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The Otago Daily Times asked contributors to recommend their “best book of 2016” for a two page spread published in Saturday’s paper and online. My pick was Johan Norberg’s Progress. Each contributor was reduced to a short word count. Here’s what I wrote:

Progress is everywhere. With a statistical onslaught, Norberg points out how more human beings are enjoying a better quality of life than ever before. Fewer children die of preventable diseases. More boys and girls go to school for longer. Being gay is no longer a crime in a growing number of countries. War and famine are becoming rare. In a year of pessimistic political sentiment, Norberg’s book should be required reading.

Those are all remarkable developments which Norberg sets out as part of an interesting narrative in his book. (He breaks it down into ten chapters;  “food”, “sanitation”, “life expectancy”, “poverty”, “violence”, “the environment”, “literacy”, “freedom”, “equality”, and “the next generation”.) Here are some more ways in which the world is getting better as relayed by Norberg:

  • Global life expectancy has increased from a pitiful 31 years in 1900 to 71 today;
  • The polio virus, once a debilitating illness is nearly eradicated;
  • Child labour is much rarer than it once was; Norberg reports that, in 1950, an estimated one quarter of the world’s children between 10 and 14 years were economically active but now the global number is “certainly less than one in ten”; and
  • AIDS related deaths have fallen by forty two percent since 2006.

It’s easy to forget that privation and misery, now something we associate with smaller numbers of tragically held back and underdeveloped countries, was much more common in what is now the “developed” world including countries such as Sweden.

Norberg opens by quoting from a tragic scene of famine in a Swedish household in the 18th century. That picture is grim.

“We often saw mother weeping to herself, and it was hard on a mother, not having any food to put on the table for her hungry children. Emaciated, starving children were often seen going from farm to farm, begging for a few crumbs of bread.”

Lives were, at the time of Norberg’s Swedish famine anecdote, for many many more people than today, in Thomas Hobbes’ famous phrase, “nasty, brutish, and short”.

Not having experienced such conditions, it’s hard in our comfortable modern perch to fathom such an existence.

 Let’s take another example. Measles, writes Norberg, is estimated to have killed about 200 million people since the mid 1800s. Several million of those died each year before the first measles vaccine was invented in 1963. Last year only 134,200 died from the illness. Now, to be sure, this is still far too high when a vaccine is readily available (I received the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella jab as a small child as you might have, too) but, nonetheless, this demonstrates remarkable progress.

 But people don’t buy it

 The core message of the candidate who ultimately won the presidency of the United States was an explicitly nostalgic one and the public is more pessimistic about the state of the world. A yougov poll, conducted at the end of last year, found only 3 percent of Australians, 6 percent of Americans, and 10 percent of Norberg’s fellow Swedes thought the world was getting better (Chinese bucked the trend with 41 percent saying the world was getting better).

Why, given these splendid developments, are people so gosh darned glum about the world?

My industry, the news media, as Norberg points out in the paragraph below, surely bears some responsibility.

 “War, crime, disasters and poverty are painfully real, and during the last decade global media has made us aware of them in a new way – live on screen, every day, around the clock – but despite this ubiquity, these are problems that have always existed, partially hidden from view. The real difference now is that they are rapidly declining. What we see now are the exceptions, where once they would have been the rule.”

This is visibility bias. Improvements have been gradual as progress occurs over a long time frame whereas a spate of violent crimes in a developed country or the sight of starving children in an impoverished country are urgent and jarring (most particularly so when we are confronted with such images on our television screens).

You’ll perhaps notice, in reading this list, that I’ve not cited some measurement of “increased wealth”. But, Norberg is clear, progress on all of these metrics is the product of greater economic growth throughout the world*.

There are great statistical tools now available to track this progress. Hans Rosling’s Gapminder shows a graphic representation of this change over time where you can easily compare two metrics on an X and a Y axis to show how they have, almost everywhere improved over time, in different countries.

What you’ll notice if you go to Rosling’s site and play around with the data is that countries with high GDP per capita tend to have pretty good outcomes for just about everything else – higher life expectancy, lower childhood mortality, more years in school for women, the list goes on.(Another terrific source of information is Max Roser’s “Our World in Data” website.)

 And what is the source of all this progress? In a word, exchange. Global exchange of goods and ideas. It is freedom and openness which has made this progress possible. The problem we now face, as Norberg argues, is that because people don’t know the state of the world their fear and worry could lead to measures curbing the openness on which progress depends.

This very real progress doesn’t mean that people do not face problems in developed countries. Of course they do. But without the progress humanity has managed, the most serious problems humanity faces would be much more common and much more serious.

Climate change is the issue on which Norberg is less bright. He notes that rising temperatures may cause drastic results likely to most severely impact the least developed parts of the world.

While Norberg argues this means that it might make sense to take policy action to insure ourselves against such worst case scenarios, we should be cautious not to introduce climate policies which “hurt our ability to create more wealth and better technologies and to bring power to the poor”. Norberg says “[t]hat would be a case of killing the patient to cure the disease”.

Human beings also have a remarkable capacity to adapt so the overall picture remains bright.

Next time someone suggests to you that the world is getting worse, gently recommend Norberg’s book. With growing public scepticism about the globalised world that exchange has made, it is essential reading.

*Norberg does spend a chapter on poverty where he explains how fewer people around the world live in conditions of extreme poverty. That is a dramatic and positive story. The World Bank reported earlier this year that between 1990 and 2015, the number of extreme poor (defined as people living on $1.90 per day) was “estimated to have fallen from 1.9 billion to about 700 million”.


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