Believing in civilization without believing in colonialism

JDN 2457541

In a post last week I presented some of the overwhelming evidence that society has been getting better over time, particularly since the start of the Industrial Revolution. I focused mainly on infant mortality rates—babies not dying—but there are lots of other measures you could use as well. Despite popular belief, poverty is rapidly declining, and is now the lowest it’s ever been. War is rapidly declining. Crime is rapidly declining in First World countries, and to the best of our knowledge crime rates are stable worldwide. Public health is rapidly improving. Lifespans are getting longer. And so on, and so on. It’s not quite true to say that every indicator of human progress is on an upward trend, but the vast majority of really important indicators are.

Moreover, there is every reason to believe that this great progress is largely the result of what we call “civilization”, even Western civilization: Stable, centralized governments, strong national defense, representative democracy, free markets, openness to global trade, investment in infrastructure, science and technology, secularism, a culture that values innovation, and freedom of speech and the press. We did not get here by Marxism, nor agragrian socialism, nor primitivism, nor anarcho-capitalism. We did not get here by fascism, nor theocracy, nor monarchy. This progress was built by the center-left welfare state, “social democracy”, “modified capitalism”, the system where free, open markets are coupled with a strong democratic government to protect and steer them.

This fact is basically beyond dispute; the evidence is overwhelming. The serious debate in development economics is over which parts of the Western welfare state are most conducive to raising human well-being, and which parts of the package are more optional. And even then, some things are fairly obvious: Stable government is clearly necessary, while speaking English is clearly optional.

Yet many people are resistant to this conclusion, or even offended by it, and I think I know why: They are confusing the results of civilization with the methods by which it was established.

The results of civilization are indisputably positive: Everything I just named above, especially babies not dying.

But the methods by which civilization was established are not; indeed, some of the greatest atrocities in human history are attributable at least in part to attempts to “spread civilization” to “primitive” or “savage” people.
It is therefore vital to distinguish between the result, civilization, and the processes by which it was effected, such as colonialism and imperialism.

First, it’s important not to overstate the link between civilization and colonialism.

We tend to associate colonialism and imperialism with White people from Western European cultures conquering other people in other cultures; but in fact colonialism and imperialism are basically universal to any human culture that attains sufficient size and centralization. India engaged in colonialism, Persia engaged in imperialism, China engaged in imperialism, the Mongols were of course major imperialists, and don’t forget the Ottoman Empire; and did you realize that Tibet and Mali were at one time imperialists as well? And of course there are a whole bunch of empires you’ve probably never heard of, like the Parthians and the Ghaznavids and the Ummayyads. Even many of the people we’re accustoming to thinking of as innocent victims of colonialism were themselves imperialists—the Aztecs certainly were (they even sold people into slavery and used them for human sacrifice!), as were the Pequot, and the Iroquois may not have outright conquered anyone but were definitely at least “soft imperialists” the way that the US is today, spreading their influence around and using economic and sometimes military pressure to absorb other cultures into their own.

Of course, those were all civilizations, at least in the broadest sense of the word; but before that, it’s not that there wasn’t violence, it just wasn’t organized enough to be worthy of being called “imperialism”. The more general concept of intertribal warfare is a human universal, and some hunter-gatherer tribes actually engage in an essentially constant state of warfare we call “endemic warfare”. People have been grouping together to kill other people they perceived as different for at least as long as there have been people to do so.

This is of course not to excuse what European colonial powers did when they set up bases on other continents and exploited, enslaved, or even murdered the indigenous population. And the absolute numbers of people enslaved or killed are typically larger under European colonialism, mainly because European cultures became so powerful and conquered almost the entire world. Even if European societies were not uniquely predisposed to be violent (and I see no evidence to say that they were—humans are pretty much humans), they were more successful in their violent conquering, and so more people suffered and died. It’s also a first-mover effect: If the Ming Dynasty had supported Zheng He more in his colonial ambitions, I’d probably be writing this post in Mandarin and reflecting on why Asian cultures have engaged in so much colonial oppression.

