How rich are we, really?

Oct 29, JDN 2458056

The most commonly-used measure of a nation’s wealth is its per-capita GDP, which is simply a total of all spending in a country divided by its population. More recently we adjust for purchasing power, giving us GDP per capita at purchasing power parity (PPP).

By this measure, the United States always does well. At most a dozen countries are above us, most of them by a small amount, and all of them are quite small countries. (For fundamental statistical reasons, we should expect both the highest and lowest average incomes to be in the smallest countries.)

But this is only half the story: It tells us how much income a country has, but not how that income is distributed. We should adjust for inequality.

How can we do this? I have devised a method that uses the marginal utility of wealth plus a measure of inequality called the Gini coefficient to work out an estimate of the average utility, instead of the average income.

I then convert back into a dollar figure. This figure is the income everyone would need to have under perfect equality, in order to give the same real welfare as the current system. That is, if we could redistribute wealth in such a way to raise everyone above this value up to it, and lower everyone above this value down to it, the total welfare of the country would not change. This provides a well-founded ranking of which country’s people are actually better off overall, accounting for both overall income and the distribution of that income.

The estimate is sensitive to the precise form I use for marginal utility, so I’ll show you comparisons for three different cases.

The “conservative” estimate uses a risk aversion parameter of 1, which means that utility is logarithmic in income. The real value of a dollar is inversely proportional to the number of dollars you already have.

The medium estimate uses a risk aversion parameter of 2, which means that the real value of a dollar is inversely proportional to the square of the number of dollars you already have.

And then the “liberal” estimate uses a risk aversion parameter of 3, which means that the real value of a dollar is inversely proportional to the cube of the number of dollars you already have.

I’ll compare ten countries, which I think are broadly representative of classes of countries in the world today.

The United States, the world hegemon which needs no introduction.

China, rising world superpower and world’s most populous country.

India, world’s largest democracy and developing economy with a long way to go.

Norway, as representative of the Scandinavian social democracies.

Germany, as representative of continental Europe.

Russia, as representative of the Soviet Union and the Second World bloc.

Saudi Arabia, as representative of the Middle East petrostates.

Botswana, as representative of African developing economies.

Zimbabwe, as representative of failed Sub-Saharan African states.

Brazil, as representative of Latin American developing economies.
The ordering of these countries by GDP per-capita PPP is probably not too surprising:

  1. Norway 69,249
  2. United States 57,436
  3. Saudi Arabia 55,158
  4. Germany 48,111
  5. Russia 26,490
  6. Botswana 17,042
  7. China 15,399
  8. Brazil 15,242
  9. India 6,616
  10. Zimbabwe 1,970

Norway is clearly the richest, the US, Saudi Arabia, and Germany are quite close, Russia is toward the upper end, Botswana, China, and Brazil are close together in the middle, and then India and especially Zimbabwe are extremely poor.

But now let’s take a look at the inequality in each country, as measured by the Gini coefficient (which ranges from 0, perfect equality, to 1, total inequality).

  1. Botswana 0.605
  2. Zimbabwe 0.501
  3. Brazil 0.484
  4. United States 0.461
  5. Saudi Arabia 0.459
  6. China 0.422
  7. Russia 0.416
  8. India 0.351
  9. Germany 0.301
  10. Norway 0.259

The US remains (alarmingly) close to Saudi Arabia by this measure. Most of the countries are between 40 and 50. But Botswana is astonishingly unequal, while Germany and Norway are much more equal.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the inequality-adjusted per-capita GDP. First, the conservative estimate, with a parameter of 1:

  1. Norway 58700
  2. United States 42246
  3. Saudi Arabia 40632
  4. Germany 39653
  5. Russia 20488
  6. China 11660
  7. Botswana 11138
  8. Brazil 11015
  9. India 5269
  10. Zimbabwe 1405

So far, ordering of nations is almost the same compared to what we got with just per-capita GDP. But notice how Germany has moved up closer to the US and Botswana actually fallen behind China.

Now let’s try a parameter of 2, which I think is the closest to the truth:

  1. Norway 49758
  2. Germany 32683
  3. United States 31073
  4. Saudi Arabia 29931
  5. Russia 15581
  6. China 8829
  7. Brazil 7961
  8. Botswana 7280
  9. India 4197
  10. Zimbabwe 1002

Now we have seen some movement. Norway remains solidly on top, but Germany has overtaken the United States and Botswana has fallen behind not only China, but also Brazil. Russia remains in the middle, and India and Zimbawbe remain on the bottom.

