Progress, Happiness, Economics, and Morality

Items about the reality of progress and hope that humanity overcomes the effects of climate change; the latest world happiness index in which the US ranks 15th; Robert Reich busting myths about how the wealthy right justify their wealth; and the secret fantasy of those who believe in the American Dream.

Vox, Bryan Walsh, 20 Mar 2023: The doomers are wrong about humanity’s future — and its past, subtitled “The necessity of progress.”

Very long piece that to me elaborates the themes of Steven Pinker, Hans Rosling (though it doesn’t mention them), and similar writers, about how the world has in fact progressed in many ways for hundreds of years, despite the tendency of human nature to think the past was better than the present.

If I wanted to convince you of the reality of human progress, of the fact that we as a species have advanced materially, morally, and politically over our time on this planet, I could quote you chapter and verse from a thick stack of development statistics.

I could tell you that a little more than 200 years ago, nearly half of all children born died before they reached their 15th birthday, and that today it’s less than 5 percent globally. I could tell you that in pre-industrial times, starvation was a constant specter and life expectancy was in the 30s at best. I could tell you that at the dawn of the 19th century, barely more than one person in 10 was literate, while today that ratio has been nearly reversed. I could tell you that today is, on average, the best time to be alive in human history.

But that doesn’t mean you’ll be convinced.

In one 2017 Pew poll, a plurality of Americans — people who, perhaps more than anywhere else, are heirs to the benefits of centuries of material and political progress — reported that life was better 50 years ago than it is today. A 2015 survey of thousands of adults in nine rich countries found that 10 percent or fewer believed that the world was getting better. On the internet, a strange nostalgia persists for the supposedly better times before industrialization, when ordinary people supposedly worked less and life was allegedly simpler and healthier. (They didn’t and it wasn’t.)

Point taken and acknowledged; the “good old days” syndrome is in play here. But is the writer not concerned about existential threats, at least one of which currently seems inevitable?

(Namely this one: ‘The climate time-bomb is ticking’: The world is running out of time to avoid catastrophe, new UN report warns at CNN. See also Vox: UN climate scientists are running out of ways to warn us.)

Well, of course he’s aware of it.

Looking backward, we imagine a halcyon past that never was; looking forward, it seems to many as if, in the words of young environmental activist Greta Thunberg, “the world is getting more and more grim every day.”

So it’s boom times for doom times. But the apocalyptic mindset that has gripped so many of us not only understates how far we’ve come, but how much further we can still go.

But he’s confident, more confident than many (see David Wallace-Wells).

Which isn’t to say that the record of progress is one of unending wins. For every problem it solved — the lack of usable energy in the pre-fossil fuel days, for instance — it often created a new one, like climate change. But just as a primary way climate change is being addressed is through innovation that has drastically reduced the price of clean energy, so progress tends to be the best route to solving the problems that progress itself can create.

The article is good for its perspective on how things have changed in ways we don’t notice, or have forgotten about. He spends some time looking at what the world was like in the early 19th century, and cites that book I mentioned late last year (Brad DeLong’s Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the 20th Century) about the effects of the industrial revolution.

In 1870, an average unskilled male worker in London could earn enough per day to buy 5,000 calories worth of food for himself and his family. That was more than in 1600, but not significantly more, and not enough to easily feed everyone consistently, given that mean household size in England at the time was just under five people.

By 2010 — the end of what DeLong in his book called “the long twentieth century” — that same worker could afford to buy the equivalent of 2.4 million calories of food per day, a nearly 50,000 percent increase.

He does circle back to addressing climate change, but concludes,

Before the Industrial Age, we lived in balance, but that balance, for the bulk of humanity, was a terrible place to be — worse, by many measures, than any future we could fear. With industrialization, after tens of thousands of years on this planet, we began to change that.

But we also began a race: Could we keep inventing new technologies, new approaches, that would keep us ahead of the new challenges that progress created? Could we keep solving the problems of success?

So far, the answer has been a qualified yes. Past performance is no guarantee of future results, but we have every reason to believe that we have far more race to run.


The Week, Devika Rao, 20 Mar 2023: Global happiness has been ‘remarkably resilient’ over the past three years

The World Happiness Report was released on Monday, ranking the happiest countries in the world based on average life evaluations from 150 nations. The good news is happiness remained “remarkably resilient” over the past three years, with global averages aligning with the three years before the pandemic, CNN reports.

Finland remains the world’s happiest country for the sixth year. How does the report evaluate happiness? It’s

…based on GDP per capita, social support, life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, perceptions of corruption, and dystopia.

Of course some, like Rosling, have argued that GDP is obsolete, even pernicious, in measuring the health or happiness of a nation or of a people by continued growth, which cannot keep going forever. But note that notion of “freedom to make life choices” again, which Republicans in the US are doing their best to limit, as just discussed yesterday. Despite which the US is number 15 in this year’s survey.


Robert Reich, AlterNet, 20 Mar 2023: Opinion | ‘Bank bailout’: Robert Reich busts 3 myths the ‘undeserving right’ use to justify their wealth

This goes to the bank bailouts last week and the ever increasing inequality in our nation.

The standard conservative explanation for why inequality has widened is that individuals are paid what they’re “worth” — and that a few Americans at the top are now worth extraordinary sums while most Americans are not. …

Markets depend on who has the power to design and enforce them — deciding what can be owned and sold and under what terms, who can join together to gain additional market power, what happens if someone cannot pay up, how to pay for what is held in common, and who gets bailed out.

These are fundamentally moral judgments. Different societies at different times have decided these questions differently. It was once thought acceptable to own and trade human beings, to take the land of indigenous people by force, to put debtors in prison, and to exercise vast monopoly power.

Boiling down to his three myths, which I’ll just list.

The people who now hold a record share of the nation’s wealth justify their wealth (and their low tax rates) by utilizing three myths.
1, The first is trickle-down economics.
2, The second myth is the “free market.”
3, The third myth is that they’re superior beings.

Paul Krugman has pointed out, for decades, that the first is myth, citing economic evidence from history, yet Republicans keep cutting taxes for the wealthy. (Well, because, as everyone knows, the wealthy fund the Republican party, precisely for that reason.) The second item points out that the free market hasn’t changed so much over the decades that those at the top should now be billionaires, rather than mere millionaires. And we just saw items about the third point a few days ago, on the 15th, about the American myth that you can “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” and those who manage to do so are somehow superior beings, rather than merely lucky ones.

There’s an associated idea I’ve heard, which is that part of the “American dream” is that anyone who works hard enough might become an elite millionaire, or now billionaire. And so the millions of ordinary people who aspire to that fantasy don’t want to impose restrictions on the wealthy… because those restrictions would affect *them* when they become wealthy. As everyone secretly imagines they might do, someday.

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