While there is a deeply condescending paternalism (and often post-hoc rationalization of your own self-interested exploitation) involved in saying that you are conquering other people in order to civilize them, humans are also perfectly capable of committing atrocities for far less noble-sounding motives. There are holy wars such as the Crusades and ethnic genocides like in Rwanda, and the Arab slave trade was purely for profit and didn’t even have the pretense of civilizing people (not that the Atlantic slave trade was ever really about that anyway).

Indeed, I think it’s important to distinguish between colonialists who really did make some effort at civilizing the populations they conquered (like Britain, and also the Mongols actually) and those that clearly were just using that as an excuse to rape and pillage (like Spain and Portugal). This is similar to but not quite the same thing as the distinction between settler colonialism, where you send colonists to live there and build up the country, and exploitation colonialism, where you send military forces to take control of the existing population and exploit them to get their resources. Countries that experienced settler colonialism (such as the US and Australia) have fared a lot better in the long run than countries that experienced exploitation colonialism (such as Haiti and Zimbabwe).

The worst consequences of colonialism weren’t even really anyone’s fault, actually. The reason something like 98% of all Native Americans died as a result of European colonization was not that Europeans killed them—they did kill thousands of course, and I hope it goes without saying that that’s terrible, but it was a small fraction of the total deaths. The reason such a huge number died and whole cultures were depopulated was disease, and the inability of medical technology in any culture at that time to handle such a catastrophic plague. The primary cause was therefore accidental, and not really foreseeable given the state of scientific knowledge at the time. (I therefore think it’s wrong to consider it genocide—maybe democide.) Indeed, what really would have saved these people would be if Europe had advanced even faster into industrial capitalism and modern science, or else waited to colonize until they had; and then they could have distributed vaccines and antibiotics when they arrived. (Of course, there is evidence that a few European colonists used the diseases intentionally as biological weapons, which no amount of vaccine technology would prevent—and that is indeed genocide. But again, this was a small fraction of the total deaths.)

However, even with all those caveats, I hope we can all agree that colonialism and imperialism were morally wrong. No nation has the right to invade and conquer other nations; no one has the right to enslave people; no one has the right to kill people based on their culture or ethnicity.

My point is that it is entirely possible to recognize that and still appreciate that Western civilization has dramatically improved the standard of human life over the last few centuries. It simply doesn’t follow from the fact that British government and culture were more advanced and pluralistic that British soldiers can just go around taking over other people’s countries and planting their own flag (follow the link if you need some comic relief from this dark topic). That was the moral failing of colonialism; not that they thought their society was better—for in many ways it was—but that they thought that gave them the right to terrorize, slaughter, enslave, and conquer people.

Indeed, the “justification” of colonialism is a lot like that bizarre pseudo-utilitarianism I mentioned in my post on torture, where the mere presence of some benefit is taken to justify any possible action toward achieving that benefit. No, that’s not how morality works. You can’t justify unlimited evil by any good—it has to be a greater good, as in actually greater.

So let’s suppose that you do find yourself encountering another culture which is clearly more primitive than yours; their inferior technology results in them living in poverty and having very high rates of disease and death, especially among infants and children. What, if anything, are you justified in doing to intervene to improve their condition?

One idea would be to hold to the Prime Directive: No intervention, no sir, not ever. This is clearly what Gene Roddenberry thought of imperialism, hence why he built it into the Federation’s core principles.

But does that really make sense? Even as Star Trek shows progressed, the writers kept coming up with situations where the Prime Directive really seemed like it should have an exception, and sometimes decided that the honorable crew of Enterprise or Voyager really should intervene in this more primitive society to save them from some terrible fate. And I hope I’m not committing a Fictional Evidence Fallacy when I say that if your fictional universe specifically designed not to let that happen makes that happen, well… maybe it’s something we should be considering.

What if people are dying of a terrible disease that you could easily cure? Should you really deny them access to your medicine to avoid intervening in their society?

What if the primitive culture is ruled by a horrible tyrant that you could easily depose with little or no bloodshed? Should you let him continue to rule with an iron fist?

What if the natives are engaged in slavery, or even their own brand of imperialism against other indigenous cultures? Can you fight imperialism with imperialism?

And then we have to ask, does it really matter whether their babies are being murdered by the tyrant or simply dying from malnutrition and infection? The babies are just as dead, aren’t they? Even if we say that being murdered by a tyrant is worse than dying of malnutrition, it can’t be that much worse, can it? Surely 10 babies dying of malnutrition is at least as bad as 1 baby being murdered?

