Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Sure, the World Has Big Problems, But Let Us Never Forget How Much Better Things Are Today Than They Were 50 Years Ago

I don't agree with everything Larry Summers says, but he has the right of it in a recent speech on "Global Development Policy for the 21st Century". 
I think the place to start and the place to linger a bit—because in all the doom and all the gloom and all the concern we tend to forget it—is that emerging markets have, in a profound sense, emerged over the last generation. There has been more convergence between poor people in poor countries and rich people in rich countries over the last generation than in any generation in human history.
The dramatic way to say it is that between the time of Pericles and London in 1800, standards of living rose about 75 percent in 2,300 years. They called it the Industrial Revolution because for the first time in human history, standards of living were visibly and meaningfully different at the end of a human lifespan than they had been at the beginning of a human lifespan, perhaps 50 percent higher during the Industrial Revolution.
Fifty percent is the growth that has been achieved in a variety of six-year periods in China over the last generation and in many other countries, as well. And so if you look at material standards of living, we have seen more progress for more people and more catching up than ever before. That is not simply about things that are material and things that are reflected in GDP. The primary message of the Global Health 2035 Report that I coauthored several years ago and that Amanda Glassman and others from CGD were involved in was that if current trends continue, with significant effort from the global community, it is reasonable to hope that in 2035 the global child mortality rate will be lower than the US child mortality rate was when my children were born in 1990. That is a staggering human achievement.
It is already the case that in large parts of China, life expectancy is greater than it is in large parts of the United States. One can tell a similar story in terms of literacy and probably an even stronger story of the rights of women. Extreme poverty is now a phenomenon not of countries that just happen to be poor. It is a phenomenon that reflects pockets of poverty in countries that overall have reasonable incomes, like India or China, and it is a phenomenon of fragile and dysfunctional states that do not have effective governments. It is not a phenomenon of generalized poverty of countries that do not lack resources.
And so we have made incredible progress in the last generation. And if we do as well over the next generation, that generation will be one of the two best generations in human history in terms of poverty reduction. And so as we move to a discussion of how dark it is and populism in industrial countries and all the things I am about to talk about, we should not lose sight of that hugely positive reality, which will be the primary thing that historians who look at this time in terms of these questions in 2300 see.
So the next time you're depressed about the state of the world, think of these incredibly great developments. It will cheer you up (unless you are ideologically committed to being pessimistic). 

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