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Norberg on extreme poverty

Spiked Review’s theme for this month is “The Future” and Johan Norberg has a very good article chronicling the decline of extreme poverty entitled “And the Poor Shall Rise”. Here’s a slice comparing the rise of China and India to the West’s development in the 1800s :
When the Western world began to industrialise in the early 1800s, its population consisted of approximately 200million people and it took 50 years to double their average income. China and India alone have done the same thing with 10 times more people, five times faster.
Last year (yes it really is now 2017) I named Norberg’s Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future my pick for book of the year. I think he should be essential reading for anyone interested in public policy and politics.
In Progress, Norberg recounts via a compelling narrative the most important and underappreciated story of our time: across a range of indicators (falling child mortality, improved literacy, vaccination to protect against disease, and more) economic growth is delivering a far higher quality of life to many more people all over the globe. Norberg provides a much needed factual story using a range of statistical measures of progress amidst a growing political climate of cynical pessimism.
More money, most essentially at lower levels of income, gives people more choices and helps improve quality of life. While “inequality”, an often porous and not well understood term, is cited as a major political problem in developed democracies, third world poverty is more immediately pressing and it is actually in retreat. Extreme poverty, now marked by the World Bank at $1.90 per day, has declined markedly. It has fallen from 37 percent of the global population in 1990 to just ten percent in 2015.
That’s amazing! It is actually possible that grinding miserable extreme poverty could be eradicated in my lifetime (I am 30 years old). As the above quote about China and India’s rise note what is so remarkable about global economic development is that it is happening at such a fast pace compared to earlier development paths. There are political trends which threaten this path to progress to be sure and there is still far to come but it’s important to recognise the staggering and very real progress humanity has seen in a very short period of time.
Read Norberg’s whole article and then read Progress.


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”.

Some links

  1. The Economist has a primer on Breitbart News.
  2. “Stuck”. A Reason magazine writer asks why people don’t leave places in America where there isn’t much opportunity. Highly recommended. It’s a very well researched piece about an important topic. It is long but worth your time as it seeks to understand how such communities became beset with problems.
  3. How Nietzsche supposedly helps to explain Brexit. The piece was interesting but I was surprised that it did not focus more on nihilism as a factor. (Mind you, unlike the scholar who was interviewed, I have only read one of Nietzsche’s books.) We still don’t quite know what sort of relationship Britain will have with the EU after the divorce. Nihilism (understood as the absence of meaning) played a role. Trump’s election was also, to my mind (and I am influenced by the insightful thinking of Martin Gurri) driven, in part by nihilism. The problem with such nihilistic movements is that it is always easier to tear down than to build up. For those who may be interested, here is my earlier post on Thus Spake Zarathustra which read the book as a call for individual self improvement and a willingness to question conventional wisdom.
  4. “Free to Booze”. Yes you are free to drink a dozen, that’s right a dozen, 745ml bottles of beer in a day but I’m not signing up for crate day 2017. The last line is rather witty though.

Some links

  1. The Financial Times is making their paywall, well, pay. “Its total paid circulation, combining print and digital, stands at 843,000, up 75,000 (about 13%) year on year. Three quarters of those are digital-only subscribers.”
  2. Veteran British political journalist Peter Oborne, interviewed for Spiked Review, discusses the disconnect between the political class and ordinary people.
  3. Ian Bremmer says Peru is a rare example of good government at the moment. Tyler Cowen has also written favourably of the Peruvian President.
  4. Nietzsche as director of human resources.


