Think of this as a moral recession

August 27, JDN 2457993

The Great Depression was, without doubt, the worst macroeconomic event of the last 200 years. Over 30 million people became unemployed. Unemployment exceeded 20%. Standard of living fell by as much as a third in the United States. Political unrest spread across the world, and the collapsing government of Germany ultimately became the Third Reich and triggered the Second World War If we ignore the world war, however, the effect on mortality rates was surprisingly small. (“Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”)

And yet, how long do you suppose it took for economic growth to repair the damage? 80 years? 50 years? 30 years? 20 years? Try ten to fifteen. By 1940, the US, US, Germany, and Japan all had a per-capita GDP at least as high as in 1930. By 1945, every country in Europe had a per-capita GDP at least as high as they did before the Great Depression.

The moral of this story is this: Recessions are bad, and can have far-reaching consequences; but ultimately what really matters in the long run is growth.

Assuming the same growth otherwise, a country that had a recession as large as the Great Depression would be about 70% as rich as one that didn’t.

But over 100 years, a country that experienced 3% growth instead of 2% growth would be over two and a half times richer.

Therefore, in terms of standard of living only, if you were given the choice between having a Great Depression but otherwise growing at 3%, and having no recessions but growing at 2%, your grandchildren will be better off if you chose the former. (Of course, given the possibility of political unrest or even war, the depression could very well end up worse.)

With that in mind, I want you to think of the last few years—and especially the last few months—as a moral recession. Donald Trump being President of the United States is clearly a step backward for human civilization, and it seems to have breathed new life into some of the worst ideologies our society has ever harbored, from extreme misogyny, homophobia, right-wing nationalism, and White supremacism to outright Neo-Nazism. When one of the central debates in our public discourse is what level of violence is justifiable against Nazis under what circumstances, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

But much as recessions are overwhelmed in the long run by economic growth, there is reason to be confident that this moral backslide is temporary and will be similarly overwhelmed by humanity’s long-run moral progress.

What moral progress, you ask? Let’s remind ourselves.

Just 100 years ago, women could not vote in the United States.

160 years ago, slavery was legal in 15 US states.

Just 3 years ago, same-sex marriage was illegal in 14 US states. Yes, you read that number correctly. I said three. There are gay couples graduating high school and getting married now who as freshmen didn’t think they would be allowed to get married.

That’s just the United States. What about the rest of the world?

100 years ago, almost all of the world’s countries were dictatorships. Today, half of the world’s countries are democracies. Indeed, thanks to India, the majority of the world’s population now lives under democracy.

35 years ago, the Soviet Union still ruled most of Eastern Europe and Northern Asia with an iron fist (or should I say “curtain”?).

30 years ago, the number of human beings in extreme poverty—note I said number, not just rate; the world population was two-thirds what it is today—was twice as large as it is today.

Over the last 65 years, the global death rate due to war has fallen from 250 per million to just 10 per million.

The global literacy rate has risen from 40% to 80% in just 50 years.

World life expectancy has increased by 6 years in just the last 20 years.

We are living in a golden age. Do not forget that.

Indeed, if there is anything that could destroy all these astonishing achievements, I think it would be our failure to appreciate them.

If you listen to what these Neo-Nazi White supremacists say about their grievances, they sound like the spoiled children of millionaires (I mean, they elected one President, after all). They are outraged because they only get 90% of what they want instead of 100%—or even outraged not because they didn’t get what they wanted but because someone else they don’t know also did.

If you listen to the far left, their complaints don’t make much more sense. If you didn’t actually know any statistics, you’d think that life is just as bad for Black people in America today as it was under Jim Crow or even slavery. Well, it’s not even close. I’m not saying racism is gone; it’s definitely still here. But the civil rights movement has made absolutely enormous strides, from banning school segregation and housing redlining to reforming prison sentences and instituting affirmative action programs. Simply the fact that “racist” is now widely considered a terrible thing to be is a major accomplishment in itself. A typical Black person today, despite having only about 60% of the income of a typical White person, is still richer than a typical White person was just 50 years ago. While the 71% high school completion rate Black people currently have may not sound great, it’s much higher than the 50% rate that the whole US population had as recently as 1950.