Finally, let’s try a parameter of 3.

  1. Norway 42179
  2. Germany 26937
  3. United States 22855
  4. Saudi Arabia 22049
  5. Russia 11849
  6. China 6685
  7. Brazil 5753
  8. Botswana 4758
  9. India 3343
  10. Zimbabwe 715

Norway has now pulled far and away ahead of everyone else. Germany is substantially above the United States. China has pulled away from Brazil, and Botswana has fallen almost all the way to the level of India. Zimbabwe, as always, is at the very bottom.

Let’s compare this to another measure of national well-being, the Inequality-Adjusted Human Development Index (which goes from 0, the worst, to 1 the best). This index combines education, public health, and income, and adjusts for inequality. It seems to be a fairly good measure of well-being, but it’s very difficult to compile data for, so a lot of countries are missing (including Saudi Arabia); plus the precise weightings on everything are very ad hoc.

  1. Norway 0.898
  2. Germany 0.859
  3. United States 0.796
  4. Russia 0.725
  5. China 0.543
  6. Brazil 0.531
  7. India 0.435
  8. Botswana 0.433
  9. Zimbabwe 0.371

Other than putting India above Botswana, this ordering is the same as what we get from my (much easier to calculate and theoretically more well-founded) index with either a parameter of 2 or 3.

What’s more, my index can be directly interpreted: The average standard of living in the US is as if everyone were making $31,073 per year. What exactly is an IHDI index of 0.796 supposed to mean? We’re… 79.6% of the way to the best possible country?

In any case, there’s a straightforward (if not terribly surprising) policy implication here: Inequality is a big problem.

In particular, inequality in the US is clearly too high. Despite an overall income that is very high, almost 18 log points higher than Germany, our overall standard of living is actually about 5 log points lower due to our higher level of inequality. While our average income is only 19 log points lower than Norway, our actual standard of living is 47 log points lower.

Inequality in Botswana also means that their recent astonishing economic growth is not quite as impressive as it at first appeared. Many people are being left behind. While in raw income they appear to be 10 log points ahead of China and only 121 log points behind the US, once you adjust for their very high inequality they are 19 log points behind China, and 145 log points behind the US.

Of course, some things don’t change. Norway is still on top, and Zimbabwe is still on the bottom.

What is the point of democracy?

Apr 9, JDN 2457853

[This topic was chosen by Patreon vote.]

“Democracy” is the sort of word that often becomes just an Applause Light (indeed it was the original example Less Wrong used). Like “freedom” and “liberty” (and for much the same reasons), it’s a good thing, that much we know; but it’s often unclear what is even meant by the word, much less why it should be so important to us.

From another angle, it is strangely common for economists and political scientists to argue that democracy is not all that important; they at least tend to use a precise formal definition of “democracy”, but are oddly quick to dismiss it as pointless or even harmful when it doesn’t line up precisely with their models of an efficient economy or society. I think the best example of this is the so-called “Downs paradox”, where political scientists were so steeped in the tradition of defining all rationality as psychopathic self-interest that they couldn’t even explain why it would occur to anyone to vote. (And indeed, rumor has it that most economists don’t bother to vote, much less campaign politically—which perhaps begins to explain why our economic policy is so terrible.)

Yet especially for Americans in the Trump era, I think it is vital to understand what “democracy” is supposed to mean, and why it is so important.

So, first of all, what is democracy? It is nothing more or less than government by popular vote.

This comes in degrees, of course: The purest direct democracy would have the entire population vote on even the most mundane policies and decisions. You could actually manage something like a monastery or a social club in such a fashion, but this is clearly unworkable on any large scale. Even once you get to hundreds of people, much less thousands or millions, it becomes unviable. The closest example I’ve seen is Switzerland, where there are always numerous popular referenda on ballots that are voted on by entire regions or the entire country—and even then, Switzerland does have representatives that make many of the day-to-day decisions.

So in practice all large-scale democratic systems are some degree of representative democracy, or republic, where some especially decisions may be made by popular vote, but most policies are made by elected representatives, staff appointed by those representatives, or even career civil servants who are appointed in a nominally apolitical process not so different from private-sector hiring. In the most extreme cases such civil servants can become so powerful that you get a deep state, where career bureaucrats exercise more power than elected officials—at that point I think you have actually lost the right to really call yourself a “democracy” and have become something more like a technocracy.
Yet of course a country can get even more undemocratic than that, and many are, governed by an aristocracy or oligarchy that vests power in a small number of wealthy and powerful individuals, or monarchy or autocracy that gives near-absolute power to a single individual.

