Take the long view and you will find the world is getting better
At the beginning of a new decade when so many people are feeling so unhappy, Mat Ridley, the talented science writer, has come up with the astonishing claim that the past decade was one of the best. “We are living through the greatest improvement in human living standards in history,” he writes in British journal, The Spectator. “Extreme poverty has fallen below 10 per cent of the world’s population for the first time... child mortality has fallen to record low levels; famine virtually went extinct; malaria, polio and heart disease are all in decline....”
Ridley makes a good point. In India, extreme poverty is rapidly declining. Extreme poverty is defined as income below Rs 88 per day and it has come down from 22 per cent of the population in 2012 to 5.5 per cent today. This has happened because India has been growing at an average rate of 7 percent over the last 17 years, the second fastest in the world, after China. There are other positive indicators in the life of the aam aadmi and aam aurat. More Indian women are free from poisonous indoor pollution because they now cook with clean gas. More Indians have access to toilets at home and no longer defecate in the open, and this has liberated them from environmental pollution and other health hazards. More Indians are connected with pukka roads from their villages, have access to electricity, and have a bank account in which they have begun to receive direct benefit transfers.
We don’t notice these quiet but dramatic changes taking place in peoples’ lives because we don’t take the long view of history. We are obsessed with the headlines of the day and good news doesn’t make headlines. Moreover, there are human tendencies that distort our perception of the world, according to Hans Rosling’s influential book, Factfulness. For example, we grew up dividing the world between the developed West and the developing East. That gap has almost disappeared as more and more non-Western countries have become middle-class. Another mistake is to believe that population growth is leading us to an impending doom. The fact is that the rate of growth in the world’s (and India’s) population has declined dramatically during the past twenty years.
The long view is fine, but what about the rise of nationalist leaders in the past decade – Trump, Putin, XI, Erdogan, Modi, Boris Johnson, etc – and the rapid decay in the ideals that we were brought up to believe? How can one feel good when institutions built and nurtured over generations are under threat? The rise of the far right has made the world unpredictable and dangerous. Closer to home, India’s economy has slowed dramatically, our air and water are deteriorating, and Prime Minister Modi is distracted by a contentious social agenda that endangers the nation’s secular and democratic foundations. Students across the country are protesting against a citizenship law and people are in fear of a national register of citizens. The lockdown in Kashmir continues after five months and even pro-India leaders are still in detention. Isn’t that enough to send one permanently into a depression?
This answer is that many of the good things that make the world a better place happen despite the state. They originate in scientific breakthroughs and are then spread quickly by market forces. Take the cell phone, for example, which has empowered the world’s poor in unbelievable ways -- it is a television, watch, camera, torch, record player, newspaper, calendar, letter-writer, chess and bridge player, postman, and much more. In India it has also brought universal banking. The state had little to do with it. There was a recent report in the respected UK science journal, Nature, about an artificial-intelligence system that can now match or outperform radiologists in detecting breast cancer. It can catch cancers that were originally missed and reduce false-positive cancer flags for patients who don’t have it. (Of course, doctors still beat the machine often.)
I began to take Ridley seriously after reading The Rational Optimist, a fascinating history of trade and innovation. Once a talented science writer, he shifted his focus to the economy. Even though his faith in the market seems one sided -- even more one-sided than mine -- his two key concepts, gains from exchange and specialization, rank up there with most important economic ideas of all time. He believes that gains from trade in the market make possible gains from specialization, which in turn makes technological innovation possible. Stephen Pinker, another science writer, has reinforced my optimism. Pinker argues that life has been getting better for most people based on 15 different measures of human wellbeing. People live longer and healthier than ever before and our fear of terrorism is exaggerated -- an American, for example, is 3,000 times more likely to die in an accident than in a terrorist attack. Both gifted science writers offer a tonic against prevailing pessimism.
So, is the world getting better? And who should you believe – the optimists or the pessimists? Obviously, both the long and the short views of history are valid. Clearly, there are good and bad things going on and it isn’t easy to find a balanced perspective. There are reasons to feel depressed by the climate crisis and feel miserable by the politics of the far right. But when dark political clouds descend over my head, I tend to seek refuge in the long view and I feel happier with the world. I think of the quiet changes unfolding in the lives of ordinary people in a hundred million homes across our country. I prefer to ignore the changing fortunes of political leaders and their parties and cheerfully whistle in the dark. It may seem crass to salute progress when there is so much still to be done but then you can’t have it all. In the meanwhile, as someone said, look for the rainbow when it rains and look for the stars when it is dark.