their magic. Nor is this, in Goklany's account, a new phenomenon. He marshals an impressive array of historical data to argue that the trajectory of the twentieth century has been generally upward and onward. Taken as a whole, Goklany argues, humanity really has been getting better and better day by day, so that today, as his subtitle puts it, "we're living longer, healthier, more comfortable lives on a cleaner planet."

Seen from a broad historical perspective, this description is, for most people, accurate enough. Just about everyone living today is the beneficiary of what can almost certainly be called the single most consequential development in human history -- namely, the onset of industrialization. As the economic historian Angus Maddison has shown in a series of studies of economic development over the past two millennia, human economies grew very little, if at all, for most of human history. Between 1000 and 1820 or so, Maddison estimates, annual economic growth was around 0.05 percent a year -- which meant that living standards improved incredibly slowly and that people living in 1800 were only mildly better off than people living in 1000. But sometime around 1820, that all began to change. Between 1820 and today, world per capita real income grew 20 times as fast as it did in the previous eight centuries.

In the West, above all, the effects of this transformation have been so massive as to be practically unfathomable. Real income, life expectancy, literacy and education rates, and food consumption have soared, while infant mortality, hours worked, and food prices have plummeted. And although the West has been the biggest beneficiary of these changes, the diffusion of technology, medicine, and agricultural techniques has meant that developing countries have enjoyed dramatic improvements in what the United Nations calls "human development indicators," even if most of their citizens remain poor. One consequence of this is that people at a given income level today are likely to be healthier and to live longer than people at the same income level did 40 or 50 years ago.

In one sense, all of this should be obvious, since a moment's thought -- or a quick read of a nineteenth-century novel -- should suffice to remind you of how much better, at least in material terms, life is today than it was a century ago, let alone in the 1600s. But as behavioral economists have persuasively demonstrated, human beings quickly adapt to their surroundings and come to take their current state of affairs for granted. In other words, it is difficult, even after your life has changed dramatically for the better, to remain aware of just how much better it is, and even harder to truly appreciate how much better you have it than your great-grandparents did. So part of Goklany's project here -- and it is a valuable part -- is to make clear just how much real progress there has been over the past two centuries and even (in many places) over the past two decades in the life of the average human being.


Goklany's target is not just the natural tendency of human beings to take things for granted. His real opponents are what he calls the "neo-Malthusians" -- those who are convinced that there are natural limits to growth and that humanity has been butting up against them for quite some time now. The neo-Malthusians had their heyday in the 1960s and early 1970s, with works such as Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb and the Club of Rome's appropriately titled The Limits to Growth. Although their doomsaying about population growth and industrialization is no longer front-page news, their deep-seated skepticism about the virtues of economic growth and their conviction that the richer people get, the worse things become for the earth remain an important strand of modern environmentalism. If Goklany sees progress everywhere he looks, the neo-Malthusians see impending disaster: air pollution, the disappearance of habitats, the emptying of aquifers, the demolition of forest cover, and the proliferation of new diseases. Day by day, in every way, in other words, we are getting worse and worse.

The problem with neo-Malthusianism, as Goklany appropriately suggests, is that it has consistently underestimated the beneficial effects of technological change. The e = mc2 of the neo-Malthusians was introduced three decades ago, when Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren invented the equation I = PAT. Environmental impact (I) was said to be the product of population size (P), level of affluence (A), and technological efficiency (T). According to this logic, not only are population growth and economic growth bad for the earth, but so, too, is technological change, since it has a multiplier effect on the other two factors. The only way to save the planet, from the neo-Malthusians' perspective, is to set strict limits on human behavior, doing everything possible to rein in businesses and consumers.