But then it begins to seem like we have a duty to intervene, and moreover a duty that applies in almost every circumstance! If you are on opposite sides of the technology threshold where infant mortality drops from 30% to 1%, how can you justify not intervening?

I think the best answer here is to keep in mind the very large costs of intervention as well as the potentially large benefits. The answer sounds simple, but is actually perhaps the hardest possible answer to apply in practice: You must do a cost-benefit analysis. Furthermore, you must do it well. We can’t demand perfection, but it must actually be a serious good-faith effort to predict the consequences of different intervention policies.

We know that people tend to resist most outside interventions, especially if you have the intention of toppling their leaders (even if they are indeed tyrannical). Even the simple act of offering people vaccines could be met with resistance, as the native people might think you are poisoning them or somehow trying to control them. But in general, opening contact with with gifts and trade is almost certainly going to trigger less hostility and therefore be more effective than going in guns blazing.

If you do use military force, it must be targeted at the particular leaders who are most harmful, and it must be designed to achieve swift, decisive victory with minimal collateral damage. (Basically I’m talking about just war theory.) If you really have such an advanced civilization, show it by exhibiting total technological dominance and minimizing the number of innocent people you kill. The NATO interventions in Kosovo and Libya mostly got this right. The Vietnam War and Iraq War got it totally wrong.

As you change their society, you should be prepared to bear most of the cost of transition; you are, after all, much richer than they are, and also the ones responsible for effecting the transition. You should not expect to see short-term gains for your own civilization, only long-term gains once their culture has advanced to a level near your own. You can’t bear all the costs of course—transition is just painful, no matter what you do—but at least the fungible economic costs should be borne by you, not by the native population. Examples of doing this wrong include basically all the standard examples of exploitation colonialism: Africa, the Caribbean, South America. Examples of doing this right include West Germany and Japan after WW2, and South Korea after the Korean War—which is to say, the greatest economic successes in the history of the human race. This was us winning development, humanity. Do this again everywhere and we will have not only ended world hunger, but achieved global prosperity.

What happens if we apply these principles to real-world colonialism? It does not fare well. Nor should it, as we’ve already established that most if not all real-world colonialism was morally wrong.

15th and 16th century colonialism fail immediately; they offer no benefit to speak of. Europe’s technological superiority was enough to give them gunpowder but not enough to drop their infant mortality rate. Maybe life was better in 16th century Spain than it was in the Aztec Empire, but honestly not by all that much; and life in the Iroquois Confederacy was in many ways better than life in 15th century England. (Though maybe that justifies some Iroquois imperialism, at least their “soft imperialism”?)

If these principles did justify any real-world imperialism—and I am not convinced that it does—it would only be much later imperialism, like the British Empire in the 19th and 20th century. And even then, it’s not clear that the talk of “civilizing” people and “the White Man’s Burden” was much more than rationalization, an attempt to give a humanitarian justification for what were really acts of self-interested economic exploitation. Even though India and South Africa are probably better off now than they were when the British first took them over, it’s not at all clear that this was really the goal of the British government so much as a side effect, and there are a lot of things the British could have done differently that would obviously have made them better off still—you know, like not implementing the precursors to apartheid, or making India a parliamentary democracy immediately instead of starting with the Raj and only conceding to democracy after decades of protest. What actually happened doesn’t exactly look like Britain cared nothing for actually improving the lives of people in India and South Africa (they did build a lot of schools and railroads, and sought to undermine slavery and the caste system), but it also doesn’t look like that was their only goal; it was more like one goal among several which also included the strategic and economic interests of Britain. It isn’t enough that Britain was a better society or even that they made South Africa and India better societies than they were; if the goal wasn’t really about making people’s lives better where you are intervening, it’s clearly not justified intervention.

And that’s the relatively beneficent imperialism; the really horrific imperialists throughout history made only the barest pretense of spreading civilization and were clearly interested in nothing more than maximizing their own wealth and power. This is probably why we get things like the Prime Directive; we saw how bad it can get, and overreacted a little by saying that intervening in other cultures is always, always wrong, no matter what. It was only a slight overreaction—intervening in other cultures is usually wrong, and almost all historical examples of it were wrong—but it is still an overreaction. There are exceptional cases where intervening in another culture can be not only morally right but obligatory.