Thus, there is a continuum of most to least democratic, with popular vote at one end, followed by elected representatives, followed by appointed civil servants, followed by a handful of oligarchs, and ultimately the most undemocratic system is an autocracy controlled by a single individual.

I also think it’s worth mentioning that constitutional monarchies with strong parliamentary systems, like the United Kingdom and Norway, are also “democracies” in the sense I intend. Yes, technically they have these hereditary monarchs—but in practice, the vast majority of the state’s power is vested in the votes of its people. Indeed, if we separate out parliamentary constitutional monarchy from presidential majoritarian democracy and compare them, the former might actually turn out to be better. Certainly, some of the world’s most prosperous nations are governed that way.

As I’ve already acknowledge, the very far extreme of pure direct democracy is unfeasible. But why would we want to get closer to that end? Why be like Switzerland or Denmark rather than like Turkey or Russia—or for that matter why be like California rather than like Mississippi?
Well, if you know anything about the overall welfare of these states, it almost seems obvious—Switzerland and Denmark are richer, happier, safer, healthier, more peaceful, and overall better in almost every way than Turkey and Russia. The gap between California and Mississippi is not as large, but it is larger than most people realize. Median household income in California is $64,500; in Mississippi it is only $40,593. Both are still well within the normal range of a highly-developed country, but that effectively makes California richer than Luxembourg but Mississippi poorer than South Korea. But perhaps the really stark comparison to make is life expectancy: Life expectancy at birth in California is almost 81 years, while in Mississippi it’s only 75.

Of course, there are a lot of other differences between states besides how much of their governance is done by popular referendum. Simply making Mississippi decide more things by popular vote would not turn it into California—much less would making Turkey more democratic turn it into Switzerland. So we shouldn’t attribute these comparisons entirely to differences in democracy. Indeed, a pair of two-way comparisons is only in the barest sense a statistical argument; we should be looking at dozens if not hundreds of comparisons if we really want to see the effects of democracy. And we should of course be trying to control for other factors, adjust for country fixed-effects, and preferably use natural experiments or instrumental variables to tease out causality.

Yet such studies have in fact been done. Stronger degrees of democracy appear to improve long-run economic growth, as well as reduce corruption, increase free trade, protect peace, and even improve air quality.

Subtler analyses have compared majoritarian versus proportional systems (where proportional seems, to me, at least, more democratic), as well as different republican systems with stronger or weaker checks and balances (stronger is clearly better, though whether that is “more democratic” is at least debatable). The effects of democracy on income distribution are more complicated, probably because there have been some highly undemocratic socialist regimes.

So, the common belief that democracy is good seems to be pretty well supported by the data. But why is democracy good? Is it just a practical matter of happening to get better overall results? Could it one day be overturned by some superior system such as technocracy or a benevolent autocratic AI?

Well, I don’t want to rule out the possibility of improving upon existing systems of government. Clearly new systems of government have in fact emerged over the course of history—Greek “democracy” and Roman “republic” were both really aristocracy, and anything close to universal suffrage didn’t really emerge on a large scale until the 20th century. So the 21st (or 22nd) century could well devise a superior form of government we haven’t yet imagined.
However, I do think there is good reason to believe that any new system of government that actually manages to improve upon democracy will still resemble democracy, because there are three key features democracy has that other systems of government simply can’t match. It is these three features that make democracy so important and so worth fighting for.

1. Everyone’s interests are equally represented.

Perhaps no real system actually manages to represent everyone’s interests equally, but the more democratic a system is, the better it will conform to this ideal. A well-designed voting system can aggregate the interests of an entire population and choose the course of action that creates the greatest overall benefit.

Markets can also be a good system for allocating resources, but while markets represent everyone’s interests, they do so highly unequally. Rich people are quite literally weighted more heavily in the sum.

Most systems of government do even worse, by completely silencing the voices of the majority of the population. The notion of a “benevolent autocracy” is really a conceit; what makes you think you could possibly keep the autocrat benevolent?

This is also why any form of disenfranchisement is dangerous and a direct attack upon democracy. Even if people are voting irrationally, against their own interests and yours, by silencing their voice you are undermining the most fundamental tenet of democracy itself. All voices must be heard, no exceptions. That is democracy’s fundamental strength.

