Steven Pinker’s Analysis of Wealth and Inequality

“The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being,” as noted in a prior post, is the cheery synopsis of the new book, “Enlightenment NOW: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress “ (p. 52)  by Harvard University’s Johnston Family Professor of Psychology, Steven Pinker.

Two of the measures that he examines are wealth (Ch. 8) and inequality (Ch. 9), both of which illustrate his overall analysis over long periods of time and for the whole world with unusual sets of data and graphs.

Wealth

For wealth, he starts with the proposition that “wealth is created . . . primarily by knowledge and cooperation: networks of people arrange matter into improbable but useful configurations and combine the fruits of their ingenuity and labor . . . [and] that we can figure out how to make more of it” (p. 80).

His graph of Gross World Product, 1-2015 (p. 81) shows virtually no change from year 1 through the middle of the 19th century and then virtually a straight-upward line through 2015. This “Great Escape” from poverty was due to “the application of science to the improvement of material life,” “the development of institutions that lubricated the exchange of goods, services, and ideas” and “a change in values” or “endorsement of bourgeois virtue” (pp. 80-85).

The next graph–GDP per capita, 1600-2015 (p. 85)—shows, Pinker argues, that “starting in the late 20th century, poor countries have been escaping from poverty in their turn,” thereby converting the Great Escape to the Great Convergence. This is also shown, according to Pinker, by data and graphs of World income distribution, 1800, 1975, and 2015; Extreme poverty (proportion of world population), 1820-2015; and Extreme poverty (number), 1820-2015 (pp. 86-88).

For Pinker, the following are the three major causes of this Great Convergence:

  1. The “decline of communism (together with intrusive socialism).” Market “economies can generate wealth prodigiously while totalitarian planned economies impose scarcity, stagnation, and often famine. Market economies, in addition to reaping the benefits of specialization and providing incentives for people to produce things that other people want, solve the problem of coordinating the efforts of hundreds of millions of people by using prices to propagate information about need and availability far and wide.” Moreover, many market economies also “invested in education, public health, infrastructure, and agricultural and job training, together with social insurance and poverty-reduction programs.” (Pp. 90-91.)[1]
  2. Better leadership in developing countries (p. 91).
  3. The end of the Cold War (p. 91).
  4. Globalization through an explosion of international trade (p. 92).
  5. Advances in science and technology (pp. 94-96).

Inequality

The initial premise of this chapter is that unlike “health, prosperity, knowledge, safety, peace “ and certain other factors, “economic inequality is not a fundamental component of well-being.” The contrary view confuses inequality with poverty. (Pp. 98-102.)

Here Pinker asserts that inequality comes with modernity and refers to the Gini Coefficient as the usual measure of economic inequality with 0, when everyone has the same as everyone else and 1, when one person has everything and everyone else has nothing.  (Pp. 98, 102.)

He then displays three graphs of the Gini Coefficient: International inequality, 1820-2013 (population weighted and unweighted), Global inequality, 1820-2011 and Inequality, UK and US, 1688-2013. These graphs demonstrate, he says, that “inequality in the world is declining.” (Pp. 98, 103-06.) An historian, Walter Scheidel, is said to have identified the Four Horsemen of Leveling: mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state collapse and lethal pandemics by obliterating wealth and killing large numbers of workers. (Pp. 106-07.)

Moreover, “modern societies now devote a substantial chunk of their wealth to health, education, pensions, and income support (the Egalitarian Revolution).” This has “redefined the mission of government to include such social spending to inoculate citizens against the appeal of communism and fascism, to benefit the entire society, to indemnify citizens against misfortunes against which they can’t or won’t insure themselves and to assuage the modern conscience.” (Pp. 107-08.)

The conclusion from Pinker on this issue is the following:

  • “As globalization and technology have lifted billions out of poverty and created a global middle class, international and global inequality have decreased, at the same time that they enrich elites whose analytical, creative , or financial impact has global reach. The fortunes of the lower classes in developed countries have not improved nearly as much, but they have improved . . . The improvements are enhanced by social spending, and by the falling cost and rising quality of the things that people want. In some ways the world has become less equal, but in more ways the world’s people have become better off.” (P. 120.)

Conclusion

The overall thesis of this book– The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being—is very attractive. What are the counter arguments?

The above summary of Professor Pinker’s analysis of wealth and inequality raises at least the following questions:

  • Many of the data sets used by Pinker are not well known. Therefore, do they accurately and fairly depict what they purport to depict?
  • It seems valid that “wealth is created . . . primarily by knowledge and cooperation: networks of people arrange matter into improbable but useful configurations and combine the fruits of their ingenuity and labor . . . [and] that we can figure out how to make more of it.” Any legitimate objections to same?
  • Is it valid to state that “in the late 20th century, poor countries have been escaping from poverty in their turn,” thereby converting the Great Escape to the Great Convergence?
  • Are Pinker’s reasons for the Great Convergence valid?
  • Is economic inequality not a fundamental component of wellbeing?
  • Is the Gini Coefficient a valid measure of inequality?
  • Are the major causes of Leveling or reduced inequality these factors: mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state collapse and lethal pandemics?

Comments from others who know more about these data sets and analyses are earnestly solicited.

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[1] Right now we are seeing Cuba struggle with whether and how it will modify its communist economic system to allow greater private enterprise. See Economic Challenges Facing Cuba’s New President, dwkcommentaries.com (April 5, 2018).