Indeed, one underappreciated consequence of colonialism and imperialism is that they have triggered a backlash against real good-faith efforts toward economic development. People in Africa, Asia, and Latin America see economists from the US and the UK (and most of the world’s top economists are in fact educated in the US or the UK) come in and tell them that they need to do this and that to restructure their society for greater prosperity, and they understandably ask: “Why should I trust you this time?” The last two or four or seven batches of people coming from the US and Europe to intervene in their countries exploited them or worse, so why is this time any different?

It is different, of course; UNDP is not the East India Company, not by a longshot. Even for all their faults, the IMF isn’t the East India Company either. Indeed, while these people largely come from the same places as the imperialists, and may be descended from them, they are in fact completely different people, and moral responsibility does not inherit across generations. While the suspicion is understandable, it is ultimately unjustified; whatever happened hundreds of years ago, this time most of us really are trying to help—and it’s working.

What is progress? How far have we really come?

JDN 2457534

It is a controversy that has lasted throughout the ages: Is the world getting better? Is it getting worse? Or is it more or less staying the same, changing in ways that don’t really constitute improvements or detriments?

The most obvious and indisputable change in human society over the course of history has been the advancement of technology. At one extreme there are techno-utopians, who believe that technology will solve all the world’s problems and bring about a glorious future; at the other extreme are anarcho-primitivists, who maintain that civilization, technology, and industrialization were all grave mistakes, removing us from our natural state of peace and harmony.

I am not a techno-utopian—I do not believe that technology will solve all our problems—but I am much closer to that end of the scale. Technology has solved a lot of our problems, and will continue to solve a lot more. My aim in this post is to convince you that progress is real, that things really are, on the whole, getting better.

One of the more baffling arguments against progress comes from none other than Jared Diamond, the social scientist most famous for Guns, Germs and Steel (which oddly enough is mainly about horses and goats). About seven months before I was born, Diamond wrote an essay for Discover magazine arguing quite literally that agriculture—and by extension, civilization—was a mistake.

Diamond fortunately avoids the usual argument based solely on modern hunter-gatherers, which is a selection bias if ever I heard one. Instead his main argument seems to be that paleontological evidence shows an overall decrease in health around the same time as agriculture emerged. But that’s still an endogeneity problem, albeit a subtler one. Maybe agriculture emerged as a response to famine and disease. Or maybe they were both triggered by rising populations; higher populations increase disease risk, and are also basically impossible to sustain without agriculture.

I am similarly dubious of the claim that hunter-gatherers are always peaceful and egalitarian. It does seem to be the case that herders are more violent than other cultures, as they tend to form honor cultures that punish all sleights with overwhelming violence. Even after the Industrial Revolution there were herder honor cultures—the Wild West. Yet as Steven Pinker keeps trying to tell people, the death rates due to homicide in all human cultures appear to have steadily declined for thousands of years.

I read an article just a few days ago on the Scientific American blog which included the following claim so astonishingly nonsensical it makes me wonder if the authors can even do arithmetic or read statistical tables correctly:

I keep reminding readers (see Further Reading), the evidence is overwhelming that war is a relatively recent cultural invention. War emerged toward the end of the Paleolithic era, and then only sporadically. A new study by Japanese researchers published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters corroborates this view.

Six Japanese scholars led by Hisashi Nakao examined the remains of 2,582 hunter-gatherers who lived 12,000 to 2,800 years ago, during Japan’s so-called Jomon Period. The researchers found bashed-in skulls and other marks consistent with violent death on 23 skeletons, for a mortality rate of 0.89 percent.