Some links

  1. Arnold Kling’s books of the year. I’ve only read Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic from the list of 2016 books but Kling also mentions the 2014 book The Revolt of the Public by Martin Gurri. Both of those are relevant to 2016. The book on Greenspan looks interesting. The Man Who Knew by Sebastian Mallaby won the FT and McKinsey business book of the year award. Here is an interview between a Financial Times reporter and Mallaby.
  2. Reason magazine reviews an interesting looking book on the life and times of those who lived at one of the most prominent American communes during the 1970s. I thought it was a rather sympathetic review and the book sounds an interesting attempt at understanding the motivations behind those who signed up for such an existence. Oh, and Bernie Sanders visited the commune but “his tendency to just sit around talking politics and avoid actual physical labor got him the boot”.
  3. Ten Economic Principles to keep in mind. Features analysis of immigration, globalisation, progress and “the long run”.
  4. How Tyler Cowen would advise Donald Trump if he wanted more illegal immigration: “I would start by recommending an enormous new program of fiscal stimulus and construction. Let’s rebuild our roads, bridges and power grids, and put up some new infrastructure as well, including perhaps an unfinished border wall.”
  5. I stumbled this weekend upon youtube book reviewer Thugnotes. He does amusing reviews of some absolute classic texts. I’ve only watched a couple but both were entertaining and the synopsis and analysis was entirely on point. Worth a cheeky watch when you have some spare time and could do with a light hearted refresher of some classic text. Here he is on George Orwell’s anti-totalitarian classic 1984.


Arrival is not your run of the mill alien encounter movie. You know the sort I mean: some Aliens rock up, they start causing a bit of a ruckus, humanity panics, and then, one or two mavericks somehow save the day in violent fashion (yes, I am thinking of Independence Day) . No, “Arrival” is much more interesting that that. The film is not about conflict but communication. (Bad communication, of course, as we are reminded in the film can risk conflict.)

Amy Adams plays Dr Louise Banks, a linguist charged with attempting to translate the language of the “Heptapods”, an alien life form which has landed 12 vessels on earth at different locations, and divine their purpose. Before Dr Banks’ services are procured, the team of officials have made very little progress towards understanding the aliens’ purpose for their visit. Jeremy Renner plays a theoretical physicist named Dr Ian Donnelly. He reflects soon after Dr Banks’ arrival on the scene that one pattern between the 12 cities is that 80s songstress Sheena Easton had a hit in each one. So, really, the authorities have no clue.

Dr Banks sets to her task: she meets the two main Heptapods to have landed their vessel in Montana and starts a process of language exchange. She begins with the collective “human” to describe her and Dr Donnelly then progresses to “Louise” and “Ian”. The aliens reciprocate with symbols produced with inky smoke which Dr Banks and the rest of her team work to interpret. Gradually the humans and the aliens exchange first words and then phrases and Dr Banks starts to glean the patterns of the language. When Dr Banks arrives at the scene, the 12 nations where “heptapods” maintain regular dialogue providing updates on the progress.

This all changes when the Chinese misinterpret a symbol and communication breaks down between the 12 countries. Yet, in spite of growing nervousness on the part of officials, Dr Banks is committed to the pursuit of knowledge. Tension builds to a crescendo.

The film is a real head scratcher at times, in particular the significance of mystic statements made by Dr Banks about time amid a montage of her treating her sick daughter. But overall I found it highly satisfying. It speaks to universal desires to relate through communication. Adams is superb and engaging. The best movie I’ve seen this year. Go and watch it.

PS: Reason’s insightful film reviewer Kurt Loder reviewed the film last week.

PPS: Here’s a link to the trailer.

Some links

  1. Mark Blyth’s piece in Foreign Affairs entitled “Global Trumpism” is worth a read. Everyone has a pet theory about the rise of Trump but, while I am unconvinced by parts of Blyth’s diagnosis, he might be right about the era of “neo-nationalism” and that’s concerning.
  2. Speaking of, here is the Economist on “The New Nationalism”.
  3. “No, Autocrats, the US election does not prove the inferiority of democracy.”
  4. “The end of Identity Liberalism”. My learned friend Nicholas Smith shared the link to that piece which suggests that the fracturing of the American Left into various identity groups has led to an inability to appeal to common values. The problem with identity politics, as I see it, is that while connecting with historical disadvantaged groups is perhaps laudable, when that connection is solely on the basis of their very belonging to that perceived out group and does not view them as autonomous and thinking individuals then it leads to a politics of stagnant and fractured groupings where one is defined not by what they do but what they are.
  5. Glasgow University is offering a class in the philosophy of Homer Simpson. I rather like this.