Yes, there are some things that aren’t going very well right now. The two that I think are most important are climate change and income inequality. As both the global mean temperature anomaly and the world top 1% income share continue to rise, millions of people will suffer and die needlessly from diseases of poverty and natural disasters.

And of course if Neo-Nazis manage to take hold of the US government and try to repeat the Third Reich, that could be literally the worst thing that ever happened. If it triggered a nuclear war, it unquestionably would be literally the worst thing that ever happened. Both these events are unlikely—but not nearly as unlikely as they should be. (Five Thirty Eight interviewed several nuclear experts who estimated a probability of imminent nuclear war at a horrifying five percent.) So I certainly don’t want to make anyone complacent about these very grave problems.

But I worry also that we go too far the other direction, and fail to celebrate the truly amazing progress humanity has made thus far. We hear so often that we are treading water, getting nowhere, or even falling backward, that we begin to feel as though the fight for moral progress is utterly hopeless. If all these centuries of fighting for justice really had gotten us nowhere, the only sensible thing to do at this point would be to give up. But on the contrary, we have made enormous progress in an incredibly short period of time. We are on the verge of finally winning this fight. The last thing we want to do now is give up.

Just give people money!

JDN 2457332 EDT 17:02.

Today is the Fifth of November, on which a bunch of people who liked a Hollywood movie start posting images in support of a fanatical religious terrorist in his plot to destroy democracy in the United Kingdom a few centuries ago. It’s really weird, but I’m not particularly interested in that.

Instead I’d like to talk about the solution to poverty, which we’ve known for a long time—in fact, it’s completely obvious—and yet have somehow failed to carry out. Many people doubt that it even works, not based on the empirical evidence, but because it just feels like it can’t be right, like it’s so obvious that surely it was tried and didn’t work and that’s why we moved on to other things. When you first tell a kindergartner that there are poor people in the world, that child will very likely ask: “Why don’t we just give them some money?”

Why not indeed?

Formally this is called a “direct cash transfer”, and it comes in many different variants, but basically they run along a continuum from unconditional—we just give it to everybody, no questions asked—to more and more conditional—you have to be below a certain income, or above a certain age, or have kids, or show up at our work program, or take a drug test, etc. The EU has a nice little fact sheet about the different types of cash transfer programs in use.

Actually, I’d argue that at the very far extreme is government salaries—the government will pay you $40,000 per year, provided that you teach high school every weekday. We don’t really think of that as a “conditional cash transfer” because it involves you providing a useful service (and is therefore more like an ordinary, private-sector salary), but many of the conditions imposed on cash transfers actually have this sort of character—we want people to do things that we think are useful to society, in order to justify us giving them the money. It really seems to be a continuum, from just giving money to everyone, to giving money to some people based on them doing certain things, to specifically hiring people to do something.

Social programs in different countries can be found at different places on this continuum. In the United States, our programs are extremely conditional, and also the total amount we give out is relatively small. In Europe, programs are not as conditional—though still conditional—and they give out more. And sure enough, after-tax poverty in Europe is considerably lower, even though before-tax poverty is about the same.

In fact, the most common way to make transfers conditional is to make them “in-kind”; instead of giving you money, we give you something—healthcare, housing, food. Sometimes this makes sense; actually I think for healthcare it makes the most sense, because price signals don’t work in a market as urgent and inelastic as healthcare (that is, you don’t shop around for an emergency room—in fact, people don’t even really shop around for a family doctor). But often it’s simply a condition we impose for political reasons; we don’t want those “lazy freeloaders” to do anything else with the money that we wouldn’t like, such as buying alcohol or gambling. Even poor people in India buy into this sort of reasoning. Nevermind that they generally don’t do that, or that they could just shift away spending they would otherwise be making (warning: technical economics paper within) to do those things anyway—it’s the principle of the thing.

Direct cash transfers not only work—they work about as well as the best things we’ve tried. Spending on cash transfers is about as cost-effective as spending on medical aid and malaria nets.

