Thursday, May 1, 2014

Not so very long ago, we were all poor...

Not so very long ago, we were all poor...  Deidre McCloskey gives a short and interesting lecture on the rapid increase of human wealth in the last two centuries. 

She starts with a statement of fact that is obvious and completely uncontroversial to anyone with even a smattering of knowledge of human history – that is, perhaps 5% of the American citizenry.  That fact?  That there has been a constant and spectacularly rapid rise in the wealth of the human race since about 1800, no matter how you measure it.  It's very sad to me that this fact is not common knowledge...

She goes on to attribute this growth primarily to the advent of respect for traders, which I think is just a bit silly.  It seems pretty clear from my own reading of history that the rise of human wealth can be attributed primarily to the conjunction of these things:
  • The advance of organized science, which leads directly to technological innovations.  This advance continues at an ever-increasing pace; the process is regenerative and there's no end in sight.
  • The rise of capitalism, perhaps especially with the advent of stock corporations which allow vast pools of capital to be raised focused on a single business opportunity. 
  • The rule of law, applied equally to everyone.  This is still far from perfect anywhere on the planet, but nevertheless there's a direct correlation between the rule of law (and the correlated rise of personal honesty) with the wealth of nations.  Corruption and thugocracy are major reasons why countries like North Korea, Yemen, Pakistan, etc. are generally much poorer than countries like England, Finland, America, etc.
I'm sure this list could be extended, but I think those three are the chief causes.

In conversations with my fellow Americans over the years, I've often been struck by their ignorance of both the temporal and geographical history of wealth.  Many Americans have not traveled extensively outside of the United States, and many more have never really paid any attention to history.  This leads to a set of assumptions – most likely completely unconscious – about the wealth of people in other places and times.  Generally that assumption is that they are (or were) much like the United States today – and of course that's very far from the truth.

I've been fortunate to have traveled to many parts of the world, some of them actually quite obscure :)  This travel has been almost entirely because of my military service and on business trips – the only exception is a single (wonderful) trip that Debbie and I once made to Costa Rica.

In those travels I have seen firsthand just how poor certain parts of the world are.  The Philippines in the '70s (under the corrupt thug Marcos) was one such place.  There I spent some time with people who lived in homes on stilts over their rice paddies, who tilled the earth with wooden plows pulled by water oxen, who defecated through a hole in their floor into the rice paddy below, who owned almost nothing made of metal, and who carried potable water by hand from a spring several miles from their home.  Today these same people have tractors and cars, live in decent homes, and have running water.  What changed?  Their government now embraces capitalism and they have the rule of law.

Even outside my own travels there are some spectacular before-and-after examples.  China is the most obvious one.  Millions of Chinese died of starvation within my own lifetime.  Today they are the fastest growing economy on the planet, home to thousands of millionaires, and soon will be the biggest economy on Earth.  What happened?  Mainly capitalism and a smattering of the rule of law.

Then there's our own history.  It's easy for me to remember that when I was a child, people were not generally as wealthy as they are today.  It always amazes me how easily people forget this, and especially how easily they conflate the rising prices (due to inflation) with their own decreasing wealth.  It's a good mental exercise to think hard about the state of the world in your childhood, and ask if you really think you're not wealthier today.  If you're more than 40 years old or so, it should be easy for you to realize how much better off you are today then when you were a child – unless you grew up in a wealthy family and have today become impoverished.

Consider this now-famous quote:
“I really want to move to a country where the poor people are fat.” 
That's Dinesh D'Souza, quoting an Indian friend.  Two things strike me about that quote.  The first is the obvious one: that even the poor people in America today are much better off than many people around the world.  The second, though, is one that many Americans don't know (or have forgotten): that poor people in America weren't always fat.  In fact, less than 100 years ago – in the Great Depression – we had a great many of our citizens hungry to the point of malnutrition.  The adults who grew up in that time, including my own parents, were significantly shorter on average than the generation after them (height is the classic gross measure of nutrition).

Now here's my punchline: I strongly suspect that if most Americans understood just two things: the fact that our average wealth has been rapidly increasing, and why – that progressives would be squashed out of existence.
  Further, I think the progressives understand this – and that's why they resist educating people about it.  What provoked this thought was listening to Harry Reid (something that should only be done with the assistance of alcohol or psychiatric intervention, or both) blather on about income inequality.  He said a great many things that I simply cannot accept he actually believes – for Harry is himself a wealthy man, and hobnobs regularly with capitalist titans.  If he doesn't believe it, then why is he babbling about it?  That's easy: it provides political advantage (i.e., votes).  He doesn't want his constituents to understand that capitalism works, and that even with great inequality in income everyone can be better off.  That won't get him votes.  Stoking class envy, on the other hand, that's a proven success for progressives all the way back to Karl Marx.

How do we educate people about this?  I'm afraid I don't have any good ideas on that count.  The progressives have established pretty solid control of the educational system, most especially in our universities – where the students are of an age they're likely first interested in political matters.  Every time I think about this, the doom comes upon me...

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