Thanks for this one! The decrease in poverty chart was particularly surprising to me- I didn’t know it was so dramatic. It’s inflation adjusted to USD$1 - for the cost of living adjustment, is the adjustment to USA 2018? Trying to understand the purchasing power of one of these dollars.

And one comment on mortality rate post 1940- I usually see this attributed to modern medicine- penicillin, and farming- industrial fertilizer. The scientific nature of this triumph bears mentioning.

Expand full comment

Actually, I'd like to see the state-based war chart from 1900 on. It would be really useful to show my students when I teach my class on the World Wars. I'd show the chart you have from 1946 on. And then show the full chart so they get a sense of scale.

Expand full comment

That was a nice one, Brian, as always.

The joke here is that the GDP of Russia is smaller than that of the Benelux (Belgium+Netherlands+Luxemburg) so it was obviously smaller than Italy as well (although the difference is smaller at purchasing power parity).

Apart from your $1.90/day standard (was that 1$ / day in 2000?), world inequality has fallen a lot over the last generation or so and it changes your view of the world if you see this (Branko Milanovic has written a lot about this). And the billion+ Chinese lifted out off poverty, many of us see this as a threat to the world power equilibrium, some see it as an environmental disaster but the plain overall reduction of poverty must be an unambiguously good thing.

For me the big eye-opener was the rise in literacy. It was said that before the fall of the Roman empire half the male population could read and a small proportion of the female population and within a generation or two, that had completely disappeared in the western empire - only some monks could still read in Britain, France, Spain and Italy. So we reached that Roman empire level again ca. 1915?

Expand full comment

Population increase and longevity:

if those 1.65 bn people of 1900 had only had replacement births (is that the good demographic term?), world population would have gone to 5 bn given the tripling of life expectancy. That accounts for more than half of the global population increase.

Expand full comment

Good news story underlying all of this is technological progress across so many dimensions. Now the ominous news...match the reduction in poverty AND population growth with the rise in CO2 emissions and concentrations, rise in temperatures, desertification and deforestation. Have we reached a Malthusian point where we have exceeded the capacity of the planet to support humanity? And can technological progress and innovation save the day again?

Expand full comment

excellent. I was in Italy in a year abroad program when JFK was killed. All the news was dubbed in Italian. We learned more Italian that week than we had in the prior year of classes. I feel much the same way about the Middle East now. And clearly need to spend more time on other parts of the world. It is tremendous to have a source to counter the gloom that spending such time will entail.

Expand full comment

Great observations, Brian! They make you think about some broader issues and not focus so much on the everyday matters in your immediate environment, for example that there are fewer - and more expensive - places to park your car than there were 15 years ago. Still, the thought struck me that for all the good news you mention there might be a price to pay. Not all the items you name would be on my list of suspects, but population size would be one of them. Population size is determined by two factors a) number births and b) life expectancy. I don't know what the relative weight of both of these are on how many of our species are alive, but going from a life expectancy of a little over thirty only 250 years ago to now beyond 70 plays an immense role. So the question is relevant whether we should really invest in technologies that will allow for a life time of 150 years or more. If that were to happen on a large scale it would put an enomous strain on the planet's resources. In fact, that scale would not even have to be so large, because most likely the first to benefit would be inhabitants of the rich nations.

A similar effect can be associated with the decline in poverty. There is a sticky ethical question here of course. Should we forego an increase in income for everybody to the level of consumption in the rich nations? That would be immensely unfair. But if we all lived at the same level as currently the US and Western Europe would that not lead to disaster? Would it not make more sense to achieve equality by balancing comsumption on a global level ? That would be hard to implement of course. I do not have a solution for this quandary. Technology might help, but only so far.

Improving the world's literacy rate, on the other hand is probably more beneficial than harmful for the world at large. So I am all for it. Authoritarian rule? Theoretically, authoritarianism has one advantage: It can get things done much faster than liberal democracies. Unfortunately, the track record of such regimes is pretty poor. Yes, they can get things done, but all to often the wrong things, among them military spending (viz. China, Russia, and others). For the moment, I would discount huge share of the US in this respect. In my view it is a special case.. But in general, spending funds on means to kill more people in a shorter time is unbelievably wasteful and not going to be particulary good for the world, even if these means are only used as threats - which is nothing I would rely on.

One thing you don't mention is agricultural productivity. That is a mixed blessing too. It has contributed enormously to getting billions of people out of the hunger trap. But the damage done to achieve this is fearful. This is also a tough one to solve.

As usual, there is no free lunch.

Expand full comment

This is great and I’m going to try to pay the requisite attention since I’m retired. I stay up with the US, but the Middle East, etc., is another story. Thanks for the incentive. I subscribe to the right places, but any suggestions would be appreciated.

Expand full comment

Here in the United States, people seem to suffer from a great anxiety and insecurity about self-defense. Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were tragedies, of course, but we never have been overrun by some other global power.

The global headquarters for Northrop Grumman is in Falls Church, Virginia, just across from Washington DC. They don’t build anything there. They just want to be close to congress.

Defense spending is completely disconnected from any real threat.

Expand full comment