Other than in experiments (the largest of which I’m aware of was a town in Canada, unless you count Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend, which is unconditional but quite small), we have never really tried implementing a fully unconditional cash transfer system. “Too expensive” is usually the complaint, and it would indeed be relatively expensive (probably greater than all of what we currently spend on Social Security and Medicare, which are two of our biggest government budget items). Implementing a program with a cost on the order of $2 trillion per year is surely not something to be done lightly. But it would have one quite substantial benefit: It would eliminate poverty in the United States immediately and forever.

This is why I really like the “abolish poverty” movement; we must recognize that at our current level of economic development, poverty is no longer a natural state, a complex problem to solve. It is a policy decision that we are making. We are saying, as a society, that we would rather continue to have poverty than spend that $2 trillion per year, about 12% of our $17.4 trillion GDP. We are saying that we’d rather have people who are homeless and starving than lose 12 cents of every dollar we make. (To be fair, if we include the dynamic economic impact of this tax-and-transfer system it might actually turn out to be more than that; but it could in fact be less—the increased spending would boost the economy, just as the increased taxes would restrain it—and seems very unlikely to be more than 20% of GDP.)

For most of human history—and in most countries today—that is not the case. India could not abolish poverty immediately by a single tax policy; nor could China. Probably not Brazil either. Maybe Greece could do it, but then again maybe not. But Germany could; the United Kingdom could; France could; and we could in the United States. We have enough wealth now that with a moderate increase in government spending we could create an economic floor below which no person could fall. It is incumbent upon us at the very least to justify why we don’t.

I have heard it said that poverty is not a natural condition, but the result of human action. Even Nelson Mandela endorsed this view. This is false, actually. In general, poverty is the natural condition of all life forms on Earth (and probably all life forms in the universe). Natural selection evolves us toward fitting as many gene-packages into the environment as possible, not toward maximizing the happiness of the sentient beings those gene-packages may happen to be. To a first approximation, all life forms suffer in poverty.

We live at a unique time in human history; for no more than the last century—and perhaps not even that—we have actually had so much wealth that we could eliminate poverty by choice. For hundreds of thousands of years human beings toiled in poverty because there was no such choice. Perhaps good policy in Greece could end poverty today, but it couldn’t have during the reign of Pericles. Good policy in Italy could end poverty now, but not when Caesar was emperor. Good policy in the United Kingdom could easily end poverty immediately, but even under Queen Victoria that wasn’t feasible.

Maybe that’s why we aren’t doing it? Our cultural memory was forged in a time decades or centuries ago, before we had this much wealth to work with. We speak of “end world hunger” in the same breath as “cure cancer” or “conquer death”, a great dream that has always been impossible and perhaps still is—but in fact we should speak of it in the same breath as “split the atom” and “land on the Moon”, seminal achievements that our civilization is now capable of thanks to economic and technological revolution.

Capitalism also seems to have a certain momentum to it; once you implement a market economy that maximizes wealth by harnessing self-interest, people seem to forget that we are fundamentally altruistic beings. I may never forget that economist who sent me an email with “altruism” in scare quotes, as though it was foolish (or at best imprecise) to say that human beings care about one another. But in fact we are the most altruistic species on Earth, without question, in a sense so formal and scientific it can literally be measured quantitatively.

There are real advantages to harnessing self-interest—not least, I know my own interests considerably better than I know yours, no matter who you are—and that is part of how we have achieved this great level of wealth (though personally I think science, democracy, and the empowerment of women are the far greater causes of our prosperity). But we must not let it forget us why we wanted to have wealth in the first place: Not to concentrate power in a handful of individuals who will pass it on to their heirs; not to “maximize work incentives”; not to give us the fanciest technological gadgets. The reason we wanted to have wealth was so that we could finally free ourselves from the endless toil that was our lot by birth and that of all other beings—to let us finally live, instead of merely survive. There is a peak to Maslow’s pyramid, and we could stand there now, together; but we must find the will to give up that 12 cents of every dollar.