Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Decline of the Price of Light

One of the most profound observations made by Frederick Lewis Allen in Only Yesterday was the change in the sound of cities, specifically that we no longer hear horses clip-clopping along.

Along the same lines of simple profundity was the fact that led William Manchester to title his short little history of the middle ages in Europe A World Lit Only By Fire.

Here's more on the subject from Matt Ridley's blog:
Reasons to be cheerful
The Times carried my article arguing that things are still going well for the world as a whole even in a month of war, terror and disease. I have illustrated it with two superb charts from, a website being developed by the talented Max Roser.

Is this the most ghastly silly season ever? August 2014 has brought rich pickings for doom-mongers. From Gaza to Liberia, from Donetsk to Sinjar, the four horsemen of the Apocalypse — conquest, war, famine and death — are thundering across the planet, leaving havoc in their wake. And (to paraphrase Henry V), at their heels, leashed in like hounds, debt, despair and hatred crouch for employment. Is there any hope for humankind?

Consider the litany of horror that faces the world. A religious war between militant Islam and its enemies is flaring all across Eurasia, from Pakistan through Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Libya, Somalia, South Sudan to Nigeria. In Ukraine a tinpot tyrant has deliberately loosed a war of conquest and reconquest. In West Africa a vicious pestilence spreads ever faster.

Think only of how often you have seen images of dead children this summer: strewn across a cornfield in Ukraine, decapitated on a street in Iraq, blown apart on a beach in Gaza, wounded in a hospital in Syria, being buried in Liberia. The fate of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria is hardly any less horrible. Man is a wolf to man.

In the world of money you can find plenty to cry about too. Argentina has defaulted on its debt. Britain’s national debt has doubled in four years. The Eurozone is in permanent recession and teeters on the brink of its next crisis. Stock markets are wobbling.

All true and all horrible. But the world is always full of atrocity, violence, death and debt. Are things really worse this year or are we journalists just reporting the clouds in every silver lining? Remember the media does not give a fair summary of what happens in the world. It tells you disproportionately about the things that go badly wrong. If it bleeds, it leads, as they say in newspapers. Good news is no news.

So let’s tot up instead what is going, and could go, right. Actually it is a pretty long list, just not a very newsworthy one. Compared with any time in the past half century, the world as a whole is today wealthier, healthier, happier, cleverer, cleaner, kinder, freer, safer, more peaceful and more equal.

The average person on the planet earns roughly three times as much as he or she did 50 years ago, corrected for inflation. If anything, this understates the improvement in living standards because it fails to take into account many of the incredible improvements in the things you can buy with that money. However rich you were in 1964 you had no computer, no mobile phone, no budget airline, no Prozac, no search engine, no gluten-free food. The world economy is still growing every year at a furious lick — faster than Britain grew during the industrial revolution.

Here's Max Roser's chart of the decline in the price of light over two centuries:
The average person lives about a third longer than 50 years ago and buries two thirds fewer of his or her children (and child mortality is the greatest measure of misery I can think of). The amount of food available per head has gone up steadily on every continent, despite a doubling of the population. Famine is now very rare. The death rate from malaria is down by nearly 30 per cent since the start of the century. HIV-related deaths are falling. Polio, measles, yellow fever, diphtheria, cholera, typhoid, typhus — they killed our ancestors in droves, but they are now rare diseases.

We tell ourselves we are miserable, but it is not true. In the 1970s there was a study that claimed to find that people grew less happy as they got richer, but it was based on faulty data. We now know that on the whole people are more satisfied with life as they get wealthier, a correlation that holds between countries, within countries and within lifetimes. Anyway, it’s better to be well fed, healthy and unhappy than hungry, sick and unhappy. Here's Roser's chart of happiness data...MORE