2. The system is self-correcting.

This may more accurately describe a constitutional republican system with strong checks and balances, but that is what most well-functioning democracies have and it is what I recommend. If you conceive of “more democracy” as meaning that people can vote their way into fascism by electing a sufficiently charismatic totalitarian, then I do not want us to have “more democracy”. But just as contracts and regulations that protect you can make you in real terms more free because you can now safely do things you otherwise couldn’t risk, I consider strong checks and balances that maintain the stability of a republic against charismatic fascists to be in a deeper sense more democratic. This is ultimately semantic; I think I’ve made it clear enough that I want strong checks and balances.

With such checks and balances in place, democracies may move slower than autocracies; they may spend more time in deliberation or even bitter, polarized conflict. But this also means that their policies do not lurch from one emperor’s whim to another, and they are stable against being overtaken by corruption or fascism. Their policies are stable and predictable; their institutions are strong and resilient.

No other system of government yet devised by humans has this kind of stability, which may be why democracies are gradually taking over the world. Charismatic fascism fails when the charismatic leader dies; hereditary monarchy collapses when the great-grandson of the great king is incompetent; even oligarchy and aristocracy, which have at least some staying power, ultimately fall apart when the downtrodden peasants ultimately revolt. But democracy abides, for where monarchy and aristocracy are made of families and autocracy and fascism are made of a single man, democracy is made of principles and institutions. Democracy is evolutionarily stable, and thus in Darwinian terms we can predict it will eventually prevail.

3. The coercion that government requires is justified.

All government is inherently coercive. Libertarians are not wrong about this. Taxation is coercive. Regulation is coercive. Law is coercive. (The ones who go on to say that all government is “death threats” or “slavery” are bonkers, mind you. But it is in fact coercive.)

The coercion of government is particularly terrible if that coercion is coming from a system like an autocracy, where the will of the people is minimally if at all represented in the decisions of policymakers. Then that is a coercion imposed from outside, a coercion in the fullest sense, one person who imposes their will upon another.

But when government coercion comes from a democracy, it takes on a fundamentally different meaning. Then it is not they who coerce us—it is we who coerce ourselves. Now, why in the world would you coerce yourself? It seems ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Not if you know any game theory. There are in fall all sorts of reasons why one might want to coerce oneself, and two in particular become particularly important for the justification of democratic government.

The first and most important is collective action: There are many situations in which people all working together to accomplish a goal can be beneficial to everyone, but nonetheless any individual person who found a way to shirk their duty and not contribute could benefit even more. Anyone who has done a group project in school with a couple of lazy students in it will know this experience: You end up doing all the work, but they still get a good grade at the end. If everyone had taken the rational, self-interested action of slacking off, everyone in the group would have failed the project.

Now imagine that the group project we’re trying to achieve is, say, defending against an attack by Imperial Japan. We can’t exactly afford to risk that project falling through. So maybe we should actually force people to support it—in the form of taxes, or even perhaps a draft (as ultimately we did in WW2). Then it is no longer rational to try to shirk your duty, so everyone does their duty, the project gets done, and we’re all better off. How do we decide which projects are important enough to justify such coercion? We vote, of course. This is the most fundamental justification of democratic government.

The second that is relevant for government is commitment. There are many circumstances in which we want to accomplish something in the future, and from a long-run perspective it makes sense to achieve that goal—but then when the time comes to take action, we are tempted to procrastinate or change our minds. How can we resolve such a dilemma? Well, one way is to tie our own hands—to coerce ourselves into carrying out the necessary task we are tempted to avoid or delay.

This applies to many types of civil and criminal law, particularly regarding property ownership. Murder is a crime that most people would not commit even if it were completely legal. But shoplifting? I think if most people knew there would be no penalty for petty theft and retail fraud they would be tempted into doing it at least on occasion. I doubt it would be frequent enough to collapse our entire economic system, but it would introduce a lot of inefficiency, and make almost everything more expensive. By having laws in place that punish us for such behavior, we have a way of defusing such temptations, at least for most people most of the time. This is not as important for the basic functioning of government as is collective action, but I think it is still important enough to be worthy of mention.

Of course, there will always be someone who disagrees with any given law, regardless of how sensible and well-founded that law may be. And while in some sense “we all” agreed to pay these taxes, when the IRS actually demands that specific dollar amount from you, it may well be an amount that you would not have chosen if you’d been able to set our entire tax system yourself. But this is a problem of aggregation that I think may be completely intractable; there’s no way to govern by consensus, because human beings just can’t achieve consensus on the scale of millions of people. Governing by popular vote and representation is the best alternative we’ve been able to come up with. If and when someone devises a system of government that solves that problem and represents the public will even better than voting, then we will have a superior alternative to democracy.

Until then, it is as Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”