That is supposed to be evidence that ancient hunter-gatherers were peaceful? The global homicide rate today is 62 homicides per million people per year. Using the worldwide life expectancy of 71 years (which is biasing against modern civilization because our life expectancy is longer), that means that the worldwide lifetime homicide rate is 4,400 homicides per million people, or 0.44%—that’s less than half the homicide rate of these “peaceful” hunter-gatherers. If you compare just against First World countries, the difference is even starker; let’s use the US, which has the highest homicide rate in the First World. Our homicide rate is 38 homicides per million people per year, which at our life expectancy of 79 years is 3,000 homicides per million people, or an overall homicide rate of 0.3%, slightly more than a third of this “peaceful” ancient culture. The most peaceful societies today—notably Japan, where these remains were found—have homicide rates as low as 3 per million people per year, which is a lifetime homicide rate of 0.02%, forty times smaller than their supposedly utopian ancestors. (Yes, all of Japan has fewer total homicides than Chicago. I’m sure it has nothing to do with their extremely strict gun control laws.) Indeed, to get a modern homicide rate as high as these hunter-gatherers, you need to go to a country like Congo, Myanmar, or the Central African Republic. To get a substantially higher homicide rate, you essentially have to be in Latin America. Honduras, the murder capital of the world, has a lifetime homicide rate of about 6.7%.

Again, how did I figure these things out? By reading basic information from publicly-available statistical tables and then doing some simple arithmetic. Apparently these paleoanthropologists couldn’t be bothered to do that, or didn’t know how to do it correctly, before they started proclaiming that human nature is peaceful and civilization is the source of violence. After an oversight as egregious as that, it feels almost petty to note that a sample size of a few thousand people from one particular region and culture isn’t sufficient data to draw such sweeping judgments or speak of “overwhelming” evidence.

Of course, in order to decide whether progress is a real phenomenon, we need a clearer idea of what we mean by progress. It would be presumptuous to use per-capita GDP, though there can be absolutely no doubt that technology and capitalism do in fact raise per-capita GDP. If we measure by inequality, modern society clearly fares much worse (our top 1% share and Gini coefficient may be higher than Classical Rome!), but that is clearly biased in the opposite direction, because the main way we have raised inequality is by raising the ceiling, not lowering the floor. Most of our really good measures (like the Human Development Index) only exist for the last few decades and can barely even be extrapolated back through the 20th century.

How about babies not dying? This is my preferred measure of a society’s value. It seems like something that should be totally uncontroversial: Babies dying is bad. All other things equal, a society is better if fewer babies die.

I suppose it doesn’t immediately follow that all things considered a society is better if fewer babies die; maybe the dying babies could be offset by some greater good. Perhaps a totalitarian society where no babies die is in fact worse than a free society in which a few babies die, or perhaps we should be prepared to accept some small amount of babies dying in order to save adults from poverty, or something like that. But without some really powerful overriding reason, babies not dying probably means your society is doing something right. (And since most ancient societies were in a state of universal poverty and quite frequently tyranny, these exceptions would only strengthen my case.)

Well, get ready for some high-yield truth bombs about infant mortality rates.

It’s hard to get good data for prehistoric cultures, but the best data we have says that infant mortality in ancient hunter-gatherer cultures was about 20-50%, with a best estimate around 30%. This is statistically indistinguishable from early agricultural societies.

Indeed, 30% seems to be the figure humanity had for most of history. Just shy of a third of all babies died for most of history.

In Medieval times, infant mortality was about 30%.

This same rate (fluctuating based on various plagues) persisted into the Enlightenment—Sweden has the best records, and their infant mortality rate in 1750 was about 30%.

The decline in infant mortality began slowly: During the Industrial Era, infant mortality was about 15% in isolated villages, but still as high as 40% in major cities due to high population densities with poor sanitation.

Even as recently as 1900, there were US cities with infant mortality rates as high as 30%, though the overall rate was more like 10%.

Most of the decline was recent and rapid: Just within the US since WW2, infant mortality fell from about 5.5% to 0.7%, though there remains a substantial disparity between White and Black people.

Globally, the infant mortality rate fell from 6.3% to 3.2% within my lifetime, and in Africa today, the region where it is worst, it is about 5.5%—or what it was in the US in the 1940s.

This precipitous decline in babies dying is the main reason ancient societies have such low life expectancies; actually once they reached adulthood they lived to be about 70 years old, not much worse than we do today. So my multiplying everything by 71 actually isn’t too far off even for ancient societies.

Let me make a graph for you here, of the approximate rate of babies dying over time from 10,000 BC to today:

Infant_mortality.png

Let’s zoom in on the last 250 years, where the data is much more solid:

Infant_mortality_recent.png

I think you may notice something in these graphs. There is quite literally a turning point for humanity, a kink in the curve where we suddenly begin a rapid decline from an otherwise constant mortality rate.

