Relative & absolute perceptions of well being

By Razib Khan | October 9, 2010 12:56 pm

I asked this on twitter, but no one responded. If you had to choose between two scenarios, which would you choose:

– A world population of 10 billion where 90% were not malnourished?

– A world population of 500 million were 90% were malnourished?

The first scenario has 2.2 times as many malnourished individuals as the second.

This issue of relative and absolute values matters. Most of you are likely aware of the economic literature on the “big fish small pond” vs. “small fish big pond” effect. Perceptions of poverty are to some extent standardized to local distributions.

Or consider this data on manufacturing output:



In case it isn’t clear: the first chart shows that the United States remains the absolute top ranked nation in manufacturing output. The second chart shows that the United States remains proportionally the largest producer of manufactured goods in the world.

And yet the perception is that American manufacturing is in decline. Why? Part of the issue is straightforward in that employment in American manufacturing is in decline. But I suspect another issue is that the scale and magnitude of American relative dominance is also in decline.

Finally, one thing to remember is that the USA is actually a relatively unglobalized economy for a large nation. We’ve had around 10% of goods and services be in the export sector for about a generation now. Here’s a chart which shows the trends. On the x-axis is income per capita (PPP). On the y-axis is the % of goods and services exported. The bubble size is proportional to population. The USA is at the bottom right.

Image Credit: Curious Cat Blog

MORE ABOUT: Economics

Comments (22)

  1. Katharine

    Meh. The first one is better if you consider other factors, because that 90% that’s not malnourished is more people available to help the 10% that is.

  2. Katharine

    Assuming, of course, that the putative world we’re talking about can handle that many people.

  3. just to be clear, personally i do think there are limits to a leibnizian “let us calculate” stance. but the discussion of the details fleshes out priors.

  4. bioIgnoramus

    The wonder of the modern US is that the poor are fat. So as a last resort you can eat them.

  5. Diane

    I vote for scenario number one. The US, Japan and Europe are only a small part of the world’s population. US (5%) Japan (2%) Europe (12%) That should mean that the developing world is a lot better off.

  6. Sandgroper

    Option 1, because helping to improve the lot of the 10% is achievable.

    IOW the same answer as the notably non-misogynist Katharine, except not only are there lots more OK people available to help, but helping is also achievable in material terms (demonstrably).

  7. Jason Malloy

    The reductio ad absurdum of the first is the repugnant conclusion (suffering ameliorated in volume), the reductio of the second is voluntary human extinction (least amount of suffering principle).

    I choose the first, because all else is not equal. The trendline for the second scenario could be flat for hundreds of more years, but the first scenario promises exponential improvements. If malnutrition drops to 2%, the absolute amount of suffering has decreased. The population will also decline with prosperity.

    But if all else is equal I choose the second scenario.

  8. Sandgroper

    *slaps head* I did of course mean the notably non-misanthropic Katharine. I think it’s a given that she’s non-misogynist.

  9. Katharine

    I find these sorts of Choose-A-Scenario questions, no matter who they’re posed by (I find that often they seem to be posed by people who are trying to sound Deep Thinky – a la Jack Handey, I suppose? – without actually being so) to be very shortsighted in their scope.

    I suppose one could imagine a scenario in which the second option would be better – limited resources and a population made up of people who were all totally unable and unwilling to help – but the fact is that in this modern age even when many of the people on this planet starve we who don’t starve make efforts to feed they who do.

  10. Katharine

    *slaps head* I did of course mean the notably non-misanthropic Katharine. I think it’s a given that she’s non-misogynist.

    I am indeed not a misogynist.

    In this day and age, of course, one should be aware, though, that just because a woman is a woman unfortunately does not necessarily mean she’s not a misogynist. There is some weird self-hating going on among some groups of women, which makes these groups pathetic.

    My misanthropy is less of the ‘RAR I HATE PEOPLE DIE DIE DIE’ sort and more of the ‘you f*cking moron, maybe I’d be less inclined to spout angry at you if you weren’t such an idiot ,and maybe there is hope for you, but f*ck if you aren’t being an idiot right now.’

  11. twl

    Scenario #2 reduces physical suffering as # of malnourised falls by 550 million people but it also is a morally repugnant scenario because this society must be very dysfunctional and/or unequal to not be able to adequately feed the majority of its people.

    Scenario #1 is less unequal and has many more lives – 9.5bn more. That is a moral good. From the perspective of Scenario #1 Scenario #2 is a false moral economy – it achieves its reduction in absolute physical suffering only through a vast cull of lives.

