Things are looking up for the world's poor!

By Razib Khan | October 4, 2010 8:04 pm

I just listened to a discussion between John Horgan and Madhusree Mukerjee, and the conversation ended on a moderately down note as Mukerjee seemed pessimistic about the prospects for the world’s poor. Where do these people get the idea that things are getting worse? I recall the same sentiment from Massimo Pigliucci. These are people with advanced degrees in science (Mukerjee has a doctorate in physics from University of Chicago, and Pigliucci has multiple advanced degrees), but they seem totally immune to the empirical trendlines of our age.

Here is China’s life expectancy over the past 50 years:

And below are a series of vital statistics for the world which are “looking up.” I’m not arguing here that things will inevitability get better, I’m arguing to at least acknowledge that things have noticeably gotten better.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Development, Economics
  • omar

    Its my experience that some of the critics are actually thinking of culture and “happiness” and they firmly believe that cultures have decayed and “happiness” has declined as a result. These two terms are sufficiently subjective to allow almost any interpretation (especially if you have an expensive University education). The more objective data you cite are initially ignored or flat out wrongly presented, but when challenged, the person may back off from what they dismissively regard as “purely material factors”. As a last resort, the determined antagonist will say that the world has improved, but given the environmental and cultural costs, this apparent improvement is actually the precursor to a much bigger disaster to come…..right or wrong, this argument cannot be settled by objective data.

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  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    omar, right. mukerjee cites some of the last especially in her pessimism. as for the first set of arguments, they’d be more plausible if the proponents were not usually the types that flew all around the world! development for me, but not for thee, for the happiness of all!

  • http://lablemming.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    These are all percentages, and the rates of increases are generally lower than the population increases in poor parts of the world. So while the percentage of malnutrition, for example, may be increasing by 3% per decade, the total number of malnurished people is still increasing due to the increase in population.

  • http://www.libertypages.com/clarktech Clark

    Millennialist and apocalyptic thinking seem pretty typical for humans, especially in the west. It’s somewhat understandable amongst the religious – especially those of a more fundamentalist bent. But what’s been most fascinating is seeing all the manifestations of it in secular society. From the silly monster movies of the 50′s reacting to atomic weapons through the Mad Max era of the 80′s on up. Society is always crumbling and always about to collapse.

    The most hilarious bit of all this is that the very people quickest to see this kind of overheated rhetoric amongst conservatives miss the fact it is just as prevalent amongst their own political chattering class.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    So while the percentage of malnutrition, for example, may be increasing by 3% per decade, the total number of malnurished people is still increasing due to the increase in population.

    do you know that? i couldn’t find aggregate world wide data on that looking cursorily. but the poor are declining:

    http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/TOPICS/EXTPOVERTY/0,,contentMDK:20195240~pagePK:148956~piPK:216618~theSitePK:336992,00.html

    The proportion of people living in extreme poverty on less than $1 a day dropped by almost half between 1981 and 2001, from 40 percent to 21 percent of the global population. In absolute terms, this means that the number people living in poverty fell from 1.5 billion in 1981 to 1.1 billion in 2001.

    so you know malnutrition is increase in absolute terms despite the poorest declining in absolute terms? i found this which suggests absolute decline:

    http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/global/ray.htm

    and other stuff which suggests increase since the decline:

    http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/world%20hunger%20facts%202002.htm

    even with swings of hundreds of millions i wouldn’t be surprised if much of this is measurement error (up and down). did you have more robust numbers with transparent methodology in mind to base your assertion?

    of course, by the logic of absolute numbers we should go back to the hunter-gatherer days when there were 1 million human beings, as the aggregate number of malnourished was lower! :-)

  • Chris T

    Pessimism bias is rather weird. Part of it, I think, is the curse of prosperity: the more you have, the more you have to lose and the time to imagine losing it.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    no, it’s pretty evident in a malthusian society. i.e., all of history?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    also, for follow up comments it would be nice if people backed up their assertions to links with data. i’m not so ignorant that i’m excited about relying on the intuitive mastery of data sets by others.