That point occurs around or shortly before 1800—that is, it occurs at industrial capitalism. Adam Smith (not to mention Thomas Jefferson) was writing at just about the point in time when humanity made a sudden and unprecedented shift toward saving the lives of millions of babies.

So now, think about that the next time you are tempted to say that capitalism is an evil system that destroys the world; the evidence points to capitalism quite literally saving babies from dying.

How would it do so? Well, there’s that rising per-capita GDP we previously ignored, for one thing. But more important seems to be the way that industrialization and free markets support technological innovation, and in this case especially medical innovation—antibiotics and vaccines. Our higher rates of literacy and better communication, also a result of raised standard of living and improved technology, surely didn’t hurt. I’m not often in agreement with the Cato Institute, but they’re right about this one: Industrial capitalism is the chief source of human progress.

Billions of babies would have died but we saved them. So yes, I’m going to call that progress. Civilization, and in particular industrialization and free markets, have dramatically improved human life over the last few hundred years.

In a future post I’ll address one of the common retorts to this basically indisputable fact: “You’re making excuses for colonialism and imperialism!” No, I’m not. Saying that modern capitalism is a better system (not least because it saves babies) is not at all the same thing as saying that our ancestors were justified in using murder, slavery, and tyranny to force people into it.

What makes a nation wealthy?

JDN 2457251 EDT 10:17

One of the central questions of economics—perhaps the central question, the primary reason why economics is necessary and worthwhile—is development: How do we raise a nation from poverty to prosperity?

We have done it before: France and Germany rose from the quite literal ashes of World War 2 to some of the most prosperous societies in the world. Their per-capita GDP over the 20th century rose like this (all of these figures are from the World Bank World Development Indicators; France is green, Germany is blue):

GDPPC_France_Germany

GDPPCPPP_France_Germany

The top graph is at market exchange rates, the bottom is correcting for purchasing power parity (PPP). The PPP figures are more meaningful, but unfortunately they only began collecting good data on purchasing power around 1990.

Around the same time, but even more spectacularly, Japan and South Korea rose from poverty-stricken Third World backwaters to high-tech First World powers in only a couple of generations. Check out their per-capita GDP over the 20th century (Japan is green, South Korea is blue):

GDPPC_Japan_KoreaGDPPCPPP_Japan_Korea


This is why I am only half-joking when I define development economics as “the ongoing project to figure out what happened in South Korea and make it happen everywhere in the world”.

More recently China has been on a similar upward trajectory, which is particularly important since China comprises such a huge portion of the world’s population—but they are far from finished:

GDPPC_ChinaGDPPCPPP_China

Compare these to societies that have not achieved economic development, such as Zimbabwe (green), India (black), Ghana (red), and Haiti (blue):

GDPPC_poor_countriesGDPPCPPP_poor_countries

They’re so poor that you can barely see them on the same scale, so I’ve rescaled so that the top is $5,000 per person per year instead of $50,000:

GDPPC_poor_countries_rescaledGDPPCPPP_poor_countries_rescaled

Only India actually manages to get above $5,000 per person per year at purchasing power parity, and then not by much, reaching $5,243 per person per year in 2013, the most recent data.

I had wanted to compare North Korea and South Korea, because the two countries were united as recently as the 1945 and were not all that different to begin with, yet have taken completely different development trajectories. Unfortunately, North Korea is so impoverished, corrupt, and authoritarian that the World Bank doesn’t even report data on their per-capita GDP. Perhaps that is contrast enough?

And then of course there are the countries in between, which have made some gains but still have a long way to go, such as Uruguay (green) and Botswana (blue):

GDPPC_Botswana_UruguayGDPPCPPP_Botswana_Uruguay

But despite the fact that we have observed successful economic development, we still don’t really understand how it works. A number of theories have been proposed, involving a wide range of factors including exports, corruption, disease, institutions of government, liberalized financial markets, and natural resources (counter-intuitively; more natural resources make your development worse).