    So I would choose scenario #1. It’s a more equal world and the vast number of lives counterbalance the absolute rise in the malnourised.

  12. outeast

    It does occur to me to wonder whether the gap between perception and reality in US manufacturing is in part due to what is being madein each case. I’ve so far failed to find the stats to test this hypothesis, but maybe the shift in manufacturing is most noticeable in high-visibility product areas? (ie we notice the ‘Made in China’ labels on the ubiquitous low-value crap but don’t register the souces of high-value items like pharmaceuticals and missiles…)

    It may also be worth noting that the above figures are in output value by USD and so might look different by another metric (China-made products are a hell of a lot cheaper!). Again, not been able to find a way to test that hypothesis…

  13. jb

    All else being equal I would rather have 90 percent of the population well fed; the absolute numbers seem fairly irrelevant to me in that regard.

    However absolute numbers do matter. The thing is, I have serious doubts about whether the Earth can support 10 billion people long term without the world’s resources being totally exhausted. It isn’t just energy — that actually seems like it may be a solvable problem. It’s everything else. It’s silver and gold, and platinum, and tantalum, and all those rare earth elements that China is playing games with, and so on. I’ve seen projections where we start running out of some materials that are critical for our high technology society within a few decades. Even if those projections are way off, what about a five hundred years from now? Or ten thousand? Even with recycling something is always lost, scattered to the wind as dust, unrecoverable. We see the earliest stirrings of civilization maybe ten thousand years ago, and for most of the time since then civilization has weighed fairly lightly on the Earth. I’m just finding it more and more difficult to imagine how the Earth can support a high technology high population society for similar periods of time into the future.

    I’ll tell you one thing: I’m half convinced that if we have a hard civilizational collapse in the 21th century, that’s it, game over. All the easily accessible resources are long gone. There is no more copper, or tin, or zinc that can be mined with Neolithic technology. Unless we can climb back up by scavenging ruined cities, it’s going to be a million years of wood, stone, and iron.

  14. Actually, the manufacturing output is measured in billions of US dollars — the text that accompanies the original graph says so, so the labeling for the vertical axis is misleading.

  15. Katharine

    jb, if one reduced the numbers by nine-tenths – a billion in the first case versus 50 million in the second case – that might be an easier set of numbers to work with.

  16. I’m just finding it more and more difficult to imagine how the Earth can support a high technology high population society for similar periods of time into the future.


  17. jb


    Yeah, that’s the best I’ve been able to come up with so far. (Hopefully it won’t involve delicately nudging enormous rocks into near Earth orbits!) I’m not ruling out the possibility of some sort of “singularity” either, although I don’t expect it any time soon. But I do think it is interesting how little people today — even the catastrophists — seem to be concerned with time horizons beyond the next century. The ancient Greeks and Romans don’t seem all that far back to us, but the 22nd century appears to count as the far distant future. I think maybe we’ve all been so impressed by the rate of recent technological change that we are all assuming that if we can just last out the next century then technology will surely save us. And it might — it’s just that I don’t think there is anything sure about it.

    I really do with people were more aware of the possibility that, if we have a crash now, it might not be possible to recover, ever. If I were king of the world, my long term plan for dealing with the issue would, among other things, involve eugenically breeding the population down to about 100 million (which, as Katharine noted, would be a much easier number to work with). Or course, if I were really king of the world, and I actually tried to do that, I probably wouldn’t be king for very long. So I think we’re pretty much going to have to take what comes, with no real long term planning, and hope it works out for the best.

  18. I think a few questions need to be answered first. Starting with, why are the malnourished malnourished?

  19. Chris T

    involve eugenically breeding the population down to about 100 million

    Be careful here, there is likely a minimum population threshold at which a technical civilization can be sustained.

  20. vnv

    If we assume that my own position among the unhungry/hungry is chosen with a uniform probability distribution, then in the world where 90% of people are unhungry, I have a 90% chance of being one of the unhungry ones, versus 10% in the other.

    In a world where 90% of the people are hungry, if I were in the fed 10% I’d be worried about being overrun by the desperate 90%. Of course, in the 90%-fed world, the desperate 10% could still get violent and attack and what not, but I expect that would only tie up about approximately the same number of people to deal with them, so I’d have, say, around an 8/9 chance of not being bothered by it.

    (Yes, I know that this is missing the point of the question regarding whether it’s relative or absolute numbers we care about.)


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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