  • Chris T

    People living in a Malthusian society don’t have time to think of how their lives could be or get worse. They’re too busy trying to survive. Only the rich have such a luxury.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    People living in a Malthusian society don’t have time to think of how their lives could be or get worse. They’re too busy trying to survive. Only the rich have such a luxury.

    nice to know we have a psychologist who knows how subsistence peasants think!

    i think the “busy” part can be problematized pretty easily btw. from what i have read in many parts of the world peasants didn’t do much for much of the year, but saved their minimal energy for bursts of intense activity. of course this doesn’t mean that they were chillin’ at the amusement park, i recall reading that scandinavian peasants might spend much of the late winter/early spring trying to sleep as much as possible under blankets in a process of slow starvation.

    in any case, i was alluding to the dominance of declinism in pre-modern thought. this may have been irrelevant to peasants, though at least with nominally christian peasants they probably would have had some concept of the garden of eden.

  • Chris T

    nice to know we have a psychologist who knows how subsistence peasants think!

    Nah, just a personal observation. In my experience, poor people (admittingly, non-Malthusian) don’t spend a lot of time ruminating about how bleak their lives can get; they’re already bleak. Many of the wealthy, on the other hand, seem to almost revel in it. Some even jet around preaching it (Kunstler, Gore).

    I don’t know about you, but most people I know don’t worry about losing things they don’t have. Not too difficult to extrapolate from there.

    in any case, i was alluding to the dominance of declinism in pre-modern thought.

    Most of our evidence of this comes from writing. The people who could write were generally pretty well off in their society.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    chris,

    i agree that a certain class don’t spend much time thinking about the rise and fall of civilizations. but i don’t think it was trivial. the existence of apocalyptic movements and utopian cults cross-culturally is evidence of that. since the foot-soldiers were illiterates they had to have pre-existent models which could be leveraged. although most of the time these movements come in the wake of famine and dispossession, so they probably have a concrete vision of a ‘better time.’

  • Chris T

    In our own time, it seems like fears of imminent decline have gotten more intense. From reading pre-WW2 literature, it seems like society was more optimistic than it is now, particularly with regards to technology. It’s fascinating to compare.

  • miko

    “I don’t know about you, but most people I know don’t worry about losing things they don’t have. ”

    My understanding is that this is context dependent. How stressful being poor is depends on how poor others are. If you live in the US and are too poor to have all things advertised around you and live in an noticeably shitty part of town, it’s incredibly stressful, and you will always think of the things you don’t have. If you’re a rice farmer and everyone you know is a rice farmer, by any measure you are much, much, much poorer than a poor inner city American, but you are likely a lot happier.

    I recognize Razib’s request for citations, but don’t have time to grab any now… pubmed + stress socioeconomic status, it’s in there somewhere. Don’t hold me responsible for any claims made by social psychologists, however.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan


    I recognize Razib’s request for citations, but don’t have time to grab any now… pubmed + stress socioeconomic status, it’s in there somewhere. Don’t hold me responsible for any claims made by social psychologists, however.

    :-) well, i’ve seen the same “happiness” literature. the main nuance is that there’s a threshold effect. that is, at a certain point of poverty happiness starts dropping no matter where you are in your social hierarchy. e.g., regions of the sahel in imminent danger of famine.

  • Chris T

    How stressful being poor is depends on how poor others are.

    I was referring to losing things already possessed. People may worry about getting things or not having them, but they’re not going to worry about losing them.

    The more you have, the more you have to fear losing. It becomes very easy to interpret everything as a threat to your way of life or a sign of impending doom.

  • omar

    Its easy enough to find data on infant mortality and childhood mortality and those declines have been so large in most of Asia that (without looking up the reference) I think we can say with great confidence that its not just percentages that have declined; absolute numbers MUST have declined. but I dont have time to look it up.

  • Sandgroper

    Here’s an excellent example of apocalyptic thinking:

    http://www.thegwpf.org/opinion-pros-a-cons/1645-dominic-lawson-kill-a-schoolchild-how-hilarious.html

    Here is the offending video. Warning – this is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. As intended “humour” (really?) I’d say it misses the mark by a pretty long way. In fact, I’d nearly go as far as to say that it is inciting violence. (The fact that they managed to suck Tottenham Hotspur Football Club into it just makes me even more glad that I’m an Arsenal supporter, even if they did lose 2-0 to Chelsea – oh how I wish we had Drogba – Thierry, oh why did you leave when you did?):

    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/danielhannan/100056715/where-would-lefties-be-without-hatred/

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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 http://www.razib.com

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