I’m not going to resolve that whole debate in a single blog post. (I may not be able to resolve that whole debate in a single career, though I am definitely trying.) We may ultimately find that economic development is best conceived as like “health”; what factors determine your health? Well, a lot of things, and if any one thing goes badly enough wrong the whole system can break down. Economists may need to start thinking of ourselves as akin to doctors (or as Keynes famously said, dentists), diagnosing particular disorders in particular patients rather than seeking one unifying theory. On the other hand, doctors depend upon biologists, and it’s not clear that we yet understand development even at that level.

Instead I want to take a step back, and ask a more fundamental question: What do we mean by prosperity?

My hope is that if we can better understand what it is we are trying to achieve, we can also better understand the steps we need to take in order to get there.

Thus far it has sort of been “I know it when I see it”; we take it as more or less given that the United States and the United Kingdom are prosperous while Ghana and Haiti are not. I certainly don’t disagree with that particular conclusion; I’m just asking what we’re basing it on, so that we can hopefully better apply it to more marginal cases.


For example: Is
France more or less prosperous than Saudi Arabia? If we go solely by GDP per capita PPP, clearly Saudi Arabia is more prosperous at $53,100 per person per year than France is at $37,200 per person per year.

But people actually live longer in France, on average, than they do in Saudi Arabia. Overall reported happiness is higher in France than Saudi Arabia. I think France is actually more prosperous.


In fact, I think the United States is not as prosperous as we pretend ourselves to be. We are certainly more prosperous than most other countries; we are definitely still well within First World status. But we are not the most prosperous nation in the world.

Our total GDP is astonishingly high (highest in the world nominally, second only to China PPP). Our GDP per-capita is higher than any other country of comparable size; no nation with higher GDP PPP than the US has a population larger than the Chicago metropolitan area. (You may be surprised to find that in order from largest to smallest population the countries with higher GDP per capita PPP are the United Arab Emirates, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Singapore, and then Norway, followed by Kuwait, Qatar, Luxembourg, Brunei, and finally San Marino—which is smaller than Ann Arbor.) Our per-capita GDP PPP of $51,300 is markedly higher than that of France ($37,200), Germany ($42,900), or Sweden ($43,500).

But at the same time, if you compare the US to other First World countries, we have nearly the highest rate of child poverty and higher infant mortality. We have shorter life expectancy and dramatically higher homicide rates. Our inequality is the highest in the world. In France and Sweden, the top 0.01% receive about 1% of the income (i.e. 100 times as much as the average person), while in the United States they receive almost 4%, making someone in the top 0.01% nearly 400 times as rich as the average person.

By estimating solely on GDP per capita, we are effectively rigging the game in our own favor. Or rather, the rich in the United States are rigging the game in their own favor (what else is new?), by convincing all the world’s economists to rank countries based on a measure that favors them.

Amartya Sen, one of the greats of development economics, developed a scale called the Human Development Index that attempts to take broader factors into account. It’s far from perfect, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

In particular, France’s HDI is higher than that of Saudi Arabia, fitting my intuition about which country is truly more prosperous. However, the US still does extremely well, with only Norway, Australia, Switzerland, and the Netherlands above us. I think we might still be biased toward high average incomes rather than overall happiness.

In practice, we still use GDP an awful lot, probably because it’s much easier to measure. It’s sort of like IQ tests and SAT scores; we know damn well it’s not measuring what we really care about, but because it’s so much easier to work with we keep using it anyway.

This is a problem, because the better you get at optimizing toward the wrong goal, the worse your overall outcomes are going to be. If you are just sort of vaguely pointed at several reasonable goals, you will probably be improving your situation overall. But when you start precisely optimizing to a specific wrong goal, it can drag you wildly off course.

This is what we mean when we talk about “gaming the system”. Consider test scores, for example. If you do things that will probably increase your test scores among other things, you are likely to engage in generally good behaviors like getting enough sleep, going to class, studying the content. But if your single goal is to maximize your test score at all costs, what will you do? Cheat, of course.

This is also related to the Friendly AI Problem: It is vitally important to know precisely what goals we want our artificial intelligences to have, because whatever goals we set, they will probably be very good at achieving them. Already computers can do many things that were previously impossible, and as they improve over time we will reach the point where in a meaningful sense our AIs are even smarter than we are. When that day comes, we will want to make very, very sure that we have designed them to want the same things that we do—because if our desires ever come into conflict, theirs are likely to win. The really scary part is that right now most of our AI research is done by for-profit corporations or the military, and “maximize my profit” and “kill that target” are most definitely not the ultimate goals we want in a superintelligent AI. It’s trivially easy to see what’s wrong with these goals: For the former, hack into the world banking system and transfer trillions of dollars to the company accounts. For the latter, hack into the nuclear launch system and launch a few ICBMs in the general vicinity of the target. Yet these are the goals we’ve been programming into the actual AIs we build!

If we set GDP per capita as our ultimate goal to the exclusion of all other goals, there are all sorts of bad policies we would implement: We’d ignore inequality until it reached staggering heights, ignore work stress even as it began to kill us, constantly try to maximize the pressure for everyone to work constantly, use poverty as a stick to force people to work even if people starve, inundate everyone with ads to get them to spend as much as possible, repeal regulations that protect the environment, workers, and public health… wait. This isn’t actually hypothetical, is it? We are doing those things.

At least we’re not trying to maximize nominal GDP, or we’d have long-since ended up like Zimbabwe. No, our economists are at least smart enough to adjust for purchasing power. But they’re still designing an economic system that works us all to death to maximize the number of gadgets that come off assembly lines. The purchasing-power adjustment doesn’t include the value of our health or free time.

This is why the Human Development Index is a major step in the right direction; it reminds us that society has other goals besides maximizing the total amount of money that changes hands (because that’s actually all that GDP is measuring; if you get something for free, it isn’t counted in GDP). More recent refinements include things like “natural resource services” that include environmental degradation in estimates of investment. Unfortunately there is no accepted way of doing this, and surprisingly little research on how to improve our accounting methods. Many nations seem resistant to doing so precisely because they know it would make their economic policy look bad—this is almost certainly why China canceled its “green GDP” initiative. This is in fact all the more reason to do it; if it shows that our policy is bad, that means our policy is bad and should be fixed. But people have allowed themselves to value image over substance.

We can do better still, and in fact I think something like QALY is probably the way to go. Rather than some weird arbitrary scaling of GDP with lifespan and Gini index (which is what the HDI is), we need to put everything in the same units, and those units must be directly linked to human happiness. At the very least, we should make some sort of adjustment to our GDP calculation that includes the distribution of wealth and its marginal utility; adding $1,000 to the economy and handing it to someone in poverty should count for a great deal, but adding $1,000,000 and handing it to a billionaire should count for basically nothing. (It’s not bad to give a billionaire another million; but it’s hardly good either, as no one’s real standard of living will change.) Calculating that could be as simple as dividing by their current income; if your annual income is $10,000 and you receive $1,000, you’ve added about 0.1 QALY. If your annual income is $1 billion and you receive $1 million, you’ve added only 0.001 QALY. Maybe we should simply separate out all individual (or household, to be simpler?) incomes, take their logarithms, and then use that sum as our “utility-adjusted GDP”. The results would no doubt be quite different.

This would create a strong pressure for policy to be directed at reducing inequality even at the expense of some economic output—which is exactly what we should be willing to do. If it’s really true that a redistribution policy would hurt the overall economy so much that the harms would outweigh the benefits, then we shouldn’t do that policy; but that is what you need to show. Reducing total GDP is not a sufficient reason to reject a redistribution policy, because it’s quite possible—easy, in fact—to improve the overall prosperity of a society while still reducing its GDP. There are in fact redistribution policies so disastrous they make things worse: The Soviet Union had them. But a 90% tax on million-dollar incomes would not be such a policy—because we had that in 1960 with little or no ill effect.

Of course, even this has problems; one way to minimize poverty would be to exclude, relocate, or even murder all your poor people. (The Black Death increased per-capita GDP.) Open immigration generally increases poverty rates in the short term, because most of the immigrants are poor. Somehow we’d need to correct for that, only raising the score if you actually improve people’s lives, and not if you make them excluded from the calculation.

In any case it’s not enough to have the alternative measures; we must actually use them. We must get policymakers to stop talking about “economic growth” and start talking about “human development”; a policy that raises GDP but reduces lifespan should be immediately rejected, as should one that further enriches a few at the expense of many others. We must shift the discussion away from “creating jobs”—jobs are only a means—to “creating prosperity”.